A Conversation with Harold Evans, author of The American Century

Q: Growing up in England, what image did you have of America?
A: My image of America as a boy growing up in England was of cornucopia, community, and giantism. America was first of all money and good things. The GIs coming to England with chocolates and cigarettes and nylon stockings for the girls. America was an abundance of material things: fat, flamboyant automobiles, kitchens whirring with chromium toasters, dishwashers, washers, spinners and dryers, giant refrigerators stuffed with ice cream and orange juice and steaks (My mother did all the washing by hand. To make toast we held the bread to a coal fire. There was no juice: we rarely saw an orange in wartime England.).

Second, America was electric with people, dark bars and gambling joints populated by cynical Damon Runyons, newsrooms by Hildy Johnsons, every taxi driver Groucho Marx, the glittering Plaza an arena of wealth where Tom Buchanan and Daisy sauntered behind a tumble of hatboxes and Fred Astaire danced down the stairs at Martini time. In the high offices men in grey flannel suits emerged from behind slick paperless desks to flirt with Mr. Big's pert secretary. Outside the cities somewhere, long lazy trains crossed the prairies. Big cities, empty spaces and small towns: the diner on Main Street, houses with picket fences, high school girls in gingham. The South: happy black men singing in cotton fields. But somehow there was also burned into my consciousness something of the struggles of the country -- the Okies sweating it across hostile California made the biggest impression in the film and book, The Grapes of Wrath. Jimmy Stewart fighting to save Bailey's Savings and Loan and a friendly small town from greedy Mr. Potter. And the voice of Franklin Roosevelt on the radio as the bombs fell on us in our shelters and the anti-aircraft batteries opened up. Churchill offered hope. Roosevelt, certainty: America, the invincible. My God, could I ever take a look?

Q: When did you first visit America and what were your impressions?
A: I crossed the Atlantic in 1956, playing chess on the steamship Franconia, landing in New York, heading for a friend of a friend's apartment on West 23rd street. Herb, the host, made coat hangers for Seventh Avenue. Bachs music filled his apartment all day; I imagined everyone did the same, suggesting that America was the pinnacle of civilization.

After England, I was struck by how cosmopolitan the city was and naturally how big-beyond-imagination the country was. I drove endless miles on what seemed to be the same road with the same motels for my travels through 40 states. I lived with Navajo Indians in Arizona, rode with cowboys in Montana, campaigned in a fervid Chicago for Adlai Stevenson in the presidential race against Eisenhower. I got plunged into the thick of arguments about America's role in the Suez and Hungary crises, remember still the gratitude when Ike made Khruschev back down from threatening to rain rockets on England.

On the road for months, I was awed by distance and space. I saw the muscle of the country. The stockyards in Chicago. Gary, Indiana, the world's biggest steel plant. Flames from great towered cauldrons lit immense industrial wastelands and Polish steelworkers at the furnaces said they earned $9,000 a year. Oil derricks on the state capitol lawn in Oklahoma. But also dried up wheatfields in Colorado and a cluster of Cheyenne Indians barely surviving in Hammon, Oklahoma.

Q: Did you keep a record of your travels?
A: From my notes: "The Cheyenne live in about 20 one-room wooden sheds with leaking roofs. Eight people in each of these things, on their roofs piles of rags to keep out the rain. They have no running water, no electricity or gas. They cook on open fires on the ground outside. We went into one home. Bare wooden planks for walls, old iron bedsteads piled with rags; bare wooden floor covered with rags and caked in mud and hundreds of flies around the dirty box of food. There are no jobs for the men. They are all on welfare and get food rations from the government every month. I doubt if many people realize this sort of things exists in America. It depressed us terribly because how can things improve? They cannot get out; they have no money. It's crazy when a few hundred miles away there might be men getting millions from oil. Sad, too, to think that these apathetic Indians belonged to a tribe that was once feared by the white man and they hunted over miles of prairie acres. One old man of 83 looked so sad, si tting on an upturned bucket and gazing into space. How important it is to leave the main roads."

I also recorded attitudes: I lived bracing ice-cold days on a corn farm in Paris, Illinois, where Ed Gumm the ruddy Christian Scientist farmer explained why he would never take a penny of U.S. government subsidy. In a high school debate in town, a wonderfully fierce schoolmarm - no other word - cussed wasting "silver dollars" on foreign aid. But everyone was very kind.

