Not One World

"Not One World," Commentary, August 1956.  (A review of American Politics in a Revolutionary World, by Chester Bowles.)


Basically, what Mr. Bowles has done is to follow the honorable 19th-century custom of transplanting the Whig interpretation of history—history as the unfolding story of liberty—from the English to the American scene. He divides American history since the founding of the Republic into three periods, each of them representing a new consensus about, and a new ordering of, the nation’s political, social, and economic arrangements, and each being “higher” than the previous one in that the idea of liberty is expanded to encompass an ever greater portion of men’s activities. The first cycle, from Jefferson to Lincoln, secured political democracy for the people and national sovereignty for the Federal government. The second, from Lincoln to F.D.R., extended Constitutional rights to the Negroes and set up the juridical and ideological framework within which private initiative was able to convert the United States into an industrialized, wealthy country. The third, from F.D.R. to Eisenhower, saw the establishment of the welfare state and the extension of the democratic ethic—and the “rights” that are a corollary of it—to economic and social problems. The fourth cycle, on which we are just entering with timid and faltering step, will have foreign policy as its central political issue, and the consensus which Mr. Bowles hopes to see victorious would involve the further extension of the dynamic of American liberty to govern our attitude toward the world outside.

Such an interpretation of American history is, of course, a myth. It does, however, have the advantage of being, not the offshoot of Mr. Bowles’s private fancy, but rather a neat re-statement of the American myth—the myth America lives by, for better or worse. (Other nations have other myths, for better or worse.) His is the America of our textbooks and of our patriotic devotions; this is the image that, in young and tender imaginations, makes for a moral patriotism and a humble pride. And it is this idea-image, of a mystic and indissoluble partnership between the specific fortunes of America and the ineluctable march of Human Liberty, which is now undergoing a crucial confrontation with reality, in the form of America’s confrontation with a world we had some part in making but which is, it seems, becoming every day more foreign.

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