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A Book Of Two Halves
on 20 July 2010
Despite being billed as the best one-volume history of the United States in recent times, "America: Empire of Liberty" is a remarkably uneven book. Reynolds starts off well with a reminder of pre-1492 Native Americans achievements and a caustic look at the Columbus myth. The standard remains pretty high right on through his coverage of the colonial period, the war of liberation, the contradictions and correspondences between slavery and liberty, and on right up until the civil war. Up till that point it is a readable, succinct account of the United States history.
Then things start to level off, Reconstruction isn't dealt with particularly well in my opinion, but perhaps I was spoiled by recently reading Eric Foners masterpiece Reconstruction. On to the Spanish-American War; Reynolds rightly acknowledges it was a war with the Spanish then the Cubans and Filipinos, though he seems to portray the conflict in the Philippines as one between equivalents ("atrocities mounted on both sides") despite acknowledging in the text that while 4,000 US troops died the death toll for Filipinos was around a quarter of a million.
On to the twentieth century: Reynolds exhibits satisfaction that the United States was never sullied by a large socialist party, but plays down the level of repression focused on the generality of leftists in America that peaked during the Red Scare after WW1 and reached a crescendo post WW2 with McCarthyism (so-called: in reality it went far deeper than Joseph McCarthy, see Ellen Schreckers The Age of McCarthyism). Neither of these periods is explored to any great depth.
The really great failure in the book is how Reynolds deals with issues of foreign policy during the twentieth century. There are no mentions of the bombing and invasions of Cambodia under Nixon, no mention of Lyndon Johnson's invasion of the Dominican Republic. Despite covering at relative length the Carter era treaty to return the Panama Canal to Panama there is zero coverage of the Bush I's invasion of Panama though ample, and not particularly erudite, coverage of the subsequent years invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the American led response. On the US depredations in Central America during the Regan era - nothing more than a brief mention in the paragraph that inadequately covers the Iran-Contra affair. The coverage of the Vietnam War is fairly nugatory, other events such as the slaughter in Indonesia of 1965 or the invasion and occupation of East Timor, both of which the US were involved in to varying degrees, are not covered at all. Chile and Allende ("whose reforms had wrecked the [Chilean] economy" - US efforts in that direction obviously don't exist for Reynolds) receive one paragraph. The US's relationship with Israel is barely acknowledged. American support for Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan is entirely ignored. There is no attempt on Reynolds part to look into the systematic factors that drove the United States post-WW2 foreign policy with regard to third world countries that make up all of those mentioned above. For someone who is a professional international historian writing a book with the word "Empire" in the title this is beyond a joke.
The book begins as a succinct and reasonable synthesis of US history (pre-"discovery", colonial, independence, civil war) to one that is safe, comfortable and entirely within the cosy consensus of apologetic writing about the United States in the post WW2 world. Those chapters that deal with the twentieth century (with a few exceptions such as Reynolds account of the Civil Rights Movement) are often disingenuous, larded with chatty quotes and asinine details regarding the "great and the good", and totally distort the reality of US foreign policy. For that reason "America: Empire of Liberty" is a book that I heartily recommend avoiding.