In This Review
From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776

From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776

By George C. Herring

Oxford University Press, 2008, 1056 pp.

Anyone who has written a one-volume history of U.S. foreign policy deserves the gratitude -- and the sympathy -- of everyone engaged in the study and teaching of this perplexing subject: possibly the most complex, vital, and, relative to its importance, understudied discipline in world history today. Such authors deserve our gratitude because a one-volume study of the United States' engagement with the world is so necessary to readers and, especially, to teachers. They deserve our sympathy because such a book is difficult, if not impossible, to write well.

George Herring's well-written and lively book, part of the Oxford History of the United States series, may turn out to be one of the last attempts by a leading scholar to compress a comprehensive and comprehensible account of the United States' foreign relations into a single volume. More than 230 years have passed since the Declaration of Independence; the United States has been the most powerful country in the world since World War I ended, in 1918; and since the end of World War II, it has consciously assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the global economic and political system. A lot of water has passed over the dam.

It gets worse: the story is fiendishly complex. In all the long history of the civilized world, only a few countries and cultures have had anything like the impact of the United States on religion, politics, technology, and culture. Like ancient Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, and Arabia, and like more modern Spain and the more modern United Kingdom, the United States has shaped the way people have worked, fought, prayed, and played in many places far from its shores. Because the American era coincided with (and indeed helped cause) the technological and economic revolutions of the twentieth century, the impact of the United States has spread faster and deeper than did the impact of its predecessors.

To take only one, little-appreciated statistic: in 1900, approximately nine percent of the population of the global South was Christian. By 2000, 24 percent was Christian. And just as U.S. missionaries have been the primary (although far from the only) agents in spreading this faith, the distinctively American religion of Pentecostal Christianity (born in Los Angeles at the Azusa Street revival of 1906) has been the largest and most energetic element in the greatest expansion of any religious faith in documented history.

The Los Angeles revival that launched Pentecostalism took place a few miles from where, in the next decade, the studios and back lots of Hollywood would touch off another revolution in global culture. And if the Azusa Street and Hollywood revolutions were not enough, Los Angeles was the first great world city shaped by the automobile. Pentecostalism, Hollywood, and drive-in living are all the products of just one U.S. city; to comprehend the global impact of the whole country is more challenging.

No one-volume or even five-volume work could do justice to this story. Yet the effort must be made. Without at least some understanding of the United States' relationship with the world, the history of the twentieth century makes no sense. Writers must comfort themselves with G. K. Chesterton's observation that anything worth doing is worth doing badly.


Most of the criticisms usually leveled against a book like From Colony to Superpower must be set aside. It is pointless to carp that Herring leaves this or that out; ruthlessness is the first quality a U.S. historian must possess, and the essence of the task is to cut. Not enough about religion, not enough about women, not enough about the poor, not enough about intellectuals, not enough diplomatic history, not enough about technology? It is idle to whine. To satisfy one such critic is to make a dozen more; making room for a fuller treatment of one subject means skimping somewhere else. The novel has been defined as a long prose narrative that has something wrong with it; a one-volume history of U.S. foreign relations can be defined as a long prose narrative that omits vital points.

The most successful short accounts of the grand sweep of U.S. foreign relations published in recent years have taken a different path. Walter McDougall's Promised Land, Crusader State and John Lewis Gaddis' Surprise, Security, and the American Experience concentrate on a handful of themes, using them to illuminate the long-term development of the United States' world role. (So does my own Special Providence.) Robert Kagan's Dangerous Nation is the first volume of a projected two-volume series; Kagan uses the luxury of the extra space to mix more narrative with what remains, at least in the first volume, a tight and schematic overview of ideological unities that link the disparate strands of his story into one coherent, if still incomplete and abstracted, chronological account.

Herring has taken a more historiographically conservative stance than McDougall or Gaddis and produced a book that stays close to the canons of conventional diplomatic history even as it ventures occasionally into broader social themes. The book's subtitle holds the key: this is a history of U.S. foreign relations -- broader than a history of U.S. foreign policy, narrower than a history of the United States' foreign engagement.

