American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization / Edition 1

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Overview


An American Empire, constructed over the last century, long ago overtook European colonialism, and it has been widely assumed that the new globalism it espoused took us "beyond geography." Neil Smith debunks that assumption, offering an incisive argument that American globalism had a distinct geography and was pieced together as part of a powerful geographical vision. The power of geography did not die with the twilight of European colonialism, but it did change fundamentally. That the inauguration of the American Century brought a loss of public geographical sensibility in the United States was itself a political symptom of the emerging empire. This book provides a vital geographical-historical context for understanding the power and limits of contemporary globalization, which can now be seen as representing the third of three distinct historical moments of U.S. global ambition.

The story unfolds through a decisive account of the career of Isaiah Bowman (1878–1950), the most famous American geographer of the twentieth century. For nearly four decades Bowman operated around the vortex of state power, working to bring an American order to the global landscape. An explorer on the famous Machu Picchu expedition of 1911 who came to be known first as "Woodrow Wilson’s geographer," and later as Frankin D. Roosevelt’s, Bowman was present at the creation of U.S. liberal foreign policy.

A quarter-century later, Bowman was at the center of Roosevelt’s State Department, concerned with the disposition of Germany and heightened U.S. access to European colonies; he was described by Dean Acheson as a key "architect of the United Nations." In that period he was a leader in American science, served as president of Johns Hopkins University, and became an early and vociferous cold warrior. A complicated, contradictory, and at times controversial figure who was very much in the public eye, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Bowman’s career as a geographer in an era when the value of geography was deeply questioned provides a unique window into the contradictory uses of geographical knowledge in the construction of the American Empire. Smith’s historical excavation reveals, in broad strokes yet with lively detail, that today's American-inspired globalization springs not from the 1980s but from two earlier moments in 1919 and 1945, both of which ended in failure. By recharting the geography of this history, Smith brings the politics—and the limits—of contemporary globalization sharply into focus.

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Editorial Reviews

Christian Parenti
In American Empire we get... a richly detailed, very empirical political biography.... Smith’s detailed and well-crafted book is simultaneously the story of Bowman, the story of geography as a discipline, and the story of American imperial thinking from World War I to the onset of the Cold War.
In These Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520243385
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 10/29/2004
  • Series: California Studies in Critical Human Geography Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 586
  • Sales rank: 578,959
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author


Neil Smith is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography and Director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His recent books include Uneven Development (1990) and New Urban Frontier (1996).
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Read an Excerpt

American Empire

Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization
By Neil Smith

University of California

Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-23027-2


Chapter One

Frustrated Globalism, Compromise Geographies: Designing the United Nations

With war drawing to a close, attention in the U.S. State Department increasingly turned toward the design of the United Nations, the jewel in the crown of the postwar American Lebensraum and the fulcrum on which the second moment of the American Century balanced. Disabling Germany and shaking loose the colonies for U.S. trade inevitably involved compromise with the larger goal of immunizing the global economy from local, geographically rooted squabbles; territorial considerations were a necessary evil if geography was to be taken out of the postwar political equation. It was otherwise with the United Nations. As Roosevelt and the State Department contemplated its design, they could give full vent to their ambition for a global organization devoted to securing a "permanent peace." They knew they had a second chance at Woodrow Wilson's "global Monroe Doctrine" and a more realistic version of the League of Nations, and they were determined to avoid Wilson's mistakes.

This is not at all to say that the UN was designed out of pure altruism. Hastened on the one hand by war and by the fear that the 1930s depression would return after the war, when no longer staved off by military mobilization, and on the other hand by a recognition of the expanded scale of economic production and the proliferation of U.S. multinational interests, Roosevelt in the early 1940s voiced the ambition of global power more clearly than any U.S. president ever had. This vision only became sharper as the war continued and the unprecedented scale of U.S. postwar political and economic power came into view. Therefore, although Roosevelt and the State Department sometimes disagreed on the details, they clearly understood the United Nations' role as a pivotal institution for postwar U.S. globalism. High-sounding rhetoric about global peace simultaneously conveyed a more self-interested ambition for global political and military stability so that economic growth could continue unhampered. The UN was to be the organization that successfully absorbed and displaced local territorial and political conflicts, decoupled them from the free operation of a world market in which the United States inevitably dominated. Unlike any of its predecessors, the American Empire was to be market based.

That Secretary of State Dean Acheson should have exalted Bowman as one of the "architects of the United Nations" has a certain irony-not because the praise was unworthy, but because as Bowman's own amalgam of nationalism and conservatism grew more brittle after 1944, he remained thoroughly committed to building an institution that became a lightning rod for reactionary American nationalists. While he barked at the New Deal for attracting "the lunatic fringe of social progress," pilloried the U.S. government as the major threat to freedom in domestic social affairs, and excoriated any whiff of federal intrusion into free enterprise science, he remained an internationalist and devoted his deepest political hopes and energies to the establishment of the UN, which, to many Americans in this period, was akin to world government, the emasculation of the nation, the ultimate political evil.

