For More context on the author this is a great video,

David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945

(New York : Oxford University Press, 1999).

The era following the catastrophic stock market crash of 1929 through the end of World War II is one of our most persistent modern American fairy-tales. The fact that most of it is true doesn’t change the near magical quality of the nation’s transformation from record high unemployment and the sociological basement of the dustbowl to the beginning of the halcyon era of American manufacturing dominance. David M. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book is a through and comprehensive volume of focused scholarship on the era between the wars. He does drift into pop history, but there is substantial historiographical development as well.

The most striking feature of this work is Kennedy’s emphasis on the idea of narrative. He embraces the idea that in order to reach the largest number of people a compelling story must be told. He truly succeeds at this goal. Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and Hitler aren’t dusty relics under Dr. Kennedy’s pen, but are towering figures in the epic tale that he has woven. The focus on great men conveys a false sense that Kennedy is a traditionalist historian, but his background, his doctoral thesis was on Margaret Sanger, and his public comments and writing suggests that he is more of a cultural constructionist or integrationist in approach. He merely uses the Great Men, as Hegel called them, to further the cause of Narrative.

The causes of the Crash are fully explored; however, Kennedy carefully avoids laying the blame at any one person or group’s door. Instead he pursues a nuanced view, analyzing, in turn, the conditions of labor and the economic climate of the time. He is quite generous to Hoover and paints a portrait of a highly moral intellectual and a staunch capitalist who is given to deep consideration of issues. It is quite clear to the reader that the hatred that Hoover soon receives is ill-directed as no person or President could have been prepared for the perfect storm of conditions that leads to the Great Depression. Some[1] have criticized the credentials of Kennedy to approach the international causes, but he does a thorough job of relating the issues of the World that contribute to the panic and ensuing depression.

The complex mire of New Deal policies in the wake of the election Franklin Roosevelt is navigated quite skillfully, without becoming excessively bogged down in jargon or analysis of the short-term or long-term impacts of the programs. Kennedy dispels the popular notion, at least in the last few decades that a massive cross-section of the government bureaucracy dates to this time period. While it is true we do have some legacies, he points out the limited longevity of many of these programs and FDR’s awareness of the attitudes of the American public that informed the legislators of the era.

The next few chapters describe, in very detailed and often bleak terms, the impact of the Great Depression on the American people. A great deal of time is spent discussing the interactions of FDR and the Supreme Court as well the President’s battle with Labor organizations. Kennedy again relies on the tools of narrative to tell this story through voice of Lorena Hickok. He also explores the lasting effects of the New Deal and clearly delineates what was established under its aegis.

The second section of the book is given over to a dramatic exposition of the events preceding, during and culminating World War II which is to be expected. He expends far more words on the war than he did on the previous era, which is more than a bit odd considering the scope of time before the war is far larger. It could be said that this is unfairly weighting the importance of the ear era over the years bounded by the Crash and World War II. This is, unfortunately, a function of available primary sources. There’s a relative paucity of sources, from a constructivist perspective, when compared to the sheer preponderance of war-time military history primary sources[2].

Kennedy, using primary sources, superlatively explains how Hitler was able to establish a virtually unchecked powerbase in Germany and how he managed to use rhetoric and political maneuvering to position himself as a challenge the States of Europe. European power clashes in Africa are an uncommon addition to the balance sheet of causes for the Second World War. These additional insights are particularly cogent as to the eternal question of how the Third Reich became such a threat. American isolationist policies are excoriated at length and the effects of such on the attitudes of the nascent Axis powers is crystallized.

The account of the war is focused primarily on dispelling the myth of the just war. This is a prevailing fable in American consciousness that Kennedy exposes for its political sophistry. As with other topics, he does an excellent job of delving into topics which aren’t well-known to the average reader, such as the extensive U-boat campaign conducted in American waters in 1941.

On the whole, it becomes quickly apparent why this work has been so lauded. While it might not be a deeply scholarly as some other books on the period, it makes up for that in so many ways. It is highly accessible and keeps the reader interested in an epoch of history which is very important to the modern American psyche. In many ways, what many Americans would consider essential elements of their culture developed during this time period.  Kennedy captures the import of the period and manages the complexity of historical threads with ease.


[1] (Zelikow 1999)

[2] (Sitkoff 2000)



Sitkoff, Harvard. 2000. “Reviewed Work: Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War; 1929-1945 by David Kennedy.” The American Historical Review 105 (3): 954-955.

Zelikow, Philip. 1999. “Reviewed Work: Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy.” Foreign Affairs 149.

Zelikow, Philip. 1999. “Reviewed Work: Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy.” Foreign Affairs 149.