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From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (Oxford History of the United States) 1st Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 96 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 858-9657777777
ISBN-10: 0199765537
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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 series.

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.







--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Series: Oxford History of the United States
  • Paperback: 1056 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (April 27, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199765537
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199765539
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 2.3 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,816 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This new volume of the Oxford History of the United States tells the story of the foreign relations of the United States from its inception in 1776 to the present day. The author, George C Herring, is the Alumni Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of many books on United States foreign affairs, centering upon the War in Vietnam. Herring's study is nearly 1000 pages in length, but it is not a word too long. In its scope, learning, wisdom, and attempt to be even-handed, it is a joy to read.

Herring tells a long story of a subject with many unexpected turns and changes of perspective over the years. I enjoyed the sense of continuity that this large history brings to its subject. Herring shows how leading ideas and tensions in American foreign policy developed from the beginning of the new nation and both persisted and were transformed as the nation developed. His book encourages the reader to see how United States policy developed in particular parts of the world over time, such as in Latin America, Canada, the Middle East, and Vietnam. This encourages a depth of understanding that cannot be provided from reading the newspapers or even from specialized scholarly accounts of a single period.

The book begins with the Revolutionary era, and the first two of Herring's chapter titles state themes of American history that are repeated many times throughout the study: America's perceived mission "To Begin the World Over Again" and the need to keep the nation strong and prepared so that there are "None who Can Make us Afraid." The theme of mission is tied, broadly, to American idealism and exceptionalism. The theme of strength is tied, again generally, to realism.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
George C. Herring's "From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776" is the latest volume of the Oxford History of the United States, but there is a key difference between this book and the rest in the series. This is the one book in the series which is intended to cover a single aspect, i.e. Foreign Relations, while the other works all cover a period of time during the history of the United States. My opinion of this work changed dramatically while reading it. I had read a couple of books from this series before and found one to be outstanding and the other to be only slightly above average, but with the nature of this work being different, I was intrigued into seeing how effective this book would be at covering the subject.

I'll start with the easiest and also probably the least important aspect of the work and that is the organization. Though less important than completeness and accuracy, a poorly organized book can be very trying on the reader. This work attempts to cover Foreign Relations in a chronological fashion in 20 chapters. Each chapter provides a year range for what it covers, so one would expect that it would be fairly straight forward, but that isn't the case. As an example, the first chapter indicates that it covers from 1776 to 1778, but in fact it covers the entire period prior to 1789. Within each chapter it is tricky as well, as the author jumps around within the periods quite a lot, and the reader does have difficulty in following the examples at times. Herring also doesn't stay within the time periods indicated in the chapter headings. Overall though, these issues are minor and by themselves would not lower my rating.

The second issue for a work like this is completeness.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Herring presents ably a very long history (from 1776 to 2000) of US diplomacy in a relatively small space, and this is the major drawback of the book. Important events need to be treated in a very short space that is too small to really talk about the nuances. To give an example, liberation theology appears in a single sentence in the chapter on Reagan's presidency as something developped by radical priests "following principles set forth by Pope John XXIII" with gives short thrift to the role of the Catholic church in Central American politics and to liberation theology itself. A difficult topic that deserves are more nuanced treatment cannot receive it in a single volume. This problem shows up repeatedly. By having to concentrate on the US site, the narrative frequently glosses over big changes in the minor players of the drama be that the fall of the fourth republic and the coming of de Gaulle or the shift from Christian Democrat led government to Social Democrat led one in Germany.

I am not sure about the quality of fact checking, but Egon Bahr was not Brandt's foreign minister (he was a secretery of state and the chancellery), but nevertheless the architect of his foreign policy. Did the May 1968 upheaval in France " helped to bring down de Gaulle"? He did resign in April 1969, but the Gaullist had won the election in June 1968. Again, lack of space prevents a nuanced description that needs to be given.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
(This review is based upon an uncorrected advance reading copy)
George C. Herring's monumental opus on U.S. foreign policy is one of the finest historical treatises I have read in the past thirty years. Among the works which Herring approaches in terms of comprehensive content and beauty of expression are Samuel Eliot Morrison's Oxford History of the American People and James McPherson's brilliant Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States). This book is a true milestone.

Herring's work is not only broad in scope, but laden with significant insight and couched in some of the finest historical writing I have encountered. This title in the venerable Oxford series is the only topical volume. At first I questioned whether foreign affairs deserved to occupy its own niche in the series, but now I see why. Viewing the sweep of American history through the lens of foreign affairs has provided a flood of new insights and connections. This is a first-rate study, and ought to occupy a central position in academic literature for a generation.

Random insights:

1. Among the many delights in reading this superb book, was the personal discovery or rediscovery of a number of "demigods" of American foreign affairs. Though I have previously read biographies of most of these men, Herring's study places them in an entirely new light, so that I see, as it were, the Himalayan Peaks for the first time under a clear sunrise. My preconceived notions were almost all dashed.
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