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

The wide angle

In fundamental respects, I’ve been writing this book my entire professional life.  Yet, no less fundamentally, the book is the product of “presentist” concerns.

I became a historian in part because I went to college in the 1960s.  As was the case for many of my contemporaries, the Vietnam War competed with my studies for my time.  And it usually won.

This is not to say that my coursework and engagement with the war were mutually exclusive.  To the contrary, they were often mutually reinforcing.  I took multiple courses, for example, from George Kahin and Walter LaFeber.  It was Walt who not only introduced me to the notion of an American empire but also demonstrated to me, through his teaching and writing, empire’s potential as an analytic construct.

Still, it was in another course where the inspiration for this book really surfaced.  Or maybe it was in graduate school.  I honestly don’t recall; I’m quite sure the precipitant was a book, not a lecture.  And the subject matter had something to do with Thomas Jefferson.

But I chose not to feature Jefferson in this book—except to borrow his prose for the title.  And that’s central to my argument.

Thomas Jefferson referred to an “Empire for Liberty” in a letter to James Madison in 1809.  But what struck me as significant, all those many years ago, is that sometime over the course of a quarter-century Jefferson revised the preposition in this very phrase.  In 1780, when America’s victory in the War for Independence was far from assured, Jefferson coined the phrase “Empire of Liberty.”  In 1809, corresponding with his ally and successor in the aftermath of the Louisiana Purchase, among other accomplishments of his presidency, he wrote “Empire for Liberty.”

It is possible, of course, that Jefferson intended nothing by the change.  Almost all historians quote only the original “Empire of Liberty.”  It is the title of several books.

As for me, from the instant I noticed that Jefferson had switched “of” for “for,” I suspected he had done so for a purpose.  By the time he wrote “for,” Jefferson was a committed expansionist, an empire-builder.  By this time Jefferson had abandoned his initial optimism that peoples enveloped by America’s expansionism, Native Americans in particular, could accept and benefit from liberty as he and his countrymen defined it.

Thus, as I interpret it, the shift from “of” to “for” signified Jefferson’s transition to advocating a more proactive, indeed a more aggressive extension of the sphere of liberty.  America would be an Empire for Liberty.  Its mission would be to promote liberty, to spread liberty to peoples and places where liberty was either unknown or suppressed—or just different.

This goal, however, was incompatible with Jefferson’s recently arrived-at judgment that liberty was not for everyone. It was for Americans, of course, but they were exceptional. Most people could not appreciate liberty, and therefore they stood in the way of its progress.

And whether he did it consciously or not, Jefferson’s substitution of “Empire ‘for’ Liberty” for “Empire ‘of’ Liberty” presaged the collision course between empire and liberty on which the United States embarked. In fact, my working title for the book included a question mark: “Empire for Liberty?”

My research on the principal players in this book revealed that they pursued an evolving American empire for a laundry list of reasons—which varied with time, circumstance, and predisposition, and included security, prosperity, and the projection of power and America’s greatness.

But the one constant ground for the pursuit of the American empire was a claim to preserving and promoting liberty.

My hope is that this book will provoke readers to think deeply about the implications of this one constant. There are no easy answers to the questions it evokes.

I have been addressing questions of this kind since I wrote The CIA in Guatemala almost thirty years ago.  Moreover, I have long been fascinated with the individual level of analysis, especially the influence of personality on politics.

Yet, I may not have written this book were it not for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  That intervention, with the rhetoric that surrounded it and the personalities that orchestrated it, motivated me pull together a lot of disparate thoughts.

Virtually all my previous scholarship has focused on the Cold War.  In this book I reach back to Ben Franklin and the Colonial era on the one hand, while writing “contemporary history” on the other.

By placing my principals “end to end,” this relatively short book covers the entire sweep of American history—or, at least, the entire history of the American Empire.

And much of what I came to write in this book first came as a surprise to me.  For example, I have written one book on John Foster Dulles and edited another.  But never before had I recognized the relationship between what Dulles identified as the “boundary-barrier situation” in the 1930s and his post-World War goal of establishing what I call an “Empire for Security” to confront an “Empire Against Liberty.”