Anyone bold enough to write a synthesis of such a controversial topic as American empire can expect a range of reactions stretching as far to the left as to the right and including all shades of opinion in between. Richard Immerman has tackled one of the most hotly contested and long-standing issues in American foreign relations – the nature of the new republic that George Washington christened in 1783 as a “rising American empire.” Some observers may say that most historians have gotten beyond the debate over whether the new republic became an empire at its inception and, as Immerman argues, evolved from one of liberty into one for liberty. But the first reviews of this book show that many of the issues remain unresolved. The historians included in this roundtable – Jeffrey A. Engel, Joan Hoff, William Weeks, and Tom Zeiler – criticize this work as much as they praise it, leading one to observe that Immerman has accomplished as much as any writer can hope – to stimulate discussion and suggest more avenues for research.
Andrew Preston and Gordon Goldstein provide two very different looks at National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy’s role in the decision to escalate America’s war in Vietnam. Preston hones in on Bundy’s Cold War worldview, inherited largely from his mentor Henry Stimson, and his efforts to concentrate power in the National Security Council, which put him in a critical if not decisive position to shape U.S. policy towards Vietnam during the years in which Washington made the decisions for war. In doing so, Preston challenges what he sees as too great an emphasis on presidential decision-making in extant literature on the war’s escalation. Goldstein, on the other hand, working largely from interviews and conversations conducted with Bundy just before the latter’s death, writes a sympathetic account of Bundy’s involvement in the war’s escalation. While certainly not uncritical, Goldstein’s conclusions often align with Bundy’s, especially in highlighting the paramount responsibility of the commander-in-chief to accept or reject his cabinet’s advice and make decisions for war or peace unilaterally. Goldstein’s contribution, it seems, is less in explaining why Bundy advocated the policies he did or even the weight those recommendations carried with the president, and more in illuminating how the former national security advisor made sense late-in-life of his involvement in the critical decisions to wage war in Vietnam.
Last April, the Obama administration announced that the “United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” This declaration appeared to sharply constrain the conditions under which any U.S. leader would consider using nuclear weapons. After all, most of the world is made up of non-nuclear states in good standing with the NPT, meaning that there is a very small list of potential targets to attack. Moreover, the administration went further by declaring that the fundamental purpose of nuclear weapons was deterrence and that such weapons were reserved for “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners” (quoted in Gerson, 7-8).
My copy of Julian Zelizer’s book Arsenal of Democracy arrived in the mail at about the same time late in 2009 that Barack Obama gave his address at West Point expanding U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Obama had inherited the war, and his choices ranged from bad to worse. But the one he selected, a middle-course option that would send 30,000 additional troops and called for removing them in eighteen months, was difficult to comprehend if the geopolitical stakes in Afghanistan were really as high he claimed they were. It was hard for me to see how an increase of that size, even if accompanied by a boost in NATO troops, could really do the job in the vast and forbidding Afghan terrain. By announcing a deadline, moreover, the president signaled to anti-American forces in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) that they could count on a U.S. withdrawal in 2011 and hence could bide their time until then.
Justin Vaïsse has emerged in recent years as perhaps the most perceptive French analyst of current American politics and foreign policy. But he is a historian by training, and in writing his book on neoconservative movement, his primary goal was to understand the neoconservative movement as a historical phenomenon. The book is not a polemic or a journalistic account. It is a scholarly analysis, based not just on published materials, but also on a series of interviews and on a good deal of archival work, especially in the Rosenblatt papers at the Johnson Library and in the papers of the Committee on the Present Danger at the Hoover Institution. Given that sort of approach, Vaïsse, as John Ehrman writes in his comment, is able to deal in a fair-minded way with a topic that “seems to arouse great passions.” Robert Kaufman, the most critical of the four reviewers here, basically agrees. Vaïsse, he notes, “has raised the tone and the substance of the debate about who neoconservatives are and what neoconservatism means.”
Norman Graebner, Richard Dean Burns, and Joseph M. Siracusa, have written a two volume narrative history of the Cold War. All four reviewers praise it as a lively and factually accurate account that, while breaking no new ground, would make an excellent text in an undergraduate course on the Cold War. Andrew Bacevich speaks for all of them in calling it “an immensely admirable work, one that recounts the story of the Cold War with clarity, dispassion, and commendable insight.”
This is an excellent book that comprehensively treats in one volume a wide range of issues associated with nuclear weapons. The topics Rotter examines include the history of nuclear physics; the relationship between the atomic bomb and two other antecedents (poisonous gas and strategic bombings); the Manhattan Project, Japanese and German nuclear projects during World War II; the U.S. decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nuclear weapons and the Cold War, which includes the Soviet, British, French, Israel, South African nuclear projects; nuclear proliferation in India and Pakistan; and contemporary issues. This book is not based on any archival work and hence one cannot expect any new revelations in any of the topics Rotter examines. But he has read secondary sources widely and critically. The result is a provocative book that raises penetrating moral issues on the development of nuclear weapons.
All specialists on the Vietnam War are likely well aware of the involvement in the conflict played by the RAND Corporation, the California based think-tank closely tied to the defense and intelligence establishments in Washington, D.C. Many, if not most, have also made use of some of RAND’s documents in their own research. Recently, however, RAND has experienced something of resurgence in Vietnam War studies. Several books about the Vietnam War have made extensive use of RAND documentation to attempt to reconstruct the history of the American war from the ground up. David Elliott’s unparalleled The Vietnamese War: Revolution and Social Change in the Mekong Delta, 1930-1975 draws on the author’s own extensive work for RAND during the war and the extensive collection of interviews conducted by analysts and employees of RAND. (David Elliott, as several of the reviewers here note, is the husband of Mai Elliott, who also worked for RAND during the war). David Hunt’s Vietnam’s Southern Revolution: From Peasant Insurrection to Total War relies heavily on the interviews conducted by RAND employees, and his appendix, “The Uses of a Source,” is a very helpful starting point for scholars new to the documents and seeking to understand the complex context within which they were collected.
When I was getting ready to take my Ph.D. exams forty years ago, I had a meeting with my advisor, Raymond Sontag. What, he wondered, should he examine me on? “Why don’t you ask me something about the origins of the First World War?” I said. “I think I understand that now.” His reply was devastating: “Oh really? I’ve been studying it for fifty years and I still don’t understand it.” But over the years I’ve come to feel the same way. The whole question of what caused that war, for me at least, remains deeply puzzling. To be sure, we’re still learning new and important things, even about what happened during the July Crisis in 1914. But with every new insight, new problems come into focus, and ultimate answers remain as elusive as ever. In fact, the deeper you go into the issue, the more puzzling it becomes—or at least that’s been my own experience in grappling with this particular historical problem.
Just over a decade ago, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the sudden revelation of new documents from the former communist countries, Cold War scholars were particularly keen to de-center their studies. By this, they meant internationalizing what they did, shifting the focus away from Washington, and not only exploring what went on behind the Iron Curtain in more archival detail but also developing a “pericentric framework” to highlight the importance of smaller powers in the Cold War international system. At the same time, historians working on specifically American topics had already begun to de-center their own work, looking less at the perceptions, motivations, and actions of the leaders in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, and more at issues of race, class, and gender.