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A History of American Expansionism

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On Sale: June 10, 2008
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-26949-2
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Since its founding, the United States' declared principles of liberty and democracy have often clashed with aggressive policies of imperial expansion. In this sweeping narrative history, acclaimed scholar Walter Nugent explores this fundamental American contradiction by recounting the story of American land acquisition since 1782 and shows how this steady addition of territory instilled in the American people a habit of empire-building.

From America's early expansions into Transappalachia and the Louisiana Purchase through later additions of Alaska and island protectorates in the Caribbean and Pacific, Nugent demonstrates that the history of American empire is a tale of shifting motives, as the early desire to annex land for a growing population gave way to securing strategic outposts for America's global economic and military interests.

Thorough, enlightening, and well-sourced, this book explains the deep roots of American imperialism as no other has done.


It has been written that the United States is an imperial nation, but Americans are loath to admit it. That is not the half of it. The United States has created three empires during its history. Thomas Jefferson, one of the few historic leaders to talk of empire, claimed that the United States should be an "empire for liberty." Since "liberty" is always equated with good, the word more than compensated for the bad associations of "empire." Most Americans remember Jefferson for writing "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence. Therefore they think of him much more as a defender of liberty, personal and public, than as an imperialist. But imperialist he was.So were Benjamin Franklin, John and John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and many other presidents and founding fathers. In recent years, the American empire and the popular acceptance of imperialism have been promoted chiefly under Republican guardianship; but Jefferson and Jackson, celebrated as the founders of the Democratic Party, were as good imperialists as they come. Neither party has had a monopoly. Nor has imperialism been an exclusively male activity. Granted, women have not been major names in the standard histories of American builders and defenders of empire; they were never the generals, diplomats, or officeholders, at least not until the Madeleine Albrights and Condoleezza Rices came along. Empire-building involved not only diplomacy and force, however. It involved occupation and settlement of the American continental landmass, and without women that would not have happened. In traditional histories the diplomacy, battles, and politics necessary for empire-building have been written about as if they had no relation to population and settlement. On the other hand, histories of the westward movement, the frontier, and economic expansion have been treated with little reference to how America's territories were acquired. But acquisition and settlement have been the right and left hands of the same imperial organism.Put most briefly, this book relates a continuous narrative of the territorial acquisitions of the United States and how that history instilled in the American people the habit of empire-building. It describes how Americans acquired each parcel of real estate: by diplomacy, filibustering, armed conquest, cheating and lying, ethnic cleansing, even honest purchase and negotiation. It also explains who the previous occupants were and how Americans displaced them and occupied the landthemselves.Many books have been written on individual acquisitions--the Louisiana Purchase, Oregon, Texas, the erstwhile Philippine colony, and the others. Here, however, is a continuous history, beginning with the peace treaties of 1782-1783, which ended the Revolutionary War and gave international recognition to the United States. It proceeds through each acquisition to the Virgin Islands in 1917 and the Northern Marianas in 1986. And it looks beyond them into the current global or virtual empire, the present "military hegemony." Telling the whole story reveals patterns that individual episodes do not. Central to Habits of Empire is the thesis that the acquisitions and occupations of transcontinental territory before the CivilWar not only forged the national boundaries as we know them, but also taught well-learned lessons of empire-building. All along, the United States was also a republic. "Republic" and "empire" have not always fit well together. Today there is a good chance that "empire" might eclipse "republic." Old habits can become unthinking practices.When I began this project, I intended to tie together the diplomatic and military history of the territorial acquisitions with the history of frontier settlement--two fields traditionally treated separately. In the nation's successive Wests, from Revolutionary times to the midnineteenth century, these were intimately related. Settlement--"westward expansion," historians used to call it--could not have happened without sovereignty, and sovereignty was empty without settlement.These acquisitions, from Transappalachia in 1782-1783 through Louisiana, Florida, the failed attack on Canada in 1812-1814, Oregon, Texas, and the Southwest, all required not only acquisition (by means fair or foul). They also involved Anglo-Americans displacing whoever was already there and occupying that land. This story, tying together acquisition, displacement, and settlement of the continental United States, is what I intend as the chief contribution of Habits of Empire, which is why it occupies most of the book.But reaching the Pacific was hardly the end of the story. New acquisitions, offshore across the Pacific and around the Caribbean, formed a second kind of empire, a continuation of the first but seldom involving any settlement. The reverse happened; Hawaiians and Filipinos, and later Puerto Ricans, migrated to the continental United States. For the most part, the offshore empire comprised colonies and protectorates. Only Alaska and Hawaii evolved into states, and