American Crucible: Race and
Nation in the Twentieth Century
By Gary Gerstle
Princeton University Press
454 pages, $29.95
When he was a young man during the Great Depression, Richard Hofstadter
married a beautiful radical and briefly joined the Communist Party.
"I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it," he wrote to
a friend. The economic crisis, he would later reflect, "made it
clear as day that something had to change."
But the postwar era extinguished the passions of those years, and
in 1947 Hofstadter
published his first polemic of political loss and disillusionment,
The American Political Tradition. With the failures of the
'30s as subtext, he argued that there had never been--and perhaps
could never be--a serious political or ideological struggle in the
United States because the country's "democracy of cupidity" was incapable
of expressing division and conflict. The United States was perpetually
in denial, its sunny rhetoric of life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness blinding people to deeper fissures of class and power.
Theodore Roosevelt's America
was for whites ony.
In the stifling atmosphere of the '50s, Hofstadter turned his frustrated
radicalism against popular movements--the Populists and the Progressives--arguing
that they too were trapped by the country's warped political culture.
The Age of Reform is often viewed as Hofstadter's conservative
turn, but it seems more an extension of his original radical critique.
Rebels and leaders alike resembled overgrown children, motivated
by incoherent dissatisfactions, incapable of understanding their
real conditions of life.
Hofstadter was not alone. Left-leaning historians throughout the
20th century have grappled with the yawning gulf between America's
language of freedom and democracy and the darker truth of its history.
They start out studying conflicts between workers and employers,
blacks and whites, scrutinizing the actions of the elite that we
were supposed to have left behind in Europe. But when they look
for these reflected in our political life, they discover only rhetoric
about the land of the free and the home of the brave. They then
grow obsessed with the American political vernacular, its distorted
reflection of the conflicts that once held their attention. Some,
like Hofstadter, are fascinated by the ingenious opacity of our
political language, and remain conscious of its limitations. But
others are seduced by the language itself, and treat the rhetoric
of our national life as though it defined reality.
Gary Gerstle--author of one of the first major syntheses of 20th-century
American history, American Crucible--is among the latter.
Gerstle began as a labor historian. His first book, Working-Class
Americanism, showed how the decline of ethnic identity in the
Great Depression was a necessary precondition for the rise of unions
in New England textile towns. Thanks to the aggressive use of patriotic
language by CIO organizers, workers came to identify with unions
and see themselves as Americans. American Crucible, by contrast,
is a study of "American nationalism" in which struggles about membership
in this "imagined community" turn into battles over rhetoric and
identity, images and language.
This intellectual journey--from money and power to political culture--echoes
Hofstadter's. But where Hofstadter continued to be riveted by the
failure of the American tradition to capture the conflicts that
teem beneath the surface of events, Gerstle treats political language
itself as the subject of conflict. The result is a book that glides
across the symbolic surface of American history, but which is in
its conclusions more pessimistic than anything Hofstadter ever wrote.
"What is an American?" Crevecouer asked in the 18th century. For
Gerstle, the struggle to answer this question has been the story
of the 20th. The responses, he suggests, have been contradictory.
One American identity professes loyalty to the "core political ideals"
of the United States: the "fundamental equality of all human beings,
every individual's inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit
of happiness." These ideals are not linked to race or nationality;
they arise from the political constitution of the nation.
But there is another powerful nationalist tradition, which conceives
of America "in ethno-racial terms, as a people held together by
common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government."
What's more, Gerstle argues, this racial nationalism is not an aberration
to American liberalism; it is not confined to hidebound conservatives
or yokel Southerners. On the contrary, American liberals and even
at times radicals have affirmed that the only true Americans are
Gerstle opens American Crucible with Theodore Roosevelt,
the unlikely father of modern progressivism. TR delivered blustery
diatribes against corporate power, but he also subscribed to a romantic
breed of racism. He believed that the history of the world was one
of racial struggle and survival of the fittest. Defending citizens
against the predations of big business, his America was for whites
The boundaries of race, Gerstle suggests, also circumscribed the
egalitarian spirit of the New Deal and support for Franklin Delano
Roosevelt. John L. Lewis said that the CIO was a "return to first
principles--a resurrection in practice of the rules laid down by
the Fathers of the Republic." Yet at the same time, the industrial
workers in WPA murals were brawny and white. The "migrant mother"
in Dorothea Lange's famous photograph was an anxious Anglo-Saxon.
"In the adoration of FDR we can detect a desire on the part of southern
and eastern Europeans to gain acceptance in the American nation
by claiming for themselves a 'Nordic father,' " Gerstle writes.
FDR, patrician to the core, once told a Catholic aide, "This is
a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here on sufferance."
