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

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.