George C. Herring. The American Century and Beyond: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1893-2014. Oxford History of the United States Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 768 pp. $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-021247-6.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Williams (University of St. Andrews)
Published on H-Diplo (November, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
I think all the reviewers of George C. Herring’s The American Century and Beyond will realize that theirs will have to be a review pas comme les autres. This volume is the considered summary of a lifetime’s scholarship and reflection, and a review cannot but hope to be but partial and fragmentary. My modest contribution to the process will be to look at a few passages in what is a magisterial sweep of a tome. Inevitably that will in turn be dictated by my own interests. Among these are always embedded a number of questions, and in particular two: What does the history of a particular period say to the present generation of the students I love to teach? And what does the author tell us about our own policy obsessions and therefore mistakes? I feel this is of particular importance when the work being examined is already a basic text and bound to become more so. I know that abbreviated and combined texts can annoy the author: Jean Lacouture, for example, was very annoyed when the three volumes in French of his biography of Charles de Gaulle were abbreviated in the English edition to two. I do not believe that the learning that was so obviously on display in two volumes has suffered from some slight abbreviation in this volume. This is a rattling good yarn, well told. It requires patience as it is very dense, but never boring. Such narrative history at such length is an art that few have mastered, though I think Jonathan Sumption’s four-volume history The Hundred Years War (1990, 1999, 2009, 2015) still has the record for keeping me engaged. The evocation of those volumes indeed bears some similarities to Herring’s—a “Superpower” (England at the time) consumed by hubris and self-interest ultimately coming up against the limits of its own ambition. England gained and lost an empire and nearly ended very badly indeed. Let us hope the United States does not emulate the historical experience of its staunchest ally of the past fifty years or so.
For me the key usefulness of this volume is to explain the subtleties not only of evolving American foreign policy over more than a century but also of the intricacies of US domestic politics. There is a strong case to be made, reinforced for me by reading this book, that non-Americans think that US politics is “like” ours, but that often is far from being so. So, the passages of the book that bear the closest attention are those that talk about this domestic scene. There are some wonderful depictions of key American policymakers, often presidents of course, but just as likely to be secretaries of state—the passages on Charles Evans Hughes are particularly good. Of the presidents, my favorite cameos are in the discussion of Woodrow Wilson and his relationship with people like General Victoriana Huerta, as well as with his various secretaries of state. It is quite a feat to be able to do history from above while not obscuring the personalities that made that history happen.
The chapters on the first US Empire before 1914 seem to have been written with a strong awareness of the debacles of the present moment in mind. I found myself agreeing with nearly all of the author’s prejudices, but being given far better ammunition to hold them than previously. The cover photographs (of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and US troops in Iraq) show that this is a deliberate comparison of events, unless that was purely an editorial decision by Oxford University Press. Any historian will be aware of the perils of reading history backwards, but none of us can avoid it, and the fact that the West’s unity at present hangs by a thread is largely due to differences of opinion about US intervention and foreign policy more broadly both within the United States and among its Allies. But Herring reminds us that these domestic and international divisions have always existed. That was even true at the time of the exhortation by writer Rudyard Kipling in 1899 for Americans to “take up the White Man’s Burden,” and still was when prime minister Tony Blair urged something similar over a century later. Maybe that just shows that the (domestic) roots of British foreign policy have not changed all that much either in some ways? US public opinion was, and is, sharply divided about what the United States should be trying to achieve with its overseas adventures, and Western public opinion mirrors those differences.
Herring also shows very well that “isolationism” and interventionism are issues that could be and are espoused by both progressive and conservative opinion, as is international opinion about that isolation. It all makes for difficult reading for non-Americans who often insufficiently appreciate that American politics do not mirror the left-right understandings of the world of Europeans for example. The emphasis on Latin America and Spanish-speaking parts of the world like the Philippines is also a slight challenge for non-Americans. Britain, France, and the other European powers (with the obvious exception of Spain and Portugal) do not instinctively “get” US policy in its “Backyard.” This is obvious from the often-crass statements of some British and other European politicians who seem to love the Castro family, have kind words for the Venezuelan left-wing dictatorship, and idolize Che Guevara, a sanguinary terrorist. In the volume, Herring shows that US policy toward the South American subcontinent has changed greatly over the years, not always as negative as it is often painted, but often far worse than is widely understood.
Another theme that I think is particularly well represented goes back to the issue of isolationism and internationalism. As Herring writes, “myths regarding 1920s U.S. foreign policy refuse to go away” (p. 183). He does a very good job of shooting down this and other myths. The internationalism of the 1920s has long been neglected by historians and the internationalism of the 1930s greatly exaggerated. Here we find plenty of ammunition to confound much of the received wisdom. Equally I was glad to see the idea that Britain and the United States were firm friends in the interwar years is rebutted. I do not think it is mentioned but it should be remembered that there was a joint committee of the Council on Foreign Relations and London’s Chatham House that met quite regularly to discuss the possibility of an Anglo-American war. The British tend to overplay the “Special Relationship” after 1941, but of course the United States or, again, more accurately certain sections of the American elite have been either Anglophile or Anglophobe. The 1950s, a period I am writing about at the moment, was not a period of huge amity between the Brits and the Yanks. The State Department and President Dwight Eisenhower always dreaded the arrival of “Cigar” (aka Winston Churchill). And of course both the British and the French deeply resented not only American actions and statements about the Suez Crisis of 1956 but also what they saw as the global grabbing of “their” colonial power. This was exacerbated by European resentment about what they saw as American “holier than thou” statements, while Americans pursued colonial skullduggery that would have made any nineteenth-century British imperialist gasp with admiration.
I searched for books that I thought Herring should have consulted, occasionally giving cries of triumph when I thought I had found one, only to find it mentioned a page or so further on. I think the author might have made a bit more of Neil Smith’s American Empire: Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (2004), an extended biography of one of the most important American foreign policymakers, Isaiah Bowman, but it is at least mentioned. One of the particular strengths of that book, and also of Herring’s, is to show the role of the United States as one of the key leaders of the process of globalization, a process that might now be said to be fraying at the edges. He might also have made more of the more critical literature about American diplomacy through “think tanks” like the Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller Foundations, including in a volume by Inderjeet Parmar, Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power (2012). Herring is no unthinking defender of American foreign policy as he demonstrates by his trenchant views about American actions abroad and racist attitudes at home, but maybe he could have included some of the more recent perspicacious critics.
This book will be on my reading list for the foreseeable future and will be a “go-to” text for any student who argues that the United States is an unqualified good in world politics. For me it serves best as a series of cautionary tales, linked in a grand narrative that is in itself a magnificent achievement. But it never belittles, and neither should it, the innate grandeur of the United States, its immense scope, and its incredible influence for good and evil over the period covered by the book. And, in my mind anyway, I found myself thinking how other powerful nations might have dealt with many of the challenges faced by the United States in its rise to what we can only call “imperial” power. As a Brit I often found myself comparing mental notes as to what the United Kingdom might have done. Usually I ended up sympathizing with the universal dilemma of exercising power while trying to keep a moral compass. It was one we shouldered for a long period, and I am not sure we did any better than the American foreign policy establishment.
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Andrew J. Williams. Review of Herring, George C., The American Century and Beyond: U.S. Foreign Relations, 1893-2014.
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