Every once in a while, a book on American history can capture the fascination of the American public. Whether it was David McCullough’s Truman (my father’s favorite) or John Adams, Steven Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, or Undaunted Courage, or even Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, books on history have succeeded on the best seller list from time to time. Writing a history book has never been a “sexy proposition”. It has never been a way to make oneself a fortune. And, it has never been a way to become famous outside of the history establishment. Names like Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin do not bring about controversy or scorn for their work. Leave it to Thaddeus Russell to change all that.
A Renegade History of the United States is a well written history of the underbelly of American History. From immigrant groups to minority to drink, music, sex, gender, and race, Russell about covers it all and he covers it well. Some parts, like most books, are better than others. But what has most critics riled up is that Russell covers the underbelly of American society and how that underbelly influenced the mainstream.
In a positive review, The Seattle PI stated:
Rather than avoid the politically incorrect topics as do many of his peers, Dr. Russell, the renegade historian, boldly addresses taboos, stereotypes, and prejudices against minorities and immigrants (especially Jews and Italians). He discusses their origins and how they influenced the renegades and helped them succeed in giving us many of our “personal liberty” freedoms we enjoy today. Should the government care what you do alone at home in the dark?
One of the key chapters in the book discusses the fall of Communism. Today, many Reagan conservatives believe that Ronald Reagan is solely responsible for bring down the Berlin Wall. By outspending the Soviets in the 1980s, Reagan bankrupted the USSR, or so conservatives thought. Here is an excerpt of an interview John Stossell published in the Chicago Tribune:
What liberates oppressed people? I was taught it’s often American power. Just the threat of our military buildup defeated the Soviet Union, and our troops in the Middle East will create islands of freedom.
Unlikely, says historian Thaddeus Russell, author of “A Renegade History of the United States.”
“As a matter of fact,” Russell told me, “in general American military intervention has increased anti-Americanism and hardened repressive regimes. On the other hand, American popular culture — what was often called the worst of our culture in many cases — has actually done more for liberation and our national security than anything that the 82nd Airborne could do.”
I told him that I thought that the Soviet Union collapsed because the Soviets spent so much trying to keep pace with Ronald Reagan’s military buildup
On the contrary, Russell said, “it collapsed from within. … People simply walked away from the ideology of communism. And that began especially when American popular culture — jazz and rock ’n’ roll — began infiltrating those countries after World War II.”
I demanded evidence.
“American soldiers brought jazz during World War II to the eastern front. Soviet soldiers brought it back. Eastern European soldiers brought it and spread it across those countries. … Stalin was hysterical about this.”
The authorities were particularly concerned about young people performing and enjoying sensual music.
“Any regime at all depends on social order to maintain its power. Social order and sensuality, pleasures of the body, are often at odds. Stalin and his commissars understood that.”
American authorities 30 years earlier also feared the sensuality of black music, said Russell, attacking it “as primitive jungle music that was bringing down American youth. Stalin and his commissars across Eastern Europe said exactly the same things with the same words later.”
Then rock ’n’ roll came.
“That was even more threatening,” Russell said. “By the 1980s, disco and rock were enormously popular throughout the communist world.”
The communists realized they had to relax the rules or risk losing everything, but it was too late. One of the most amazing and significant spectacles was Bruce Springsteen’s concert in East Germany in 1988, when a crowd of 160,000 people who lived behind the Iron Curtain sang “Born in the USA.”
I’m skeptical. I don’t know how much effect Reagan’s military buildup had versus rock ’n’ roll, but I bet ordinary consumer goods had an ever bigger effect. People trapped behind communist lines wanted the stuff we had. When I was in Red Square before the fall of communism, I sold my Nikes and jeans to eager buyers.
I, like Keith Richards, believed that blue jeans and rock ‘n’ roll did more to bring down the wall than Reagan ever did. In conservative circles, Reagan was solely responsible for the destruction of Communism in Eastern Europe. Reagan did it by bankrupting the USSR and tripling the debt of the U.S. I don’t remember Eastern European kids sitting in their newly free countries penning odes to Reagan. No, they were sitting around singing the songs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin.
The most salient part of the book is actually its beginning. Russell, right from the beginning, hammers home how those who were indifferent of the law, society, and morals, actually created more freedoms for the rest of us. For the founding fathers, the concept of self-government was all that they had known. From the beginning of the colonies, the colonies had to govern themselves over what I call “The Big Pond Differential”. Europe was 2 months away and decisions had to be made immediately in colonial times. After the French and Indian War (Seven Years War), England began to think differently about the concept of self-government. In the first few chapters, Russell lays out what colonial society had become – a den of vice. In 1777, Philadelphia was a town of 24,000 people with an astounding 160 taverns. As the Revolution wore on, Russell expertly uses the correspondence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to expose what a den of libations the colonies had become. It is quite captivating at times; and surprising.
What Russell has captured in A Renegade History of the United States are moments where those considered immoral or unworthy of acclaim gain freedoms for the rest of us. Howard Zinn was one of the first historians to champion the working class. Russell champions those deemed unacceptable by society to eventually be accepted. I can see where the right would not approve and those on the left would disapprove of his examination of slavery, Italian descent, and gay mobsters. A quick read, the book is not meant for young adults. I can see where colleges would be hard pressed to include this book in a survey. But if they did, kudos to them. Nothing gets a history class going quite like a controversial idea or a different point of view. Thaddeus Russell provides those in spades.