The whole of the American Empire in six brief biographies

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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.

“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.”

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.”

April 28, 2010

A close-up

I think it’s a pretty safe bet that most readers will first want to take a look at the Paul Wolfowitz chapter.

As a public intellectual with a Ph.D. as well as a second-tier official whose government service dated to the years, Paul Wolfowitz had an out-of-proportion role in encouraging as well as formulating the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and strategy. And this role was a central to my decision to write this book.

Moreover, it was intellectually exciting to write about Wolfowitz. And because Cornell University is so integral to his story, I probably found it more exciting to focus on Wolfowitz than many others would. (Selfishly, I hope some readers will pause on pages 198-200; here I situate Wolfowitz within the context of the occupation of Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall and anti-Vietnam War protests, his residency at Telluride, where he met of Allan Bloom, and his decision to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago—in political science instead of biochemistry.)

But to appreciate how I reached the judgment that I could not have invented a more appropriate figure for this book’s last chapter than Paul Wolfowitz, readers must stumble onto several other passages.

The first of those is a paragraph within the discussion of Cornell that runs from the bottom on page 198 to the top of page 199. This is where I introduce the reader to Wolfowitz’s engagement with the Holocaust from a very young age. Influenced largely by his father, who had escaped Poland just prior to Hitler’s invasion, Wolfowitz read what he later conceded were “probably too many” books on the Holocaust. What is more, he read almost as much about Hiroshima, which he coupled with the Holocaust and labeled the “polar horrors.” Even before he graduated high school, Wolfowitz came to see world politics as a struggle between good and evil.

A bit further on, on pages 207-208, there is a snapshot of Wolfowitz’s three-year stint as ambassador to Indonesia. Secretary of State George Shultz appointed his Jewish assistant ambassador to this Muslim country as a reward for what Schultz assessed as a positive contribution to easing Ferdinand Marcos out of the Philippines.

Wolfowitz sought this position because his wife, an anthropologist, studied the Archipelago. But once there it was Wolfowitz who went native. He learned the language and he toured the neighborhoods—even won a cooking context. And he developed a close friendship with Abdurrahman Wahid, a Muslim and a democrat. Wahid’s subsequent election as president confirmed to Wolfowitz that his service in Indonesia was part of a larger project of replacing the world’s evil with good.

Paul Wolfowitz turns out to be an extremely complicated individual—much like the American Empire.

“It was intellectually exciting to write about Wolfowitz … even before graduating from high school, he came to see world politics as a struggle between good and evil.”


Initially, I completed the manuscript without a concluding chapter. I just finished with Wolfowitz losing his position at the World Bank and going into “exile” at the American Enterprise Institute. But everyone who read the draft insisted that I include a conclusion of some sort. So I added a postscript on the “Dark Side.”

Borrowing the title from Jane Mayer’s chilling book on the Bush administration’s assault on civil liberties in the name of security—not coincidentally also Vice President Dick Cheney’s nickname within the White House—I argue that for much of the American public, the Global War on Terror has become more about enhanced interrogation techniques, extraordinary rendition, and wiretaps without warrant than about capturing Osama bin Laden and eradicating Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Photographs of the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the widely publicized denial of due process to “enemy combatants” imprisoned in Guantànamo Bay have severely challenged the narrative of America as the bastion of liberty. Americans’ identity, their sense of self, was under assault as much as their civil liberties.

It was within this context, I wrote, that Barack Obama’s candidacy, especially his rhetoric of “change,” resonated deeply with the American electorate. Conversely, the emphasis Bush placed on liberty and freedom in his farewell address rang hollow—despite Bush’s use of the keywords nine times within thirteen minutes.

To me, Obama’s decisive victory indicated that perhaps Americans had finally lost their appetite for an Empire for Liberty. But I don’t know how readers will evaluate this conclusion.

While I would have been inclined to end with Wolfowitz’s retreat from the public sphere, Obama’s election compelled me to close on a more optimistic note. I quoted his inaugural address, in which he repudiated much of the “dark side.” I stressed his pledge to shut down Guantànamo.

But Obama has not closed Guantànamo. And, thus far, there is little evidence that his call to “change” will affect the trajectory of American’s Empire for Liberty. Obama is swimming against the stream of history. That’s not easy.

© 2010 Richard Immerman
Richard Immerman Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz Princeton University Press 286 pages, 6 x 9 inches ISBN 978 0691127620

Richard H. Immerman is Professor and Edward J. Buthusiem Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow in History at Temple University and the Marvin Wachman Director of its Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy. He is a past president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook on the Cold War. Besides Empire for Liberty, featured in his Rorotoko interview, Immerman is the author of The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention, How Presidents Test Reality: Decisions on Vietnam, 1954 and 1965, Waging Peace: How Eisenhower Shaped an Enduring Cold War Strategy, John Foster Dulles: Piety, Pragmatism, and Power in U.S. Foreign Policy, and other books. From September 2007-December 2008 Immerman served as Assistant Deputy Director of National Intelligence for Analytic Integrity and Standards and Analytic Ombudsman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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April 28, 2010