Book Review 2008 #39: From Colony to Superpower

Over the last couple of decades, Oxford University Press has been putting together a history of the United States from a variety of authors, slicing up the history of the Republic in numerous, detailed volumes.

An exception to that pattern, George Herrings FROM COLONY TO SUPERPOWER takes on the entire history of the United States. However, it takes on just one piece of that history, albeit a large one: foreign policy. Herring’s volume looks at the U.S.’s relations with other powers from the Revolution straight through to the George W. Bush administration.
His thesis is that America has great ideals in the abstract which it has not always successfully brought in practice to its application of its foreign policy.
Herring brings a comprehensive, considered and balanced approach to the material. While he does have opinions, and certain subjects are clearly more favored than others, Herring takes pains to minimize his point of view.
When Herring does present a strong point of view, however, he infallibly provides in a footnote a source or volume that provides a different point of view. For example, Herring takes issue with the machinations that brought Panama independence from Colombia and gave the US the freedom to create the Panama Canal. And yet, even as he does this, he provides a competing source that exonerates Roosevelt.
Even those Presidents whom Herring seems to disagree politically with are critically evaluated for their contributions, positive and negative, to the narrative of US Foreign Policy. And those Presidents and figures that Herring admires are called out when they failed to live up to their ideals.
This careful balancing of viewpoints and pains to remain non partisan means that, given the breadth of the subject, the book is long. And if the reader is inclined to read more on one particular piece of American Foreign Policy history, there is a bibliographic essay (as opposed to a straight,dry, bibliography) where Herring discusses numerous other volumes for further reading.
The book took me several weeks to savor and digest, however these weeks were worth it. I learned an enormous amount about US Foreign Policy, as if I had taken a college course on the subject. If you have the time and inclination to learn about US Foreign Policy, Herring has created the definitive volume on the subject.