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Reviewed by John Coffey

Richard H. Immerman, Empire for Liberty:  A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz, Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2010,
ISBN: 978-1-4008-3428-0 , 271 pp., $24.95

This volume provides an overview of American foreign policy, delineating the connection between ideas and policy and the importance of leaders’ choices in history.  Through six case studies of prominent statesmen, Immerman shows the nexus between America’s empire and the idea of promoting liberty.  Paying cursory lip service to the good America has done in the world, he charges that in creating its imperium “the United States has frequently done evil in the name of good.”  His is a censure of an “evil empire.”

Immerman identifies Benjamin Franklin, who moved from a vision of a North American British empire to an American empire in its place, as the first to elaborate the concept of  “Manifest Destiny.”   “No American did more to bring to fruition Franklin’s vision of an American empire” than John Quincy Adams, the “greatest” U.S. Secretary of State.  The sole Federalist to support Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and his 1807 Embargo Act, Adams warned of the consequences of Federalist/British collusion:  “Instead of a nation, coextensive with the North American continent, destined by God and nature to be the most populous and most powerful people ever combined under one social compact, we shall have an endless multitude of little insignificant clans and tribes at eternal war with one another for a rock or a fish pond, the sport and fable of European masters and oppressors.”  Fearing European encroachment in the Western hemisphere and Russian designs on the Oregon Territory, Adams supported Florida’s annexation along with acquisition of the Oregon Territory from Spain, and he authored the Monroe Doctrine.  He advocated an “American System” of internal improvements to consolidate the empire and bridge sectional divisions.

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, envisioned a commercial empire spanning the continent and reaching across the Pacific to Asia.  California statehood and Alaska were to serve as gateways to Asia, promoting U.S. exports and the spread of civilized Anglo-Saxon values.  Internal improvements and, especially, a transcontinental railroad would unify the nation and provide an opening to the Orient, making San Francisco the “Constantinople of the American Empire.”  Senator Henry Cabot Lodge contributed more to America’s imperial rise, Immerman writes, than any “other American politician, with the possible exception of his friend TR.”  Lodge conceived a large imperial policy to promote commerce and, foremost, national power and prestige.  In Lodge’s vision, annexation of Hawaii, Cuban intervention, control of the Philippines, and construction of a naval fleet would project American power and greatness globally.

During the Cold War a quest for security motivated John Foster Dulles, who saw a bipolar world with the U.S. as leader of the Free World, making and enforcing global rules of the road to thwart an aggressive Soviet empire.  Dulles replaced containment with liberation, albeit a largely peaceful liberation relying on covert operations (his brother Allen at CIA’s helm) to extend America’s empire into Southeast Asia, the Mideast, and Latin America.  For Immerman Dulles’s empire brought oppression to the peoples in these imperial outposts, but he doesn’t say if he believes the Vietnamese were better off under communist rule, or Iranians under the ayatollahs instead of the Shah.

Paul Wolfowitz, a “leading architect” of America’s “Second New Empire,” brought the empire to its dead end.  Wolfowitz and his neoconservative allies in the Bush II administration harbored a Manichaean view of global politics in which force, unilaterally and preemptively if necessary, could make the world safe for liberty and democracy.  The disastrous Iraq War to transform the Mideast and the world may be “the greatest strategic blunder in U.S. history, a blunder that could prove fatal to the American empire.”End.


1.See John W. Coffey, review of Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism, in American Diplomacy (Oct. 28, 2008).

2.For an insightful view of America’s role in the world, see Josef Joffe, “The Default Power:  The False Prophecy of America’s Decline,” Foreign Affairs (Sept./Oct., 2009).  

John Coffey
John Coffey

John W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.


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