After Watergate

A large portion of American history is only now being invented.  For most periods of that history, we know the broad outlines: For instance, any account of the 1850’s has to include certain themes, certain events and landmarks.  However much we differ on our interpretation, every respectable account has to devote some space to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to Dred Scott, to Bleeding Kansas.

Until very recently, though, the period since 1975 or so has not existed in the minds of American historians on anything like the same terms, and that absence demands explanation.  It is not just that the events are too fresh to be recollected in tranquility.  One of the best accounts of the 1920’s is still Frederick Lewis Allen’s classic Only Yesterday, written as early as 1931, while major books on the McCarthy saga or the Civil Rights Movement were appearing within a few years of those events.  More importantly, these interpretations were incorporated into the mainstream story.  In contrast, the years since Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War remain alien territory in many universities, while the textbooks treat this era with great diffidence, if at all.  At the university where I teach, American history is divided into a series of obvious periods (e.g., 1877-1917, 1917-1941), but one—constantly expanding—course covers the increasingly amorphous...

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