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Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age Hardcover – April 11, 2011

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Great City Maps by DK
30 of the World's Greatest Historical City Maps
A beautifully illustrated history of the world's most celebrated historical city maps, from the hubs of ancient civilization to sprawling modern mega-cities, created in association with the Smithsonian Institution. Learn more
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Editorial Reviews


A deeply thoughtful study about the power of ideas in the making of U.S. foreign policy during the critical period from the 1890s to the Great Depression. Nichols demonstrates how intertwined were isolationist and internationalist views about the use of American power abroad. (Michael Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan)

This is a book whose time has come. Largely forgotten by historians and political leaders alike, early twentieth-century isolationism has never been more important than it is today. Nichols' lively prose and strong narrative account of the isolationist path not taken will offer readers alternative ways of seeing the U.S. role in the world. (Glenda Gilmore, author of Defying Dixie)

Debates over the U.S. global role, Nichols convincingly argues, have always involved differing visions of the kind of society America should be. Promise and Peril recasts familiar foreign-policy controversies and finds fascinating affinities among surprisingly diverse public figures. Not only first-rate intellectual history, it is also a welcome contribution to contemporary discussions of America's place in the world. (Paul S. Boyer, author of When Time Shall Be No More)

Isolationism as turning inward? In this vivid and brilliantly conceived book, Nichols demolishes that canard, demonstrating that the isolationist tradition actually signifies the search for ways to engage the world consistent with authentically American principles. (Andrew J. Bacevich, author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War)

Nichols makes a valuable contribution to the intellectual history of American foreign relations at the dawn of the nation's career as a crusader state. In so doing he rehabilitates in convincing fashion the mental universe of the first unabashed-and often prophetic-isolationists. (Walter A. McDougall, author of Promised Land, Crusader State)

In this important new book, Christopher McKnight Nichols invites a broad reconsideration of [isolationism] by tracing its origins back to the debates over U.S. imperialism at the end of the 19th century and its surprising continuities--and surprising bedfellows--over the next-half century...Nichols has done us a valuable service in providing us with tools to see history anew--and to wield it responsibly. (Jim Cullen History News Network 2011-04-19)

[A] highly perceptive work...Promise and Peril is a provocative study, demolishing many stereotypes and offering new patterns concerning liberal anti-interventionism. It deserves a wide readership. (Justus Doenecke H-Net 2011-07-01)

Americans are always on the lookout for isolationism in the U.S.--and it never arrives. In a most clearly explicated expose, Nichols explains why. Using the bio-historical approach, he brings forth salient figures from the Gilded Age to serve as examples to elucidate the nuances of the U.S.'s complex ideology. The author refutes prior simplistic assessments of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson's "no entangling alliances" descriptor of U.S. foreign policy, shifting the focus from isolationism to "meaningful international involvement (where) nothing less than the meaning of America was at stake." Through the voices often articulators of isolationist thinking, Nichols convincingly concludes "American policy in the interwar era was not nearly as isolationist as many have characterized it." Rather, these individuals proposed a "salvific prescription to reconstitute a better society" in the midst of turbulent times. Clarifying the strains of isolationism serves as a useful tool for understanding the nuanced argument of Gilded Age thought prescient at the dawn of a new global age. Beneath the study of isolationist thought, Nichols reawakens a discourse of what it means to be an American. (G. Donato Choice 2012-01-01)

This is a thoughtful and important contribution to the intellectual history of U.S. foreign relations and to scholarly understanding of the forces shaping a broader U.S. international engagement in the twentieth century. (Ian Tyrrell American Historical Review 2012-04-01)

Just what did isolationists think--and say--in the early twentieth century? Christopher Nichols provides some provocative answers to that question in Promise and Peril, which is far more intellectually venturesome than its textbookish title suggests. Nichols has written a rediscovery of the isolationist tradition, a thorough and timely account of thinkers as diverse as William James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Randolph Bourne, Eugene Debs and Jane Addams... Nichols has accomplished a major feat, demonstrating that isolationism was a far richer and more complex intellectual tradition than its critics have ever imagined--one that still speaks to our own time, freshening the stale formulas of the Washington consensus and allowing us to reimagine the role of the United States in the world. (Jackson Lears The Nation 2012-08-28)