they took an unusually long time to do so.Investigating the Alaska Purchase of 1867 made me freshly aware of the expansionism of its architect, William Henry Seward. Seward revived the word "empire" in connection with U.S. expansion as no one had done since Thomas Jefferson. The link between acquisition and settlement before the Civil War, and offshore acquisitions after it, became crystal-clear. The key was the concept and development of American empire. The United States' first empire-building took place from sea to sea and was completed just after 1850. A second phase began almost immediately with Midway and other small Pacific islands and, after the Civil War, with the purchase of Alaska. Offshore empire-building resumed in the 1890s, capturing Hawaii, Samoa, the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Panama Canal Zone. The final true territorial additions came in 1917 with the purchase of what became the U.S. Virgin Islands from Denmark and, after World War II, the Northern Mariana Islands. By then, several Caribbean and Central American republics had been adopted as "protectorates" by the United States, not to be given up until the Depression-ridden 1930s.With World War II and the ensuing Cold War, however, a third phase of American empire-building, still with us, came into being. An aspect of it is the current "war on terror." The lessons learned in the first phase (continental), and reinforced in the second phase (offshore), have been shapers of the third, the global or virtual empire of today. Thus we have always been an imperial nation, and remain so, but the shape of the American empire has shifted over time. Its present form is different from either our own past ones or historic ones like Rome or Britain. It is still developing.Books about the current empire appear virtually every day. I say little here about it. My purpose is to describe the long historical context. I conclude, therefore, with the briefest survey of recent times, to demonstrate its continuity with rhetoric, ideals, practices, strategies, and imperial tactics that extend back to the nation's very first days. Although recent history will be fairly familiar to today's readers, the habit-forming imperialism of pre-Civil War days will not be. Hence I treat the early,continental imperialism more extensively in the hope of promoting a better understanding of how Americans got to where we now are.The three historic American empires have all rested on an ideology of expansion. Military solutions, overlain by rationales and high ideals, have consistently been considered effective and justified. Expansion has also been premised on the conviction that America and Americans are not tainted with evil or self-serving motives. Americans, the ideology says, are exceptions to the moral infirmities that plague the rest of humankind, because our ideals are pure, a "beacon to humankind," and, as Lincoln said, "the last best hope of earth." The three successive empires, each molded by the circumstances and opportunities of its own times, share an imperialistic outward thrust, a commitment to militarism, and beneath everything a profound faith in the axiom of America's moral exceptionalism. As a result, Jefferson's phrase, "empire for liberty," rings just as true and right to Americans today as it did when he proclaimed it.In a short seven decades Americans exploded from thirteen colonies pinched between the Atlantic and the Appalachians and drove all the way to the Pacific. Theirs was a uniquely rapid extension of a national territory. It depended on good fortune and on aggressive force, on actions both clandestine and public, on grand ideals and at times on base deceit and hypocrisy. With it came the displacement or absorption of people already living there, with more success than most empires ever had. Finally, this empire depended for its success on lust and love, on a birth rate incredibly high. An Indiana congressman named Andrew Kennedy explained in 1846 how the United States would acquire Oregon:Our people are spreading out with the aid of the American multiplication table. Go to the West and see a young man with his mate of eighteen; after the lapse of thirty years, visit him again, and instead of two, you will find twenty-two. . . . We are now twenty millions strong; and how long, under this process of multiplication, will it take to cover the continent with our posterity, from the Isthmus of Darien to Behring's straits? . . . Where shall we find room for all our people, unless we have Oregon? Whatshall we do with all those little white-headed boys and girls' God bless them!Ñthat cover the western prairies? America's first empire was created, indeed procreated, by millions of young, ardent couples busily carrying out their own individual manifest destinies, filling up the land with farms and families, while the nation successfully pursued its grand, apparently inexorable, Manifest Destiny.It all began in Paris in 1782.Transappalachia, 1782: First Land, First Good Fortune This federal Republic was born a pygmy. . . . The day will come when it will grow up, become a giant and be greatly feared in the Americas.   -Conde de Aranda, 1783   American Independence: Could It Extend beyond the Mountains?   By the end of decisive combat operations in the Revolutionary War, October 1781, American forces with much French assistance had defeated the British in New England, Virginia, and the interior of the Carolinas. Britain continued to occupy New York, Charleston, Savannah, and several forts along the Great Lakes. Despite that, the former colonists had become independent Americans, governing themselves in the areas where they lived. Those areas extended from the Atlantic west to the Appalachian chain of mountains, with a few adventuresome souls beyond. They were, geographically, a nation between ocean and mountains. Only a few had ventured beyond the mountains into Transappalachia, the region running west from the mountains to the Mississippi and Spanish Louisiana, north to the Great Lakes, and south to Florida. Yet the peace treaty with Britain included Transappalachia within the new United States, even though hardly any Americans lived there.   Nor did many British or other Europeans. At least two dozen Indian nations did.   