I took 3 classes under Walter LaFeber 35 years ago. He is the best and most inspiring teacher I've ever had. I'm pleased with the generally favorable tenor of these reviews, particularly given the bad and cursory review printed in the New York Times by an historian who must not have read the book.
I always wanted LaFeber to turn his brilliant class lectures into a book, and he does so in this very satisfying text. LaFeber respects the form of the textbook -- he is intent on reporting the facts in an interesting and concise fashion. Of course, his interpretations are there, but he does not overdo it. Nor is he the type of writer who is going to make it easy on the reader by employing snappy metaphors and buzzwords. You are required to think long and hard about what he is saying. After you are done with the book, re-read his preface, where he does give you some important themes he is trying to develop.
While I found the book to be completely satisfying, LaFeber's real talent is as a lecturer. Here is this nerdy-looking guy and son of a grocer who always wears a suit and seems to be a Middle-America conservative. But he writes a three word outline on the chalkboard and proceeds to give a spell-binding lecture without notes -- which brings to life the policymakers involved in history and which raises profoundly Revisionist questions about history. The man is a Rock-Star. I've been practicing law for 30 years and would just once like to be able to grab hold of an audience like LaFeber did in every class.
Of course, the great man would have little patience for all of the above observations and would expect me to respond to the substance of his work. So here goes.
For LaFeber, the U.S. was a great and important power from its inception. The entrepreneurial, restless, optimistic, and individualist spirit of the country resulted in expansion that conquered and united the tremendous resources of the continent. The weight of the census was overwhelming: no Native American or European presence on the continent could resist it. The population would repeatedly double by reason of birth-rate and immigration, and all barriers would be swept away.
As the frontier closed, the nation increasingly embarked on a worldwide commercial expansion. The driving imperative of American diplomacy was to promote the free passage of ideas and goods across borders. Perhaps the seminal figure in modern American diplomatic history is Wilson: liberals and conservatves are all good Wilsonians. Hoover and Reagan and Bush were every bit as Wilsonian as were FDR and JFK. The idea of Wilson was to make the world safe for democracy - and for American capitalism. Even the so-called isolationists of the 1920s were Wilsonians in the sense of attempting to use American economic power to encourage political and trading systems that would be orderly and friendly to American goods and ideas.
The American Age hit its zenith by 1955. After that we have seen a long decline in American economic and political influence. We have all the hallmarks of a declining power -- increasing reliance on military power, debt, trade imbalance, and a refusal to recognize the reality of our own decline. We ruined ourselves in winning the Cold War and now are in an existential crisis seeking to find some new principle to order our foreign affairs. It is not surprising that Bush seized on the "Global War on Terror." We need an easy enemy, and we need to be fighting wars -- it's the old Truman playbook in a different form.
Do the traits that led to the rise and triumph of America serve the nation in the challenges presented by the new Century? Or do those same traits guaranty the nation's ultimate demise? In the more complex multilateral world faced with serious resource limitations, overpopulation, and vulnerability to man-made destructive forces, do we need individualism, unbridled capitalism, expansionism, and resistance not just to international authority but even to national federal authority? Or do we need a more European perspective. The Europeans, having ruined themselves in two wars, lack our hubris and are more amenable to communitarian ideas, limitations on resource use, and stronger international authority. Ironically enough, Wilson was himself perhaps the first modern European. He parted company with the U.S. by insisting on a real set of international commitments, restraints on U.S. freedom of action, and collective security. We didn't go in his direction, but Europe did and is perhaps the stronger for it.
Well, not all of the above is from LaFeber, but this is what I get out of his book. I highly recommend the book.