A review of From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 , by George C. Herring

George Herring's From Colony to Superpower is the latest installment in that excellent series, the Oxford history of the United States. Best known for his distinguished work on U.S. policy in Vietnam, Herring sketches the history of American foreign policy over more than two centuries.

In any book covering such a lengthy period, the author may take one of two approaches: offer some bold reinterpretation of well-known events, or narrate with such an authoritative, grounded, and truly balanced tone as to establish the work as the standard account. Herring aimed for the latter, and has succeeded in writing a lucid, comprehensive, but all-to-conventional history.

A central theme of the volume is American exceptionalism—that the United States has a special destiny in the world. Herring views this belief as bound up with attitudes of cultural and racial superiority, smug parochialism, and unilateralism. He traces these attitudes through the history of U.S. diplomacy, and urges Americans to disenthrall themselves of them. The ride engages and sometimes informs, but to describe this conclusion as either novel or unconventional would be seriously misleading. Indeed, it is already received wisdom among academics.

Herring's interpretation of America's Cold War policies, which fills almost half the book, captures his argument. At the beginning and end of each chapter, he strikes a note that is even-handed, and his style is hardly polemical, but the moral is clear: the United States consistently exaggerated the Soviet threat, engaged in unnecessary and immoral interventions overseas, propped up brutal right-wing dictators, and paid a serious price at home in terms of civil liberties, debt, an imperial presidency, and an overly militarized foreign policy. This has been the dominant interpretation among U.S. diplomatic historians for many years now.

But can this view still be sustained, with the continuing archival revelations from existing and former Communist countries? For example, Herring says the Truman Administration exaggerated the threat posed by the USSR under Stalin, but makes no clear argument as to Stalin's actual intentions. No doubt, Stalin wished for tactical, limited cooperation between the major power victors after 1945, but he also saw long-term conflict between the USSR and the West as inevitable, and looked to expand Soviet influence whenever possible. To imply that his foreign policy was not influenced by Marxist-Leninist ideology is simply inaccurate. Similarly, Herring suggests that the U.S. missed some sort of opportunity for diplomatic settlement with Moscow in the 1950s. But what alternative, acceptable to the USSR and preferable to the one that actually developed, does Herring think existed at the time? He scolds Truman and Eisenhower for their lack of diplomatic effort with Moscow, but never spells out the real world consequences of such hypothetical efforts. For some reason it is usually the United States that errs, by failing to accommodate, while the Soviets' willingness to compromise is taken for granted. 

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The mistakes made by American leaders, in Herring's account, are invariably on the side of using too much force and too little diplomacy. He does not see that force and diplomacy must be coordinated in world politics to have any practical effect. For example, Herring chides the Reagan Administration for using covert action in Central America and elsewhere, and for ratcheting up Cold War tensions in the early 1980s. He later praises Reagan for reaching an arms control agreement with the USSR in his second term. Yet it never seems to occur to Herring that perhaps the two were related.

The author insists that the U.S. constantly mistook Third World nationalists for Communists, and therefore engaged in wrongful, unnecessary interventions overseas. But Guatemala's Jacobo Arbenz, Chile's Salvador Allende, and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega were convinced Marxists as well as anti-American nationalists who received arms and inspiration from Communist countries. It is almost as if Herring thinks the United States had no right to compete with the USSR and its allies for international influence. Certainly Soviet leaders felt no such compunction.

Herring seems to view most American Cold War policies through the lens of his heartfelt opposition to the Vietnam War. But whatever one thinks of it, Vietnam was only one episode in the Cold War struggle, and fixating on it seems generational. As those passions fade, America's overall Cold War policy of anti-Communist containment may come to be seen for what it was: an astonishing success.