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Now in Paperback: From Colony to Superpower

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

by George C. Herring

Oxford University Press, 2011

In scope and erudition, in honeyed writing style and masterful research, the ongoing Oxford History of the United States comes closer and closer to approximating a miracle. Volume after volume is chosen and produced with such painstaking care that the resulting shelf of books resembles an entire education in itself. Each book in the series is written to be a masterwork of independent motility, rather than chapters in some unfolding textbook.

I confess, my initial reactions to this particular volume when it first came out in 2008 were negative, even so. I strained to locate the fault in George Herring’s prose, but having freshly re-read the book, I’m nothing but impressed by that prose – richly informed, yet unfailingly light-fingered, opinionated but never doctrinaire. This is a fantastic, enjoyable book to read, quite apart from the epic scope of its subject matter.

I think now that my initial reaction sprang as much from eight years of pent-up aggravation toward the George W. Bush administration as from anything else. Something about the juxtaposition: eight years of smug, arrogant national disregard for all the nations of the world, their opinions, their traditions, their currencies and borders – eight years of an administration that could think John Bolton would make a good ambassador to the United Nations … eight years, in other words, of being an involuntary member of a gang – capping those eight years off with a book sporting an accidentally jingoistic title like “From Colony to Superpower” felt too complicit, too opportunistic.

If there’s any truth to that explanation, I’m certainly glad I finally re-read the thing, because Herring has produced a masterpiece of historical synthesis, a whopping-great investigation of all the ways the United States has engaged with – and been shaped by – the rest of the world. There’s no triumphalism in this book, and certainly George W. Bush is given no pats on the back (and his father, George H. W. Bush, is given refreshingly high marks for a presidency that looks better and better in retrospect). Herring looks at the long roll-call of America’s star diplomats, starting with the grand-daddy of them all:

The eminent scientist, journalist, politician, and homespun philosopher was already an international celebrity when he landed in France. Establishing himself in a comfortable house with a well-stocked wine cellar in a suburb of Paris, he made himself the toast of the city. A steady flow of visitors requested audiences and favors such as commissions in the American army. Through clever packaging, he presented himself to French society as the very embodiment of America’s revolution, a model of republican simplicity and virtue. He wore a tattered coat and sometimes a fur hat that he despised. He refused to powder his hair. His countenance appeared on snuffboxes, rings, medals, and bracelets, even (it was said) on an envious King Louis XVI’s chamber pot. His face was as familiar to the French, he told his daughter, as “that of the moon.”

Coon-skin hats may have disappeared from the job description, but then, so did figures like Benjamin Franklin, replaced by inevitably lesser men with more responsible portfolios. Not surprisingly, Herring’s history of foreign relations more often than not has him dealing not with ambassadors at all but with presidents, most of whom set such a firm stamp on their foreign policies that the actual names of their secretaries and ambassadors vanish into the trivia books (working partnerships like that of Nixon and Kissinger are rare – perhaps blessedly so?). Presidents set the tone, meet the rulers, and chart the course of the country’s actions – even when, as in the case of Lyndon Johnson, they may not entirely want to:

“I don’t want to be known as a war president,” LBJ insisted in the fateful summer of 1965, but the war in Vietnam that he launched with great reluctance and struggled to conclude would consume his presidency and define his historical reputation. That “bitch of a war,” as he called it, helped to destroy his Great Society, “the woman I really love.” It would dominate U.S. foreign policy into the next decade and shape attitudes toward military intervention abroad into the next century.

Although Herring is unduly tolerant of President Wilson (when a legislator a generations later, in a priceless phrase, makes reference to “an innocent indulgence in messianic globaloney,” Herring casts not even a quick glance in the direction of the Metternich of the League of Nations), he’s not afraid of the well-earned elbow-jab. Time after time in this book, some grand diplomatic scheme will be described, only to be followed by the hammer-blow of “it was a complete failure, for a number of idiotic reasons.” It’s extremely invigorating. And it’s not just diplomacy that gets such level-headed assessments; diplomacy’s violent older brother, war, also comes in for some caustic estimates – and, for 21st century readers, some almost unbearable ironies, as in this depressing passage about Operation Desert Storm in 1991:

War is seldom so neat, however, and Desert Storm proved at best a partial success. Although [George Herbert Walker] Bush had publicly likened Saddam to Hitler, the administration declined to exploit its enormous military advantage to depose him. Regime change was never a goal, [national security adviser Brent] Scowcroft later admitted, simply a “hopeful byproduct.” The U. S. military permitted much of his Republican Guard force to escape, thus facilitating his retention of power. The military command allowed him to keep his helicopters, which he used with lethal effect to suppress domestic opposition. As is customary in war, after the shooting stopped, frustrated U.S. officials blamed each other, an there was plenty to go around. The United States, for good reasons, never seriously considered pushing on to Baghdad to topple Saddam’s government. Such a move might have cost the support of Arab states, crucial to the coalition. Iraq’s total defeat would leave a large power vacuum in an especially volatile part of the world’s most explosive region, enhancing the position of Iran. United States forces might be tied down to an extended occupation and entangled in Iraqi politics in ways that made Vietnam look easy. “Once we cross over the line and start intervening in a civil war …,” [Secretary of Defense Dick] Cheney admitted, “it raise the very real specter of getting us involved in a quagmire figuring out who the hell is going to govern Iraq.”

Who indeed? The decades come and go under Herring’s patient, absorbing narrative gaze, until he’s finally out of history and poised to look forward. Remembering how I once suspected this book of crowing, I found its closing chapters all the more jarring for their almost complacent assumption that the best days of the United States are behind her. All over those pages, there are wonderful but decidedly valedictory passages like this:

 Even in decline, the United States will remain a crucial player in world affairs, and in coping with the challenges of a new and complex era the nation has a rich foreign policy tradition to draw on: the pragmatism of the peacemakers of the American Revolution; the basic realism of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams; the practical idealism of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln; the worldliness and diplomatic skill of John Quincy Adams; the remarkable cultural sensitivity of diplomats such as Townsend Harris and Dwight Morrow; the commitment to public service of Elihu Root and Henry Stimson; the noble aspirations for a better world espoused by Woodrow Wilson; the intuitive understanding of the way diplomacy works – and its limitations – and the “world point of view” manifested by Franklin Roosevelt in World War II; the coalition-building of Dean Acheson and the Wise Men of the Truman years and the George H. W. Bush administration during the first Gulf War; the strategic vision of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger; the ability to adapt and adjust displayed by Ronald Reagan; the efforts of countless men and women who sought to share with other peoples the best of their country and to educate their fellow citizens about the world.

You almost want to cue “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot …” – and perhaps Herring is right. If he is, then his book becomes an even more significant monument. Surely it’s a book every intelligent American should read and internalize – for its broad view, for its humanity, and perhaps even for its trajectory. And for the readerly thrill of being in the hands of a masterful storyteller, of course.

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