- America’s West: A History, 1890–1950 by David M. Wrobel
David M. Wrobel’s America’s West: A History, 1890–1950 demonstrates the importance of the American West in United States history as he examines the question: “would the West follow the nation’s lead or lead the nation?” (28). His West extends from the Dakotas south to Texas and west to the Pacific coast and includes Hawaii and Alaska, although these states are rarely prominent in the study. Wrobel’s frequent comparisons of the West to other regions in the United States make this an excellent read for regionalists. More importantly, this approach answers his guiding question: the West did often lead the nation during this period in a number of ways, including legislative change and federal investment. In addition, Wrobel’s continued emphasis on themes of racial tension, progressive change, and federal investment help him to paint a dynamic and enriching portrait of the West.
Organized into eight chapters, America’s West covers six decades of western history. However, the Progressive Era, the Great Depression, and World War II receive the greatest attention. America’s West begins with the many crises of the 1890s attributed to the closing of the frontier, from agrarian revolt and labor unrest to debates over imperial expansion. He then focuses on the rise of Theodore Roosevelt, calling him the first western president despite his New York origins. Roosevelt represented the rising Progressivism of the early twentieth century, when westerners granted woman suffrage prior to the Nineteenth Amendment and instituted initiative, referendum, and recall measures. Wrobel tempers the advances of the period with an exploration of racial and ethnic tensions, pointing to the prevalence of eugenic pseudo-science, racial violence, and restrictive laws that targeted people of Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican descent. Wrobel then discusses the prominence and power of the Ku Klux Klan in the West during the early 1920s.
In the latter portion of the book, Wrobel examines the relationship between the West and the federal government during the 1930s and 1940s. The New Deal disproportionately facilitated major changes in demography, infrastructure, and economy in the West through regional planning, relief programs, and agricultural policies. Continuing his theme of inequality and uneven development, Wrobel explains how New Deal programs did not benefit all westerners. Programs like the Agricultural Adjustment Act, for example, benefitted large landowners, while federal law and administrators combined regularly to assign relief work to white citizens. Wrobel emphasizes that although the New Deal did not pull the West or the nation out of the Great Depression, it built the infrastructure that accelerated federal investment and allowed for rapid war mobilization. [End Page 107] Darkly, however, it also brought internment for the region’s Japanese Americans. U.S. success in World War II, linked to massive military and industrial expansion in the western United States, brought a rebirth of frontier cultural expressions that embraced American exceptionalism and obscured the continuation of such racially exclusive policies like restrictive covenants. Racism did little to dent a pervasive belief in national righteousness as the Cold War began.
Wrobel navigates an impressive range of secondary scholarship to synthesize this concise history. The book will be useful to historians concerned with the region and the time period. Footnotes rather than endnotes and recurring national electoral maps are especially welcome features. While Wrobel admirably includes incidents of racial tension and organization among marginalized people to improve their conditions, his reliance on well-known names to advance the narrative obscures some everyday actors. Overall, however, America’s West is a great survey of the field that will be beneficial for undergraduate courses and as an introductory text for graduate students.