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


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In this installment of the multi-volume Oxford History of the United States, Herring delivers a sweeping account of the United States' foreign relations and diplomacy, which tells the dramatic story of America's emergence as superpower--its birth in revolution, its troubled present, and its uncertain future.

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Jul 16, 2017

A Grand Overview Of America's Foreign Relations

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. Herring identifies a combination of these broad traits in, among other ways, the "practical idealism" of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

From the Revolution, the book proceeds through the War of 1812, American expansionism and "Manifest Destiny" in the Mexican War, foreign relationships during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and American Empire, World War I and II, the Cold War and its aftermath, Vietnam, and our nation's current situation in Iraq, among many other recurring themes. The final section of the book on the war in Iraq seems to me rushed. It is difficult to bring a historical perspective to bear upon ongoing, changing events.

Herring pays close attention to transitional periods that are sometimes overlooked, including foreign policy in the Gilded Age and foreign policy in the years between the two world wars, that helped me to understand the larger, better-known aspects of the United States's foreign relations. Commendably, Herring also considers the United States's relationships with the Indian tribes as within the purview of foreign affairs during the time in which the United States expanded across the continent.

In general, Herring writes non-dogmatically and non-polemically. He makes his opinions known but frequently points out other interpretations and ways of trying to understand the history. He seems to admire greatly Woodrow Wilson and his efforts before, during, and after WW I to bring a just peace to a troubled world. Herring also finds much to praise, as well as to question, in figures such as Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Elihu Root, and Franklin Roosevelt. He offers qualified praise for George H.W. Bush, for "the strategic vision of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger" and for the "ability to adapt and adjust displayed by Ronald Reagan."

In the introduction to his study, Herring develops themes such as the relationship between realism and idealism in informing United States foreign policy, expansionism, and the tensions between the Executive Branch, Congress, lobbying groups, and the electorate in the conduct of foreign affairs. Herring is critical of what he perceives as the current unilateralist tendency in American foreign relations and he recommends a course that disclaims American exceptionalism or arrogance. He concludes that "the United States cannot dictate the shape of a new world order, but the way it responds to future foreign policy challenges can help ensure its security and well-being and exert a powerful influence for good or ill."

Herring has written an outstanding addition to the Oxford History of the United States. It taught me a great deal about American history and the American experience.

Robin Friedman

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