In This Review
The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 1: The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776-1865

The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 1: The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776-1865

By Bradford Perkins

Cambridge University Press, 1993, 243 pp.
The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 2: The American Search for Opportunity, 1865-1913

The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 2: The American Search for Opportunity, 1865-1913

By Walter Lafeber

Cambridge University Press, 1993, 251 pp.
The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 3: The Globalizing of America, 1913-1945

The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 3: The Globalizing of America, 1913-1945

By Akira Iriye

Cambridge University Press, 1993, 229 pp.
The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 4: America in the Age of Soviet Power, 1945-1991

The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, Volume 4: America in the Age of Soviet Power, 1945-1991

By Warren I. Cohen

Cambridge University Press, 1993, 271 pp.

All political debates oversimplify. American debates about foreign policy oversimplify more than most. Ever since F.D.R., all presidents have branded their opponents "isolationists." Critics of presidents have styled themselves "the peace movement." Even debates about the debates oversimplify, for example by portraying choices as between "realism" and "idealism."

Actual foreign policy issues are rarely so simple. They usually involve complicated trade-offs, marginally greater military security, for example, versus marginally greater resources for domestic investment. American foreign policy issues present peculiar complications. The now-unfashionable doctrine of "American exceptionalism" contains an element of truth. As Bradford Perkins writes in the opening volume of this splendid Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations:

The driving forces in American foreign policy both are and are not like those of other nations. They include the same emphasis on national self-interest, the same intrusion of the larger culture, the same distortions, sometimes minor, sometimes substantial, of the view of world events seen through a prism of national but not universal values. But each of these forces, or factors, also has a peculiarly American character.

American foreign policy issues have historically involved one question not asked in the same way elsewhere: Who are we? The French, the Germans and the Japanese may find it hard to decide how far their national interests are coterminous with those of their farmers. Though writers in each country anguish over national identity, France, Germany and Japan have well-defined cultures, with inherited notions of common interest related in various ways to older notions of dynastic interest, confined more or less to people in one area who speak one language. The British self-conception is more vague; differences between Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher bear witness. But Britain chooses between only two or three personalities (Commonwealth and Empire versus "this earth, this England"). The United States chooses among many.


The American problem of self-definition dates back to the American Revolution. Earlier, Americans had begun, like the Scots, Welsh and some Irish, to think of themselves as Britons. While they agitated for London to pay more attention to their local concerns, they spoke of the interests of the crown as "our interests."

After the Revolution, Americans never settled into a comparable consensus. Even now, many Americans think of the United States less as a nation than as a kind of alliance. The federal system nourishes such a conception. Until the Civil War, "the United States" was customarily a plural noun. Only since the 1860s have Americans said, "The United States is . . ." In the 1990s, with regard to trade agreements, many members of Congress say openly that their duty is to defend their districts or states, not the interests of the nation as a whole.

For other Americans, the United States has been more than a nation. Thomas Jefferson saw a community of interest among republics. To some Jeffersonians, this community could be one of independent republics. To others, it meant a United States adding cubits to itself, as in the expansionism of the mid-nineteenth century (an early, more literal policy of "enlargement").

A different version of this larger United States found some community of interest wherever it saw an open door for trade and investment. This was less Jefferson’s "empire of liberty" than a more old-fashioned empire with a metropolis and dependencies, but it differed from European empires in the extent of commitment to populations nominally entirely independent. Witness Grover Cleveland’s threat to go to war with Britain on behalf of Venezuela if Britain refused to arbitrate a boundary dispute or F.D.R.’s stubborn refusal to modify his insistence that Japan respect China’s territorial integrity.

Yet another and even larger United States was that of Woodrow Wilson. In Wilson’s conception, a community of interest linked all governments committed to peace. To him, peace was a precondition for both democracy and capitalism. As Akira Iriye writes, "Democracy at home and peace abroad . . . were two sides of the same coin." Out of this conception grew the staple definition of American interest after World War II: the preservation of "peace-loving nations."

Some Americans, however, thought of the United States as a self-contained nation whose interests were primarily those of the people within its borders. John Quincy Adams is an example. He said of America, "She goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own." Later, others held a similarly limited conception of the United States: William Jennings Bryan, Henry Wallace, Robert A. Taft.

The Cambridge History taken as a whole illustrates the extent to which foreign policy debates in the United States have really concerned the definition of the nation. Anti-interventionists of 1917 and 1941 shared John Quincy Adams’ conception of America. To them, to go to war in Europe seemed insane. Interventionists had different conceptions, some of which were Jeffersonian or Wilsonian. Insanity to them was to refuse to fight for fellow democracies or other peace-loving peoples. The aftermath of the Cold War finds these competing conceptions still alive.


The famous quarrels between Jefferson and Hamilton turned less on differing conceptions of the United States than on differing views of both national self-interest and the ideal future. Hamilton wanted to encourage merchants; Jefferson, his fellow farmers. In later debates over Manifest Destiny or imperialism or intervention in the two world wars, some divisions similarly reflected differences not in national self-conception but in the ranking of national interests, North versus South, ethnic homogeneity versus diversity, or western hemispheric versus European or Asian relationships.

