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From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776

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The Oxford History of the United States is the most respected multi-volume history of our nation in print. The series includes three Pulitzer Prize-winners, a New York Times bestseller, and winners of prestigious Bancroft and Parkman Prizes. From Colony to Superpower is the only thematic volume commissioned for the series. Here George C. Herring uses foreign relations as the lens through which to tell the story of America's dramatic rise from thirteen disparate colonies huddled along the Atlantic coast to the world's greatest superpower.
A sweeping account of United States' foreign relations and diplomacy, this magisterial volume documents America's interaction with other peoples and nations of the world. Herring tells a story of stunning successes and sometimes tragic failures, captured in a fast-paced narrative that illuminates the central importance of foreign relations to the existence and survival of the nation, and highlights its ongoing impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. He shows how policymakers defined American interests broadly to include territorial expansion, access to growing markets, and the spread of an "American way" of life. And Herring does all this in a story rich in human drama and filled with epic events. Statesmen such as Benjamin Franklin and Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman and Dean Acheson played key roles in America's rise to world power. But America's expansion as a nation also owes much to the adventurers and explorers, the sea captains, merchants and captains of industry, the missionaries and diplomats, who discovered or charted new lands, developed new avenues of commerce, and established and defended the nation's interests in foreign lands.
From the American Revolution to the fifty-year struggle with communism and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, From Colony to Superpower tells the dramatic story of America's emergence as superpower--its birth in revolution, its troubled present, and its uncertain future.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The strength of this book is the author's Herculean power of synthesis...Herring recaptures a quarter-millennium of American foreign policy with fluidity and felicity...we have long been waiting for a single-volume history like this one, and "From Colony to Superpower" deserves a place on the bookshelf."--New York Times Book Review

"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...The narrative power lies partly in identifying themes that gradually give a strong organizational cohesion to his story...It is revisionism of the best kind, quiet but insistent, reinforced by archival evidence and deftly drawn parallels."--Howard W. French, The New York Times

"An impressive, up-to-date diplomatic history of the US that masterfully employs traditional, revisionnist, and in many instances synthetic interpretations in a story line from Colonial America to the second Bush administration.... This will be an award-winning book that becomes the standard text for US diplomatic history. A superb accomplishment. Essential."--C.W. Haury, CHOICE

"The only volume in the series that spans the entirety of the American past, From Colony to Superpower could not be more timely, more colorful, or more compelling for Americans seeking to understand the causes and the consequences of the quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq. Herring is well equipped to provide that analysis."--The Chronicle of Higher Education

"A sweeping and lucid history...This authoritative work is destined to grace the bookshelves not only of scholars, but also of nonspecialists who want to understand how the US has engaged the world from the American Revolution to the administration of George W. Bush."--Christian Science Monitor

"A model of clarity."--Dallas Morning News

"This latest entry in the outstanding Oxford History of the United States is continually engrossing in its overview of American diplomacy... Herring's lucid prose and thought-provoking arguments give this large tome a pace that never flags."--Publishers Weekly starred review

"The only themed volume so far in the 'Oxford History of the United States' series, this work portrays the history of the world's foremost republic through the prism of its international interactions. Striking is the emergence, through Herring's clear and compelling storytelling, of certain themes in the way the United States has conducted and still conducts itself among nations...Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries."--Library Journal

"A magisterial look at 232 years of diplomacy."--Reviews in American History

"Magisterial."--National Interest

"A mammoth volume that tracks the vagaries of American foreign policy over more than two centuries. It is encyclopedic in its reach, but remains a pleasurable read. Herring's goal is more to explain than judge, and he performs the former with admirable skill."--Global Research

"George Herring's colossal history of US foreign relations has earned fully-deserved praise for its staggering erudition, lucid prose and brisk style."--The National

"Impeccably written and deeply researched."--The Veteran: The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America

"Riveting."--The Post and Courier

"The purpose of this ambitious and massive work is to track and explain how 13 separate, vulnerable British colonies evolved to carve out a position of dominance in world affairs. This is the latest volume in the Oxford History of the United States series...Herring effectively dismisses the myth of American isolationism. Even before our Revolution, Americans had strong economic ties with several European powers, and our diplomatic efforts were essential in facilitating the westward movement. Herring also deftly deals with the often-conflicting strains of idealism and pragmatism that have motivated our policy makers. Patient and well-informed general readers will find this well worth the effort."--Booklist

