On his book Just Like Us: The American Struggle to Understand Foreigners

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In a nutshell

Foreignness: how have Americans thought about it? Who are we, who are they, and how are we related to each other? These questions have underpinned all of American history, as an expansive colonial project and subsequent nation engaged with new and different peoples, first in North America and then all around the world. Just Like Us tells the story of how Americans have struggled to understand other peoples, both those living elsewhere and those coming to the American shores.

You could think of it as a combination of the history of political and popular culture (who Americans believe they are), immigration history, and the history of U.S. foreign relations. The book shows how Americans developed over time what they understood as a culture of individual freedom, and how they believed that culture to reflect essential qualities of human nature. They saw American culture and American values, in other words, as natural, and the United States as the place where people could truly become themselves, free from the constraints of unjust rulers and oppressive traditions. In this sense, Americans across the political spectrum have tended to be universalists: they may have been ethnocentric, but they also thought everyone else was American at heart.

It seemed only logical that others would try to get to this land of opportunity. The United States received the largest number of immigrants across the past two centuries. But were these newcomers ultimately similar to Americans and could they fit in here? Or were they instead fundamentally alien and unable to be incorporated?

This long debate has shaped much of the American past and present. But it is not, ultimately, a story of xenophobia and exclusion, powerful as those forces have been at times, including the Trump era. Instead, the larger picture is one of an even more powerful inclusiveness and assimilation, which have rendered the United States the most diverse great power in the history of the world. The United States today has more than 40 million residents who were born abroad, more than four times the number in Germany, which has the second largest number.

Believing themselves to be the ultimate free people and understanding this to be the highest expression of human nature, Americans have had a distinctive anxiety about losing that freedom through subversion. Immigrants represented one of the primary possible threats to American society. A second was Communism, which would eliminate private property, the foundation for American political liberty. Ultimately, the story of the twentieth century turned out to be the victory of markets, not the victory of Marxism. And rather than being subverted, the United States turned out to be a powerful subversive force for the socialist world instead. Americans may have worried about Communist brainwashing, but it was Communists who should have been much more fearful of the profit motive.

A third threat to the freedom culture of the United States was the influence of other peoples whom Americans encountered as they expanded their borders and then their influence around the world. The foreigners they met might change them. While that may have been true to some extent, it was even truer that the spread of American-style capitalism and consumer culture helped to reshape the entire globe. Leery of foreigners, Americans also embraced them—and, ironically, subverted them along the way.

April 29, 2020

The wide angle

I have been writing and teaching U.S. and world history for more than three decades, for 12 years at Cornell and then 17 years at Nebraska. I have been primarily concerned with placing U.S. history in a global and comparative perspective. Partly, this is because evaluations of American history and American culture are difficult to make without some sense of the other human possibilities of the same era. Living and traveling abroad—particularly in Ireland, Italy, and China—were crucial for me. Living in just one culture is analogous in some ways to having just one eye: for most people, it’s spending time in a different culture that allows them to begin to become binocular and develop the depth perception that comes with that.

My focus on the United States also reflects how central and influential the United States has been for modern world history, as well as how much it has been shaped by ongoing contacts with other countries and other peoples. The United States is the most powerful modern nation in nearly every measurable way, whether economic, military, political, or cultural. It is also the nation with, by far, the most people who came from elsewhere: a spectacularly diverse, global society. Just Like Us evolved out of a growing sense that all interactions between Americans and foreigners are built on assumptions—sometimes changing, sometimes steady—about who those foreigners are. No other historian had yet explored in depth the American engagement with foreignness.

Just Like Us is being published in early 2020, but it is not at heart a Trump-era book. Most of the research, organizing, and writing were done in the final years of the second Obama administration. And it no doubt reflects some of the mild optimism about diversity and inclusiveness of that earlier era. Indeed, some friends have gently asked if perhaps the 2016 election might have proved my argument wrong. No: the book is not a prediction about the future, but an interpretation of events up until now. The data and stories I have compiled here are not changed one whit by the latest recrudescence of xenophobia, a recurring political virus endemic but not dominant in American life.

If anything, the story in Just Like Us of dramatically increasing inclusion and diversity in the United States should be a source of encouragement in darker times. We have seen this empowerment of white grievance before, and we will get through it.