This approach makes sense. Diplomatic history, a useful genre that is too often neglected, is a necessary precondition for the study of the United States' engagement with the world. But the American state more frequently reflects, rather than shapes, the forces in American civil society. It was not U.S. diplomacy, for example, that determined U.S. policy toward the Indians or expansion into Texas but the demographics and settlement activity of the American people. The people acted; the diplomats followed -- often reluctantly. The United States' tradition of a relatively weak and decentralized state combined with an unusually well-organized and dynamic civil and commercial society means that the policies of the state reflect only a small part of the activity of the society. Accordingly, one must go beyond diplomatic history to make sense of the United States' role in the world.

But if diplomatic history is too narrow, a study of U.S. foreign relations that rooted itself entirely in the history of American society would be impossibly broad and unfocused. How much must a history of U.S. engagement with the world say about Azusa Street, Hollywood, and suburban sprawl? Herring's approach allows him to keep much of the order and economy of a traditional diplomatic narrative history, but he is able to escape the confines of that approach from time to time and launch out into the broader story of the social movements that led U.S. foreign engagement in various ways. The result is a book that never loses its narrative drive, that tacks swiftly and effectively between diplomatic and social history, that covers the topics of traditional diplomatic history well, and that makes it all look easy.

From Colony to Superpower has other virtues as well. Like Kagan in Dangerous Nation, Herring looks at the United States' relations with Native American peoples as important elements in its encounter with the rest of the world. Neglect of this history has been due to both a general historical amnesia and a Eurocentric view of U.S. foreign policy. In fact, many of the traits, good and bad, that Americans would show in their later dealings with the rest of the world first appeared in their dealings with the native peoples of North America.

Herring also casts light on two eras in U.S. history that are relatively poorly understood, even by well-educated readers: U.S. foreign policy between the American Civil War and the Spanish-American War and U.S. foreign policy between the two world wars. His description of the period between President Woodrow Wilson's retirement in 1921 and President Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933 is particularly timely and useful today, when the economic dimensions of U.S. policy have come so vividly to the fore. Policymakers need a much better understanding of the record (including the shortcomings) of U.S. economic diplomacy in the era before Bretton Woods. A sympathetic and well-organized, but not uncritical, account of the arms control diplomacy of the period is another valuable contribution; one cannot but be grateful to a historian who gives Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, who presided over the first major naval arms limitation conference, something close to his due.


If the treatment of the failure of the Treaty of Versailles and of the diplomacy of the 1920s shows Herring at his best, his account of the Truman administration disappoints. Herring clearly sympathizes with the revisionist view that Harry Truman's simplistic and moralistic use of history, erratic judgment, and hard-line diplomacy were partly responsible for the Cold War. This is a respectable, although minority, view among U.S. historians, and virtually all agree that these traits were real and, at times, damaging. But partly, no doubt, because constraints of space prevent Herring from developing his argument fully, his treatment of the Truman administration appears both weak and tendentious.

His treatment of the suppression of the communist insurrection in Greece is particularly troubling. Between 1947 and 1949, the United States, without committing combat troops, helped the Greek army win a brutal civil war against a communist insurrection that was heavily supported by Yugoslav President Marshal Tito and enjoyed occasional support from Joseph Stalin. The United States' firmness eventually led Stalin to abandon his support for the Greek Communists. That, in turn, led to one of the great Western successes of the Cold War, when Tito broke with Stalin in part over the Kremlin's failure to back the Greek Communists.

Herring's treatment of this episode is startlingly ungracious. He charges the Truman administration with "ignoring the essentially domestic roots of the insurgency, blurring the authoritarian nature of the Greek government, and greatly exaggerating the Soviet role." Moreover, the victory "came at a great cost": 100,000 people died. And in any case, his indictment continues, the United States' ultimate success was as much due to mistakes made by the insurgents as to anything Truman did.

