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Books: America ruled the 1900s

Books | But the author's leftist rhetoric is way outdated

Issue: "38,000,000 Children Killed," Jan. 16, 1999

Whether Bill Clinton's Scarlet I (for impeachment) is minimized in the next generation will depend on whether history writers then have 20/20 vision or are still captives of a 1960s perspective. Now, one book reviewing the 20th century has hit the bestseller list even though it sells America short. The American Century by Harold Evans, editorial director of U.S. News & World Report and The Atlantic Monthly, is a coffee-table sized book (not the size for a coffee table, but the size of) full of denigration. Even a cursory reading of Mr. Evans's commentaries and notes on various events shows his simple, unsophisticated leftism. "The phony peace between capital and labor ended in open class warfare in 1914," he writes. "Auto workers in Toledo, truckers in Minneapolis, longshoremen in San Francisco, and mill hands from Maine to Alabama fought company goons, police, the National Guard and vigilantes in battles that often ended in gunfire." The events are not in dispute; there were certainly clashes over working conditions, worker safety, and wages. And as the author points out, these struggles led to dramatic improvements in the lives of employees. But Mr. Evans's vocabulary is strangely anachronistic in this age of New Democrats and an eastern hemisphere filled with the proof that Marx was wrong. "Class warfare"? "Labor" versus "capital"? And his coverage of World War II is equally skewed. "There is little doubt now that the war could have been ended without atomic bombing or American invasion," he declares. For Mr. Evans, the atomic bomb was the true horror of the war. "There is, in the end, no gainsaying that the massacres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki clouded the historic triumphs and glorious promise of 'the last, best hope of earth.'" In his coverage of the war, arguably the most decisive event of the century he's chronicling, Mr. Evans includes only one photo of the supreme Allied commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (even that's an unflattering group photo). It's more important, he seems to feel, to include lots of photos of Japanese atomic bomb victims, Japanese-Americans in internment camps, segregated military units, etc. The mission of this book is thus left unfulfilled; at the end of the 20th century, there remains space on our bookshelves for a good retrospective, in words and pictures, of these last, very eventful 100 years. There will be other tries, for the job of summing up the 20th century is too big to give to an old-style lefty journalist.

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