"In this splendidly detailed account, George Herring expertly guides us through the rich and fascinating story of America's foreign relations. This is history on a grand scale, clearly and elegantly rendered. Anyone who wants to understand how the United States has come to occupy its current place on the world stage should read this magisterial book."--Fredrik Logevall, co-author of A People and a Nation

"Readers of his work knew that George Herring's review of U.S. foreign policy would be scrupulously fair-minded but may not have anticipated so broad a sweep and so deeply felt an analysis. In swift and highly readable prose, Professor Herring explains us unforgettably to ourselves."--A. J. Langguth, author of Our Vietnam

"Authored by a distinguished historian of American foreign policy, this is a landmark work in its scope, clarity of writing, depth of research, and significant interpretations of, among others, the 'myth' of historic American isolationism, the revealing relationships between how Americans behave at home and how they behave abroad, a most bittersweet Cold War, and the centuries-long dependence of Americans on beliefs in their supposed exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. It offers a most rewarding lesson about how the history of U.S. foreign policy is to be examined, if not always, given the policy's often tragic results, praised."--Walter LaFeber, Cornell University

"George Herring's well-paced, readable, and up-to-date history of U.S. foreign relations will be the authoritative account for this generation."--Emily S. Rosenberg, University of California, Irvine

Josef Joffe
The strength of this book is the author's Herculean power of synthesis. Ours is the age of merciless specialization—no grand prizes for grand sweeps. Yet Herring recaptures a quarter-millennium of American foreign policy with fluidity and felicity.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

This latest entry in the outstanding Oxford History of the United States is continually engrossing in its overview of American diplomacy. Herring (America's Longest War), an authority on the history of American foreign policy, emphasizes that George Washington's 1796 farewell was not a call for isolationism but simply a warning to be careful in forming alliances; America was already enmeshed in the bitter war between Britain and France. Herring details how aggressively U.S. diplomats and soldiers pressured Spain, Mexico and Britain to yield territory as the nation expanded. The passion for spreading American ideals reached its first peak after WWI with Woodrow Wilson, whose principles the author admires though many, such as national self-determination, have proved disastrous. Entering the 21st century, the U.S. was at its peak as the world's sole superpower. Herring take his narrative up through 9/11, the rise of the renewed passion, led by neoconservatives, to spread democracy and the war in Iraq, whose only winner, Herring says, is Iran. Herring's lucid prose and thought-provoking arguments give this large tome a pace that never flags. 51 b&w illus. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Herring (history, emeritus, Univ. of Kentucky; America's Longest War) has created a verbal monument to the place of the United States in the world. The only themed volume so far in the "Oxford History of the United States" series, this work portrays the history of the world's foremost republic through the prism of its international interactions. Striking is the emergence, through Herring's clear and compelling storytelling, of certain themes in the way the United States has conducted and still conducts itself among nations. Through Herring's methodical presentation of the facts we see a nation alternately petty and grasping, magnanimous and generous, a nation propelled to greatness by equal amounts of arrogance, racism, and greed but most of all by a genuine desire to make of the world something better. The author's quick character sketches of the actors who move this narrative forward bring life to a subject that could, in less skilled hands, easily induce tedium. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries.
—Michael F. Russo

The Barnes & Noble Review
For anyone pursuing a fuller knowledge of the course of U.S. foreign relations, George Herring's From Colony to Superpower is a treasure. Highly regarded for his writings on 20th-century U.S. foreign relations (especially on Vietnam, in America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975), he has in this 1,000-page volume engaged North American foreign relations from the War of Independence to the present. The work is part of the prestigious Oxford History of the United States series (three of the first six volumes have received Pulitzer Prizes), and this new entry proves an engaging narrative that nevertheless offers readers the benefit of the author's valuable analysis and interpretation of the many historical phases surveyed.

