- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003


by Carl M. Cannon

Rowman & Littlefield, $24.95, 344 pages

The United States was the first country in the world to make the pursuit of happiness one of the philosophical underpinnings of its government. Now Carl M. Cannon, the White House correspondent for National Review, has written a book on the subject. In preparing “The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War,” he gathered essays from George W. Bush and every living former president, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, who would likely have participated had he been able to.

The title may be a bit misleading. The heart of the book is really the three great social upheavals revolving around institutions that kept many Americans from pursuing happiness. The first of these upheavals was the desire of Americans to break free of oppressive British colonial domination, a desire that inspired the original lines on the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence.

Second was the struggle to end slavery and third was the struggle to end segregation, slavery’s unholy spawn. War is something of a unifying theme here, but not as pervasive as the title suggests. It is true that wars were fought to end British colonial rule and slavery. Yet segregation was largely ended by a campaign of non-violence.

However, the unfair treatment of blacks by whites, particularly in the South, was highlighted by the fact that many of the victims of this discrimination fought bravely for their country in two world wars. This did not save many black veterans from the worst impact of Jim Crow, and some were lynched when they stood up for their rights. Beginning with Harry Truman, presidential veterans of the world wars set out to right that wrong, assisted and usually prodded by black activists.

Another theme in the book is the role of antiwar movements and pacifism in American development. The tree of liberty may be nourished with the blood of brave men from time to time, but some Americans have consistently questioned that cost in the past and do so today. Their right to dissent has generally been protected; it has sometimes been celebrated, but remains a major issue of public debate.

Along the way, Mr. Cannon takes some interesting excursions. These include a discussion of the help that Jefferson had in writing the Declaration of Independence and of why sporting events have not been cancelled in times of war and national emergency. Franklin Roosevelt felt that such events were vital to morale. Most succeeding presidents, notably George W. Bush, have agreed.

Roosevelt’s decision not to cancel baseball following Pearl Harbor ushered in some of the most unusual moments in the storied history of the sport. In the absence of stars such as Ted Williams, their places were taken by a succession of some of the most colorful characters ever to play the game — these included a midget,aone-armed ballplayer and a giant.

Today, Americans pursue happiness in ways that the Founding Fathers would not have dreamed of, and in some cases, that they probably would not have approved of. It is unlikely that they would have foreseen the current controversy over gay marriage and the various other issues that make up what are loosely being called the culture wars. But it is likely that they would have unanimously denounced what they would have seen as immorality when it occurs in public, although they may have split on what can be done in the privacy of one’s home.

Mr.Cannon’sbook started out as an essay in the Atlantic Monthly and matured into a highly readable and interesting volume. His use of presidential sources was no doubt enhanced by his access. Our former presidents have some very interesting views on the meaning of happiness.

This is not a book I would normally pick up in a bookstore. I’m not a big fan of Thomas Jefferson, and his picture on the dust jacket alone would usually put me off. One of the good things about doing book reviews is that you are occasionally asked to read something that is beyond your normal range of interest. Sometimes that can be a good thing. In this case, it was.

Gary Anderson lectures on the “Revolution in Military Affairs” at George Washington University.

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