The peace treaty covered a number of points besides recognizing America's independence. The main ones were about fishing rights in the North Atlantic, debts owed by Americans to British creditors, and how, if at all, the Loyalists-those colonists who remained loyal to the king-might be compensated for property losses. The treaty also laid out the boundaries of the United States. Why did the treaty give Transappalachia to the new country when only a few thousand of its people lived there? How did the American negotiators-Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay-achieve that territorial coup? Given the lack of an American military or demographic presence, they got much more than they deserved. Why the great territorial success?   The Declaration of Independence that the Continental Congress adopted on July 4, 1776, condemned George III for many things, but it said almost nothing about the boundaries of these self-styled United States of America. It referred to the native inhabitants as "merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions" (in other words, even old people and children, women as well as men, and slaves). Provinces to the north, now Canada, were invited to join, but declined. Britain scoffed at such "independence," and it took the Americans years of fighting to prove their point, that they were truly independent. In October 1781, six and a half years after the first shots at Lexington and Concord, near Boston, came the decisive battle of Yorktown in Virginia. Almost as many French troops as American fought there, while the French navy cut off British general Charles Cornwallis's evacuation by sea. A year later, on November 30, 1782, the Americans and British signed a "preliminary" peace treaty, which became final in September 1783 when France and Spain made peace with Britain as well. By this Treaty of Paris, the United States became a recognized entity in international law.   It was an exceedingly favorable treaty for the United States. Among other things, it gave the new country a great deal of territory that it had scarcely begun to settle and would not fully occupy for decades. Without Transappalachia the western border of the United States would have been hundreds of miles east of the Mississippi River, leaving it in no position to buy Louisiana in 1803. Without Louisiana the borders would have been nowhere near Texas, the Southwest, or Oregon, and thus could hardly have been extended to these new territories in the 1840s. Without Transappalachia, the new United States would have been squeezed and hemmed in on three sides, as expansionists warned then and later. It would have been confined to the Atlantic seaboard and to transatlantic commerce, rather than to a future of transcontinental settlement. The United States might have acquired these regions later, but Transappalachia might well have become an independent entity, or might have linked up with Spain, or pursued some other path that would have prevented the United States from seizing the Louisiana opportunity that came its way in 1803. These centrifugal possibilities continued for years after the Revolutionary War, even beyond 1800.   So the 1783 boundaries were an absolutely essential platform for America's further expansion. Yet at the close of the fighting between the Americans and the British in late 1781, the status of forces was such that the British, although defeated at Yorktown, continued to occupy Charleston, Savannah, and New York City, not to mention Canada and the West Indies and the forts along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes in what are now New York and Michigan. A few thousand settlers had ventured past the crest of the Appalachians into Kentucky, Tennessee, western Pennsylvania, and future West Virginia. A meager handful of French villages such as Vincennes in the "Illinois country" that had been French up to 1763 had come under American control. Looked at from London, Paris, or Madrid, Transappalachia had been French since the 1600s and became British and Spanish in 1763. In reality, however, it was Indian country. Americans were simply not present, aside from those few settlers and, to be sure, wealthy "owners"-Pennsylvanians and Virginians who hoped to get richer through sales of land to future settlers, land in the upper Ohio River valley.   Why, if so few American forces or settlers were on the ground in Transappalachia in 1782, did the peace treaty bestow it on the new nation? How did the Americans acquire this huge region when they did not live there and did not in any physical way control it? How did Franklin, Adams, and Jay bring home such a good deal? Why did the Earl of Shelburne, George III's first minister and peace negotiator, give it to them? Where did the Americans' allies, the French and the Spanish, stand on the matter?   The short answer is a timely combination of stubbornness on the Americans' part; the historic antagonism of Britain versus France and Spain; how those governments had to protect their own interests, of which North America was only one; some treachery by the American negotiators toward their allies; and large supplies of luck at several times and in several ways.   To explain this combination of favorable circumstances is to tell the story of how the United States' boundaries in the 1783 Treaty of Paris came to be. As agreed to, it placed the eastern boundary at the Atlantic Ocean; the southern, along the north edge of East and West Florida (Spanish from 1511 to 1763, British from 1763 to 1783, and then Spanish again); the western, the Mississippi River from the edge of Florida northward to the river's source; and the northern, along the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River south of the forty-fifth parallel (the northern boundary of New York and Vermont today), and the north-jutting hump of New Hampshire and Maine. The western and eastern ends of the northern boundary were completely confused because of inaccurate geographical knowledge, though they were no real problem until such knowledge caught up with them decades later. The most important-the most surprising-feature of these boundaries is that they included all of the land west of the Appalachian chain of mountains, south of the Great Lakes and north of the Floridas, out to the Mississippi.  