The result truly deserves to be called a monumental study. Herring draws upon hundreds of memoirs, collections of letters and documents, monographs, analytical works, surveys, and interpretive books and articles, synthesizing his research into a narrative rich in detail and sprinkled with scores of character vignettes. The personality sketches include a variety of figures who loom large in the history of U.S. foreign relations -- the cast includes Townsend Harris, James G. Blaine, Henry Stimson, Herbert Hoover, Paul Nitze, Syngman Rhee, Dean Acheson, and George F. Kennan among numerous others. And Herring touches on American relations with all the regions of the world, drawing in nearly everything and everybody relevant, from the Model Treaty of 1776 to the Surge in Iraq. Perhaps the only areas excluded are the North and South Poles (where there have been significant international disputes in the 20th century), but everything in between is illuminated. This comprehensive survey of U.S. foreign policy is enhanced through 30 maps and 32 pages of artwork, cartoons, and photographs that were well chosen to complement the text and story.

From Colony to Superpower follows the path of an American populace (and its government) that over time and regardless of social and cultural background remains convinced that the inhabitants of North America are a chosen people (blissfully ignoring its own doggedly persistent racism and arrogance). Too often, as Herring notes, U.S. officials, including many presidents, were racist, anti-Semitic, and held disparaging views of common people. Over the past two centuries, American self-proclaimed exceptionalism and the conclusions drawn from this assumption have made the country's journey through the world costly in numerous ways for U.S. society.

Herring begins with a look at how George Washington's administration laid the groundwork for U.S. foreign relations upon the bedrock (or shifting sands) of this idea of exceptionalism. Herring puts this at the head of a brief and enlightening list of fundamental assumptions that went on to guide North Americans in their international mode: America is "a city upon a hill," a signal or example; the country pursues a providential mission to do good; Americans possess a self-described "chosen" status, which is used to justify ignorance or arrogance at times; they are self-confident of their racial and cultural superiority (which also encourages similar shortcomings); they tend to act with an ideological fervor tied to a messianic streak; and they have reservations about what Thomas Jefferson valued as "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind" -- a habit of mind that clashed with the self-conception of a nation anointed by God to lead all others. On top of all of these attitudes, Herring notes that North Americans have frequently confused isolationism with unilateralism.

As these ideas about America's destiny play out over the years, the search by statesmen for a workable intellectual framework to shape interaction with other nations often made manifest a basic point of conflict. While both U.S. politicians and ordinary citizens would repeatedly invoke the national commitment to ideals of democracy, liberty, freedom, and self-government in American relations with other peoples and governments, policymakers commonly cite the national interests of security, economic well-being, and self-interest when implementing policies or pursuing goals.

One contradiction in the text is worth noting: when Herring labels the post–World War II period as the advent of the age of American globalism, he ignores his own description of the close ties between North Americans and the rest of the world that had been in place since the nation's founding. To the extent he means a transformed U.S. diplomatic and security role, he is on point. From Colony to Superpower, however, underscores in its earlier chapters various road markers of an aggressive, active global player from 1776 to the present day. The U.S. colonial economy was part of the political economy of the British Empire and culture for two centuries. The colonists, as Herring spells out, were already active participants in global affairs when they declared their independence in 1776. After independence, the colonies drew upon European settlers, capital, technology, and commercial interchange for their well-being and internal growth.

One other issue: the first half of From Colony to Superpower treats the initial 165 years of North American foreign relations, and the second half treats the subsequent 66 years. Such imbalanced treatment is common in large historical surveys, yet I cannot escape a suspicion that an inverse proportion would have made better sense. Probably many readers need only a bit of interpretation, evaluation, and an ordering concerning recent events with which many are already familiar. Conversely, most of us need more help understanding the issues and personalities central to more remote periods. That said, Herring has devoted space to so many vital events that no one area is badly shortchanged.

It should be noted that this isn't all lofty analysis but is often quite entertaining. Herring introduces the reader to the key quotations and aphorisms of U.S. history and foreign relations-from the aforementioned "city upon a hill" to "Mission Accomplished," but he also offers many lesser-known ones. Perhaps my favorite was an unnamed critic who observed that ?the only difference between Stalin and Hitler...was the size of their respective mustaches.? Another was the wit who suggested that Theodore Roosevelt should retitle his writings on the Spanish-American War "Alone in Cuba." Or, the cynical, anticolonial Mark Twain, who, after a world tour, declared: "No land is occupied that is not stolen."

