Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Reviewed: Herring, From Colony to Superpower

UPDATED. Douglas Little, in an essay "Why We Need Diplomatic History," reviews George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required). Hat tip. The book is part of the Oxford History of the United States series. Little notes that, after a decline in interest after the fall of the Berlin wall, student interest in diplomatic history is on the upswing. (There is certainly a great increase in interest in global affairs and international law in the law school world.) Still, Little notes that "popular attitudes toward international affairs remain volatile," and dismissal of foreign relations "has been echoed by some social historians, who have insisted that because the study of foreign relations is too state centered, elite oriented, and tradition bound, it and its practitioners neglect important work on race, gender, and popular culture."

While divides among historians on this point are sometimes overblown, there have certainly been times when some of us have made the point that American history cannot be meaningfully "internationalized" if foreign affairs history is not at the table.

Into this context comes Herring. Little writes:

In his splendid new book, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776, however, George C. Herring, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Kentucky, reveals that diplomatic history is alive and well. In so doing, he also warns that Americans ignore diplomatic history at their own peril and insists that only by understanding the past can they ensure that the United States will play a positive role in international affairs in the future....

Because race, technology, and exceptionalism were key ingredients in American's remarkable transition from colony to superpower, Herring has made them central features in the complex story he tells in his new book. On almost every page, he refutes the old canard that diplomatic history is "more or less what one clerk said to another." In reminding readers about the role of American Indians in the French and Indian War, the cultural clash between America and Islam spawned by Thomas Jefferson's confrontation with the Barbary Pirates, or the destruction that Confederate raiders wrought on Yankee whaling operations in the North Pacific during the Civil War, Herring never loses sight of the human dimension of foreign policy.

Continue reading here or here. (Many thanks to a reader for e-mailing me the Little review.)

A New York Times review praised Herring's "Herculean power of synthesis." Publisher's Weekly says:

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.
An interview with Herring appears on his Amazon.com book page.