Richard H. Immerman


On his book Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz

Cover Interview of April 28, 2010

In a nutshell

Empire for Liberty tells a story the broad outline of which will be familiar to many readers: the growth of the American empire from its inception to the present. But the juxtaposition of “empire” with “liberty” embeds the story in a conceptual and interpretive framework that I believe readers will find distinctive, challenging, and perhaps even uncomfortable. Further, my methodology—collective biography—seeks to provide perspectives from both ground level and an altitude of 50,000 feet.

My argument embraces three interlocking premises.

The first is that the United States is an empire, and it aspired to be one from its origin. Of course to label American an empire is to invite all kinds of controversy and criticism. Moreover, for more than a century, the term “empire” has been applied so profligately and imprecisely as to undermine its analytic utility. Consequently, I begin the book by dissecting and defining empire, and doing so within the context of the American historical experience. Like that experience, the definition of empire is dynamic.  The United States as an empire evolved along with that definition.

My second premise concerns liberty. In contrast to the case with empire, liberty’s central role in the unfolding history of the United States is scarcely contested. Yet much like empire, I argue, the word “liberty” has been used and abused so extensively that it has lost much of its meaning. Throughout US history Americans have appropriated the concept and ideal of liberty to serve different purposes and needs.  At almost all times, nevertheless, liberty has been an engine of empire.

Third, I wrote this book on the principle that people matter.  People make choices, and those choices have consequences.  Or, I should say, depending on the individuals, the choices they make can have consequences.

The six individuals featured in Empire for Liberty—Ben Franklin, John Quincy Adams, William Seward, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Foster Dulles, and Paul Wolfowitz—were all exceptional. None, however, was unique. Even as each man—I emphasize, “man”—played a pivotal role in shaping the contours of the American empire, he reflected as much as he influenced the attitudes, beliefs, and priorities of others.

Because the choices people make are grounded in specific times and specific environments, the trajectory of the American empire was not linear.  But it was inexorable.

The collision of empire and liberty at Abu Ghraib and Guantànamo, however, may prove to be a game changer.