Saturday, May 29, 2010

Richard H. Immerman's "Empire for Liberty"

Richard H. Immerman is the Edward J. Buthusiem Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow in History and the Marvin Wachman Director of the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy at Temple University. His books include John Foster Dulles: Piety, Pragmatism, and Power in U.S. Foreign Policy and The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz, and reported the following
My chapter “William Henry Seward Reimagines the American Empire,” begins on page 99. I’m fine with that. In a book that chronicles and assesses the evolution of the America’s empire by historicizing six of its architects, Seward emerges as perhaps the most complicated actor. John Quincy Adams is the subject of the previous chapter; if there is a hero to my story, he’s it. But he is a tragic hero. No one was a truer believer in America’s ideals, and no one advocated more fervently, or guided more expertly, the country’s expansion. Yet once Adams concluded that expansion served slavery, not liberty, he became empire’s most resolute opponent.

I introduce Seward as Adams’s disciple. He wrote a biography about his model and inspiration, dedicating it to the “friends of liberty and human rights throughout the world.” And in the run-up to the Civil War, Seward was among Abolitionism’s most eloquent spokespersons. In contrast to Adams, however, Seward refused to sacrifice empire to liberty—or the lack thereof. Throughout the 1850s he tirelessly promoted U.S. overseas expansion, primarily across the Pacific but also throughout the Caribbean and further to the south. Identifying America’s commerce as the “chief agent of its advancement in civilization and enlargement of empire,” he formulated a strategy aimed at America’s gaining control of “the commerce of the world, which is the empire of the world.” While the politics of Reconstruction consumed Americans after the Civil War, Seward schemed to extend US control—formally and informally—over Hawaii, the Dominican Republic, the Danish West Indies, and of course Alaska. He perceived no contradiction between empire and “liberty and human rights throughout the world.”

The juxtaposition of Adams and Seward is emblematic of the book’s overarching argument. My first empire-builder is Ben Franklin. The initial philosopher of an Empire for Liberty, Franklin saw the two concepts—Empire and Liberty—as mutually dependent and reinforcing. So did his fellow Founding Fathers, as do most Americans up to the present day. Yet U.S. history reveals that the liberty and empire were constantly rubbing up against each other, and they were often mutually exclusive. Situated within this context, my final chapter on Paul Wolfowitz and the Postscript on “the Dark Side” were the most challenging for me to write. That’s because at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo the rubber met the road: empire and liberty collided.
Read an excerpt from Empire for Liberty, and learn more about the book from the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue