17: Walter LaFeber’s The American Age

I’m not entirely sure why I had to read a textbook on American foreign policy from the 1980s, but LaFeber’s strange combination of 1930s-style grand narrative and tongue-in-cheek progressive commentary throughout made for an interesting read.

The American Age is LaFeber’s grand attempt to summarize in 700 pages the history of American foreign policy since 1750 (yes, since before we were even a country.)  In particular, he’s in search of themes that can apply to (and make sense of) 250 years of American history, and his ideal audience is students and teachers.  And amazingly, he finds five major themes that more or less make sense:

  • the expansive quest for new land and new business opportunities that drove the nation outward from the 1750s to the 1840s
  • the steady centralization of power at home, especially in the oval office, after about 1890, because the kind of presence Americans want abroad requires a strong presidency
  • the recurrent emphasis on isolationism, which isn’t so much wanting to be left alone as wanting to keep other powers from meddling with freedom and individualism
  • the importance of 1850-1914, when the US reconsidered isolationism, the constitution, and democracy in its pursuit of world dominance
  • how Americans act at home reveals much about how they act and what they expect abroad.

Basically, he’s arguing that the development of the United States – culturally, politically, and economically – is and always has been intimately related to our foreign policies and interactions with other nations.

The part of this book that’s most fascinating, I think, is LaFeber’s emphasis on historical continuity.  Many historians like to talk about history as if it were composed of many separate eras: the Jacksonian Age, the Industrial revolution, the Guilded Age, the Progressive Era, the Machine Age, the post-postindustrial era, etc. I’m all for periodizing things, since thinking about history in terms of one long continuum makes my brain hurt, but I think it’s important to emphasize that the periods are connected to one another and that there are no radical breaks in history.  For instance, smart phones have dramatically transformed the way we live, but people still use older communication technologies like landlines, letters, and emails, we still remember a time when those technologies were new or at least prevalent, and the networks and patterns of communication shaped by those older technologies have helped shaped the networks and patterns we have today.

Similarly, LaFeber argues that the practices and ideas that guided American foreign policy in the 20th century have their roots in practices and ideas from earlier eras, and that each new administration picked up where the last left off.  In addition to historical continuity, LaFeber also argues for spatial continuity, and he takes pains to write about conflicts and relationships that were overshadowed by others. 

Some elements of this strategy are not so good: emphasizing continuity can make it feel too much like history determines the past, or like there is something unique and essential about America, Americans, or the Constitution that guide all of our actions and make us the chosen people.  LaFeber is definitely guilty of both of these errors.  But to argue, as he ultimately does, that American expansion both across the continent and across the globe has long been based in Thomas Paine’s claim that what is good for America is good for the world, and that what is “good for America” has long been exploitative commercial enterprise – well, that’s a wakeup call.  And it’s a particularly useful one when it’s carefully embedded in what reads, eerily, like a high school history textbook.

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