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Inventing the "American Way": The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement

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In the wake of World War II, Americans developed an unusually deep and all-encompassing national unity, as postwar affluence and the Cold War combined to naturally produce a remarkable level of agreement about the nation's core values. Or so the story has long been told. Inventing the "American Way" challenges this vision of inevitable consensus. Americans, as Wendy Wall argues in this innovative book, were united, not so much by identical beliefs, as by a shared conviction that a distinctive "American Way" existed and that the affirmation of such common ground was essential to the future of the nation. Moreover, the roots of consensus politics lie not in the Cold War era, but in the turbulent decade that preceded U.S. entry into World War II. The social and economic chaos of the Depression years alarmed a diverse array of groups, as did the rise of two "alien" ideologies: fascism and communism. In this context, Americans of divergent backgrounds and beliefs seized on the notion of a unifying "American Way" and sought to convince their fellow citizens of its merits.

Wall traces the competing efforts of business groups, politicians, leftist intellectuals, interfaith proponents, civil rights activists, and many others over nearly three decades to shape public understandings of the "American Way." Along the way, she explores the politics behind cultural productions ranging from The Adventures of Superman to the Freedom Train that circled the nation in the late 1940s. She highlights the intense debate that erupted over the term "democracy" after World War II, and identifies the origins of phrases such as "free enterprise" and the "Judeo-Christian tradition" that remain central to American political life. By uncovering the culture wars of the mid-twentieth century, this book sheds new light on a period that proved pivotal for American national identity and that remains the unspoken backdrop for debates over multiculturalism, national unity, and public values today.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Wall's argument is not only effective but also well buttressed with an abundance of historical evidence.... This provocative, thoughtful work is a noteworthy contribution in US social history. Highly recommended."—T. Maxwell-Long, CHOICE

"Wall's book is a valuable study, clearly the product of many years' work, covering a lot of ground and filled with well-considered judgments. She has gone a long way in investigating exactly how various constituencies sought to shape Americans' understanding of their own political culture in the middle years of the twentieth century."—Doug Rossinow, Reviews in American History

"This carefully documented and closely reasoned analysis of American national identity demonstrates the appeal of the ideal of 'consensus' for a great variety of socio-economic, religious, and cultural constituencies not only in the 1950s, but in the two previous decades. One of the most informative studies yet written of the dynamics of nationalism in twentieth century America."—David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley

"In this bold and thoughtful study, Wendy Wall demonstrates convincingly that concepts most Americans now take for granted were created at mid-century to mask deep divisions in American society. This book dispels the central myths of modern America, showing that the consensus of the postwar era was a self-conscious effort to cover up the country's true traditions of conflict."—Kevin M. Kruse, Princeton University

"Wendy Wall's careful and intelligent study shows that post-World War II 'consensus' was an idea deliberately constructed by a diverse group of political and economic elites as well as minority-group representatives, often for competing reasons, but for the common goal of shaping national unity and identity. In so doing, she contributes greatly to our understanding of mid-twentieth century political culture."—Steven Lawson, author of Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom Struggle

"Wendy Wall investigates the cultural construction of the term the 'American Way' and stresses the ways in which a nation fragmented by class, interest, and diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds contested its operational meanings. Her well-written and highly suggestive book helps reframe issues of national identity and so-called 'consensus' in the decade before and after World War II."—Emily S. Rosenberg, University of California, Irvine

"Wendy Wall offers a new and cogent interpretation of American identity in the twentieth century. Her book is the first that I have seen to integrate so effectively careful analysis of how politicians, intellectuals, businesspeople, labor unions, and ethnic organizations worked—in shifting coalitions—to promote a predominant set of assumptions about citizenship and patriotism. She provides a sympathetic but also critical account of how people coped with fear and uncertainty at mid-century. Inventing the American Way has many vital lessons to teach us about identity politics in our own times."—Jeremi Suri, University of Wisconsin

"Critically expands the literature demonstrating that business leaders in the postwar period remained intensely interested in finding ways to shape American culture and politics."—Kim Phillips-Fein, Business History Review

"With clear prose and an overarching, convincing thesis, the book examines national identity during three distinct, event-packed periods."—Keith W. Olson, The Journal of American History

"The significant contribution this book makes is the way in which it identifies the creation and circulation of a framework of consensus as a 'political project,' one that originated as one side of an argument in teh 1930s and then became a widely, though not universally, accepted form of common sense in teh 1950s." —American Historical Review

"Shows how government officials, business leaders, advertising executives, unionists, interfaith activists and left-liberals coalesced around a vision of an "American Way" that enabled the nation to survive economic dislocation and global conflict." — American Studies Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195392401
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 9/3/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 466,405
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Wendy L. Wall is an Assistant Professor of History at Queen's University. She was previously a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

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Table of Contents

Part I: Enemies at Home and Abroad (1935-1941)
1. "Are We a Nation?"
2. Industrial Democracy vs. Free Enterprise
3. In Search of Common Ground
Part II: The Politics of Unity during World War II (1942-1945)
4. The Spectre of "Divide and Conquer"
5. "The House I Live In"
Part III: Shaping a Cold War Consensus (1946-1955)
6. United America
7. The Freedom Train
8. Crusading for Freedom at Home and Abroad
Conclusion: The Limits of Consensus

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