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Wednesday, December 1, 1993

A Reviewer’s Notebook: Refuting Oswald Spengler

Duignan and Gann discuss post-war recovery and the special role of the U.S. in creating an Atlantic Community.

Is there an excuse for a volume the length of The Rebirth of the West (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991, 736 pages, $69.95)? The answer, rather obviously, is that the book might have been published as six or seven volumes. Peter Duignan and L. H. Gann have each done many important studies for the Hoover Institution in California. Duignan has edited more than thirty volumes dealing with the Middle East, Africa, and Hispanics in America, and Gann has been right behind him.

The authors have a two-part theme; the general post-war recovery, and the special role of the U.S. in creating an Atlantic Community from 1945-58. Together, they have mastered the art of interesting and relevant quotations in a way that would have pleased the late Leonard Read. They quote the British historian Macaulay:

It is not by the intermeddling . . . of the omniscient and omnipotent State, but by the prudence and energy of the people, that England has hitherto been carried forward in civilisation; and it is to the same prudence and the same energy that we now look with comfort and good hope. Our rulers will best promote the improvement of the nation by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties, by leaving capital to find its most lucrative course, commodities their fair price, industry and intelligence their natural reward, idleness and folly their natural punishment, by maintaining peace, by defending property, by diminishing the price of law, and by observing strict economy in every department of the state. Let the government do this: the People will assuredly do the rest.

Macaulay wrote these lines in 1830. They do not check with much that has happened since, especially after World War II. By the mid-1950s, the state in Western Europe controlled all postal communications, telephone services, nearly all radio and television stations, as well as large segments of the mining and steel industries. The state accounted for 100 percent of the coal mining in Britain and Italy, 98 percent in France, 60 percent in Holland, and 26 percent in West Germany, an anomaly.

The state patronized the arts, even to the point of sanctioning pornography. It licensed street walkers. In the name of Keynesianism it has indulged in all manner of national planning. The Marshall Plan was fundamentally a subsidy affair, deemed necessary to bring city and country together. European peasants had not seen fit to bring their food to city markets that had little to offer in exchange.

If most people took what the state offered without quibbling, there were the important exceptions. Adenauer in West Germany looked with favor on the idea of a free market. Ludwig Ehrhard, minister of Adenauer’s Rhineland economy, abolished price controls, ended rationing, and reduced onerous regulations.

In spite of all travails, the post-World War II years impressed Duignan and Gann as “marvelous”—thirty golden years of achievement “anticipated by few.”

This brings Duignan and Gann back to Macaulay: “Had he returned to survey the post war scene in the West he would have felt vindicated in his optimism.”

In “overview entries,” Duignan and Gann summarize such topics as education (both elementary and secondary), the Berlin blockade, the decolonization schemes for Africa and Western Asia. There are chapters on the progress of the Cold War, with résumés of what was said and done at Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam. The Marshall Plan gets more than its share of attention. The literature of the U.S., Britain, and Western Europe, and the radio, television, and music are all related to the global scene.

“Our task,” say the authors, has been to fashion a synthesis based on “the best scholarship.” Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West has been refuted, at least for the thirteen years covered.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.