Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age

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Overview

Spreading democracy abroad or taking care of business at home is a tension as current as the war in Afghanistan and as old as America itself. Tracing the history of isolationist and internationalist ideas from the 1890s through the 1930s, Nichols reveals unexpected connections among individuals and groups from across the political spectrum who developed new visions for America’s place in the world.

From Henry Cabot Lodge and William James to W. E. B. Du Bois and Jane Addams to Randolph Bourne, William Borah, and Emily Balch, Nichols shows how reformers, thinkers, and politicians confronted the challenges of modern society—and then grappled with urgent pressures to balance domestic priorities and foreign commitments. Each articulated a distinct strain of thought, and each was part of a sprawling national debate over America’s global role. Through these individuals, Nichols conducts us into the larger community as it strove to reconcile America’s founding ideals and ideas about isolation with the realities of the nation’s burgeoning affluence, rising global commerce, and new opportunities for worldwide cultural exchange. The resulting interrelated set of isolationist and internationalist principles provided the basis not just for many foreign policy arguments of the era but also for the vibrant as well as negative connotations that isolationism still possesses.

Nichols offers a bold way of understanding the isolationist and internationalist impulses that shaped the heated debates of the early twentieth century and that continue to influence thinking about America in the world today.

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Editorial Reviews

History News Network

In this important new book, Christopher McKnight Nichols invites a broad reconsideration of [isolationism] by tracing its origins back to the debates over U.S. imperialism at the end of the 19th century and its surprising continuities—and surprising bedfellows—over the next-half century...Nichols has done us a valuable service in providing us with tools to see history anew—and to wield it responsibly.
— Jim Cullen

H-Net

[A] highly perceptive work...Promise and Peril is a provocative study, demolishing many stereotypes and offering new patterns concerning liberal anti-interventionism. It deserves a wide readership.
— Justus Doenecke

Choice

Americans are always on the lookout for isolationism in the U.S.—and it never arrives. In a most clearly explicated expose, Nichols explains why. Using the bio-historical approach, he brings forth salient figures from the Gilded Age to serve as examples to elucidate the nuances of the U.S.'s complex ideology. The author refutes prior simplistic assessments of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson's "no entangling alliances" descriptor of U.S. foreign policy, shifting the focus from isolationism to "meaningful international involvement (where) nothing less than the meaning of America was at stake." Through the voices often articulators of isolationist thinking, Nichols convincingly concludes "American policy in the interwar era was not nearly as isolationist as many have characterized it." Rather, these individuals proposed a "salvific prescription to reconstitute a better society" in the midst of turbulent times. Clarifying the strains of isolationism serves as a useful tool for understanding the nuanced argument of Gilded Age thought prescient at the dawn of a new global age. Beneath the study of isolationist thought, Nichols reawakens a discourse of what it means to be an American.
— G. Donato

American Historical Review

This is a thoughtful and important contribution to the intellectual history of U.S. foreign relations and to scholarly understanding of the forces shaping a broader U.S. international engagement in the twentieth century.
— Ian Tyrrell

The Nation

Just what did isolationists think—and say—in the early twentieth century? Christopher Nichols provides some provocative answers to that question in Promise and Peril, which is far more intellectually venturesome than its textbookish title suggests. Nichols has written a rediscovery of the isolationist tradition, a thorough and timely account of thinkers as diverse as William James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Randolph Bourne, Eugene Debs and Jane Addams...Nichols has accomplished a major feat, demonstrating that isolationism was a far richer and more complex intellectual tradition than its critics have ever imagined—one that still speaks to our own time, freshening the stale formulas of the Washington consensus and allowing us to reimagine the role of the United States in the world.
— Jackson Lears

