The Rise of the United States in the 20th Century

How the generation born in the late 1800s led the nation to world prominence


By David Fromkin

Alfred A. Knopf

618 pp., $30

'IN the Time of the Americans'' is about people, the people who, beginning in the days of President Theodore Roosevelt, led the United States from its beginning as a small country on the remote fringe of Western civilization to the apex of world power as the dominant and most powerful country on earth. And it is surprising to discover how many were at or near the top from the beginning right through World War II. The generation born in the late 1800s, which produced the junior officers of World War I, was at the top in World War II.

In 1940, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won reelection and reorganized his administration with the probability of increasing involvement in World War II. It is interesting how many new people he brought in to top places who had been associated with that other Roosevelt, known popularly as Teddy.

The second Roosevelt, FDR, chose as his new secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, who had actually been one of TR's famous regiment of Rough Riders and had fought with him in Cuba at San Juan Hill.

Three of the top people at the War Department, including the new Secretary of War Henry M. Stimson, were veterans of the 1916 Plattsburg movement (military training at Plattsburg, N.Y.) which had been promoted by TR. Two members of the cabinet, Harold Ickes at Interior and Henry Wallace as vice president, had been Bull Moose (Progressive) Republicans following TR in his race against Taft in 1912. William Donovan, who would soon head the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) was another former Progressive Republican.

In other words, the second Roosevelt, although a Democrat, drew heavily in making up his new team for the ordeals ahead from people who had come into public life under or around his Republican cousin, the first Roosevelt. The author of this book calls it a TR-FDR coalition which led the United States into its second great overseas venture in World War II.

There are plenty of books about World War I and World War II. ''In the Time of the Americans'' is about the whole sweep of American growth from the Spanish-American War in 1898 through World War II. It is told largely in terms of people. The author has done his research into who they were and what sort of lives they led. It is packed with anecdotal material, not all of it to the credit of those involved.

John Foster Dulles's sister Eleanor is said to have been an admirer of Hitlerism. Did President Roosevelt send William Christian Bullitt to Paris as his ambassador early in World War II because Bullitt was paying too much attention to Roosevelt's secretary Missy LeHand? At least Mrs. Roosevelt suspected that was the real reason her husband wanted Bullitt a long distance away from Washington.

Then Bullitt, whose name recurs frequently throughout the book, primarily as an early expert on the dangers of Soviet communism, was jealous of Sumner Welles, undersecretary of state, because Welles had become FDR's favorite adviser on foreign policy. Bullitt succeeded in destroying Welles's position by circulating reports about Welles's personal behavior. But Bullitt destroyed his own position in the process, as the president resented having been deprived of Welles's wisdom in foreign affairs.

This is a long book. It is easy reading largely because there is so much of human interest in it. It is ambitious because it undertakes to show the continuity in the leadership of the US over more than a half century. So many of these top people knew each other at school and college or in their early careers, and so many of them acquired their concept of American destiny in the world from the teachings of the first President Roosevelt.

The second Roosevelt consciously modeled himself on the first, beginning with his appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy. And the second Roosevelt learned much wisdom by serving under Woodrow Wilson and watching the mistakes which led to the defeat of Wilson's great project of a world organization.

Wilson never bothered to bring Republicans into his Cabinet in time of war, never put any Republicans on the delegation to the Versailles conference. FDR observed and avoided the same mistakes. He brought in Republicans both to help him wage war and in planning for the post-war world.

''In the Time of the Americans'' is well-written. It succeeds in making one whole story out of the manifold events of a half-century. It will be valuable in many a course in American history. The rise of the American Republic during the 19th century is the central theme in this century. Other countries rose and fell. The Americans who managed the emergence of their country are interesting people. Getting acquainted with them is worthwhile.

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