American imperialism

16th December 1994 at 00:00
The United States in the Twentieth Century: Empire, Edited by Anthony McGrew, Hodder Stoughton Pounds 12.99, 0 340 5968 9

This latest volume in the Open University's series on the USA this century focuses on America's imperial role in world affairs since President Wilson's ill-judged foray into European politics after the First World War. American economic strength after the First World War was unchallenged, but it was not matched to any degree by her military capability. Nevertheless, and despite her famous isolationism, America's statesmen in the Twenties were already beginning to act as the leaders of an imperial power, standing up to Britain to limit her navy at the Washington naval conference of 1921, and in due course extending this confident assertiveness to Japan.

American policy has frequently been marked with a certain degree of naivete. Wilson had it in 1919, but US planners fell victim to it again in 1945 when they blithely assumed that "Uncle Joe" Stalin would rapidly embrace the virtues of free market capitalism. It took George Kennan's famous "long telegram" to shake them out of that happy illusion. Once alerted to the Soviet threat, the State Department left Kennan behind in its zeal to stand up to Stalin, developing the dangerously vague policy of "containnment" in a secret memorandum named, in typical Cold War style, Document NSC-68.

An important, though unexpected, result of America's Cold War stance was the development of an "imperial" presidency. In their new role of leader of the free world, Presidents increasingly took over the running of foreign policy from the Secretary of State, trying out new approaches with the world as their laboratory. Nixon adroitly played on Soviet fear of an American rapprochement with China, but Carter was less polished in his pursuit of a vague "detente" with Russia. Reagan emerges strongly from this account, surviving the enormous risks he took in stepping up the Cold War in the early eighties, calculating that, contrary to America's own propaganda, the arms race was a race the Soviet Union could not win. Of course it is comforting to see this with hindsight, but it's difficult not to sweat a bit at the thought of what might have happened had he got it wrong.

This is an authoritative survey, which makes both the issues and the debates and the arguments surrounding them, accessible and clear. Written by a group of OU lecturers, it is well organised, with useful summaries at the end of chapters and even of sections of chapters, supported by extensive and up-to- date bibliographies. In the face of the limited and cliche-ridden picture of 20th-century America that most GCSE and even A level pupils receive, this will equip history or politics teachers to treat American history with the seriousness it demands.

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