“One of the central themes of American historiography is that there is no American empire.” So wrote the eminent historian William Appleman Williams in 1955. During the subsequent decades, there was a revolution in the study of American empire, first by historians of international relations (mostly on the left), including Williams, Walter LaFeber and Lloyd Gardner, who emphasized the economic impetus behind US expansionism. More recently, imperialism has fallen under the purview of cultural historians like Emily Rosenberg and Victoria de Grazia, who in different ways foregrounded the ambition to spread the gospel of consumerism and liberal development abroad. Mary Renda and Paul Kramer, among others, have powerfully linked the efforts to dominate people of color both at home and abroad (US policies in Haiti and the Philippines grew from the poisoned soil of Jim Crow and racial restriction). Still others have emphasized the culture of masculinity that pervaded America’s overseas adventures, from Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders through the Green Berets in Vietnam.
But for all their talent, the work by these historians of American empire has barely penetrated the popular consciousness. For most public intellectuals and the public itself, America still stands as an exception to Rome or Britain, allergic to imperialism because of its anticolonial roots and its lower-case democratic culture. The United States is a nation builder, not an empire builder; a world power that benignly brought democracy to the world by sowing the seeds of capitalism; a beacon of persuasion rather than coercion. Even if, over the last sixty years, American capital has reached into every corner of the world, Hollywood and New York have reshaped popular culture in Paris and Mumbai, presidents and Congress have provided hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid, and America has intervened in civil wars abroad from Angola to Laos, from Guatemala to Libya, the United States, wrote Gardner in a much-quoted 1989 essay, is still “the empire that dare not speak its name.”
Joshua Freeman sets out to undermine this exceptionalist view in his synthesis of American history after World War II. American Empire is comprehensive in its sweep, but returns to three major themes: the country’s extraordinary economic growth, especially in the quarter-century following World War II; the proliferation of mass movements to bring the promise of democracy to fruition on the home front; and the dramatic expansion of American power in the world. Freeman is a labor historian by training and the author of Working-Class New York (2000), one of the most compelling urban histories published in the last few decades. Befitting his interests, he emphasizes the economic dimension of the recent American past and highlights the centrality of social movements (organized labor and civil rights, particularly) in remaking the internal politics of the United States. On the third dimension, American foreign policy, Freeman is the most conventional. He assumes that America is an empire rather than defining exactly what that means. And unlike many of the most recent social and cultural historians writing on the subject, he leaves empire’s subjects mostly voiceless and, by implication, powerless.
It is no mean feat to encapsulate close to six decades of history in a few hundred pages without ruthless compression or glib superficiality. Freeman pulls off what most historians cannot: he has written a survey that seldom slips into textbook banalities. This is no tedious compendium of facts, but rather a powerful small-d democratic account of recent American history, compellingly readable and often passionate. To his credit, Freeman integrates, more smoothly than most, the top-down history of presidents, courts and policy-makers with the bottom-up history of social movements. He ably discusses Truman’s cold war politics, the National Security Council and the Marshall Plan, as well as Social Security, welfare and housing policy. He carefully recounts the Kennedy assassination, offers one of the most thorough and useful brief histories of the Great Society in print, explains Watergate and dutifully, if not enthusiastically, explicates Reagan’s vision of “morning in America.”