On occasion, Herring offers a variation of this thought: "U.S. officials fervently believed that the Wilsonian principles of self-determination of peoples and an open world economy were essential for peace and prosperity." Yet his frequently deployed examples of U.S. leaders choosing order, stability, predictability rather than popularly elected governments or free, democratic institutions suggest another direction. A more direct analysis of this quandary would help the reader sort out the matter. He could simultaneously explain the U.S. use of overt or covert measures -- in Central America, Cuba, the Philippines, Haiti, and Santo Domingo in the early 20th century, and Guatemala, Iran, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Santo Domingo, Vietnam, and other places later in the century -- to undermine popular or nationalistic movements perceived as being unsympathetic to U.S. interests.

Herring's concluding paragraphs succinctly outline the major flaws in U.S. foreign policy, many going back to the late 18th century. The American people, in Herring's prognosis, must recognize they are not God's chosen people, that they and their government are not "uniquely innocent and virtuous." The U.S. government on its road to great power status "has often violated its own principles and inflicted harm on other people." He sees a country that needs to recognize the global nature of many problems and the necessity of multilateral solutions of them. Above all, he warns, the nation must recognize the limits of its power; it cannot rid the world of evil nor permanently impose its will on other peoples.

Indeed, the United States must lead by example, as John Winthrop proposed 370 years ago when he first gave us the image of "the city upon a hill." That city upon a hill -- Boston -- was actually a harbor and a trading center to the world. From this perspective, Boston is a symbol of the core of U.S. foreign relations, a beacon of both idealism and materialism.

George Herring's presentation is balanced and fair, perhaps to a fault. All points of view have their day, although at times it is not clear how he is evaluating the alternative views. But as From Colony to Superpower tours the people, ideas, policies, and places that have made U.S. foreign relations such a rich subject of study, the resulting journey is informative, entertaining, and enlightening. --Thomas Schoonover

Thomas Schoonover is SLEMCO/BoRSF Professor of the Liberal Arts in the Department of History at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is the author of The United States in Central America, 1860-1911 and the co-author of The Banana Men: American Mercenaries and Entrepreneurs in Central America, 1880-1930, among many other titles.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195078220
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 10/28/2008
  • Series: Oxford History of the United States Series
  • Pages: 1056
  • Sales rank: 675,926
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 2.50 (d)

Meet the Author

George C. Herring is Alumni Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Kentucky. A leading authority on U.S. foreign relations, he is the former editor of Diplomatic History and a past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. He is the author of America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, among other books.

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Table of Contents

1. "To Begin the World Over Again": Foreign Policy and the Birth of the Republic, 1776-1778
2. "None Who Can Make Us Afraid": The New Republic in a Hostile World, 1789-1801
3. "Purified as by Fire": Republicanism Challenged and Reaffirmed, 1801-1815
4. "Leave the Rest to Us": The Assertive Republic, 1815-1837
5. "A Dose of Arsenic": Slavery, Expansionism, and the Road to Disunion, 1837-1861
6. "Last Best Hope": The Union, the Confederacy, and Civil War Diplomacy, 1861-1877
7. "A Good Enough England": Foreign Relations in the Gilded Age, 1877-1893
8. The War of1898 and the Dawn of the American Century, 1893-1901
9. "Bursting with Good Intentions": The United States in World Affairs, 1901-1913
10. "A New Age": Wilson, the Great War, and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1913-1921
11. Involvement Without Commitment, 1921-1931
12. The Great Transformation: Depression, Isolationism, and War, 1931-1941
13. "Five Continents and Seven Seas": World War II and the Emergence of American Globalism, 1941-1945
14. "A Noble Burden Far From Our Shores": Truman, the Cold War, and the Revolution in American Foreign Policy, 1945-1953
15. Coexistence and Crises, 1953-1961
16. Gulliver's Troubles: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Limits of Power, 1961-1969
17. Nixon, Kissinger, and the End of the Postwar Era, 1969-1974
18. Foreign Policy in an Age of Dissonance, 1974-1981
19. "A Unique and Extraordinary Time in World History": Gorbachev, Reagan, Bush, and the End of the Cold War, 1981-1991
20. The Strength of a Giant: America as Hyperpower, 1992-2007
Epilogue Bibiliographic Essay

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