Even the Wilsonian conception of the United States left room for difference. To serve American self-interest, Wilson envisioned a peaceful world where, among other things, people would buy American products instead of wasting money on soldiers. Some Wilsonians objected that Wilson himself accepted too much risk of war and demanded too little change. Summarizing recent, genuinely revisionist scholarship, Iriye describes the Senate "irreconcilables" of 1919 as "more Wilsonian than Wilson himself." William E. Borah, the senator from Idaho who was often mischaracterized as an arch-isolationist, insisted that communist Russia should not be shut out of the society of nations and that the United States should insist on self-determination for colonial peoples.


American debates about foreign policy can also turn on differences over how to pursue agreed-upon interests or values. Some of the fiercest contention has occurred when persons otherwise in accord disagreed over whether or when to employ military force. Next in ferocity has been contention over economic coercion, from Jefferson’s and Madison’s embargo of Britain prior to 1812 to the recent divestment from South Africa.

Iriye’s volume highlights changes affecting these tactical debates. He emphasizes that current notions of national power have prevailed only during this century. For a long time Europeans attached as much importance to a regime’s legitimacy as to its armies or its treasury. In the nineteenth century, Iriye writes, "Western thought came to lay unusual stress on power. . . . Power often meant control over distant lands. Civilization, another term that was widely used, was synonymous with power; those nations that were more powerful were by definition more civilized, and vice versa."

During the twentieth century, power and civilization ceased to be equated. Instead, power was reduced to coercive capability, conceived as a combination of location, resources and skill. "The emergence of geopolitical-mindedness," Iriye writes, "was a major phenomenon of American intellectual and diplomatic history. The consciousness of power and the readiness to consider war as an instrument of national policy, such a "realist" response to world affairs was to have a profound impact on the way the American people viewed external events." Debates primarily over means of action, as between go-to-war and short-of-war interventionists in 1941 or Senate factions prior to the Gulf War of 1991, Iriye explains as efforts at "combining geopolitics with Wilsonian internationalism."

Apart from this interesting framework, The Cambridge History offers less help in understanding the "how?" debates than in perceiving underlying differences about "who?" or "what?" Taken together, the four volumes provide much the best survey of American diplomatic history ever published. Compared with other surveys of approximately the same overall length like, for example, the once-famous textbooks of Samuel Flagg Bemis and Thomas A. Bailey, The Cambridge History volumes are remarkable for their attention to (and distance from) American ideology. Though in differing degree, all four volumes treat the United States as one actor in international history. And the international history is global, not just North Atlantic, a fact not surprising since Iriye and Cohen are specialists on American-East Asian relations.

The Cambridge History can nevertheless be faulted if measured against an ideal. This is not necessarily due to the authors. Hoping for textbook use, the publisher may have insisted that the writers not depart too far from the standard syllabus. The result is that the volumes are perhaps more America-centered than most of the authors would have preferred. This quality opens the history as a whole to the reproach of the late Christopher Thorne and other non-American scholars: that all is "America and . . ." The history may also center too much on the State Department.

The Cambridge History is inconsistent in dealing with the United States as a symbol in other countries’ debates. Surprisingly little is taken from rich studies such as those of Durand Echeverria and René Rémond on French opinion of America or D. P. Crook’s American Democracy in English Politics or even Iriye’s own writings on Japanese images of America. And after Vol. 1, where Perkins draws on his own studies of British diplomacy, foreign governments figure only fitfully. Though to argue that Konrad Adenauer, Jean Monnet, and Shigeru Yoshida were key shapers of American foreign relations in the 1950s is not farfetched, only Adenauer gets a mention in the volume for 1945-91, and that is but a passing reference.

Bearing especially on the "how?" question is the comparative absence of government officials other than presidents and secretaries of state. Generals and admirals show up infrequently. Secretaries of the Treasury appear only when participating in diplomatic negotiations, as at Bretton Woods. A list of names not in the index of the volume for 1945-91 includes, in alphabetical order, William Casey, Allen Dulles, James Killian, Curtis LeMay, Lauris Norstad, Hyman Rickover, James Schlesinger, Edward Teller, Paul Volcker, and Albert Wohlstetter.

And nongovernmental actors appear randomly or not all. LaFeber, a professor at Cornell but a leading figure in what is called "the Wisconsin School," deals with some American corporations, portraying their exploitative dealings, primarily in Latin America. On the whole however The Cambridge History reflects the common bias of American historians and social scientists against acknowledging the truth of Calvin Coolidge’s remark, "The chief business of America is business." The Cambridge History would more faithfully mirror American foreign relations if it said a great deal more about workaday market relationships.

Nevertheless, for a one-line appraisal of The Cambridge History, one cannot do better than to borrow what Groton’s headmaster is said to have written about young C. Douglas Dillon: "A plus. Can do better."

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