Wednesday, January 6, 2010


From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (Oxford History of the United States)

This book is exactly what I had hoped it would be. I had initially anticipated that an Oxford history of American Foreign Relations would be the straight man to Howard Zinn's American history rapscallion. The author's name is George C. Herring, a professor at the University of Kentucky, for crying out loud.

But I was pleasantly surprised at how forward-looking this hulking tome was. It treated Native American nations as actual countries that the USA had dealings with, was critically honest about the intentions of US leaders and their various levels of preparedness and competence, and usually did a pretty amazing job of highlighting areas America ignored around the world - for better or for worse. This was not a textbook, to say the least. It's what everyone should read to give context to our place in the world.

Reading this has made me want to read in more detail about several periods of our history, such as our dealings in Central America and Cold War divided Europe. I'd also like to find out more about certain prominent individuals, such as FDR (and his cabinet) and General Winfield Scott. Scott, also known as Old Fuss and Futhers, fought in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Aroostook War. What is the Aroostook War? It was a border dispute between Maine and Canada, which essentially amounted to a barroom brawl. Scott was dispatched, alone on horseback, to settle the dispute, end the "war," and presumably sober up the participants.

The book really makes the point that the United States' natural state is interventionist - and only has had periods of isolationism. For instance, the Marine Corps hymn that goes "From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli" is something we tend to just hear and then not think about very hard. But it comes from the war with the Barbary Pirates against the nation of Tripoli in 1805 - the first land battle the United States fought on foreign soil. The "Halls of Montezuma" refer to the Battle of Chapultepec, in the Mexican-American war, where Marines landed in southern Mexico and marched straight to Mexico city, fighting insurgent warfare along the way (and in Chapultepec Castle - the Halls of Montezuma). Again and again you see that the mood that kept FDR from taking the USA to war against Nazi Germany was more anomalous than the natural state of the country. The book also describes how this is not always a good thing.

Highly recommended, if you don't mind a dense book that takes a while to finish.

PS (do people do PS's on blogs?): I did not read this book entirely in 2010. Almost half was, but more of it was read toward the end of last year. I'm going to try for an extra book to make up for it, but since I read 400+ pages this year, I won't feel too bad to include this on the list.

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