A great book about all 48 United States at midcentury
If You Ask Me
In June, the Sunday New York Times Book Review featured an essay on John Gunther’s “Inside USA,” a remarkable look at each of the nation’s then-48 states right after World War II. Published in 1947, the book is about to mark its 75th anniversary.
I had never read this monumental “first draft of history,” which is long out of print, and looked for a copy on the internet. There were some — at around $800 for used hard copies and $500 for a used paperback. So I turned to Connecticut’s wonderful program that allows the reader to borrow a book from any public library in the state, and found there was one copy, just up the road in the Granby Public Library.
But by then, other Times readers had also been impressed by former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb’s essay and I had to wait my turn. It was decidedly worth the wait.
Gunther was not a historian, but a reporter and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News who had written current history in previous “Inside “ books, perceptive best sellers exploring Europe, Asia and Soviet Russia in the 1930s and ‘40s.
Gottlieb calls Gunther’s reporting “possibly the best America has ever had,” and there is nothing in the 900 pages of “Inside USA” that would cause me to dispute that appraisal. A contender for that title, Robert Caro, the author of the brilliant multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, lauded “the sense it conveys about America in the postwar 1940s. There’s just nothing like it.”
And how does that USA compare with today’s? In many ways, it was similar—a sometimes primitive and racist south, California craziness, big city corruption—but in others, it was a different nation.
The cast is more or less familiar today—Henry Ford, newspaper baron Bertie McCormick, and politicians like Robert Taft, Fiorello Laguardia, Arthur Vandenberg and Gov. Lee “Pass the Biscuits, Pappy” O’Daniel of Texas, nicknamed for the flour he sold in radio commercials.
As the war ended in 1945, many Republicans were vying for the party’s highly desirable 1948 presidential nomination but the front runner was Tom Dewey, the unsuccessful 1944 candidate against FDR. Dewey seemed destined to be the winner in 1948 after 16 years of Democratic presidencies and he gets more attention than anyone else. Harry Truman, only the accidental president for a few months, with his major achievements as FDR’s fourth term replacement to come, is praised primarily for his one-man, countrywide Senate investigation of waste and fraud in the war industries.
Gunther did have one reservation about the almost certain next President Dewey — no one liked him very much. “Dewey seldom goes out on a limb…every step is carefully calculated and prepared…he will never try to steal second unless the pitcher breaks a leg.”
That assessment of Dewey was confirmed to me many years ago by one of the figures in the few pages devoted to Connecticut, former governor, U.S. senator and chief justice Raymond Baldwin. (Among the others: playwright and Congresswoman Claire Booth Luce, admired by the author, and adman and Governor Chester Bowles.)
I knew Baldwin well late in his life when he was one of the subjects of three biographical documentaries I wrote on the governors who made the greatest impact on 20th century Connecticut. (The others were Abe Ribicoff and Lowell Weicker.) The governor through some of the Depression and World War II, Baldwin had been Wendell Willkie’s choice for running mate in 1940 but he was vetoed by the Republican National Committee in favor of an isolationist westerner for ideological and geographic balance.
Gunther cited Republican Baldwin for his leadership skills, noting Connecticut’s “record of man hours lost by strikes since 1941 is the lowest in the nation.” He also recalled Baldwin’s recollection of Willkie as “not only the greatest American of this century,” but “the greatest man since Lincoln.”
“Inside USA” found Connecticut’s claim as the nation’s insurance capital to be valid, adding that the state was also “the gadget state par excellence. It produces revolvers, typewriters, submarines and a multifarious variety of objects that demand immense precision in manufacture, immense skill in labor.”
Unmentioned was United Aircraft, which ranked sixth among U.S. corporations in the value of its wartime production and has evolved into a vital replacement for the manufacture of typewriters, brass products and other “gadgets.”
There’s so much more in Gunther’s million words of reporting about these United States and I share essayist Gottlieb’s hope that some publisher produces an anniversary edition to attract the new readers the book richly deserves. The single copy in Connecticut’s libraries can only go so far.
Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at email@example.com.