From the Hardcover edition.
Walter Nugent|Author Q&A

About Walter Nugent

Walter Nugent - Habits of Empire
Walter Nugent taught history at the University of Notre Dame for sixteen years and at Indiana University for twenty-one years before that. As a visiting professor he has also taught, lectured, and lived in England, Israel, Germany, Poland, and Ireland. He has published eleven previous books and nearly two hundred essays and reviews. He is a past president of the Western History Association and a former member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He lives in Highland Park, Illinois, with his wife, the historian Suellen Hoy.

Author Q&A

Q: When did the United States first start to demonstrate its “habit” of empire-building? Have there been any moments in history when the country might have kicked the habit, but didn’t?

A: The seeds of the habit go back to the colonial period, when Anglo-Americans pushed back the Native occupants on all fronts. My book starts with the settlement in 1782 following the Revolutionary War, where the American negotiators, Franklin, John Adams, and Jay, pushed very hard for all the territory they could get. They succeeded in establishing our western boundary at the Mississippi, despite the fact that we had not conquered and had not occupied Transappalachia, the huge region between the eastern Mountains and the great River. Americans tried but never succeeded in obtaining Canada, either in the 1782 settlement (though Franklin pushed very hard) or in the Canadian-American war of 1812-1814. But they spread successfully westward and southward, reaching the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande, and the Pacific by 1848. Each territorial acquisition between 1782 and 1848 reinforced the imperial habit. After that march across the continent, the habit was ingrained, and empire-building proceeded offshore from Alaska to the Philippines and around the Caribbean by the early twentieth century, and since 1945 around the world.

