Books

How America's empire grew

Confined at its birth to the area east of the Mississippi River, by 1867 the United States reached all the way to the Bering Strait. Never has a nation grown so large so quickly.

The United States is today the third-largest country in the world, behind only Russia and Canada. Its territory could hardly be richer, more diverse or more advantageously placed on the globe. While much of the land of Russia and Canada is arctic or subarctic, most U.S. territory is in the Temperate Zone. The United States is the only great power with coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific, placing it effectively at the center of the world.

How this immense and fecund national territory came to be assembled is the story of "Habits of Empire" by Walter Nugent, a professor for many years at Notre Dame and earlier at Indiana University. He divides this history into three phases. The first, which he calls Empire I, takes up most of the book and is concerned with what is now the lower 48 states. While most people remember maps from school and the occasional catchy phrase, like "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!" and "manifest destiny," the details are hazy at best. These often fascinating details are well-delineated by Nugent.

The United States acquired much of its present territory by aggressive means, notably what is now the Southwest, when it defeated Mexico in a war and forced it to cede a huge chunk of its almost empty northern reaches (although to be sure the United States paid Mexico more than it had paid France, in an arm's-length deal, for the Louisiana Purchase).

But U.S. aggression failed in some cases, notably Canada. Thomas Jefferson thought its acquisition would be "a mere matter of marching" and that the Canadians would greet the Americans with open arms. They did not, and the United States was very lucky to get out of the War of 1812 with a burned capital and a draw.

In other cases, like those of Florida and Texas, the land was acquired by the simple expedient of American settlers pouring into largely unsettled areas. Spain, facing incipient revolt in both Mexico and South America, realized that it could not hold Florida anyway and sold it. Mexico, a few years later, tried to hold Texas but, led by a remarkably incompetent general, Santa Anna, lost it at the Battle of San Jacinto, where Santa Anna was captured and his army soundly defeated by Sam Houston and his Texas militia.

By 1853 the continental United States was complete and what Nugent calls Empire II began. Empire I had been acquired with the idea of settlement, which occurred in the American West with astonishing speed. Empire II, however, was not meant for settlement, at least at first. The biggest part of Empire II was Alaska, which became American for much the same reason that Louisiana had about 60 years earlier: A European empire wanted to be rid of it and didn't want Britain to get it.

The rest of Empire II was added in the late 19th century and, except for the Philippines, consisted mostly of small islands in the Pacific, like Guam, American Samoa and Hawaii. Puerto Rico and, finally, the Virgin Islands, bought from Denmark in 1917, rounded out this overseas empire.

But a major part of Empire II was the control the United States exercised over foreign countries that were nominally independent. U.S. protectorates were established in many countries in the Caribbean basin, with the Marines sent to keep peace. But with the end of World War I, the American taste for foreign empire began to evaporate. By the middle of the 1930s the Marines were out of places like Nicaragua, and the Philippines was self-governing and on its way to independence.

Up to this point "Habits of Empire" is both a readable and valuable work in American history. Unfortunately, Nugent added a postscript, "The Global Empire," on the United States in the post-World War II world. He calls this phase of American history Empire III, and his depiction of it is somewhere between highly tendentious and simply silly.

He covers 63 years of enormous global change in a mere 12 pages, which doesn't leave much room for explaining extremely complex events or providing context. And he is often wrong on his facts. He writes that "there was no significant peace dividend" after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, and that there were no military base closings. In fact the total Department of Defense budget, in constant dollars, fell by more than 30 percent between 1989 and 1998, and there have been five rounds of base closings. In short, he buys into visceral anti-Americanism, seeing American self-aggrandizing imperialism everywhere, scarcely noting that the free world was engaged in a decades-long, worldwide struggle against a ruthless tyranny.

In all, "Habits of Empire" is an excellent book as long as one ignores the historical claptrap of the postscript, which is an embarrassment to the author and publisher and an insult to the reader.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

  Comments