These Truths: A History of the United States
by Jill Lepore.
W. W. Norton, 2018.
Hardcover, 960 pages, $40.
Part Four, The Machine (1946–2016)
Reviewed by Lauren F. Turek
Historian Jill Lepore opens her sweeping, synthetic overview of United States history with an explanation of her core goal: to explore how the study of the past might help us assess the successes and failures of the national republican experiment and understand the political divides of our present moment. After speaking to the high ideals of “political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people,” that animate the country’s founding documents, she addresses the halting, contested, and unfinished efforts over the subsequent centuries to realize “those truths” in civic life.
Given the realities of U.S. politics in the age of Trump, she asks, plaintively, “what, then, is the verdict of history?” Lepore explicitly intends the book to serve as a civics lesson for her readership, to lay bare the inner workings and development of U.S. political institutions from 1492 to the present. It is an ambitious and exciting undertaking. It is also, much like the American experiment that she chronicles, an imperfect one. No work of this scope could capture every important moment or aspect of national history, and Lepore is open about this fact. There is much here to praise, including the book’s engaging style and discussion of historical trends that sometimes go underappreciated in textbooks and other similar overviews. Yet in seeking to explain today’s polarized politics to a general audience, Lepore made choices about what to include and judgements about what mattered that at times obscure or distort aspects of the past that bear on the very political phenomena she hopes to illuminate.
This issue came up in some parts of the fourth section of the book, which brings the reader through the period immediately following World War II to the present day. Her chapter on the early years of the Cold War offers a lucid overview of the domestic priorities of the Truman administration, including its efforts to extend and expand upon the promises of the New Deal. It addresses the depth and breadth of racial injustice, including the institutional, political, and social mechanisms that intensified inequality, as well as the grassroots activism and legal efforts that emerged to dismantle segregation. She covers anticommunist hysteria and McCarthyite attacks on gay and lesbian Americans with great care and sensitivity.
As part of an effort to draw out the links with our contemporary moment, Lepore also devotes considerable space to discussing public opinion polling and the involvement of private political consulting firms in defeating Truman’s healthcare proposals and shaping political discourse in the period more generally. The history of polling and political consulting is without question significant and her discussion of them is welcome. Yet they receive more attention and consideration than other topics of equal or greater significance. To wit, despite the intertwinement of global issues and domestic politics in this era—which she recognizes when noting that in the context of the Cold War “desegregation had become a matter of national security”—the book pays comparatively little attention to foreign relations.
This inattention is no oversight but rather a considered decision that Lepore explains briefly in her introduction after she notes that the book is, at its heart, a work of political history. Nevertheless, to downplay foreign policy and public debates over U.S. engagement with the world during the decades after World War II is to strip essential context from the history of domestic politics in this era. While the Vietnam War and some of the U.S. interventions abroad receive mention, they remain underdeveloped and treated almost as an aside, despite their significant and enduring effects on American politics, not least in increased polarization. The book glosses over these connections, though, missing an opportunity for a more robust analysis of the entanglement of domestic and foreign policymaking. The minimal mention of U.S. relations with the Middle East in the book up until the 9/11 attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq makes these events seem to emerge from nowhere. This lack of context weakens the otherwise compelling narrative and also our understanding of the factors that shaped historical and contemporary politics.
When the book moves into the very recent past, these issues of topical balance and significance weigh on the narrative. In part, this reflects the inherent challenges of writing a history of a time one is presently living through; it is difficult to distinguish signal from noise right now, particularly given the nature of mass and social media.
Several times in the book’s last chapter Lepore addresses the hate speech codes of the 1990s and the more recent student protests over conservative speakers and reactionary provocateurs at elite universities, on which the media and pundit class have ruminated extensively. Yet the narrative seems to accept the current media handwringing uncritically, even though these elite students and schools make up a tiny proportion of young people and higher education institutions in the United States, and university boards and donors might seem more likely to seek to quash speech by those on the political left than the political right. It is not clear that historians in twenty years, analyzing the politics of the Trump era with the benefit of hindsight, will place the same emphasis on students protesting a Milo Yiannopoulos speech that pundits do now. Lepore’s discussion of the earlier hate-speech codes provides nuanced insight into polarization and the politics of the 1990s, in part thanks to the fact that enough time has passed to allow for historical reflection. We are likely too close to current events for dispassionate analysis, and Lepore might have been more explicit and circumspect about the preliminary nature of any historical assessment of the present.
The challenge of evaluating the present from a historical perspective may also explain the tendency in the last chapter to list events and developments rather than to analyze them. As an example, a paragraph that juxtaposes the Black Lives Matter movement, the battles over the Second Amendment, and the advance of gay rights does not draw out the consequence and connections between these issues as effectively as it might; future historians will be better positioned to offer the necessary level of analysis. The final chapter reads more like a long-form opinion piece that assumes the reader will get the implied links that the author sees, rather than the well-explained and contextualized lesson in civics the introduction promises.
To be clear, these are the critiques of an academic historian and should not be taken to suggest that the book is not impressive or will not be illuminating to a general reader interested in American political history. It is impressive, and historians as well as a more general audience will find much of interest here. Lepore’s skill as a historian, writer, and thinker are evident, especially in her ability to suss out and connect important trends, such as the key role of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in leading a reorientation of the GOP in the 1970s, or of the UNIVAC and other early computers in reshaping how politicians campaigned in the twentieth century. Indeed, the manner in which she weaves the history of technology and computing throughout the fourth part of the book and presents this history as a key aspect of political change is particularly novel and valuable. Although we should be critical of the interpretive and narrative gaps, the historical developments that Lepore brings together shed considerable light on the nation’s past as well as its present.
Lauren F. Turek is an assistant professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, where she teaches courses on modern United States history, U.S. foreign relations, and public history. She earned her Ph.D. in history from the University of Virginia. Turek’s articles on religion in American politics and foreign policy have appeared in Diplomatic History, the Journal of American Studies, and Religions and her book project, To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelicals, Human Rights, and U.S. Foreign Relations, is under contract with Cornell University Press.