- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

WHEN AMERICA WAS GREAT: THE FIGHTING FAITH OF POSTWAR LIBERALISM

By Kevin Mattson

Routledge, $26, 231 pages

Kevin Mattson, a professor of history at Ohio University, has written a book about prominent American liberals of the post-World War II era that even conservatives may find interesting. I just wish he’d had a better title and a little stronger conclusion. That he didn’t is too bad because there is much of interest to be found in the in-between pages.

Unfortunately, the book’s title, “When America Was Great,” is a bit of a turnoff, giving the impression the author, whose field is American intellectual history, whatever that may mean, thinks our best days are behind us. At the same time, the subtitle, “The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism,” while a better description of what the book is about, still leaves one to wonder if Mr. Mattson thinks today’s liberals don’t measure up to those he writes about.

Which leads us to Mr. Mattson’s conclusion, which gives us no answer to that bit of wondering, because, he declares almost defensively, “this is a work of history.” As if to prove his point, he writes: “We cannot apply the ideas found in books written 50 years ago or the advice given to politicians now dead to our present day world. [Of that, I am not sure.] But it would be wrong to believe that the thinking and activism outlined here have no contemporary relevance.” I don’t think anyone could argue with that. But in that case, where is the future for liberalism? Mr. Mattson doesn’t say. He makes no predictions; this, after all, is a history.

Still, history or not, Mr. Mattson appears almost by accident to stumble across one of those ideas percolating these days through the ranks not of liberals but of so-called neoconservatives. That is the idea of an American empire, of nations brought to democracy by and through the power and preeminence of the United States. He quotes a warning from Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who, having looked into his crystal ball, wrote in l969: “Little is more dangerous than a sense of world mission pushed too far or perceived too absolutely.” Patrick Buchanan, no liberal, could not have said it better.

“When America was Great” mainly concerns four of the nation’s better known postwar liberals who are obviously Mr. Mattson’s heroes. They were men of ideas, men who thought they knew what was best for their country, men who wrote and spoke earnestly about their ideas and fought to put them into action. Agree with them or not, they were, Mr. Mattson would have us know, patriotic Americans whose ideas had profound impacts on their country.

The four are the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the newspaper editor James Wechsler, John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist, and the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Mr. Mattson paints this group of liberal thinkers as men who were not set in their ways, men whose ideas changed with changing times and as new issues arose, but whose principles remained unchanged. These were men who did not always see eye to eye with each other or with other prominent liberals on issues such as the war in Vietnam, but they had several basic beliefs in common.

They believed that government has a major role to play in the life of the nation and in the lives of the people. They thought this could be accomplished without limiting those freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. They believed that the federal government should stand between the people and the “growing centralization” of the large industrial corporations. Indeed, that these liberals feared big business but not big government is a recurrent theme of the book.

Big government was seen by them not as a danger to individual freedom but rather as a guarantor not only of freedom but also of social justice. Finally, the four were united in the belief that Cold War communism should have no place and no voice in American liberalism.

Mr. Mattson traces the origins of postwar liberalism to the Founding Fathers — more Madison than Jefferson, mainly because of their shared belief in a strong, central government — and on down, Republicans may be chagrined to see, through Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt before coming to Franklin D. Roosevelt and finally John F. Kennedy.

That liberalism, Mr. Mattson clearly believes, stood and still stands as a fighting bulwark between the radicals of the New Left and the growing strength of the political right. And in the end he believes that “if we started to think more creatively about national greatness and the liberal tradition from this time period, we could … think more clearly about the present.”

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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