In search of a broader context for US history

A historian argues that the US is best seen as part of a global puzzle.

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In 1901, Woodrow Wilson, who was then a Princeton professor, pondered America's role in the world. He considered the brutal conflict his country was waging in the Philippines, an unexpected consequence of its overseas adventures in the Spanish-American War.

Reflecting upon what policymakers would describe today as the struggle to "democratize" a distant land, Wilson wrote that "the best guarantee of good government we can give to the Filipinos" is for America to be "sensitive to the opinion of the world." Moreover, the future president observed, we should be "sensitive in what we do to our own standards, so often boasted and proclaimed."

If the war to crush the Filipinos' quest for independence - and that was America's goal - was an early example of United States activism in the world, it is worth remembering that for centuries this country has been deeply enmeshed in global developments. At times (as in the Philippines), America has reached across the ocean to become involved in the affairs of other nations, even as US domestic life has been shaped by developments overseas.

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But the key notion, as Thomas Bender argues in his insightful book, A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History is that America has long been part of the larger world. And to understand the nation's past, Bender writes, it is essential to set American history in a global context.

Bender starts boldly, declaring in his first sentence that he "proposes to mark the end of American history as we have known it." In his call for a novel approach to comprehending the country's past, Bender, university professor of humanities at New York University, wants to reorient the way we understand, teach, learn, and write about US history. It is an ambitious goal, but Bender succeeds, producing a book that is both illuminating and engaging.

To comprehend the key developments in American history, Bender argues, we must look outside the confines of the nation, a perspective that he believes can enrich our understanding of events like the American Revolution and the Civil War.

Moreover, as the author reminds us, long before those seminal events, European contacts with the "New World" were part of an "oceanic revolution," which in the 16th century transformed the sea from a barrier into a "connecter of continents."

In 1507, amid this global revolution, the word "America" (derived from the name of Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine agent working for the Medicis) appeared on a map for the first time. Epochal changes were sweeping much of the Western world and Bender vividly documents this era when crucial developments emerged in art, science, and religion even as European explorers reached outward across the seas.

In analyzing the American Revolution several generations later, Bender shows how this conflict flowed from a global conflict that raged in England and France for over a century.

In an incisive chapter on the Revolution, Bender situates the conflict in a global context. Although the American colonies stood on the periphery of the war between the European states, an unexpected chain of events driven by the Anglo-French struggle led London, desperate for revenue, to impose novel taxes and regulations on its American colonies. And this led to the rebellion of the 1770s, which concluded in 1783 with independence. In no small measure, then, the Revolution was driven by external developments.

Even the Civil War, that most domestic of all conflicts, was part of a global contest of liberal ideas about freedom and nationalism which inflamed societies in the mid-19th century. In one of the book's most thought-provoking chapters, Bender writes of a time in which countries on every continent grappled with the challenges posed by nationalist ideologies and the movement for free labor. What caused the war, at least in part, was "a larger history of ideas and conflicts over nationalism and freedom," which animated the world's peoples.

If anything diminishes the power of this subtly intelligent volume, it is the brevity with which it considers the 20th century, a time when the US assumed preeminence on the world stage, even as the great developments of the era - the world wars, the cold war, and the end of imperial rule - reshaped the history of American society and culture. That story remains to be told.

But there is much to admire in "A Nation Among Nations." Beyond offering a genuinely fresh interpretation of American history, Bender reminds us that the US is simply one among many countries in an "interdependent world." He suggests, moreover, that it would be salutary if that realization led the US to adopt the spirit of humility suggested by Woodrow Wilson when he urged that Americans live up to "the standards we have professed" and heed "the opinion of the world."

Jonathan Rosenberg, the author of "How Far the Promised Land?: World Affairs and the American Civil Rights Movement from the First World War to Vietnam," teaches American history at Hunter College, CUNY.

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