Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Review?

One of the challenges for me when it comes to writing book reviews is the fact that I never actually finish any of the books that I start reading. So since I read books in piecemeal fashion, I figure that gives me license to review them in piecemeal fashion, right? So the way I think this is going to work is I'll just take whatever bits and pieces I've read over the past week and review those.

So one of the books I'm reading is The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion 1860-1898. Pretty interesting stuff. It's about 400 pages long and I've read about 110 pages into it. The early parts of the book are pretty idealistic, that is, it focuses on the ideas that underpin American expansion as opposed to the material conditions that underpin it. I don't know if this is a trend that continues throughout the book, but it permeates the parts of the book that I've read, so that's what I have to go on. It's not really a complaint, but I do want to read more about the material conditions that drove late 19th century American imperialism, having already read a great deal in the book dedicated to "the Intellectual Formulation."

By the way, although "empire" is a controversial term when applied to the United States, the policymakers of the late 19th century did openly refer to their plans as "imperialistic" and the United States as an "empire." So it's controversial, but it shouldn't be. William Henry Seward, Secretary of State during the 1860's, for example, imagined a vast land empire stretching from Canada to Panama, with its capital in Mexico City. Other policymakers were less grandiose with their visions for the new American Empire. It would seem that the prevailing thought at the time was that actually conquering territory, outside of key trading "way stations" such as Puerto Rico and Hawaii, would be an undesirable political burden, and that the planners of this period instead occupied themselves instead with finding markets for surplus American goods. American planners were therefore prepared to accept a tolerable degree of political autonomy within the emerging dependent zones of the American Empire, but were willing to use force when it proved useful. In fact, one of the key policy objectives of the US government at this time was to prop up the Chinese government to a certain degree so that the entire market did not fall into the hands of European competitors.

The chapter entitled "The Intellectual Formulation" is in my mind the best part of the book that I have read thus far, as it lays out the intellectual foundation of American imperialism. There were, of course, the obligatory Christian zealots who considered it the lot of the Anglo world to conquer the heathen world in the name of Christendom, those who considered expansion the only way to avoid such evils as socialism, and those who considered expansion an imperative, justifying it with the "frontier thesis" that held that the American frontier, which acted as a "safety valve" in times of unrest, had become fully populated. LaFeber brings up an excellent point when he says that "On the one hand, [the intellectuals] wanted a new empire to solve domestic problems of crisis proportions. On the other hand, they realized that only a nation which was spiritually, economically, and politically sound could create and maintain such an empire. American history has many paradoxes, but perhaps none is more important - or strange - than this paradox of the 1890's."

That's all I have for now. I really just wanted to get something down tonight before I went to bed. Maybe I'll add something tomorrow (I probably won't).

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