Q: In Into the West: The Story of Its People, you delved into all aspects of the settlement of the American West. Now, in Habits of Empire you site this settlement as a key factor in the first phase of American imperialism, a connection that has been absent from previous political and military histories of the U.S. What led you to make this crucial link between settlement and empire-building?

A: The idea that we’ve acquired and indulged ourselves in “habits of empire” developed gradually with me. It arose, to begin with, out of my teaching undergraduate and graduate classes on the history of the American West. Into the West tries to provide a comprehensive narrative of the settlement of the western half of the country from Spanish times to the present and to give adequate space to the great many peoples and forces involved in that process. Writing it taught me a lot. But Habits of Empire has a different focus. In my teaching I wanted, but could not find, a straight-line narrative of the territorial acquisitions of the United States, beginning in 1782—there were many books on each one, such as the Louisiana Purchase or the annexation of Texas—but none that looked at the whole thing continuously. It also occurred to me that the legal acquisitions—the treaties, or conquests followed by treaties as in 1819 and 1848—were only part of the story. France and Spain laid claim to North America but they disappeared. Why? Because they failed to occupy it. Americans not only gained title to the area but they drove off or contained the previous occupants (mostly Indians) and then reproduced so fast that they were able to populate it. What I tried to do is to tie the legal (and military) acquisitions to the settlement process. That got me to 1848, the taking of the Southwest from Mexico. Which took only sixty-six years from 1782. But we did not stop there. Nor did I; when I reached that point I understood that we kept on going, because in acquiring the continent we formed the habit of behaving imperially. In the half-century after 1848 we continued on across the Pacific, then after 1898 around the Caribbean, and since 1945 around much of the world. So the book and its thesis —that we first developed a habit of empire in North America and then have employed it elsewhere—took shape gradually. It has been continuously operating from 1782 to the present.

Q: The ideas of “empire” and “republic” seem diametrically opposed to each other, and yet both can describe the American experience. How has the country reconciled one with the other?

A: Very uncritically. There’s a logical gap between the two terms, but it’s possible to live with both if you don’t look too closely. When Thomas Jefferson spoke of an “empire for liberty,” his many followers went along. “Empire” involves the imposition of power by a dominant state over peripheral or weaker people, but if those who are running that dominant state are freely elected by its people, then you have an imperial republic. The trouble comes when the peripheral or weaker people are left out of the decision-making. Such was the case with Indians who were overrun and removed in the 1830s and 1840s as white settlement advanced across Transappalachia; it was obviously true of African-American slaves and, in many places, free blacks too, as in Louisiana after the Purchase; and it was true of native peoples in Alaska, Hawaii, Samoa, and the Philippines and elsewhere. In the imperial vs. republic dichotomy, the imperial side has also been strengthened by accumulation of power by the federal executive (i.e., the presidency), particularly by using the power to make war. It’s been very difficult for Congress to rein in presidents, whether in 1846 against Mexico, 1898 against Spain, or 2003 against Iraq, for example.

Q: You discuss the concept of American exceptionalism, particularly as connected to the rhetoric of an “empire for liberty” and imposing American policies and beliefs on other nations. Why do you think that Americans have come to see themselves and their way of life as morally exemplary?

A: The sense of exceptionalism has many sources, and they extend well back into the colonial period. The usual suspects include the New England Puritans who claimed they were on “an errand into the wilderness”—i.e. bringing civilization to the benighted—and building “a city upon a hill.” Over two hundred years later, Lincoln spoke of the United States as “the last best hope of earth.” From the start, the conviction that we are morally good, or at least our intentions are good though our behavior might be imperfect (but therefore excusable), has been axiomatic. There are many things that have been exceptional about our country and its history—most of all, perhaps, its rapid, relatively easy, and quite conclusive occupation of so much of North America—but the notion of moral exceptionalism, of innate moral superiority, is another matter and, at root, unprovable and arrogant. But it has justified our imperial behavior from the earliest times.

