David Halberstam was one of the most legendary historical writers. In The Reckoning, written at the height of the 1980s auto crunch, he turned his eyes on Ford and Nissan, trying to find what made carmakers on both sides of the Pacific go. Halberstam has a talent for writing. Unfortunately, that very skill makes it uneven.
It does a good job describing formative events like Henry Ford’s family drama and the 1953 labor dispute at Nissan that shaped not only it but the entire Japanese auto industry. It also does well when looking at individual workers caught up in the mess. Although I have to say that it’s very hard to write about the auto industry and not make it interesting. The field is just so inherently complex and full of colorful stories.
So what are the problems? Well, it’s dated for one. This isn’t as bad as it could have been. Yes, it’s a more than a little “JAPAN GOOD”, but certainly not to the excess of some other bubble era publications. After all, this shows the Japanese industry warts and all. It also aptly points out in its study of the South Koreans how the rest of Asia was cracking its knuckles and preparing to charge-which came to pass.
No, the biggest obvious problem is that it’s too “Bruce Springsteen”. Which is to say it has the tone of a wealthy suburbanite who idealizes the blue collar worker’s struggle too much. Its slobberingly positive portrayal of UAW head Walter Reuther is the most obvious part of it, with even sympathetic history works on that man being far more critical and full than Halberstam’s hagiography. This also leads Halberstam to idolize the “Manufacturing Men” over the supposed “bean counters” who nickel and dimed every car to pieces. (Not surprisingly, Robert McNamara in his pre SecDef days is there and scorned).
This leads to the next problem that someone with any kind of interest in the auto industry can see: It’s too centered around the capital-N Narrative of the Good Manufacturing Man being brought down by the Evil White Collar Consultant. The “Manufacturing Men” in both continents could get away with running hog wild simply because their industry was in a boom. Once it busted, they simply had to start penny pinching. After all, the first Japanese car company to close a plant and downsize was… Nissan. All this is combined with something that, for all his research, Halberstam didn’t actually have much familiarity with, and it showed. It’s also catnip for the mostly well-off target audience of the book.
Still, for all its problems this is something I’d definitely recommend.