But this misses many points. The nasty, incompetent, and corrupt Greek regime, for all its many faults, was clearly a better alternative for the Greeks than communist rule. A communist victory in Greece would have been a major victory for the Kremlin, regardless of the insurgency's "domestic roots." Turkey would have been isolated, and Communists in Italy, Germany, and France would have been encouraged at a critical time. People die in wars; a communist victory in Greece would surely have led to more deaths and repression in Greece, and U.S. policymakers at that time could reasonably fear that a lost civil war in Greece would lead to more civil wars and many more deaths in other countries at risk.

The casualty figure for the Greek Civil War is the only such number Herring produces for the period: there are no statistics given for the deaths and repression in communist Europe during the last, paranoid stage of Stalin's rule. In Herring's bilious estimation, the mistakes the Americans made in Greece undermined the rationale for the war, and the mistakes of their enemies devalued the victory.

That Herring's account of the Red Scare is thin is excusable given the need to compress 230 years of history into one volume; the tendentiousness is less so. It is not just that names such as Alger Hiss do not appear; it is that Herring utterly fails to help readers grasp the sheer horror of totalitarian politics in the middle of the twentieth century. Readers of this book will have no clue as to why so many Americans loathed communism so deeply or feared it so greatly. Without that understanding, they will not be able to assess the accomplishments and the failures of the U.S. leaders who tried to develop strategies to contain it while avoiding a hot war with the Soviet Union.

With more space, Herring could have made a more effective case -- and there is certainly much to be said about the excesses, stupidities, and injustices of the anticommunist wave of the early Cold War. But by presenting a simplified and one-sided account of a complicated phenomenon, Herring does a disservice both to his readers and to himself.


The greatest shortcoming in the book is due to Herring's regrettable tendency to lapse into the role of a newspaper editorialist. Faced with the need either to curtail his description of past events or to omit his judgment on the wisdom or foolishness of the men and measures at hand, Herring too often saves the editorial comment at the expense of the historical exposition. Much too frequently, and especially as the narrative approaches the present, Herring seems more concerned with telling the reader whom he likes rather than showing the reader what people did.

For some readers, Herring's political stance will appear a bit too reflexively and predictably liberal to be particularly enlightening; others will feel that he gets it mostly right. Even so, there is too much of it, and too much of anything is a grave fault in a book of this type. The fault is especially marked when Latin America comes to the fore. There is something about the region that brings out Herring's worst instincts as a writer -- much as, arguably, something in the region seems to bring out the worst in U.S. diplomats.

Unfortunately, although the occasional editorializing does not greatly diminish the value of this book for experienced scholars and advanced students, it does significantly reduce the value of it for use in introductory university courses. Additionally, Herring passes over events since 1989 with a very light hand: he devotes ten pages per year to the period from 1942 to 1952 but drops to only three pages per year once the Berlin Wall is down. For older readers who lived through that history, this makes sense. And intellectually, the choice is defensible; history and current events are not the same thing. For undergraduates, however, most of whom do not remember the debates over the invasion of Iraq, much less know why U.S. troops are in the Balkans, this is a serious gap.

These defects, however annoying, should be kept in perspective. There are great swaths of narrative where they do not appear, and where Herring's scholarship and historical imagination provide real insight into the past. Moreover, Herring is one of a handful of U.S. historians who can write clearly, comprehensibly, and even entertainingly about obscure topics. It is one thing to write a scintillating book about the Founding Fathers and great events; it is much, much harder to guide a reader through the policies and hopes of secretaries of state whose names, to the general reader, are obscure. His observations are often fresh, his research indefatigable.

In the end, one feels that Herring is a victim of the form -- that the whole enterprise of condensing U.S. history into a single volume of straight narrative must now be abandoned. At nearly a thousand pages, Herring's account is too long for the casual reader and too short for the specialist. American history gets longer every year; the next writer who undertakes this necessary but thankless task will have an even harder time.

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  • WALTER RUSSELL MEAD is Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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