Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion

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Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion

By Walter Nugent
Knopf, 2008
416 pp. $30.00
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There seem to be two basic views among students of U.S. foreign policy today. One school sees a distinct break between an early American tradition of reticence and modesty on the international stage and a later and more problematic era of assertiveness and expansionism. The year 1898 is often seen as dividing the two ages. In Habits of Empire, Nugent places himself squarely in the other school, that which sees continuity: he argues forcefully that important features of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy (expansionism, assertiveness, imperial ambition) were deeply rooted in American history dating back to the colonial era. He grounds his argument in a rich, detailed, and thoroughly researched discussion of U.S. diplomatic history focused on key moments in the country's growth. His account of the cultural and political context for this continuing expansion are not quite as strong; the book's greatest fault is that, with the exception of an unusually strong and balanced description of Mexican politics at the time of the Mexican-American War and, to a lesser extent, its description of British politics at the close of the American Revolution, the book rarely gives the targets of U.S. expansionism the thorough treatment it gives the Americans. This failure, particularly apparent in the accounts of the fall of the Hawaiian monarchy and the Spanish-American War, too often means that the reader does not have enough of a grasp of the opportunities and constraints facing U.S. policymakers to fully understand the choices they made.