It is tempting to see Bowman's unswerving commitment to the UN as simply the residue of a lost liberalism, the remnants of a Wilsonianism otherwise cuckolded by the fervent conservative nationalism unleashed toward war's end. But that misreads Bowman and Wilson both, insofar as Bowman, like many aging Wilsonians, easily donned much of the same conservative nationalism. It was a nationalism that in no way denied his internationalism but lay coiled within it. Thus the story of the UN's origins is generally told as a distillation, liberally or conservatively inflected, of just such political dichotomies-nationalism versus internationalism, liberalism versus conservatism, idealism versus pragmatism-slipping toward cold war conflict. This orthodoxy already expresses a distinctly American postgeographic ambition, whereas if the origins of the UN are reread through the lenses of a contested global geography, a very different vision emerges.

The central dilemma faced by U.S. postwar planners was how to design a global organization that followed broadly democratic principles and recognized certain universal rights, regardless of geography, while ensuring as best they could that this organization would work for their own nationally defined interests. To be sure, the same dilemma was faced by all other national governments, but insofar as the United Nations was designed first and foremost within the State Department, the question of U.S. power is paramount. In the end, the abstraction from geography proved unsustainable, and the contradiction between universality (a world beyond geography) and particularity could be resolved or at least rationalized only by a resort to partisan political geographies. Far from escaping geography, the UN became its prisoner. The geographies built into the structure of the postwar United Nations are alive and multidimensional, mutable and partial, and the story of these constitutive geographies provides a sharp etching of the central contradictions not so much of globalism per se but of twentieth-century U.S. globalism in particular, as it evolved from Wilson to Roosevelt and beyond. It is not that particularism won out over universalism, nationalism over internationalism, but rather that a nationally specific and quite prejudicial internationalism defined the core of what the UN became. In the United Nations the second moment of American globalism came face to face with its own contradictions.

"The Unhappy Past": Beyond Geography?

The postgeographic ambition of Roosevelt's new world order embodied in the UN did not spring onto the global diplomatic stage full grown. As late as August 1941, Roosevelt was reticent even in private about anything smacking of a revived League of Nations, arguing to Churchill that such an organization would be futile and that the United States and the United Kingdom would simply have to run the world themselves. He rebuffed more ambitious appeals from his advisers and eliminated from the Atlantic Charter the original British call for an "effective international organization" in favor of weaker, noncommittal language. Still, it was Roosevelt at the end of 1941 who coined the name "United Nations" in the final edit of the United Nations Declaration, although at this point the label referred not to an organization but to the "associated powers" opposing Germany, Japan, and their allies.

But his aspirations evolved quickly. Many in the State Department assumed by 1942 that international administration would comprise some kind of regional power-sharing arrangements, and FDR's early notion of the Four Policemen-the United States, Britain, the USSR, and China-was at first conceived in regional terms. Each of the four powers would have primary responsibility for peace and security in its own ward. No exact continental and intercontinental divisions among the Four Policemen were ever enunciated, however, and by the time a more precise political cartography would have been necessary, Roosevelt had something more ambitious in mind. By 1943 regional security divisions among the Four Policemen were subordinated to a more global organization. Secretary of State Cordell Hull's triumph in Moscow in October of that year was principally that he convinced the British and Soviet leaders to sign on to such an overarching world organization, however vaguely its structure and functions were yet conceived. There "will no longer be need for spheres of influence, for alliances, for balance of power, or any other of the special arrangements through which, in the unhappy past, the nations strove to safeguard their security or to promote their interests," Hull enthused.

There could hardly be a clearer statement of the way in which the UN, as the administrative and political centerpiece of the American Lebensraum, was intended to spirit international diplomacy beyond national differences, beyond geography. Glimpsed here is not simply an internationalism but a globalism in which the significance of geographical boundaries and territorial sovereignty exclusions are circumscribed by a world organization. The intent was nothing less than the unhitching of specific geographical claims and territorial struggles from the central dynamics of the global economic intercourse. The UN would mediate geographically rooted struggles, conflicts, and skirmishes while global commerce proceeded apace. If this reactive vision stopped short of Wendell Willkie's "world government," it nonetheless articulated the implicit claim that geography-more accurately, political, cultural, and economic differences written into world geography-had been the major impediment in the past to global peace and prosperity, the cause of Hull's "unhappy past." "America's rise to globalism" was ipso facto an escape from geography.

This was a quintessentially American panorama of global prospects. British and Soviet postwar aspirations pointed toward very different kinds of international organization, rooted in more geographical calculations. Britain had been an enthusiastic member of the failed League of Nations and remained dedicated to some kind of international security organization, but the country's keenest interest lay in the defense of a widespread empire and a peaceful Europe, and the expansiveness of U.S. ambitions for such an organization was deeply threatening. As Roosevelt's vision evolved away from a regional toward a global structure, Churchill conceded as little as possible, preferring the establishment of several continent-scale regional bodies. Despite the anticommunist paranoia harbored by Churchill and many U.S. conservatives, Stalin's postwar territorial ambitions were more regionally constrained than those of either of the other leaders. His 1920s slogan, "socialism in one country," more accurately described Soviet aspirations in the early 1940s than any lingering rhetoric about world communism. Surrounded by capitalist nations, many sustaining an economic embargo, and with Hitler's army having encroached to within artillery range of Moscow, Soviet interests were sharply focused on securing their postwar borders, and this strongly disposed Stalin toward a regional structure for global security. Stalin's ambivalence about a world organization therefore sprang from several sources in addition to his geographical disinterest in many parts of the world. He sensed the utility of such an organization for American expansionism, understood that capitalist rules of global economic intercourse would surely govern, and saw that the Soviet Union as the only "socialist" state could easily constitute a permanent minority of one. Yet at the same time, with the USSR having sustained by far the worst losses of the war and with the German military in full retreat by 1943, he could expect a prominent place in any such world organization.

The United Nations Charter was hatched in the wartime State Department. Serious deliberations commenced in 1942, but it remained a secondary concern until the Moscow summit. By 1944, anticipation of some kind of postwar world organization whipped the American public into a Woodrow Wilson revival, resulting in loud calls for a new and better League of Nations and the demand that the peace not be botched this time. For some, that meant not repeating the league experiment at all, while for others it meant a far more replete globalism than even Wilson had envisaged. Still others warned against such pie in the sky, insisting that only naked force after the war would ensure peace. A near moribund Woodrow Wilson Foundation sprang back to life. By August 1944, on the eve of the four-power Dumbarton Oaks conference on postwar arrangements, the United Nations Organization became the central public concern except for the progress of war itself. It was the issue on which Roosevelt campaigned for a fourth term that November, and the Yalta negotiations three months later sharpened expectations for the climactic "United Nations Conference" in San Francisco in April 1945.

Roosevelt's ambition for a globalism unhinged from specific geographical interests was as heady as it was optimistic, but squabbles over the founding of the United Nations from 1942 to 1945 seriously circumscribed that ambition. It is often held that power politics and the slide toward "spheres of influence" dashed the American idealism of a world organization. The trivial, binary geographies of cold war ideology were for nearly a half century premised on precisely this originary myth. "The Western statesmen failed ... to face up to the ruthlessness of the emerging postwar Soviet might," insists Zbigniew Brzezinski, "and in the ensuing clash between Stalinist power and Western naïvete, power prevailed." If the clarity of this diagnosis is enhanced by temporal distance from the events of the day, it nonetheless reflects a conservative pattern of response to Roosevelt after 1944. Bowman himself advanced the naïveté thesis: FDR's profoundest blunder, he came to believe, lay in "saying 'nice kitty' to Stalin" in the erroneous belief that he could charm and flatter "Uncle Joe" into compliance with American aims.

But this innocence narrative concerning the postwar United States and the portrayal of the USSR as global predator is unconvincing in several respects. First, the political contest was not railroaded into a one-dimensional struggle between Stalin and a combined "West" until at least after 1945, much as naïveté theorists believe it perhaps ought to have been. Second, Roosevelt understood Churchill's defense of empire as an equal if not greater threat to U.S. globalism than the USSR, and the British prime minister was not above siding with Stalin on territorial questions if it restricted U.S. expansionism. Likewise, third, even after the 1945 UN conference, Stalin may have been "the least inclined ... to insist on the partition of Europe." More important, this conservative shibboleth takes the liberal postgeographic rhetoric at face value, and in accepting Roosevelt's global ambition as legitimate is blind to its constitutive geography.

The evolution of a global vision in postwar planning after 1942 grew out of a resilient regionalism in U.S. foreign policy that can be traced back to the Monroe Doctrine and to isolationist ideologies of the 1920s and 1930s. Postwar regional and global visions were not inherently opposed at first but rather evolved in symbiotic connection. Roosevelt, Bowman, and others happily embraced a combination of regional and global ambitions.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from American Empire by Neil Smith Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Maps
Prologue
Acknowledgments
1 The Lost Geography of the American Century 1
Pt. 1 From Exploration to Enterprise: Geography on the Cusp of Empire
2 1898 and the Making of a Practical Man 31
3 "Conditional Conquest": Geography, Labor, and Exploration in South America 53
4 The Search for Geographical Order: The American Geographical Society 83
Pt. II The Rise of Foreign Policy Liberalism: The Great War and the New World
5 The Inquiry: Geography and a "Scientific Peace" 113
6 A Last Hurrah for Old World Geographies: Fixing Space at the Paris Peace Conference 139
7 "Revolutionarily Yours": The New World, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Making of Liberal Foreign Policy 181
Pt. III The Empire at Home: Science and Politics
8 "The Geography of Internal Affairs": Pioneer Settlement as National Economic Development 211
9 The Kantian University: Science and Nation Building at Johns Hopkins 235
Pt. IV The American Lebensraum
10 Geopolitics: The Reassertion of Old World Geographies 273
11 Silence and Refusal: Refugees, Race, and Economic Development 293
12 Settling Affairs with the Old World: Dismembering Germany? 317
13 Toward Development: Shaking Loose the Colonies 347
14 Frustrated Globalism, Compromise Geographies: Designing the United Nations 374
Pt. V The Bitter End
15 Defeat from the Jaws of Victory 419
16 Geographical Solicitude, Vital Anomaly 454
Collections Consulted 463
Notes 465
Index 539
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