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Book Reviews

Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (The Oxford History of the United States) David M. Kennedy.  Oxford University Press, 2001. 

ISBN paperback 0-19-514403-1, pp. 936.  List price: £15.00.

Reviewed by Dr. Wendy Toon. American Studies Course Leader, University of Worcester

Freedom from Fear

This single-volume edition, taking its title from FDR’s famous 1941 speech, argues that the two key crises, the Depression and the Second World War, created a climate of fear which the Roosevelt administration attempted to overcome through a variety of policies aimed at providing security.  Kennedy considers that this drive for security, both domestic and international, characterized the Rooseveltian response and hoped to secure for the American people one of the main “four freedoms.”  He highlights the New Deal’s shortcomings, contradictions and failures and teases out the variety of determinants in American World War II strategy.  Context is emphasized and the author attempts to give a feel of the times in which the specific events took place.  Although this volume’s focus is firmly on the American experience it does also consider the other side, as it were, whether that be the Republicans, the British, the Soviets, the Japanese or the Germans. 

This book’s main achievement is the way in which it weaves seamlessly through the various aspects that shaped the American experience in these two pivotal decades.  With a lightness of touch, particularly in the first half of this volume, Kennedy deals with the full gamut of life.  The written style is sophisticated yet accessible for undergraduates and above.  As reader, you are carried at pace through these years by an entertaining and colourful narrative that binds the often complicated and sweeping events together.  Freedom from Fear provides the reader with interesting portraits of the main players in American and world history in the 1930s and 1940s.  Their careers are woven into the narrative from the start, with the clever opening in which key figures from various countries are linked at the end of World War One.  Chapters that focus on the often rather dry topic of military history are still written in a lively manner and engaging.  The focus on “people” however is perhaps uneven.  There is surprisingly little on the people (as in general populace) in the discussion of the Second World War.  Despite this, examination of the important actors and statesmen is fleshed out with biographical details presumably in an attempt to emphasize that they were people too.  These portraits are further coloured with their reflections on each other. 

The author often exploits an interesting collection of both primary and secondary sources.  There is a clear awareness of alternative interpretations for many of the key events that shaped these two vital decades.  Kennedy tests and challenges some of the historiographical understandings of this period.  However, much of the secondary information is based on what would be considered classic but perhaps now slightly dated volumes.  Footnotes, maps, photographs, cartoons and posters support the discussion.  A comprehensive index and illuminating bibliographical essay are also included.  The bibliographical essay points to a wide range of additional reading and further exemplifies Kennedy’s extensive knowledge of his chosen period.  In summary, Freedom from Fear is a great example of the historians’ craft of bringing the past to life in all its fascinating detail.  Although daunting in its size, the years do fly by.

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