Michael Kazin
A deeply thoughtful study about the power of ideas in the making of U.S. foreign policy during the critical period from the 1890s to the Great Depression. Nichols demonstrates how intertwined were isolationist and internationalist views about the use of American power abroad.
Glenda Gilmore
This is a book whose time has come. Largely forgotten by historians and political leaders alike, early twentieth-century isolationism has never been more important than it is today. Nichols' lively prose and strong narrative account of the isolationist path not taken will offer readers alternative ways of seeing the U.S. role in the world.
Paul S. Boyer
Debates over the U.S. global role, Nichols convincingly argues, have always involved differing visions of the kind of society America should be. Promise and Peril recasts familiar foreign-policy controversies and finds fascinating affinities among surprisingly diverse public figures. Not only first-rate intellectual history, it is also a welcome contribution to contemporary discussions of America's place in the world.
Andrew J. Bacevich
Isolationism as turning inward? In this vivid and brilliantly conceived book, Nichols demolishes that canard, demonstrating that the isolationist tradition actually signifies the search for ways to engage the world consistent with authentically American principles.
Walter A. McDougall
Nichols makes a valuable contribution to the intellectual history of American foreign relations at the dawn of the nation's career as a crusader state. In so doing he rehabilitates in convincing fashion the mental universe of the first unabashed-and often prophetic-isolationists.
History News Network - Jim Cullen
In this important new book, Christopher McKnight Nichols invites a broad reconsideration of [isolationism] by tracing its origins back to the debates over U.S. imperialism at the end of the 19th century and its surprising continuities--and surprising bedfellows--over the next-half century...Nichols has done us a valuable service in providing us with tools to see history anew--and to wield it responsibly.
H-Net - Justus Doenecke
[A] highly perceptive work...Promise and Peril is a provocative study, demolishing many stereotypes and offering new patterns concerning liberal anti-interventionism. It deserves a wide readership.
Choice - G. Donato
Americans are always on the lookout for isolationism in the U.S.--and it never arrives. In a most clearly explicated expose, Nichols explains why. Using the bio-historical approach, he brings forth salient figures from the Gilded Age to serve as examples to elucidate the nuances of the U.S.'s complex ideology. The author refutes prior simplistic assessments of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson's "no entangling alliances" descriptor of U.S. foreign policy, shifting the focus from isolationism to "meaningful international involvement (where) nothing less than the meaning of America was at stake." Through the voices often articulators of isolationist thinking, Nichols convincingly concludes "American policy in the interwar era was not nearly as isolationist as many have characterized it." Rather, these individuals proposed a "salvific prescription to reconstitute a better society" in the midst of turbulent times. Clarifying the strains of isolationism serves as a useful tool for understanding the nuanced argument of Gilded Age thought prescient at the dawn of a new global age. Beneath the study of isolationist thought, Nichols reawakens a discourse of what it means to be an American.
American Historical Review - Ian Tyrrell
This is a thoughtful and important contribution to the intellectual history of U.S. foreign relations and to scholarly understanding of the forces shaping a broader U.S. international engagement in the twentieth century.
The Nation - Jackson Lears
Just what did isolationists think--and say--in the early twentieth century? Christopher Nichols provides some provocative answers to that question in Promise and Peril, which is far more intellectually venturesome than its textbookish title suggests. Nichols has written a rediscovery of the isolationist tradition, a thorough and timely account of thinkers as diverse as William James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Randolph Bourne, Eugene Debs and Jane Addams... Nichols has accomplished a major feat, demonstrating that isolationism was a far richer and more complex intellectual tradition than its critics have ever imagined--one that still speaks to our own time, freshening the stale formulas of the Washington consensus and allowing us to reimagine the role of the United States in the world.
Journal of American Studies - Jay Sexton
This is an important book that broadens the context of turn-of-the-century isolationist thought and the domestic politics of American foreign relations. Most fundamentally, it demands that historians take isolationism more seriously than we have hitherto. Nichols provocatively prompts us to see it not as a limited and reactive political movement of 1919-20 or of the 1930s, but rather as a malleable and evolving intellectual and political tradition... Nichols has produced a very fine book that should reopen discussion of American isolationism. He deserves a round of applause. Promise and Peril should be widely read.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674049840
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/29/2011
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 1,274,005
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher McKnight Nichols is the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in U.S. History at the University of Pennsylvania.

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