Empire and Revolution: On Joshua Freeman
If Freeman’s perspective on domestic policy is fresh, he has the least new to say regarding America’s role in world affairs. That is not to deny the excellence of his synthesis of existing histories of American foreign relations. He offers concise overviews of the Marshall Plan, US policy toward Cuba, the buildup to the Vietnam War, and the nuclear struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. But he has a relatively conventional understanding of the rise of America as a global power. For Freeman, America’s imperial reach consists primarily of its role in counterinsurgencies against radicals or perceived radicals. While this emphasis is crucial to understanding post–World War II American foreign policy, it is only one part of the history of empire.
Freeman offers a good summary of Eisenhower’s role in supporting the 1954 coup in Guatemala and Reagan’s efforts to shore up rightists in El Salvador and Nicaragua. But other aspects of Latin American policy, including Kennedy’s massive foreign aid and antipoverty programs in Colombia (one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid in the 1960s), the US intervention in the 1964 elections in British Guyana and Chile, and the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic get mentioned in but a few sentences. Even American involvement with Israel and Palestine is brief and seems an afterthought.
In the last several years, prominent American historians like Daniel Rodgers, Mark Bradley and Eiichiro Azuma have called for a new emphasis on transnational history, tracing the connections between the United States and the world, exploring the ways that the United States was influenced by developments in other countries, and following the flows of capital, people and ideas across national borders. In the most radical versions of transnational history, some scholars have challenged the primacy of the nation-state as a category of historical analysis. Rodgers showed how America’s Progressive era reformers were influenced by experiments in social policy in France, Britain and Germany. Bradley rewrote the history of the Vietnam War using Vietnamese-language sources. And, drawing on archives in Japan and California, Azuma showed how Japanese immigrants in the early twentieth-century United States were torn “between two empires.” By contrast, historians like Freeman and, for that matter, myself, who were trained during the ascendancy of the “new labor” and “new social” histories of the 1970s to the late ’80s, often read the work of British, French and South African scholars and studied immigration history, but seldom had the linguistic skills or incentive to conduct research in other countries or use sources in languages other than English. Diplomatic history was considered passé—or, as one of my colleagues from graduate school once memorably put it, “I’d rather study someone’s grandmother than Eisenhower.” The “new” historians also favored richly detailed local case studies, an approach that did not easily lend itself to the global reach that characterizes much new scholarship. Freeman’s American Empire—like so many accounts of modern American history—does not yet fully reflect the transnational turn that is reshaping the discipline.
Freeman is better on the changing place of America in the world economy—from the postwar boom, when America’s manufacturing power was unchallenged, to the oil shock and the rise of global competition a few decades later—but without a full consideration of how his account reveals the limitations and ironies of American empire. Germany, which depended on massive infusions of American aid to rebuild its war-devastated infrastructure and economy, emerged as a global power by the 1960s and a major competitor to the United States. The United States also reconstructed Japan, and in the process aided the rebirth of a new, improved Japanese empire, shorn of its military and territorial ambitions, but which by the 1970s had colonized the world with cars and electronics and capital. Freeman offers an excellent, succinct summary of the Korean War, but no discussion of how American aid, technical assistance and investment transformed South Korea into one of Asia’s economic powerhouses. By the 1970s, American trade and taxation policies facilitated the offshoring of capital and the flight of jobs to low-wage, poorly regulated economies overseas. The United States, which had dominated automobile, electrical and steel manufacturing, saw its share of the global market decline, but just at the same moment that America’s financial empire was taking new form. Here is one of the book’s biggest gaps: other than a few paragraphs on the origins of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the International Trade Organization in the 1940s, Freeman has little to say about American trade policy and American-initiated transformations in the global finance system, which were ultimately as consequential—if not as dramatic—as the Cuban missile crisis or the Vietnam War or Reagan’s support of the contras in reshaping late twentieth-century America and the world beyond.
To understand America’s global reach requires going beyond the conventional focus on military conflicts, traditional diplomacy and counterinsurgency. Marginal to Freeman’s account, but not to the history of the United States in the postwar world, is the contested history of human rights—sometimes a tool for reformers, sometimes a justification for American intervention abroad, often an ideal honored in the breach by American foreign policy-makers. America’s massive experiments in economic development in Asia and Africa also get scant mention, even though they blended cold war imperatives, liberal humanitarianism and economic self-interest, giving the postwar American empire its distinctive character. To understand this dimension of modern American history requires looking beyond the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, and examining how America’s empire was also built by nongovernmental organizations, including churches, multinational corporations, foundations and activist groups.
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If the United States found itself in competition with the empires it had rebuilt, it also found itself reshaped by the widespread global anticolonial insurgencies of the mid–twentieth century. Over the last few decades, the new historiography of empire has brought together center and periphery, imperial institutions and the resistance to them. It is impossible to write a history of empire without the subaltern speaking. But Freeman has little to say about the reaction to American empire overseas. Much of the story of the second half of the twentieth century concerns parts of the empire striking back. The anticolonial revolt of the mid-twentieth century initially targeted the European empires, especially Britain and France, but also Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal. Some revolutionaries, whether honestly or disingenuously, appealed to America’s anticolonial origins. In 1946, Ho Chi Minh reached out to the Truman administration no fewer than eleven times on the grounds that the Indochinese insurgency was motivated by the same principles as the American Revolution. But America had long since shed its anticolonial skin and allied instead with the French, eventually bankrolling almost 80 percent of France’s costs in its counterinsurgency against Ho. By the 1950s, third world anti-imperialists began to challenge the United States as well. Those Asian and African countries that met at the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, for example, attempted to create a counterweight both to the United States and the Soviet Union. Anticolonial rebels in Angola, the Congo, Ghana, Vietnam (which Freeman discusses) and Indonesia quickly turned their anger toward what had become the world’s greatest power, in part because the United States steadfastly allied itself with their imperial overlords.
The absence of those subaltern voices—the global anticolonial insurgency—is a lost opportunity for Freeman to bridge his accounts of American foreign policy and domestic social movements. From time to time, he hints at the connections between anticolonialism and domestic radical or reform movements. He fleetingly notes the influence of Indian nationalist Mohandas K. Gandhi on the civil rights movement, but not the fact that the African-American press extensively covered anticolonial struggles in Asia and Africa, and that leaders as diverse as W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael saw the black freedom struggle in the United States as fundamentally allied with the anticolonial struggles in Ethiopia, India, Ghana and Algeria. And in his account of the New Left, Freeman suggestively notes the importance of groups like the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, but downplays the deep affinities between global anticolonial activists and intellectuals on the American left (even if most rank-and-file New Leftists shared a rather romantic view of third world revolutionaries). He also overlooks the ways that the freedom struggles within America’s far-flung empire took on new and sometimes liberatory forms elsewhere in the world. In the 1970s, South African activists echoed the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr., and nationalists from Quebec to Okinawa to Soweto found a useful language of rebellion in the American black power movement, whose impact at home may have been small, but whose language of self-determination and racial pride not only refracted older versions of anticolonialism but gave them a new, transgressive form in the world.
In the April 27, 2009, issue, Thomas J. Sugrue explained how FDR’s first hundred days were unprecedented in their ambition and scope—and anything but politically coherent.