April 29, 2020

A close-up

I would—of course, I did—start with the Preface. It aims to draw the reader directly into the problem of Americans and foreigners, and how I see the development of this issue over time.

I am making a large argument about Americans and their relationship to non-Americans, but I’m also telling a lot of smaller stories along the way, all of which add up to the larger narrative about the nation and the world. Here’s how one perceptive (and kind) reader summarized some of these stories:

One of Borstelmann’s superpowers is his eye for telling details and unexpected connections. That’s why I often find myself raiding his writing as I prepare my lectures… We learn of the first Jewish Miss America (who would have thought to ask about that?), a Korean-American Olympic diver, Jesse Helms’s overcoming his hatred of communism in his quest to sell cigarettes in Vietnam, a Philippine immigrant’s report on abuses at Abu Ghraib, the rise of Chef Boyardee, the mainstreaming of Mormons, and Oscar Wilde’s characterization of the United States as ‘one long expectoration.’ Nuggets is what historians usually call such narrative gems. This mine sparkles with them.

But I might also offer the last two paragraphs of the book’s own Conclusion:

If there was, in fact, a subversive force loose in the world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it might best be seen as coming not from their usual outsider suspects, but rather from America’s own democratic ideals, combined with America’s own absorptive popular culture and seemingly infinite consumer pleasures. That culture and its products encouraged the spread of the viruses of individualism, of headlong material consumption, and of the relentless quest for wealth, which tended to disrupt other more traditional cultures. ‘What is the process of civilizing,’ prominent U.S. clergyman Josiah Strong had asked in 1885, ‘but the creating of more and higher wants?’ Americans have been at the front edge of that ‘process of civilizing’ ever since.

The pursuit of profits and opportunities overturned the old and brought in the new. Capitalism, with the United States and its freewheeling culture at the forefront, proved the greatest force for change in the last half-millennium. A wide swath of Americans might have imagined themselves as what they called ‘conservatives,’ but their way of life brought persistent pressure for reordering everywhere it flowed. There was nothing conservative about it. Americans, instead, turned out to be the real subversives of the modern world, confident and determined, at home and abroad, that other peoples would, if given the chance, choose to live just like them.

April 29, 2020


One of the problems with academics, in general, and with scholarly historians, in particular, is their tendency to view racism and xenophobia as constants in American life, seemingly growing either stronger or more insidious. These are certainly persistent forces with horrific, ongoing impact, and they are radically underestimated by many contemporary Americans, particularly on the right end of the political spectrum, where a culture of white grievance festers.

But racism and xenophobia are not the entire nor even the most powerful shapers of the American narrative. The mainstream of American society, over time, has proved to be more inclusive than we sometimes recognize: more economically incorporating, more culturally assimilative, more politically flexible, and more diplomatically adaptive. The Cold War forced a dramatic widening of this historic process of inclusion. While China, by contrast, has few immigrants and does not seek to make new Chinese, the United States remains, despite contemporary Trumpism, the nation that pulls in newcomers who then go on to help reshape American life.

Regardless of the future, this has been the predominant story so far of the American relationship with foreigners. It offers a deep well to draw from as we go forward.

April 29, 2020
Thomas Borstelmann Just Like Us: The American Struggle to Understand Foreigners Columbia University Press 272 pages, 6.2 x 9.2 inches ISBN 978 0231193528

Thomas (“Tim”) Borstelmann has been the Elwood N. and Katherine Thompson Distinguished Professor of Modern World History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln since 2003. He spent the previous twelve years as a member of the History Department at Cornell University. Borstelmann holds a B.A. from Stanford University (1980) and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Duke University (1986, 1990). His research focuses on the intersection of United States domestic history and international history. He is the author of Apartheid’s Reluctant Uncle (Oxford, 1993), The Cold War and the Color Line (Harvard, 2001), and The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality (Princeton, 2012), and he has coauthored Created Equal (Pearson, 5th edition, 2016). His most recent book, Just Like Us: The American Struggle to Understand Foreigners (Columbia, 2020) is featured in his Rorotoko interview. In 2015, Borstelmann served as president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and won the Annis Chaikin Sorensen Award for Outstanding Teaching in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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April 29, 2020