And I recall writing about the South just after the murder of Emmett Till and the Montgomery bus boycott. The dignity of Benjamin Mays, the Negro head of Morehouse College in Atlanta. The perplexing graciousness of the white Southern hosts in South Carolina and Georgia who wanted their "nigras" to be happy - but stay in their place. Futilely arguing genetics with the founder of the new White Citizens Council in Jackson, Mississippi. A day in Clinton, Tennessee, in the Cumberland mountains after an anti-black riot. My Feb, 1957 note: "A sullen little town. The old lady who owns the hotel gives me a free supper because I'm English, but I don't like the look of the young toughs in town in leather jackets, and the think-faced hill people in the pin-table cafe. The local Baptist preacher was beaten up escorting Negro pupils to school. The rabble rouser who started the riot is 27. Hes in town today to dig the first sod for a new all-white headquarters of some racist group. He's come, he says, as a Messiah against the Communists on the Supreme Court, the Jews, and the two lefties who stood for president last fall - Eisenhower and Stevenson." And then on to San Francisco where the hostesses shudder at my stories of life in the South. There from a patio on Union Street I watch with equal horror the television broadcasts of the UnAmerican activities committee grilling suspected Communists. Decided I must learn more about the context and the people.

Q: When did you decide to write a book about America?
A: I had always been struck by the proximity of the history -- and its evanescence in the swift currents of American life. I have reached out and shaken the hand of the last member of Geronimo's tribe -- and of a man whod traveled in space. In 1956, following many adventures, I intended to write a book on the romantic myths of the American West - gold mines, ghost towns, Indians and cowboys. The interest remained but it was superseded by fascination with political power in the world's most open society, no doubt influenced by editing two volumes of Henry Kissinger's memoirs in the late seventies and working full time in Washington as a journalist in 1985. I started serious research for The American Century in 1985-6. I developed my concept for the format from Roger Butterfield's The American Past.

Q: Why do you think the twentieth century belongs to the Americans?
A: Not because of the jeans and the diet sodas and the movies and the pop music and the fast food, that the world has adopted, but because the style and merchandising flourish best in an atmosphere of freedom: those kids in the garages in Silicon Valley are the most glittering example of market capitalism at work. The American Century is the story of the triumph of freedom as much as the emergence of America as the sole superpower. In 1889 there were few true democracies in the world with liberties and egalitarian constitutions comparable to the United States. Now look, after the end of the cold war. American political ideas are the intellectual capital of an open world; American culture is pervasive, for good or bad. The book, of course, is the story of the people and the eternal struggle to achieve social justice and individual liberty. There are many good guys - and bad - but with that extra American dazzle.

Q: How and where did do your research?
A: I began the reading -- hundreds of books and articles -- in Washington, D.C. when I was editorial director of U.S. News & World Report. And talking with everyone I could -- politicians (Presidents Carter, Ford, Reagan, Senator Al Gore, and especially those whose books I edited -- Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Nixon, General Colin Powell, Abe Ribicoff, Jesse Jackson, etc.). In New York, I raided lots of libraries large and small - the Yale Club, the Century Club, Columbia University, Quogue Village Library -- but did most of the reading at home. Then I engaged Gail Baker to research the photographs for me, and, later, Kevin Baker to create notes on various periods to back up my own reading and conversations. Gail has pored over thousands of negatives in state libraries, private collections, as well as the ever helpful Associated Press.

I engaged others from time to time when it became obvious I had taken on a much bigger task than I thought. The point was that I had intended to do simple narratives, but came to realize I had to go deeper into all the major events and personalities and cover more ground. Hence the essays.

Q: Are there any literary influences -- e.g. Alistair Cooke, Barbara Tuchman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Bernard Bailyn -- for The American Century? A: I have always admired the raw tang of John Dos Passos, the fluid style of Alistair Cooke, the eloquence and insights of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the wit of John Kenneth Galbraith. The American Century also owes something I suppose to John Gunther ("where is the power in this city?") and to innumerable half-remembered epics of journalism.

Q: Does your journalism background influence the way you look at America?
A: My journalistic background, I suppose, makes me inquisitive about the hidden pulleys that make things work, and the personalities. Also, having survived the war, lived in Europe and edited The Times, I am very conscious of the importance of the proper use of American power.

Q: How did you decide which historical events to cover in the book?
A: Did it significantly affect the lives of the people? Was it a person who tried to realize or defile the ideals of the Constitution? Is it an isolated event (like an accident) or part of the thread of history?

Q: Of the many presidents you write about in the book, who had the greatest impact?
A: Both Roosevelts, but FDR has to come first, one of the few world historical figures.

The New Deal is the apotheosis of American pragmatism: federal intervention with a benevolent enabling purpose. The New Deal did not end the Great Depression, but it saved the country from extremism of left and right; it alleviated enough human suffering to preclude any possibility of America following so much of Europe into either Soviet or quasi-fascist dictatorship. Over the longer run, FDR's New Deal created nothing less than the framework of freedom for modern American life. The alternative democratic centers of power it erected or nurtured provided the vital counterweight to corporate power.