Q: Your book criticizes the US for imposing its will (or, simply, running roughshod) over other people—Indians, Mexicans, Filipinos and others. But isn’t this standard operating procedure for nations and empires? What’s different about our historic behavior?

A: The behavior, to be sure, isn’t that different. It’s not admirable whoever does it, whether Napoleon or Andrew Jackson or whoever. The difference is that we have consistently clothed our expansion and imperialism in idealistic rhetoric, most often that we are altruistically spreading liberty and democracy to less enlightened peoples and places. It’s a self-justification and, since the process is often not pretty, it’s an excuse and a cover-up. The contrast between the rhetoric and the behavior spells hypocrisy or, at best, a failure to realize that other people have rights too.

Q: One of the other factors you site as contributing significantly to the success of American expansion across the North American continent was an exceptionally high birth rate. Were American settlers particularly lusty? What other factors may have contributed to such a high birth rate?

A: As I point out, the Spanish and French administrators of their North American empires (up to the U.S. takeovers in 1803 and 1821) simply could not grasp how rapidly Americans multiplied. I quote an Indiana congressman in 1846 who said “the American multiplication table” made two plus two equal twenty-two: plant a young couple in the then-West (such as Indiana), come back in twenty years, and there would be twenty-two in the family. The frontier birth rate was so high that before 1860, the national population doubled in less than twenty-five years, even faster in areas of new settlement, and it kept on doing so in frontier areas past 1900. Were they particularly lusty? We don’t know—it’s an intriguing question why the French and Spanish did not increase and multiply fast enough to occupy and settle their empires as the Americans did. But the Americans proliferated. How could they get away with it while Europe grew, but much more slowly? Because settlers’ children, as they reached their own teens and early twenties, could pick up and move farther west and open up new country. This went on for several generations: the chemistry of available land (legally U.S. territory) and high fertility. Immigration contributed, but high fertility explains most of it. As a British statesman said, Americans would conquer Oregon (and other areas) not with their armies but in their bedchambers. We don’t think of lean-tos and log cabins as “bedchambers” but what went on inside them was pretty much the same thing. And that provided, in the imperial equation, a huge occupying force.

Q: In the second phase of empire—offshore territorial acquisition—there was rarely a desire for settlement in the acquired territories, such as Alaska, or islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean. What was the motivation behind this new form of expansion?

A: Correct: aside from some very minor forays, there was no farming frontier, no population push from high fertility, in what I call Empire II, the Offshore Empire in the Pacific and the Caribbean. The emphasis shifted from “Manifest Destiny” in the sense of acquiring and occupying territory, to commerce, especially with Asia, and the need for coaling stations and naval bases to protect and advance that commerce. William Henry Seward, Secretary of State in the 1860s, is a very important transitional figure here, and I spend some time on how he justified buying Alaska and other expansions he had in mind. Commerce is the empire of the world, he wrote back in the 1850s. The opening of Japan by the Matthew C. Perry expedition in 1853 (“opening” to U.S. trade), the opening of Korea and China soon after, and the inclusion of Hawaii into the U.S. economic orbit fit right into that. The Caribbean expansion beginning in 1898 began with purer motives—to liberate the Cubans from Spanish oppression, as Americans saw it—but commerce, investment in natural resources from sugar to bananas, soon took over.

Q: The third phase of empire—global or virtual empire—has involved an expansion not of territory, but of power: political, military, and economic. How has this new form of expansion affected American foreign policy?

