American Global Power from Empire to Superpower

2022 Volume II

Introduction by David C. Engerman, Leitner International Interdisciplinary Professor of History

The United States was born a global player and became a major global power over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. As a rich vein of scholarship in the last generation attests, U.S. offers an unusual combination of economic, political, and not least military power – and indeed has helped define new forms and vectors of international engagement over the 20th and now the 21st centuries.

This seminar was designed to introduce National Fellows to some of the ideas about American global power, focusing especially but not exclusively in the 20th century. Our main reading, Daniel Immerwahr’s innovative and eminently readable book, How to Hide and Empire, set the tone for our seminar, showing how much the United States relied – and indeed still relies – upon unincorporated territories that fly the American flag but do not guarantee residents the rights of American citizens.

Our readings went well beyond Immerwahr, however, to look at some of the key elements of American global power. The readings were selected with the Fellows’ interests in mind, and ranged from American missionaries operating in Hawai’i in the early 19th century to immigration policies in the administration of President Trump. We also had the opportunity to visit the incomparable collections of the Yale archives, looking at letters and publications of American missionary organizations. While we struggled with the handwriting, we gained a new appreciation of the complexity of American overseas engagements – as well as the work of historians.

Since many of the Fellows wanted to focus their curriculum units on immigrant experiences, we looked at immigration as an aspect of foreign relations, looking at two works (by Aviva Chomsky and Juan González) that connected immigration issues since the 1990s directly to American foreign policy – “the harvest of empire,” in González’s felicitous phrase. We also read a challenging article by the innovative historian Paul Kramer.

These readings came in particularly handy for the two Fellows who wrote directly about immigration: Stephen Straus took up Chomsky and González’s call to link immigration to the effects of American foreign policy in Central America in his curriculum unit, which uses the historical background gained in this seminar to help students understand the backstory of immigrant narratives collected (and translated) in Voces sin Fronteras. Kathy Volin focused on a different relationship between empire and immigration: the treatment of Filipinos hoping to come to the United States both when the Philippines was an American colony, and after independence in 1946.

The Philippines was also at the center of Melissa Muntz’s unit, which used American colonization of the Philippines as a way to bring imperialism into US history courses - and to bring the United States into discussions of imperialism in World History courses.

Other projects struck out further from our readings. Sandy Alvarez wrote a highly creative unit on the value chain of banana production – a curriculum unit that will culminate, no doubt to students’ delight – in eating banana splits in class. But Alvarez is delivering more than dessert to her first-graders; she is also showing them how international economies work, how many steps there are from a banana tree in Guatemala to a bunch of bananas for sale at a U.S. grocery store.

Mark Hartung, a YNI veteran and the seminar Coordinator, wrote about the difficult dilemma facing President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the late 1960s: a version of “guns vs. butter.” Johnson came into office determined to create a more just and equitable world, but his main vehicle for doing so – the Great Society – was endangered and eventually engulfed by government spending and eventually political turmoil engendered by the escalation of the Vietnam War.

And Cinde Berkowitz looked at a neglected front in the Cold War: American-Soviet competition over standards of living that reached their illogical extreme in the so-called Kitchen Debate between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon in a Moscow exhibit hall in 1959.

From Nixon in Moscow to LBJ and Vietnam, to future president William Howard Taft serving as colonial governor of the Philippines, American leaders projected American power, and even had to face its limits, as they shaped American foreign policy. And from Filipina nurses to Guatemalan banana-pickers to immigrants fleeing violence in Honduras and El Salvador, the effects of American global power were made visible by individual people and their life stories. These curriculum units thus offer fitting documentation of the extent and intensity of American engagements around the world.