The labor movement was one. The unions let millions of Americans experience, for the first time, democracy in action in their lives. Of course, there were a few corrupt and incompetent unions, but overall they were more democratic and benevolent than their counterparts in business or even government. When, after all, was the last time a corporation was tossed out of the National Association of Manufacturers for corrupt practices - as the Teamsters were ejected from the AFL-CIO in the 1950's? The unions, now in decline, were then an invaluable safety valve and an economic engine. Their rise lifted all boats, even though their numbers never grew beyond some 35 percent of the workforce. Higher pay scales benefited even non union labor and minimum wage levels.

The transformation was stunning. In 1935-6 an estimated 77 per cent of American families had incomes of less than $2000 a year - vast, struggling working class, supporting a relatively small middle class (the 17 per cent making $2000-$4000 a year), and a tiny upper class (the remaining 5.5 per cent with higher incomes). By 1945 the pyramid had been squashed, with those making less than $2000 now down to 26 percent, some 40 per cent in the middle class, and 34 percent making over $4000 a year. The millennium had not arrived, but after so many years real progress had been made, and it would continue right up to the oil shocks of the 1970s. New Deal measures carried the country from the war to prosperity, in contrast to the bleak transition after World War. Consider the GI Bill, enacted by FDR though carried through by Harry Truman. It was one of the transforming acts of American democracy, giving millions of servicemen the chance of a college education. The ideal of equality of opportunity made real.

And then right after the Great Depression FDR led the free world to triumph in World War II. No other historical figure has faced two such crises on an epic scale, right on top of the other. The war marked the other great change of the American century, the decision, for better and worse, to shuck off the nation's predilection for isolationism and play a part in world affairs that its size, population and wealth had long demanded. FDR led the free world to triumph and fashioned the legacy of institutions that made the difference in the postwar world (United Nations, World Bank, IMF, etc).

Q: Who is the most interesting American you've met?
A: Key word being interesting? Not the most admirable. (Most admirable General Colin Powell.) Interesting: Richard Nixon. A bewilderment to himself as much as to the country, and to us all still. A dark, tormented man, but a statesman with an original strategic vision, and brilliant insights into domestic politics. Every time I met him, he surprised me with different perspectives - a view of Woodrow Wilson's moralism, a dissection of Republican candidates, a reassessment of Eisenhower's refusal to try and capture Berlin. And always the faint tantalizing possibility that he would ruminate on his downfall.

Q: How did you go about selecting images for The American Century?
A: Did it sum up a character? Did it represent decisive moment in an action? Did it symbolize a quality of American life and ideals? Was it fresh? I made the suggestions for searches and listed areas of interest, but Gail Buckland explored thousands of negatives, collected prints herself and supervised other searches. Then we spent hours sifting through photographs, selecting and sizing the image, debating the crop. Some icons have to be included - FDR with his jaunty cigarette holder - but we shunned the familiar. We looked for telling images that had never been widely seen or seen at all. We discovered, for instance, the first photograph of the Russian cavalry meeting the Americans on the Elbe in 1945; a censored photograph of bombing victims; the Rosenberg spies as never seen before; the doomed sister on the Voyage of the Damned; the moment that revealed the rift in the Allied military leadership; the comic moment when arch enemies Dean Acheson and Joe McCarthy entered the same elevator.

Q: Is there one defining characteristic of being an American?
A: The conviction of equality of worth. Self-respect. One man is as good as the next.

Q: Are there any experiences you've had in America that are particularly memorable?
A: Working with Henry Kissinger on the two great volumes of his White House years. Editing Colin Powell's memoir. Seeing him move among the crowds of admirers and watch him as he wrestled privately with the decision whether to walk into the White House, as he surely would have done if he had run for President. Also, being trapped in a Grand Canyon flood.

Q: Has living in America changed you?
A: Obviously, I have come to care much more than I ever did about the future of the country -- having two young American children concentrates the mind on education, the environment, crime, the fusion of cultures in such a diverse country.

Other things big and small: I've slowly gotten used to the idea that you are always supposed to be in buying mode in the U.S. What else? What else? is the automatic question when you have made one purchase. Order breakfast at room service in a hotel and you get What else? so that before you know where you are you have ordered twice what you intended to order.

I have also come to understand that the impossible just takes a little longer. The optimism of the country is infectious.

Q: Will the next century be the American century as well?
A: The next century will probably not be a nationalistic century but a truly international century in which democratic capitalism prevails across most of the world with a freer flow of people and trade, and the coming of age everywhere of an American-style middle class where every individual is enabled to nurture his talent. The potential of the liberated energies in America has always been awesome - in science, in medicine, in engineering, in literature, in technology.

What an adventurous country!

Copyright © 1998 by Harold Evans