From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 by George C. Herring. Oxford University Press, New York. 2008, 1056 pages.
The Oxford History of the United States is an important multivolume series expanding our understanding of American history. It brings together powerful thinkers on America’s history such as James McPherson’s volume “Battle Cry of Freedom: the Civil War Era and David Kennedy’s “Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945.” The latest volume is Professor George C. Herring’s volume on U.S. foreign relations. This happens to be the only thematic volume in the Oxford History of the United States series.
Herring opens with the Revolutionary period and the tenuous nature of America’s experiment balancing democracy with republican for government. The newly formed United States could’ve easily succumbed to being a junior partner in what French revolutionaries called an “Empire of Liberty!” Instead we were fortunate to have the moderating influence of George Washington, and the raucous debate between Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison that kept us from the inflamed passions of the French Revolution.
Readers will learn how European encroachment on the western hemisphere would be a constant concern for much of America’s history. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) Britain and France looked to exploit American divisions, with France sending combat forces to Mexico and installing a puppet regime that was ousted by Mexican revolutionaries under Benito Juarez. The efforts of Charles Adams, grandson of John Adams, and American Minister to London, kept the British from interfering in the Civil War.
In the late nineteenth century, America would experiment with being a rising power, and was enticed to maintaining colonies won from the Spanish after the 1898 Spanish-American War. The United States foreign policy debate revolved on maintaining American dominance over the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and Latin America and the corrosive impact this had on American values of liberty. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) wrote books that justified the need for American expansionism, a mission taken by President Theodore Roosevelt but opposed by such influential writers as Mark Twain.
As you read through this marvelously written text, you will note an evolution in American foreign policy from Manifest Destiny to Wilsonian ideals, the intervention in two European wars, to balance of power during the Cold War. Today, the United States is in search of ways to define its foreign policy in a century of globalization, war on terrorism, and other challenges to America’s security and that of the globe.
Editor’s Note: Commander Aboul-Enein is author of “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” published in June 2010 by Naval Institute Press. He maintains a regular book review column in the NDW Waterline.