Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. xvi + 1036 ppg.
This entry into the Oxford History of the United States focuses its attention on the diplomatic affairs of the nation since its founding in 1776. In doing so, this volume examines US history through the lens of two centuries and more which sets it apart from the other volumes which focus on smaller time spans. I found the book to be interesting as most histories tend to focus on all aspects of eras and denote foreign affairs only as sideshows to domestic events. Herring’s lens placed foreign affairs at the center of attention and showed how they impacted domestic affairs. This was a rather interesting change of pace.
Herring is the Alumni Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Kentucky. He has specialized in studying American foreign affairs as a career field and has written several books on the subject. This volume is the culmination of that specialized study. Beginning with Benjamin Franklin and his incredible achievements in France during the American War of Independence right up to the first decade of the 21st century, Herring covers the often mishandled foreign policy of the nation.
The thing that struck me the most in reading the book is that Herring seemed to show how there has never been a general US foreign policy. It has always changed depending on the will of the president and political party in control of the federal government. I would think this would be extremely frustrating for other nations who constantly had to adapt to a new president and their desires. If one thing stands out, it is that the nation’s leaders often regulated foreign policy to the backburner in favor of domestic affairs, but soon found out that this approach often failed. Woe to the American president who ignored foreign affairs after WWII. In some cases foreign policy influenced their decision making process far more than they wanted to the point where foreign affairs played a make or break role in their administration’s success in the long term.
A prime example of this would be Lyndon Johnson. The conflict in Vietnam sapped his ability to sustain his liberal domestic policy which resulted in conservative assaults upon it that severely crippled the legislation’s ability to live up to its promises. The nation still deals with the effects of that event. In the case of early American presidents, Herring also shows how foreign policy impacted their choices. Jefferson and Madison are often well known for their domestic policies and political idealism, but foreign affairs played such a strong role in their choices that contemporary Americans often felt those administrations were nowhere nearly as successful as modern Americans make them out to be.
Herring is extremely critical of the unilateralism policies of George W. Bush and his neo-conservative base. He saw these policies as disastrous which probably reflects the attitudes of the academic community at large during those times as well as the hindsight which has clearly shown unilateralism to have significantly damaged America’s standing in the international community. I thought the book was excellent even without that analysis. While some readers may object to that analysis, the facts bear out Herring’s assessment.
Herring supported his interpretations quite well with a great deal of scholarship as borne out by his supporting documentation. He used a rich mixture of primary and secondary sources to develop them. I really liked the book and its set up as working the different eras via chapters. Each one could be read separate from the other which is helpful for instructors who are looking for information on specific time periods. The drawback is this is a big book and the separation can cause readers to set it down for long stretches. All in all I found the book to be a very good study of US foreign policy which has greatly enriched my understanding of the nation’s development over time.