Americans have always been dreamers, beginning with the Founders, who aspired to liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness for all. At the end of World War II, the U.S. was alone in its power; of all the Allied and Axis countries, it was the only one stronger when the war was over than when it began. A chief lesson we learned from the war, according to noted historian H.W. Brands, was “that the U.S. could accomplish almost anything it put its mind to, within the limits of human nature.” What we dreamed, the many challenges we faced and how we have used our power in the post-war era are the subjects of Brands’ rich and incisive survey, American Dreams.

The author casts a wide net. While he tells of spectacular achievements in technology and space exploration, he also shows how crucial the strength of the economy was to Baby Boomers and their families, and how, with McDonalds, “no one contributed more to the creation of a single popular culture than Ray Kroc.” Brands notes that “the most contentious issues in American life continued to center on race,” and he writes of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement as well as the wars in Korea, Vietnam and our current involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brands, best known for his biographies of American figures like Benjamin Franklin and Franklin Roosevelt (both Pulitzer Prize finalists), makes political, social and cultural history come alive by focusing on seminal events and key personalities. He effectively inserts pithy excerpts from such sources as civil rights speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson, President Reagan’s inaugural address, which sought to restore the nation’s self-confidence, Betty Friedan’s writing on “the feminine mystique,” and President Eisenhower’s farewell address warning of the dangers of a military-industrial complex. He also gives attention to key persons and events or policies not often remembered today, such as Senator Robert Taft, who led opposition to big government and interventionism in foreign policy, and President Nixon’s support for affirmative action, environmental and workplace safety legislation.

The sweeping narrative covers more than six decades in reader-friendly prose. In an overview of this scope, it is certainly possible to quibble with the author’s analysis of certain events, but Brands conveys a lot of information and lets the facts speak for themselves. American Dreams is an outstanding title for anyone who wants a solid introduction to the period.

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