The Oxford History of the United States
is the most respected multi-volume history of our nation in print. The series includes three Pulitzer Prize-winners, a New York Times
bestseller, and winners of the prestigious Bancroft and Parkman Prizes. From Colony to Superpower
is the only thematic volume commissioned for the series. Here, George C. Herring uses foreign relations as the lens through which to tell the story of America's dramatic rise from thirteen disparate colonies huddled along the Atlantic coast to the world's greatest superpower. A sweeping account of United States foreign relations and diplomacy, this magisterial volume documents America's interaction with other peoples and nations of the world. Herring tells a story of stunning successes and sometimes tragic failures, captured in a fast-paced narrative that illuminates the central importance of foreign relations to the existence and survival of the nation, and highlights its ongoing impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. He shows how policymakers defined American interests broadly to include territorial expansion, access to growing markets, and the spread of an "American way" of life. Herring does all this in a story rich in human drama and filled with epic events. Statesmen such as Benjamin Franklin, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Dean Acheson played key roles in America's rise to world power. But America's expansion as a nation also owes much to the adventurers and explorers, the sea captains, merchants and captains of industry, the missionaries and diplomats, who discovered or charted new lands, developed new avenues of commerce, and established and defended the nation's interests abroad. From the American Revolution to the fifty-year struggle with communism and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, From Colony to Superpower
tells the dramatic story of America's emergence as superpower--its birth in revolution, its troubled present, and its uncertain future.
Read an Amazon Exclusive
interview with author George C. Herring and David M. Kennedy, editor of the Oxford History of the United States
Questions for George C. Herring
Kennedy: Your book covers the entire span of the history of the United States. What was the biggest challenge of writing a book of this scope for the Oxford History of the United States series?
Herring: Managing such a large subject and such a vast quantity of source material was daunting, indeed, at times, downright intimidating. Somewhat to my surprise, I also found it more difficult to write those chapters dealing with subjects I knew the most about, the Vietnam War era, for example. The great joys of doing the book, on the other hand, were to have the opportunity to pull together in some meaningful fashion what I had been teaching and writing about for forty years and especially to find myself learning new things each day.
Kennedy: Do you accept the conventional notion that the United States was isolationist for much of its history?
Herring: The idea of an isolationist America, still included in some textbooks, is one of the great myths of United States history. For good reasons, the nation for its first century and a half did pursue a unilateralist foreign policy, avoiding alliances that would restrict its freedom of action or entangle it in wars. But it was never strictly isolationist. Especially in the realm of economics, Americans sought full engagement with the world. The one time when the United States can accurately be said to have been isolationist is the era of the Great Depression, the 1930s.
Kennedy: What period did you find yourself most surprised by as you wrote this book?
Herring: I’m not sure that surprise is the right word, but I especially enjoyed doing the chapter covering the period 1837-1861. I got to know wonderful characters such as naval officers Charles Wilkes and Matthew Perry, merchant/diplomats Caleb Cushing and Edmund Roberts, filibusterer William Walker, and statesmen Henry Clay, James K. Polk, and Daniel Webster. More than I had appreciated, Americans were engaged in a great variety of activities and running up against different people all over the world. Through the Oregon treaty and the war with Mexico, the United States added a vast expanse of territory. There was so much energy, so much happening.
Kennedy: In what ways has religion shaped American foreign policy?
Herring: From the founding to the present, religion has played a subtle but often very important role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Americans have seen themselves as a chosen people, “God’s American Israel,” the Puritans called it, uniquely virtuous and benevolent. In the nineteenth century, they believed it their Manifest Destiny to spread across the North American continent and later to uplift lesser peoples in overseas territories. The influence of religion has especially been felt through individuals such as Woodrow Wilson, a minister’s son, whose sense of America’s destiny and his own had powerful religious undertones, and the born-again Christians Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.
Kennedy: How did the current interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan shape your writing of these events as history? Was it a challenge to write about them in a non-partisan way?
Herring: It was of course difficult to treat these events as history since at the time I was writing the outcome in each case was very much in doubt. I had strongly opposed the war against Iraq, and I would be less than honest if I said that my opposition to that war did not influence my writing about it. I do believe that I was able to put the two wars in the larger framework of post Cold War and 9/11 U.S. foreign policies. These wars also caused me to look more closely at earlier interventions–of which, going back to 1775, there have been many–and to conclude that while Americans generally have viewed themselves as liberators the principal result in most cases has been to spur nationalism on the part of the people invaded.
Kennedy: With all of the foreign policy issues facing the U.S. right now, what will readers take away from reading about the deep history of America’s relationship with the world?
Herring: I hope, first, that readers will enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing about the exciting events and colorful personalities described in these pages. I also hope that they will take away from the book a fuller and more balanced appreciation of America’s dealings with other nations. The United States has been a “force for good in the world,” as the mantra of this year’s election campaign goes, but that is only part of the story, and I hope by gaining a fuller and more complex view they will better understand who we are as a nation and how others see us. I would also hope that readers might gain a better comprehension of the complexity of diplomacy and the reasons why it works or fails to work. Finally, by seeing where we as a nation have been, I hope that readers might have a better sense of where we are and where we need to go.
American Foreign Policy in Images
Take a look at paintings, an engraving and an photograph that depict pivotal moments in war and diplomacy.
Click any detail below for the full image and explanatory text by George C. Herring.
Starred Review. 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. 51 b&w illus. (Oct.)
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