4th of July pageant (circa 1905).
(photo credit: Library of Congress)
In 1823 the infant United States was asked to sign on to a treaty by the mighty
British Empire. “George Canning, foreign secretary of the United Kingdom and
America’s former adversary, courted Washington’s opinion,” Elizabeth Cobbs
Hoffman writes in American Umpire. The treaty sought to stop re-colonization of
Latin America by European powers.
This seemed to be in America’s interest
and policy makers jumped at the opportunity.
Only one member of president
James Monroe’s cabinet dissented, John Quincy Adams.
Adams had lived in
Europe and he saw the treaty as a British plot against other European powers, in
which it was trying to enlist the US. There was no reason to be a “cock-boat in
the wake of a British man-ofwar,” explained Adams.
This example is one of
many provided in Hoffman’s work that illustrates how the US sought to act as an
intermediary rather than take an active role. This flies in the face of the
current view that America has sought to be an imperial hegemonic power on the
In her erudite account, Stanford professor Hoffman
challenges prevailing wisdom, and in so doing presents a compelling and
fascinating picture of the history of the US.
The source of American
neutrality was George Washington, the first president of the country. Washington
saw the US role in the world as one that could be guided by economic concerns,
which were necessarily peaceful since commerce thrives in the absence of
He articulated this in 1793, noting that economic incentive would
“introduce between nations another umpire than arms.”
From this starting
point Hoffman sets out to examine the history of US foreign policy, with an eye
towards how it mitigated imperial leanings, rather than encouraged
The US was one of the world’s few true democracies even as late as
1900. By 1920 it was the world’s wealthiest nation.
Yet despite its
wealth and growing power, its elected representatives shied away from foreign
acquisitions. In 1867, Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner argued in favor of
purchasing Alaska from the Russians.
Even though the territory was
equivalent to 17 percent of US territory and was being offered for several
million dollars in gold, Congress demurred.
“The New York Times, then
identified with the Republican party, was one of the few papers to urge
Congressional acquiescence. It conceded that Alaska had little inherent value
but predicted that one day the Pacific coast might be ‘as thickly studded with
ports and cities as the Atlantic is now.’” When Congress was offered the Virgin
Islands by Denmark in 1867, it declined to purchase them. Ironically, Hoffman
notes that the US paid four times as much to buy them in 1917 for strategic
reasons. Some Americans, including the one-time antislavery advocate Frederick
Douglass, even suggested incorporating the Dominican Republic. The country’s
president Buenaventura Baez begged to join the US, but the US said
The author complains that the general view of US history has been
full of clichés about racism and belligerent intentions.
She notes that
the debate about acquiring the Dominican Republic was one that united racists
William Seward, president Ulysses S.
secretary of state, argued that “the intermingling of races always was, and
always will be, the chief element of civilization.”
incorporation of a mostly black populace from the Caribbean would be a positive
Later, the US role in the world was challenged by the outbreak of
World War I and II. In the 1920s the country had turned towards isolationism and
neutrality in world affairs. Those who opposed allying with the English against
Germany in the 1930s called themselves the America First movement.
later years, historians and other commentators tended to dismiss
non-interventionists as cranks, anti-Semites and naïfs… but
anti-interventionists were correct that involvement in another world war would
profoundly reshape the nation, with unforeseeable consequences,” the author
notes. Indeed, the aftermath of the war found parts of the world in ruins and
the European colonial powers at pains to maintain their empires.
independence movements, such as those in Ghana, India, Indonesia and Vietnam,
looked to the US for inspiration and support.
However, with the outbreak
of the Cold War, the US found itself in a bind. Some of the anti-colonial
movements were also inspired and advised by the Soviet Union.
worked overtime to thwart Communist expansion, at the risk of supporting
dictators abroad. “Although CIA activities gave the US a black eye, it was in
Vietnam that America received its worst pummeling,” writes the
Hoffman concludes that America’s “core values proved stable [over
time]. Between 1776 and the present, Americans continued to believe passionately
in the equality of states.
“They might dislike or disrespect other
polities, and compete strenuously against them, but they defended the principal
of juridical equality with their very lives.”
She argues that the US has
helped create the present world system, which puts a premium on democracy, human
rights and free trade. Some will see this as a view tainted by rose-colored
glasses, but it is a welcome corrective to the view that the US has generally
sought to imperialistically meddle in the affairs of other countries.
Hoffman shows, this view, predicated primarily on the negative experiences of
the US in some places like Vietnam, should be weighed against many of the values
that sought mediation and worked against colonialism.