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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 149-155

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Liberalism, Nation, And Race

Francis G. Couvares

Gary Gerstle. American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. xv + 454 pp. Figures, notes, and index. $ 29.95.

Signaling the absorption of "whiteness studies" into the American historiographical mainstream, American Crucible is a major effort to reinterpret twentieth-century U.S. history in light of the power of race (and to a lesser extent of class and gender) to determine the national destiny. 1 Moreover, in its attention to the meaning of liberalism and the liberal state, it takes its places in a long line of interpretations--from Alexis de Tocqueville and Joseph Schumpeter, to Louis Hartz and Richard Hofstadter, to John Higham and Christopher Lasch and Alan Dawley and Linda Kerber, to mention only a few--that ask a set of overlapping questions: Why has the United States been so resistant to the politics of class and so weak in its embrace of the social democratic state, which, in most European countries, became the solution to the crises of industrial capitalist society? In what ways have U.S. society and state been shaped by the peculiar American pattern of white ethnic assimilation and racial inequality, as well as by the emergence of mass culture and the ethnic and gender relations it encodes?

Gerstle's contribution to this line of inquiry not only incorporates whiteness studies into his analysis, but takes seriously John Higham's reminder that nationalism is a subject of undying importance for historians not only of the U.S. but of the modern world. 2 Melding these perspectives into his narrative, Gerstle begins with the 1890s, when the lingering wounds of the Civil War and newer centrifugal forces associated with class and ethnic tensions led many Americans to seek national unity through empire. For many this implied what Gerstle calls "racial nationalism." But the bulk of his story is devoted to the challenge offered to racial nationalism by "civic nationalism." In contrast to the exclusive racial sort, this more inclusive, assimilative nationalism welcomed European immigrants of all kinds into the democratic political and social order in return only for the price of "Americanization." Civic nationalism emerged during Progressive years, triumphed in the New Deal-World War II era, strained during the Cold War, and [End Page 149] collapsed in multiple crises beginning with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. These sapped the moral foundation of what Gerstle calls the "Rooseveltian nation" and led to the ambiguous Reagan-Clinton era. Finally, he suggests, what the future holds in store is either a regime of "thin loyalty," with self-absorbed individualism and "multicultural" group identity taking the place of civic nationalism, or the revival of a more fearsome exclusionary nationalism reminiscent of the past.

Gerstle's narrative is brisk, his prose accessible, and his argument persuasive. This is a book that will serve very well to organize courses in twentieth-century U.S. history. It will be especially valuable to those who want a broad narrative that gives continuous attention to race beyond the spheres of labor and popular culture, where whiteness studies has often been preoccupied. This is the way I will use it, though I will be teaching against it almost as often as with it. The remainder of this review will be devoted to explaining why I find American Crucible both very useful and in need of a degree of correction.

In some ways, Theodore Roosevelt is the figure that dominates this book. His ferocious energy seems to reach from the grave and grab hold of Gerstle's imagination, much as it did that of the Rough Rider's contemporaries. Moreover, Roosevelt makes Gerstle's argument: "If for Karl Marx history was the history of class conflict, for Roosevelt it was the history of race conflict" (p. 17). Plumbing TR's racial imagination, Gerstle's offers an effective intellectual history of racial thinking in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. He shows how Roosevelt's brand of racialist thought avoided reactionary Anglo...


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