It’s the dawn of a new century, and the nation has gone through a tumultuous and self-affirming period of growth, with widespread new technologies spurring a hope that tomorrow will be better. But this misted veil of wonder and confidence masks a darker and more sinister reality. Wealth inequality has reset the social paradigm, resulting in hotbeds of political upheaval around the country. Meanwhile, the overwhelming influx of migrants seeking a better life has spurred racist and xenophobic tendencies, and the country always seems one spark away from igniting into a firestorm of violence. This period culminates in a shocking act of aggression against the United States, which galvanizes and unites the entire nation and is used to foment a patriotic rush among the country’s youth to sign up for military service. Years later, after martial victory is declared, the resultant quagmire of insurgency makes that former zeal seem like a faint memory.
This is the framework of this story. But it is also the latticework around which our own lives are built. This story (encompassing roughly 1880-1910) is remarkable in its relevance to today, with direct corollaries to Iraq, the Occupy/Tea Party movements, illegal immigration, and terrorism. This is the book’s greatest triumph and misstep. This book is the lens through which history acts as a mirror; a mirror that reflects our own struggles back at us, thereby giving us a different perspective on the issues we are still grappling with. But I call it the book’s greatest misstep because this connection to the present is never actually addressed. It is, in fact, ignored.
I’ve long felt that we stand upon a precipice of our own devising; that the choices we make are not inevitable, and our quagmires are avoidable. But our times don’t just reflect the assorted choices of our antecedents, they are the manifestation of the endeavor of human civilization. The twilight of the last century is a mirror to our time, but the ominous portent of what followed these events (two world wars, global economic crisis, genocide, the Cold War) is not the necessary consequence of turmoil. In drawing a direct line between our past and present, we do a disservice both to historical discovery and the analysis of current events, but to ignore the connection means that both enterprises lack wisdom. This is a thoughtful book, and an engaging one, but it is, I feel, ultimately limited.
As part of my on-going quest to understand the US presidency, this book is of some value – the administration of William McKinley is explored, after all – but I think this is better suited to setting the stage for a more thorough study of the man. He served at an important time, and was an important president who is all-too-often overshadowed by his successor. But McKinley is just one player in this story, and most of the book is devote to providing the context for the assassination.
While this was an entertaining read, and well worth the limited time it took to get through it, it didn’t fulfill the needs I had for it. If this is an area of history you seek to know more about, however, this book would be a good place to start.