Sunday, December 21, 2008

From Colony to Superpower, Part VII

This is the seventh installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries.

This week's chapter focuses on American foreign relations in the Gilded Age. Never in American history were foreign issues less relevant than the Gilded Age. The nation focused its attention on internal issues, particularly incorporating the West, reintegrating the South into the nation, and building the economy. Nonetheless, there are a few interesting issues worth discussing.

In many ways, the most important issues with foreign powers that America faced during the Gilded Age happened within our own borders. It was during these years that Native Americans were fully subjugated to the U.S. government. Herring discusses this in some detail, but I'd like to see more. In addition, after 1880, the United States saw a massive rise in immigration. Those immigrants were often treated poorly. The 1891 riot against Italian immigrants in New Orleans that left 11 Italians dead caused a major international incident between the U.S. and Italy. Meanwhile, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act ended immigration from that nation entirely. Anti-Semitism ran rampant in American society, eventually spurring the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 and the rise of the 2nd KKK in the 1920s

The Gilded Age saw the explosion of American missionaries overseas. In many cases, the missionaries were peoples first real exposure to Americans. Those missionaries represented the best and worst of America. They fought against some of the worst social abuses they saw, including opium use in China. They brought democratic ideas to parts of the world. On the other hand, they rarely thought the nations they missionized deserved democracy, they were culturally biased, often influenced by social Darwinism, and were generally not respectful of other peoples. At the worst, the missionaries served as the vanguard of imperialism, telling their families of economic opportunities and assisting in the takeover of Hawaii. Of course, this bias was the norm of Victorian societies, but it's worth stressing the major role non-diplomatic actors played in American foreign policy.

The most interesting thing I learned about in this chapter was the so-called Pork War of the 1880s with the Europeans. American agricultural exports exploded after a European famine in 1879. While I don't doubt that European nationalism played a major role here, the Europeans were quite distrustful of American meat. Given that the this is the age of The Jungle, one can hardly blame the Europeans. Americans were infuriated that Europe resisted their delicious canned meat products. By the early 1890s, the issue faded when the U.S. compromised on some trade issues. But the centrality of food in American foreign relations is something that requires a lot of future exploration.

I do think Herring is a bit hard on Grover Cleveland. He sees Cleveland as a stubborn man without a lot of foresight. From the perspective of expanding American power, perhaps Herring is right. But couldn't we also interpret Cleveland as being anti-imperialist? Cleveland resisted the theft of Hawaii and other imperialist actions of the era. Isn't this a noble thing? While it doesn't make much sense to call Cleveland an anti-imperialist that we should revere today, his actions did delay American imperialism and I think deserve respect for that.

I'd also like to see Herring include the work of Kristin Hoganson in his analysis. Hoganson, in a 2002 American Historical Review article and, presumably although I haven't read it, in her in 2008 book Consumers' Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920, argues for centering American consumers of the Victorian Era in the beginnings of American imperialism. Consumers', often women, demand for exotic foreign items for their homes helped drive U.S. trade with the developing world during these years. Importantly, Hoganson makes a convincing case for including both consumers and women in foreign policy history. Note that I'm not really criticizing Herring here, but simply suggesting useful ways for foreign policy history to go in the future.