This is an important book that broadens the context of turn-of-the-century isolationist thought and the domestic politics of American foreign relations. Most fundamentally, it demands that historians take isolationism more seriously than we have hitherto. Nichols provocatively prompts us to see it not as a limited and reactive political movement of 1919-20 or of the 1930s, but rather as a malleable and evolving intellectual and political tradition... Nichols has produced a very fine book that should reopen discussion of American isolationism. He deserves a round of applause. Promise and Peril should be widely read. (Jay Sexton Journal of American Studies 2012-11-01)

From the Inside Flap

Spreading democracy abroad or taking care of business at home is a tension as current as the wars in Syria and Afghanistan and as old as America itself. Tracing the history of isolationist and internationalist ideas from the 1890s through the 1930s, Nichols reveals unexpected connections among individuals and groups from across the political spectrum who developed new visions for America's place in the world.

From Henry Cabot Lodge and William James to W. E. B. Du Bois and Jane Addams to Randolph Bourne, William Borah, and Emily Balch, Nichols shows how reformers, thinkers, and politicians confronted the challenges of modern society--and then grappled with urgent pressures to balance domestic priorities and foreign commitments. Each articulated a distinct strain of thought, and each was part of a sprawling national debate over America's global role. Through these individuals, Nichols conducts us into the larger community as it strove to reconcile America's founding ideals and ideas about isolation with the realities of the nation's burgeoning affluence, rising global commerce, and new opportunities for worldwide cultural exchange. The resulting interrelated set of isolationist and internationalist principles provided the basis not just for many foreign policy arguments of the era but also for the vibrant as well as negative connotations that isolationism still possesses.

Nichols offers a bold new way of understanding the isolationist and internationalist impulses that shaped the heated debates of the early twentieth century and that continue to influence thinking about America in the world today. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (April 29, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674049845
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674049840
  • Product Dimensions: 9.8 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,882,014 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Reading Promise and Peril is a very good way to get started in thinking about one of the great quandaries of American life: how do we preserve our integrity and take care of our own people even as our wealth and power and ideals all but thrust us into a position of world leadership? But what's really fresh and interesting about Nichols's book is the series of "characters" he brings to life as they confront this issue: especially Randolph Bourne, a political philosopher who was alienated from his fellow citizens by both his physical abnormality and his peace-loving views; and William Borah, the Great Opposer, a populist senator from Idaho who could not bring himself to vote against American entry into World War I but who in his distrust of entangling alliances is a forerunner of today's isolationist politicians. You'll also learn more about Eugene V. Debs, Emily Balch, Henry Cabot Lodge, and many others as Nichols skillfully interweaves the shifting dynamics of isolationist policy with the foibles and travails of people on the political firing line. Highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
"This compelling book by Christopher Nichols explains the important history of how isolationist and internationalist views developed as America rose to global power. The attention to real people and major figures and groups, some I didn't know but now am very interested in, like William Borah and Emily Balch, helped make PROMISE AND PERIL a very good read. Mr. Nichols also made me think a lot about how the same questions Americans debated a century ago -- especially how the nation should act in the world -- are still relevant, and maybe more so, today. Very readable and thought-provoking."
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Format: Hardcover
I attended a lecture by Dr. Nichols at the Smithsonian that was based on this book. The lecture was lively, though he was covering complex ideas and events. And it was meaningful to today's political wrangling. I found the lecture so inspiring that I bought the books that day -- and I was not disappointed. It's long and complicated, but well worth the investment of time and attention. Very polished, prose that really communicate, and historical ideas and events that are relevant to political issues in today's news.
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Format: Hardcover
My wife bought this book for me, but we both enjoyed it immensely. We found it very readable, complicated and fascinating and relished the understanding we gained with regard to the effects of old isolationist ideas and their impact on our current internationalist world. This was one of my wife's most "inspired" gifts.
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