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Reviewed by Michael Grunwald
Sunday, August 10, 2008


A History of American Expansion

By Walter Nugent

Knopf. 387 pp. $30

There is a startling but telling moment in Habits of Empire-- a generally scrupulous chronicle of American territorial expansion -- when the distinguished historian Walter Nugent takes a sudden detour into cuckoo-ville. Nugent has just finished recounting America's least successful expansionary adventure, the failed invasion of Canada during the War of 1812, when he dredges up a 1993 tract by a Canadian professor arguing that Fort Drum and other U.S. bases near the northern border were being prepared as launching pads for a modern-day invasion of Canada. I assumed Nugent would use this as evidence that the legacy of U.S. imperialism still inspires delusions by crackpots, but alas, that was not his point: "The book read, as such tracts often do, as plausible although a bit paranoid -- until President George W. Bush announced that the United States could deploy armed force where and when it wanted, without asking anyone's permission, and did so in Iraq in 2003."

Sorry, but the notion of a modern U.S. invasion of Canada was never remotely plausible and is still more than a bit paranoid, no matter what Bush has said or done in Iraq. It's a funny plot line for a "South Park" movie, not a scary hypothetical for a new era of U.S. imperialism. And Nugent's respectful treatment of this cockamamie conspiracy theory suggests a deeper problem with his thesis about the supposedly habitual nature of American empire. Nugent argues that the story of American imperialism is really one continuous story of expansion divided into three phases stretching from the end of the Revolution to the misadventures of the Bush Administration: the "continental empire," the "offshore empire" and the "global or virtual empire." But those are three very different stories; the second is relatively unimportant, and the third is not really about empire. Not all imperialism is created equal, and not all imperiousness is imperialism.

Nugent must recognize this at some level, because the first phase of his story -- the "continental empire," which began with the Treaty of Paris of 1783 and concluded with the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 -- consumes two thirds of his book. The dominant story of America back then was one of expansion, its journey from a ragtag collection of colonies to a sea-to-shining-sea superpower. Nugent does a meticulous job of documenting how the various swaths of real estate that compose today's Lower 48 -- first the Transappalachian region east of the Mississippi River, followed by the Louisiana Purchase, Florida, Texas, the Oregon Territory and the fruits of the Mexican War -- came into U.S. possession. There are common themes -- westward migration, shrewd and often duplicitous negotiation, balance-of-power politics, brute force, sheer luck and the racism- and nationalism-fueled ideology of manifest destiny -- but Nugent carefully sorts out how important each factor was in each expansion.

For example, he plumbs the diplomatic record to show how the destinarian stubbornness of Ben Franklin and his fellow U.S. negotiators in Paris -- along with their willingness to double-cross allies -- secured 540,000 square miles in more than 10 states of Transappalachia even though few American pioneers had settled there. By contrast, settlement and demographics drove the Louisiana Purchase and the annexations of Florida and Texas. Nugent diligently catalogues the sham treaties and long-forgotten battles by which Americans displaced various Indian tribes, and he documents how President James K. Polk misrepresented the history of land claims along the Nueces River to instigate a war with Mexico.

It must be said that Nugent's this-happened-then-that-happened approach is a buzzkill, turning a fascinating era into a news digest. He devotes several pages to the intricacies of Mexican society before Texas independence, and only four sentences to the Alamo. I often found myself wondering whether the Nipissing Line or the empresario system or Gen. George Mathews would be on the exam. There are no compelling characters or gripping dramas to make the medicine go down, just a comprehensive reconstruction of the acquisition of a continent. Still, it adds up to a coherent story about the building of an empire by a young nation that believed it was destined to overspread a continent and replace savagery with civilization.

But once the continent was conquered, expansion no longer dominated the American story. The nation turned its attention to slavery and race, industrialization and class. The great powers carved up Africa, but the United States did not get too involved in this Age of Imperialism. This is inconvenient for Nugent, who believes the story of America is one of imperialism, so he overwhelms us with details about the nation's occasional forays into expansion, from the fertilizer-inspired annexation of the Guano Islands to the purchase of the U.S. Virgin Islands. To put it mildly, the additions of these contested outposts -- and others like Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Guam -- feel a bit anticlimactic; they weren't designed to promote settlement, and they weren't even big news at the time. If America was still an imperial nation, it was an exceptionally lazy one.

To Nugent, U.S. history is a constant struggle between our conflicting desires for republic and empire. If so, one does not have to be a jingoist to see that our desire for republic won out in the 20th century. Despite such blemishes as the internment of Japanese Americans, the United States expanded democracy at home, extending civil rights to women and blacks, while defeating democracy's greatest menace abroad without claiming any territory; along the way, it relinquished the Philippines and rescinded its Latin American protectorates. On the other hand, Puerto Rico? Yes, its quasi-colonial status is awkward, but its independence party has never attracted more than 5 percent of the vote.

Yet Nugent writes that "today there is a good chance that 'empire' might eclipse 'republic.' " To make this case, he argues that the modern United States, with its far-flung military bases and far-reaching corporate behemoths, has created a new kind of empire. This is arguably true in the sense of the Murdoch "media empire," the Lauder "cosmetics empire" or other empires that don't require the subjugation of foreigners or annexation of their countries. If "empire" is just a synonym for "global influence," then sure, we're No. 1. But that's a very different kind of empire from the one we acquired so ruthlessly in our first 75 years, and it's not clear why we should be embarrassed about it. Nugent doesn't try too hard to explain; our modern dilemma is at the heart of his argument about habits of empire, but he relegates the last 75 years to a postscript.

Really, though, it's not too hard to figure out what possessed Nugent to spoil his valuable historical survey of territorial expansion with a dubious political argument about modern imperialism: Bush hatred. He sees the war in Iraq as an awful mistake, and being a historian, he wants to explain it in historical terms. So the "ideology of expansion" that drove America in the Mexican War must still be driving it today in the Middle East. But that's just not true. Bush justified the war as an exercise in self-defense, because most Americans on the sane side of Ann Coulter would reject an ideology of expansion.

It is true that Bush's moralistic rhetoric fits into a long tradition of American exceptionalism. But if that tradition includes the destinarian expansionists of the 19th century, it also includes Franklin D. Roosevelt. The problem with Bush's foreign policy isn't the exceptionalist rhetoric; America and its ideals really are exceptional. The problem is the arrogance, the assumption that American militarism can wipe clean a messy world. And it's fair to say that when it comes to global affairs the United States does have a bad habit of arrogance. But the habit of empire is a habit we kicked long ago. ยท

Michael Grunwald, a senior correspondent for Time magazine, is the author of "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise."

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