During the fight against the Nazis, the U.S. Army remained segregated--right
down to its blood supply. "The exclusion of blacks from combat platoons
... denied servicemen ... the opportunity to challenge and to reconstitute
their racially inflected conception of American community," Gerstle
writes. The tension between the two nationalisms continued through
the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the
civic tradition of the country to claim equal rights for African-Americans
in a land devoted to democracy and equality. Yet "white Americans
who could not accept the elimination of race as a defining characteristic
of American nationhood" called on the alternative "racial" tradition,
meeting the civil rights movement with massive resistance.
The "bonds of nationhood" splintered in the '60s, as black power
radicals, angry at reform's slow pace, raised their fists with Malcolm
X, while anti-war protesters burned the flag, their civic ideals
beaten out of them by the cops at the Chicago Democratic National
Convention. What remains today is multiculturalism, replacing the
"common cause" of the nation with local solidarities of race, gender
and ethnicity. This new ethos, Gerstle fears, fails to create a
sense of common purpose, one that can link people across classes.
It is no surprise that its rise has accompanied the shattering of
the welfare state.
Today, our choices are between "a strong, solidaristic and exclusionary
identity of the sort that has existed in the past" and "a weaker
identity, one that makes fewer claims on us, that allows us to cultivate
strong ethnic, religious, regional or transnational identities,
but that is capable of generating only thin loyalty to nationalist
ideals and limited ties of feeling and obligation to [other] Americans."
In its ambivalent depiction of a lost national community, American
Crucible echoes the work of Todd Gitlin and, to a lesser extent,
Christopher Lasch. Like them, Gerstle believes that reform depends
upon a strong sense of national community, and that American leftists
can only succeed by wrapping their claims in the flag. The legacy
of the '60s, for these thinkers, is that radicalism must be patriotic;
when it isn't, Reagan is the result. But unlike Lasch and Gitlin,
Gerstle cannot simply endorse a sentimental depiction of America's
democratic past. He is too conscious of the darker currents of the
country's national identity to think that it's unproblematic for
progressives to claim the mantle of nationalism, yet he fears that
the anemic sensibilities and fragmented selves of liberal pluralism
can never spur a vigorous democracy, nor a movement for economic
This sad impasse seems a far cry from Hofstadter's scathing skepticism.
The implication of Hofstadter's ruthless criticism of the American
tradition was the certainty that real political change would have
to spring from a challenge to the dominant political language. Gerstle,
by contrast, thinks that national ideals are needed to rally Americans
for reform. So while he cannot entirely identify with the American
tradition, he is not yet ready to dismiss it either.
The generation of labor historians that preceded Gerstle--David
Montgomery, Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman--wrote about race less
than Gerstle does, it's true. But when they did, they did not share
his sense of futility. They didn't have to, because the way that
they thought about race was fundamentally different. They did not
think that blacks were "excluded" from the nation in an existential
act of national self-definition. Segregation and slavery, after
all, did not really "exclude" blacks at all. They created a subordinate
group within the United States that lacked access to resources and
to political power, and which could be exploited to the benefit
of elites--who were less interested in metaphysical questions about
the "defining characteristics of the nation" than they were in safeguarding
On a deeper level, because these historians believed that the real
conflicts in American life were about politics and economics, not
the national community, they did not see reform as the crowning
act of communal self-awareness. It was more likely to reflect division
and conflict. Democratic politics were about struggle against elites,
not people coming together. Along with New Left political theorist
Sheldon Wolin, these historians believed that democracy was "fugitive,"
elusive, born of a challenge to established orders and hierarchies.
It required the transformation of self-awareness, the destruction
of antiquated bonds and old myths of community--not the legitimating
language of the the nation.
The rebellious historians of the '60s and '70s wrote against what
they believed to be the stultifying scholarship of Hofstadter. But
in a way, Gerstle's history--despite its surface narrative of conflict--makes
the labor historians almost the allies of Hofstadter. They knew,
as Hofstadter did, that the language of American politics obscured
more than it revealed, and they refused to make peace with the evasiveness
of the national myth. The failure of Depression-era politics led
to Hofstadter's astringent vision, his rejection of nostalgic America.
The cutting cynicism that resulted from his disappointment--like
the labor historians' description of the country's secret history--was
born of hope for something better.
For Gerstle, the political frustrations of the past quarter century
seem to have resulted in the opposite outcome. He is left clinging
to the kitsch of national tradition, even though he cannot help
but be repelled by much of what he finds there. The gulf between
his hopeless faith and Hofstadter's critical spirit is not one of
historical talent. It is a sign of political pessimism, of history
written in an age that has lost the sense that the world might change.