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'A History of the American People' by Paul Johnson

A Flawed But Fascinating History

Sunday, May 24, 1998

By Len Barcousky


A History of the American People

By Paul Johnson



Paul Johnson isn't afraid to tackle big topics. In the age of specialists, he has written long volumes about "A History of Christianity," "A History of the Jews" and "A History of the English People." In "Modern Times," he examined the entire world during the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

With books like these under his belt, taking on 400 years of U.S. history must have seemed easy.

Johnson, a British writer and editor, says he wrote "A History of the American People" partly out of his own ignorance about our past. So how do we appear to him? Settlement of the Americas "was the work of the best and the brightest of the entire European continent," he concludes. "They were greedy.

Johnson goes on to trace those twin forces from the Colonial period to the Age of Reagan.

Opinionated and passionate about all his subjects, he is never afraid of making a broad generalization. A conservative, he favors limiting social services, shrinking entitlements and reducing government intervention in free markets.

For that reason, he seems most comfortable in the 19th century, when the United States expanded from a thin line of colonies hugging the Atlantic coast to a world power. Not surprisingly, he concludes that many things have gone downhill in recent decades, mostly since the Harding administration.

In his preface, Johnson asks that readers write to him with any errors of fact or disagreements over interpretation. I found my share, ranging from the minor to the odd to the infuriating.

Some things can be easily corrected: "Sewicky Heights" will, no doubt, be changed to "Sewickley Heights" in future editions.

I'll admit I wasn't there, but historians seem to agree that the Mexican dictator Santa Ana was captured, fleeing alone and unrecognized in civilian clothing, several miles from the battlefield of San Jacinto, Texas, in 1836. Johnson has him caught in the arms of his mistress.

On some more important matters, Johnson seems to lose all sense of proportion.

Neither Jefferson Davis, Aaron Burr nor even Franklin Roosevelt is hit with the kind of scorn that Johnson heaps on John F. Kennedy. He loses no chance to belittle him. In the least of his attacks, he repeats an often-told tale about Kennedy's 1963 triumphal visit to Berlin.

He argues that when the president assured West Germans of the American commitment to Berlin - "Ich bin ein Berliner" - he was saying "I am a kind of jelly doughnut." That's not accurate; Berliners call themselves Berliners. In any case, the riotous response of the cheering crowd to the remark belies Johnson's interpretation.

If he dislikes FDR and despises Kennedy, whom does he admire? Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Reagan are presented fairly with all their political gifts, complexities and human frailties.

Johnson, however, spotlights a few unlikely heroes.

Nixon, in Johnson's view, was the victim of a liberal media conspiracy and a judicial vendetta. His forced resignation did not result from his own criminal behavior but represented "the culmination of a series of assaults on authority which had its roots in the Sixties culture."

Andrew W. Mellon, a well-known son of Pittsburgh who served as Treasury secretary for Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, comes in for special praise. If only FDR had listened to Mellon instead of seeking to jail him for tax fraud, the Great Depression would have been less severe, he argues. Mellon advised Hoover to "liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estates" and so "purge the rottenness from the economy."

"It was the only sensible advice Hoover received throughout his presidency," Johnson writes.

Johnson is not above a deceptive turn of phrase. Consider his description of the Homestead Steel Mill protest of 1892 at a plant owned by Andrew Carnegie and managed by Henry Clay Frick. He writes, apparently with a straight face, that Frick was worried that workers at the sprawling plant along the Monongahela River had been intimidated by union organizers. Moved by compassion for his frightened workers, Frick then "hired 500 Pinkerton detectives to investigate what was actually happening." Whatever plans Frick had for those rifle-toting Pinkertons, it wasn't investigating.

Warren G. Harding, who often ties with Pennsylvania's own James Buchanan as America's worst president, is a beneficiary of Johnson's revisionism. While Johnson admits that Harding surrounded himself with the worst bunch of crooks and con artists seen in Washington since the Grant administration, he argues that the Ohio publisher was personally honest. He just picked bad friends.

It is easy to make fun of some of Johnson's quirks and odd views in a history that is fast-paced, lively and a pleasure to read. His book has a decent index and plenty of source notes that do double service as a bibliography.

While he worries about American cultural decline as this century ends, Johnson is no pessimist. The story of America is one of "difficulties being overcome by intelligence and skill, by faith and strength of purpose, by courage and persistence," he writes.

Echoing Lincoln, he concludes that the United States is "the first, best hope for the human race."

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