Bruce Cumings has written a remarkable story of the USA from a remarkable
angle: the fundamental importance of California in shaping the destiny of
the nation. The traditional focus of histories of the USA is on the Atlantic
Coast because that's where the USA was born and Europe is the place from which
its culture originated. But Cumings shows that what is unique about the USA is
to be both an Atlantic and a Pacific power, something that no other nation
has ever been (not even the British Empire).
The book begins from the time when California was sparsely populated and belonged to Spain (then to Mexico). Its original industry was... fur trapping. It all changed with the discovery of gold in 1848 and with the occupation of California by the USA also in 1848. Those two almost contemporary events made California part of the USA (instead of Mexico) and created the first impulse for the immigration of thousands of pioneers. At the same time they created something unique, a multi-ethnic mix that bypassed the rural stage and plunged directly into the urban stage of civilization. Meanwhile, the USA was heading towards an imperial policy of its own, constantly expanding towards Asia via both treaties and wars. Gold, oil, agriculture and cinema created their own booms, but it was World War II that revolutionized California: it turned it into an industrial powerhouse and integrated it with the national industrial complex. Soon California became the most populous state, and Los Angeles the second largest city.
Some chapters are so good that one feels to give the writer a standing ovation. I have read many accounts of the coming of the railroads to the Far West, but rarely felt so immersed in the story as in the six pages that begin with "The Big Four". The story of the aerospace industry in Los Angeles is no less fascinating when told with so many details and side stories, all wrapped up in a larger narrative of the country at war. Having co-authored the thickest history of Silicon Valley ever written, i am jealous of the way Cumings summarized it the last chapter.
Cumings dots the narrative with an incredible amount of data that must have required decades of research.
A few mistakes. Page 21: Gary Works opened in 1906, not 1903. Page 37: The Gogebic Range lies in Michigan and Wisconsin, not Minnesota. Page 199 "By 1880 one-third of all farm laborers were Chinese": where? In the whole USA? In California? In Central Valley only? Page 269: "as early as 1905, L.A. had more cars than any other big city" (allowed me to doubt that in 1905 the relatively small city of L.A. had more cars than the much bigger cities of the East Coast and of Europe, for example New York that had about 35 times more people). Some data don't quite check (the number of tv sets wasn't quite 11 million in 1950) but they hardly influence the narrative.
The conclusions are somewhat disappointing because Cumings, an expert in Asian studies, limited this book to the USA. The parallel development of the new Asian states would greatly increase the impact of his thesis.
What bogs down the narrative is the decision to use the ancient imperial measurement system. Page after page we are treated to sentences such as "the Atlantic is 41 million square miles" (miles?), "Mt Whitney at 14,495 feet" (feet?), "weighing just under 200 pounds" (pounds?), "43,000 ounces of gold" (ounces?), "holds 1,636,018,000 gallons of water" (gallons?), "three-figure temperatures" (he's obviously using the ancient Farenheit system because the highest temperature ever recorded by humans was 56.7 centigrade degrees in Death Valley in 1913), etc. It sounds hopelessly outdated. It feels like the publisher decided that this book had to target a very narrow audience: the illiterates who still exist in the USA (hopefully a tiny percentage of its population, which is 5% of the world's population anyway). All those miles, pounds and gallons (while amusingly old-fashioned) repeatedly spoil the magic of Cumings' erudite and witty story.