Modern Times (1): Contrarian Historian

What makes Paul Johnson’s Modern Times so entertaining is that the guy is markedly opinionated. No dry history of the twentieth century this. No boring lists of dates and of names from around the world to memorize. No bland writing here. No indeed. His judgments pop out everywhere in his assessment of many key figures and events from the era. For Johnson, the received historical wisdom on these matters is just so much poppycock. Here’s a sampling:

Herbert Hoover was

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, so it is said, a laissez-faire politician who “refused to use government money to reflate the economy” during his presidency (241). Contrarian Johnson says: “Indeed in all essentials, Hoover’s actions embodied what would later be called a ‘Keynesian’ policy. He cut taxes heavily. . . . He pushed up government spending, deliberately running up a huge government deficit in 1931” (244-45).

Franklin Roosevelt, it is often said, pulled the country out of the Depression with his New Deal policies. The Contrarian says: “This most durable of historical myths has very little truth in it” (241). “Roosevelt’s legislation, for the most part, extended or tinkered with Hoover policies” (255). He spent a lot of money on public works, “but this again was an old Hoover policy on a somewhat larger scale. . . . From the perspective of the 1980s it seems probable that both men impeded a natural recovery brought about by deflation. It was certainly slow and feeble” (256).

Francisco Franco, the ruler of Spain from 1936 to 1975, is seen by many as a great European tyrant of the mid-twentieth century. Contrarian Johnson says he was “one of the most successful public men of the century. His cold heart went with a cool head, great intelligence and formidable reserves of courage and will” (330). He was neither liberal nor totalitarian. “He hated politics in any shape. . . . Conservatives were reactionary. . . . Liberals were corrupt. . . . Socialists were deluded. . . . Franco was never a fascist or had the smallest belief in any kind of Utopia or system. . . . He spent his entire political career seeking to exterminate politics” (331).

Dwight Eisenhower is viewed as a rather detached leader. Contrarian Johnson says he was “the most successful of America’s twentieth-century presidents, and the decade when he ruled (1953-61) the most prosperous in American, and indeed world, history. His presidency was surrounded by mythology, much of which he deliberately contrived himself. He sought to give the impression that he was a mere constitutional monarch, who delegated decisions to his colleagues and indeed to Congress, and who was anxious to spend the maximum amount of time playing golf. . . . The reality was quite different. ‘Complex and devious,’ was the summing-up of his Vice-President, Richard Nixon (no mean judge of such things). . . . Eisenhower worked very much harder than anyone, including close colleagues, supposed” (461). He required Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to report in daily even when abroad, and he sought out foreign policy advice from many sources Dulles knew nothing about.

Dag Hammarskjöld


was the much admired Secretary-General of the United Nations (1953-1961) who died nearly a martyr in a plane crash while conducting his duties. The Contrarian Johnson thought “a worse choice could not have been imagined” for the UN (493). “It was Hammarskjöld’s manifest intention . . . to align the organization with what he regarded as the new emergent force of righteousness in the world: the ‘uncommitted’ nations. . . . Though affecting impartiality, he threw his weight entirely behind the Afro-Asian camp” (494). If he had stayed out of the way during the transition from colonialism to independence in Africa, there would have been fewer deaths all around. For Hammarskjöld, “whereas the killing of Africans by whites (as at Sharpeville in South Africa on 21 March 1960) was of international concern and a threat to peace, the killing of Africans by Africans (or of whites by Africans, or of Asians by Africans or all three races by Africans) was a purely internal matter outside the purview of the UN” (516).

“President Kennedy’s handling of the [Cuban] missile crisis was much praised at the time and for some years thereafter” (626). But the Contrarian says Kennedy actually rewarded Soviet aggression with concessions regarding U.S. missiles in Turkey and continued acceptance of communist rule in Cuba. “On the practical issue of Cuba and Caribbean security, Kennedy lost the missile crisis. It was an American defeat: the worst it had so far suffered in the Cold War” (628).

The Apollo program


to land a man on the moon in 1969 is lauded as a high point in human history. The Contrarian says it “was a project typical of Sixties illusion, with its contempt for finance, its assumption that resources were limitless.” It was “the showbiz era of space-travel” that was more like a sports competition than serious domestic or foreign policy (630).

The Watergate scandal is considered a profound failure of both personal and political morality. But the Contrarian sees it as a “maelstrom of hysteria. . . . America seems peculiarly prone to these spasms of self-righteous political emotion in which all sense of perspective and national interest is lost. The Watergate witch-hunt . . . was run by liberals in the media,” even though the same media had not taken political espionage or theft seriously before, such as when Johnson had bugged Goldwater (649).

Modern Times is an 800-page tour de force that makes substantive comment on the history of nearly a hundred countries. So while one should use care when disagreeing with a polymath like Johnson, it can be done. To suggest that Kennedy should have pressured Khrushchev harder during the Cuban missile crisis when the world was as close as it’s ever been to nuclear holocaust seems imprudent. And Johnson’s objectivity comes into question when he gives his beloved hands-on Ike a pass while criticizing the United States (without reference to Eisenhower) for mishandling events in Cuba that led to Castro’s ascension to power in 1959.

More Modern Times fun to come. Next installment will be some other provocative quotes from a curmudgeonly historian one can only love.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.