“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.”
By far the strongest part of Freeman’s book is its discussion of the extraordinary array of social movements that remade American society in the mid- to late twentieth century. Some historians—most notably Princeton’s Sean Wilentz—have argued against interpretations of history that see policy advances as primarily the consequence of pressure from the bottom up and, conversely, periods of retrenchment resulting from the failure of a coherent opposition. Freeman makes the counterargument with real force. He explores the role of organized labor, especially the left-liberal unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, in shaping public policy in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s; he offers a broad and judicious account of the civil rights movement; and he skillfully tracks the rise of the New Left, the counterculture, environmentalism, sexual liberation and feminism.
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Freeman spends just as much time on the history of the American right and fully integrates the conservative rebellion into the mainstream of postwar American history, even if his sympathies are clearly with the left. He explores the deep roots of the New Right in corporate campaigns against the New Deal. And he powerfully traces the grassroots right-wing insurgency, from Young Americans for Freedom and the Goldwater campaign, through Howard Jarvis and the tax revolts of the 1970s, to the rise of the Moral Majority—culminating in the racialized politics of the welfare “reform” and anti–civil rights campaigns that birthed the Reagan Revolution. Freeman offers a comprehensive analysis of the decline of organized labor, the rise of an ideology of market fundamentalism and the emergence of anti-tax movements, what he calls the “resurrection of corporate capitalism.” He powerfully depicts the impact of economic stagnation in the 1970s on the nation’s landscape and compellingly describes the new geography of inequality in late twentieth-century America, from suburban gated communities to slums dominated by the hulks of abandoned factories and overshadowed by the growing prison-industrial complex.
Few scholars are better than Freeman at exploring the ways the conservative turn in public policy shaped the Democratic Party—particularly the Clinton administration, whose social welfare and economic programs brought the market revolution pioneered by the right to fruition. Those looking for a partisan version of modern American history—liberal versus conservative, right versus left—will not find it here: the rise of the right and the reconfiguration of liberalism are fundamentally intertwined in his account.
Freeman also brings the states back in. He begins his book with a discussion of the “differences in state economies, social arrangements, and political cultures” that “in turn shaped the national polity.” Rather than simply reifying the traditional North/South divide that still dominates accounts of the American past, he takes his readers on a whirlwind tour of the Midwest, the Northeast, the South, the Southwest and the West, pausing to reflect on shifts in agricultural production in the Great Plains, the rise and travails of Fordism, the decrepitude of colonial and nineteenth-century cities, the electrification of the rural South and the massive impact of federal military spending in California. Throughout American Empire, he is attentive to regional variation, peppering the book with examples of state-level policy—a topic usually given short shrift, except when it comes to providing examples of Jim Crow.
Through the careful accumulation of detail, Freeman captures the dynamism of regional identities and politics in the United States. He shows how demographic shifts (especially interregional migration and mass suburbanization), capital flows (especially the rise of the Sunbelt) and federal policies (notably environmental regulation and civil rights laws) propelled a process of nationalization. Freeman’s story is one of the waning (if not total disappearance) of regional variation. Suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, looked a lot like suburban Detroit by the 1980s, and the distinction between regional politics, once bright, began to blur.
That said, Freeman could have spent more time highlighting the ongoing tensions between central and state power in the United States. Even in a period of consolidating federal authority, states fought to maintain their autonomy, even if they only partially succeeded. Key liberal social programs, such as aid to families with dependent children (popularly called welfare), unemployment insurance and federal housing policy, were left under state control, resulting in a hodgepodge of eligibility rules and wide state-by-state variations that persist to the present day. Yes, 1960s-era civil rights legislation undermined “states’ rights,” and Johnson’s massive Elementary and Secondary Education Act channeled hundreds of billions of dollars to public schools, ending a long, seemingly sacrosanct tradition of local control of education. The expansive environmental programs of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon also took away some of the local and state discretion over land use (for example, by protecting wetlands from development). But the states fought back and, in some arenas, succeeded in wresting control from the feds by getting waivers to federal programs, or by insisting that federal spending on crime, healthcare and infrastructure be turned into block grants and administered on the state level. The result is a wide variation in how federal funds are spent state by state, as well as how much.
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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.