Thinking Globally: America’s Rise to Dominance, With Slips Along the Way: FROM COLONY TO SUPERPOWER U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776

Copyright The New York Times
A review of FROM COLONY TO SUPERPOWER U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776
By George C. Herring
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
November 23, 2008
Any book aiming to explore American diplomatic history from the Revolution until now necessarily involves some serious skimming. George C. Herring’s weighty yet fast-paced “From Colony to Superpower” is no exception. At 1,000-plus pages, its first achievement is its feat of inclusiveness, managed by making quick work of many interesting subplots of the United States’ rich and complex relations with the world.
What distinguishes the effort is not so much the sturdy précis that the author serves up on the traditional obligatory highlights in the American story but his narrative abilities. The narrative power lies partly in identifying themes that gradually give a strong organizational cohesion to his story.
Mr. Herring is a professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky who is best known for a history of the Vietnam War. In this latest book his themes are all the more refreshing because many of the ideas he returns to again and again are still largely ignored by our school curriculums and the popular history mills of the book industry.
“From Colony to Superpower” anchors its ideas through accretion. Where it works, it is revisionism of the best kind, quiet but insistent, reinforced by archival evidence and deftly drawn parallels.
The cascade of ideas begins with the rejection of the widely accepted notion that the United States has often been an isolationist power.
Right from the start, Mr. Herring says, the generation of founding fathers was outward looking and consumed by diplomacy. What is more, expansionism, first beyond the original 13 colonies, then into the Caribbean and Pacific and eventually culminating in a political and economic domain spanning the world, has almost always animated American leaders.
Already at the time of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, in 1787, no less than James Madison spoke of “laying the foundation of a great empire.” By 1821 John Quincy Adams was mocking the fast swelling British Empire: “I do not know what you claim nor what you do not claim.” When his British interlocutor replied sarcastically, “Perhaps, a piece of the moon,” Adams issued a blunt warning about North America: “Keep what is yours and leave the rest of the continent to us.”
Less than a decade later President Andrew Jackson had embraced gunboat diplomacy to East Asia and exploration of the South Pole, and spoke of showing the flag “to every portion of the globe, to give to civilized and savage man a just impression of the power we possess.”
Attitudes like this were steadily fed by a fast-growing population, an economy that became the envy of the world and by a creed of American exceptionalism, whose roots could already be discerned in the words of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson drew a sharp distinction between the “high moral purpose” of the United States and the “low motives of power and expediency that drove others.” At the time, Mr. Herring notes, one-fifth of the American population were slaves.
Less conventionally, in terms of the mainstream way history has been taught for generations, Mr. Herring paints a potent picture of the role of race as an important and frequently central motive behind American actions.
This story line begins with the annihilation of American Indians, who conducted lively foreign relations of their own, with the government in Washington, with the European powers and even with the Confederacy until its subjugation.
His story continues with the politics of black bondage, as the young nation pushed west, extending the frontier of slavery and precipitating the Civil War.
The narrative of frank racism, a word Mr. Herring employs frequently, gains momentum in a discussion of Manifest Destiny, which he says had more to do with an ideology of racial superiority than with altruism. The examples, in 19th-century dealings with continental neighbors like Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua, are as painful as they are numerous.
A persistent target was Mexico, which lost huge chunks of its territory to American expansionism. “Americans scorned Mexicans as a mixed breed, even below free blacks and Indians, ‘an imbecile and pusillanimous race,’ ” Mr. Herring writes. He adds a few pages later, “The very racism that drove the United States into Mexico limited its conquests.”
Quoting Andrew Jackson Donelson, the former president’s nephew, Mr. Herring recounts, “We can no more amalgamate with her people than with negroes.” Much later, we learn, the same thinking prevented Puerto Rico from becoming a state.
When he gets to the 20th century, Mr. Herring labors to portray Woodrow Wilson as the figure who “towers above the landscape of modern American foreign policy.” But in Mr. Herring’s telling it is Franklin D. Roosevelt who leaves the biggest impression, despite his frequent criticisms of Roosevelt’s maddening management style.
Wilson and Roosevelt began their presidencies by minimizing foreign policy. Wilson spent six months in Paris pursuing a peaceful new world order. Through cunning and vision, Roosevelt dragged the United States into the next great war and not only emerged victorious but remade the world.
Trends of the past carry steadily forward throughout the book, with idealism, self-regard and seemingly ever-increasing power combining with condescension and arrogance, particularly toward non-Western peoples, causing the United States to underestimate others and overplay its hand, perhaps most notably in Korea and Vietnam.
In historical retrospect the stalemated United States war in Korea clearly heralds the emergence of China as the next big thing, while not long afterward Vietnam, which one of Andrew Jackson’s agents once called home to “the most filthy people in the world,” would become the place where America finally discovered its limits.
Mr. Herring concludes by advising Americans to prepare for their relative decline: “They must cast away centuries-old notions of themselves as God’s chosen people. In today’s world, such pretensions cannot fail to alienate others.”
Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and author of “A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa.”

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