A: One could say that the global or virtual empire, Empire III, has not just affected, but has basically been, American foreign policy since the end of World War II in 1945. As I point out, a lot of our military placement overseas was a response (or promoted as a response) to the Soviet threat. It was part of the containment policy, enunciated by George F. Kennan and carried out—though in a much more military fashion than Kennan envisaged—by every administration from Truman to the present. It has involved our elaborate treaty structure beginning with NATO. It is represented by the stationing of hundreds of thousands of U.S. forces in Okinawa, Korea, Germany, and elsewhere since that time. Vietnam and Iraq have been unfortunate aspects of it. But whatever the reason, the U.S. now has over seven hundred bases around the world; commentators (U.S. as well as foreign) speak of the U.S. ranking military officer as the go-to guy in an area rather than our ambassador; and the Pentagon seems to have a “Command” for each point of the compass and more. Economic empire is a related and very elaborate aspect, involving multinationals, globalization, and other things that one reads about in the daily media. My book, however, is a work of history, and so most of it deals with the pre-1850 period, when we developed the habits of empire. I am glad to let others continue the discussion of the recent and current manifestations.

Q: Actions by the U.S. government have often included the “liberation” of places that did not ask to be liberated, such as Cuba or the Philippines and now Iraq. Has there been any instance where the “liberated” people welcomed U.S. intervention?

A: I can think of a couple of case, but they sort of prove the rule. The Cuban insurrectionists who had been trying for years to get rid of Spain did welcome U.S. aid in 1898, but their joy faded quickly when the U.S. military ignored them. Panamanians who had wanted to split from Colombia were pleased when the U.S. backed them in 1903, but it was immediately clear that the U.S. did so in order to control a zone across Panama through which the Canal could be built. Economic elites in various Caribbean and central American republics have welcomed U.S. backing of their property interests. But more often, “liberation” American-style has not been popular. It’s seldom been like the flowers and champagne that greeted the G.I. Joes who entered Paris in August 1945.

Q: How much have the actions of individuals such as Thomas Jefferson, William Henry Seward, William McKinley, and Teddy Roosevelt—who all embraced the ideology of expansion with great fervor—shaped the direction of policy? Did they reflect the general sentiment of the American people? Have the American people ever strongly challenged this ideology of expansion?

A: Both. They led, but could not have led far if they had not reflected, absorbed, and carried further the general sentiment. One could add John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and James K. Polk, who also contributed much to the extension of American holdings—the continental empire. Their actions were in many respects dubious in a legal and/or moral sense, but they “got things done” and for that were applauded and supported by many if not most of the public. Of the four leaders you mention, Seward may have received the least applause, but only because the public was exhausted after the Civil War finally ended. And even his purchase of Alaska was widely approved of in the press and presumably among the public, contrary to the textbook one-liners about “Seward’s icebox.”

In just about every case of territorial acquisition and expansion there have been people who objected, but almost always they have been in the minority, though sometimes a large one. Not everyone was a War Hawk in 1812. In 1846, after Polk contrived to declare war on Mexico in order to capture California, the opposition Whigs won control of Congress. But their opposition to the war was supported mainly in New England and a few other places. Lincoln, elected to his sole term in Congress in 1846, was not re-elected largely because he opposed the war, contrary to its popularity in his Illinois district. In 1898-1900 a remarkably diverse collection of people belonged to the Anti-Imperialist League—ranging from Mark Twain to William Jennings Bryan to Andrew Carnegie—but they did not prevail and the U.S. took over the Philippines as a colony and Cuba as a protectorate. The one example I think of which “strongly challenged this ideology of expansion” was the opposition to the Vietnam War, and that did not gain strength until 1968 and did not fully succeed until 1973. Today’s opposition to the Iraq venture is another case. In both Vietnam and Iraq the public was slow in objecting but at some point realized that the executive had overreached and that U.S. national security was not being insured despite the investment of people and money.

Q: How did you approach the research for this project? Were there any archives or papers that you found particularly enlightening or that had not been examined in this context before?

A: From the start, I wanted to look at each territorial acquisition not only as to how the U.S. gained it, but also with empathy for those who lost it—the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Indians, the Hawaiians, the Filipinos, and so on. Each episode is a story in itself, and each (as I mentioned earlier) has a lot written about it. But American historians have tended to avoid looking at these episodes from the other side’s point of view. Because I took some pains to read, for example, what French historians had to say about our buying Louisiana, or what Spanish historians thought about our overrunning of Florida, and what Mexican historians thought and think about the 1846-48 war, my take is somewhat different from the usual accounts by American historians. I can’t lay claim to having uncovered some previously secret documents or archives, though I did use primary sources beginning with the Thomas Jefferson papers and the journals of our early congresses; but these are well known and well used by historians. What’s different in my sourcing, I think, is the integration of other people’s positions as reflected in the British, Canadian, Spanish, French, Mexican, and other non-U.S. historiography.

