The historian Walter LaFeber died on Tuesday at the age of eighty seven. As something of an unreconstructed revisionist, the works of the Wisconsin School and the wider New Left historiography have been a key reference point for me. I also have a distant professional connection to LaFeber, since I’ve studied with two of his students, Anthony Fels at the University of San Francisco and Frank Costigliola at the University of Connecticut.
I’m sharing below a reading response I wrote for a seminar on the history of US foreign relations I took years ago, discussing LaFeber’s classic work, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898, and a less well-known essay, “Foreign Policies of a New Nation,” which remains one of my favorite works of diplomatic history.
In the response, I offer both praise and criticism of LaFeber’s work (I hope with more balance than your average grad student exegesis, though you can be the judge). I share the writing not in the spirit of scholarly comment but simply as a snapshot of a student thinking with a work of history. I would be the first to point out that I say nothing novel or interesting below. Still, on the occasion of someone’s passing, it can be worthwhile to reflect on the many ways that we learn from others, and the many ways we carry that learning with us even after they’re gone.
Of all the works we’ve read so far, Walter LaFeber’s book The New Empire and his essay, “Foreign Policies of a New Nation,” come closest to tracing the full arc of US empire. The opening line of the latter piece hits the imperial nail on the head: “Conceived by the greatest imperial power of the time, colonial America debated not whether it would become an empire, but how.” In twenty-one words, LaFeber brings to the surface what remained buried in page after page of the more traditional work of Samuel Flagg Bemis and Thomas A. Bailey.
Imperial expansion has been at the heart of US history since its inception, this expansion was a conscious and deliberate process worked out by political and economic elites, and the turn to overseas empire in the 1890s marked less a clean break with the past than a mutation in the nation’s historical DNA. We may not agree on everything LaFeber presents, but his work nevertheless performs the necessary excavation of the United States’ foreign policy foundations.
Yet despite this important intervention, LaFeber’s argument at times leaves the reader wanting. The idea that US policymakers and the business community pursued overseas expansion in order to find new markets abroad and reduce social tensions at home seems above reproach. But LaFeber’s analysis so tightly binds the many threads he pulls loose that it can sometimes feel restricting.
His emphasis on material conditions imparts a kind of fateful hue to the narrative. Culture and ideas only enter the story obliquely, leaving actions and events to move forward in a machine-like lockstep. For example, the period leading up to the Civil War (along with the conflict itself) is subsumed within the undoubtedly dramatic shift in the United States from an agricultural to industrial economy. But historians such as Amy Greenberg have demonstrated that ideas about race, nation, gender, and progress did much to animate the US imperial project during this period. This cultural framework seems especially salient given that, as Greenberg points out, the United States did not successfully acquire any territory for much of the period LaFeber discusses.
Just as culture and ideas become papered over by the high politics and business relations of the period, LaFeber also leaves some aspects of the later topics underdeveloped. He illustrates the myriad ways that US policymakers and the business community recognized similar features of the country’s situation in the late nineteenth century. Overseas expansion allowed for strategic access to markets, which political and economic elites believed would prevent social tensions from exploding across the nation. But LaFeber fails to fully explain the development of the American state by the 1890s. In part, 1898 became such a turning point not simply because the US government sought to extend itself beyond the North American continent but because it finally had the power to do so.
The Monroe Doctrine, for example, served as a rhetorical tool during a period in which the US state may have harbored grand designs on the western hemisphere but lacked the resources to carry them out. By the 1890s, however, the state development, economic growth, and military might of the United States finally allowed for a rapid and striking extension of US power beyond the nation’s borders. The ability to manifest rather than simply imagine an overseas empire surely accounts in part for the significance of 1898 as a turning point in the history of US foreign policy.
In the end, both the book and the chapter offer an auspicious account of US foreign policy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Elegant, insightful, and comprehensive, LaFeber’s writing does much to provide, in the words of Nell Irvin Painter, “a fully loaded cost accounting” of US empire.