Q: Do you foresee a fourth phase of American imperialism? If so, what would it consist of?

A: In April 2008, the CBS newsmagazine “Sixty Minutes” ran a segment about how NASA is preparing to send astronauts back to the moon and then on to Mars. It even uses the word “frontier.” Why we would do this is never asked. It’s just assumed that we can, and therefore, as Americans, should. In this respect the yearning to “conquer” the “space frontier” resembles the Manifest Destiny enthusiasm of the 1840s, the “benevolent assimilation” that McKinley wanted to bestow on the Filipinos, the winning of “hearts and minds” in Vietnam. Proponents of Empire I, the continental empire, at least had the concrete objectives of land and (in California) gold; proponents of Empire II, the offshore empire, could aim like Seward at spreading civilization by means of foreign commerce; and those pushing Empire III, the global-virtual empire, could claim (even if dubiously) national security or containing the Soviets. What could justify Empire IV is, frankly, beyond me. It won’t be possible to transport John Deeres there or bring back crops or oil. Commerce is out because there are no Martians to trade with. There’s no threat to national security. So the “why” remains, I think, a good question. But how to explain the urge—without answering why—is attributable to our old and unquestioned habits of empire. We just can’t help ourselves.

Q: What subject do you plan to tackle next?

A: I’m doing a short book on Progressivism, the broad-scale reform movement that took place in the early twentieth century. Then I’m tempted to try to answer the question I mentioned earlier: why did Spain and France fail to populate and occupy the empires they claimed in North America, but which the United States succeeded in doing? Why did some populations stagnate and the American people explode westward? I don’t know if that’s answerable, but it’s a challenge.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Deeply valuable to all who seek to understand not only American history but the ways that history has shaped the world. . . . An enormous contribution to our national self-knowledge.” —Chicago Tribune“A rich, detailed, and thoroughly researched discussion of U.S. diplomatic history.” —Foreign Affairs“Excellent. . . . A readable and valuable work in American history.” —The New York Times"A comprehensive history of how the thrust of empire shaped American history . . . [Nugent] makes it plain that the policies of the present administration have a pedigree that goes back even to the Founding Fathers."—The Economist“A lucid, vivid, and above all candid history of American expansion. . . . Readers will undoubtedly be continually applying what [Nugent] says about Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Polk, and McKinley to what they read in their newspapers.”—Daniel Walker Howe, New York Sun“Compelling . . . Controversial . . . Challenges some of America’s most cherished ideas about itself.”—Publishers Weekly"Erudite yet accessible, Nugent's history lightly expresses its opinions without interrupting the arc of its story."--Booklist"Walter Nugent is a national treasure. No historian since Frederick Jackson Turner has done more to explain the enormous impact of westward expansion upon the American experience. Elegantly written, impeccably researched, Habits of Empire will soon take its place, I suspect, among the most important historical commentaries of our era." —David Oshinsky, author of Polio: An American Story"How did the United States come to regard itself as morally superior to other nations and entitled to employ force rather than persuasion to get its way? This lucid, wide-ranging book not only answers that question but offers essential understandings for those who wish to break the bad habits of empire." —David J. Weber, author of Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment."At last, the essential background, succinctly and clearly told, which is absolutely necessary to understand if we are to deal with the post-9/11 tragedies of American foreign policy. Walter Nugent rightly identifies those tragedies as the culminations of a post-1776 American 'ideology of expansion.'"  —Walter LaFeber, Tisch University Professor Emeritus, Cornell University, author of America, Russia, and the Cold War

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