Whether commentators assert that the United States is resurgent or in decline, it is evident that the dominant mood today is one of considerable uncertainty about the standing and role of the “indispensable nation” in the world. The triumphalism of the 1990s has long faded; geopolitical strategy, lacking coherence and purpose, is in a state of flux. Not Even Past, or perhaps Not Ever Past, because the continuously unfolding present prompts a re-examination of approaches to history that fail to respond to the needs of the moment, as inevitably they all do.
This as good a moment as any to consider how we got “from there to here” by stepping back from the present and taking a long view of the evolution of U.S. international relations. The first reaction to this prospect might be to say that it has already been done – many times. Fortunately (or not), the evidence suggests otherwise. The subject has been studied in an episodic fashion that has been largely devoid of continuity between 1783 and 1914, and becomes systematic and substantial only after 1941.
There are several ways of approaching this task. The one I have chosen places the United States in an evolving Western imperial system from the time of colonial rule to the present. To set this purpose in motion, I have identified three phases of globalisation and given empires a starring role in the process. The argument holds that the transition from one phase to another generated the three crises that form the turning points the book identifies. Each crisis was driven by a dialectic, whereby successful expansion generated forces that overthrew or transformed one phase and created its successor.
To experts on the history of U.S. foreign policy, the Dulles brothers’ service during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency marks an important watershed in the evolution of American interventionism. In the context of brewing conflict with the Soviet Union, Eisenhower’s administration aimed to protect developing countries of the “Third World” from being converted to Communism. However, as recovery efforts following World War II mobilized international diplomatic efforts to broker world peace, U.S. officials were reluctant to deploy troops abroad. John Foster Dulles was Eisenhower’s secretary of state during this time. His brother, Allen Dulles, served as director of the recently founded Central Intelligence Agency. Together, the Dulles brothers used this agency to eliminate perceived communist threats in the Third World through covert operations, establishing a powerful precedent for “regime change” as foreign policy strategy.
What fewer scholars and policy enthusiasts know is that the Dulles brothers were products of an elite political family with a strong internationalist tradition. John Foster Dulles’ personal papers, stored at his alma mater Princeton University, exhibit how the eldest brother’s upbringing and family network, consisting of diplomats, missionaries, and international lawyers, influenced his developing world view. This is particularly the case with his maternal grandfather, John W. Foster, a prominent patriarchal presence during Dulles’ childhood. Ideological continuity between Foster and his oldest grandson is evident in their comparable career paths, their methods of preparing subsequent male generations, and their published texts and speeches which analyze the role of U.S. foreign policy in international affairs.
At the end of 1960, near Cienfuegos, Cuba, on the Soledad estate of a U.S.-owned sugar company, the American Director and Cuban staff of Harvard’s Atkins Institution began packing up their scientific equipment. The Cuban Revolution had caught up with them. Director Ian Duncan Clement, his wife, Vivian, and lab technician Esperanza Vega worked quickly to put the station’s herbarium, library, and lab “in stand-by condition.” The station’s horticulturalist, Felipe Gonzalez, and his assistants pruned the trees in the station’s arboretum, preparing them “to withstand a period of neglect.”
The Atkins Institution had operated as an important field research station for visiting botanists and zoologists since shortly after the 1898 Spanish American War. It had survived difficult times in the past––hurricanes, economic depression, and the Revolution of 1933. Despite the escalation of Fidel Castro’s insurgency, Harvard held its Biology field course there as usual in the summer of 1958. The station remained unscathed even as the front lines of the revolution passed over its grounds later that year. Only when the Soledad estate was nationalized and diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba disintegrated were the Clements and staff members Vega and Gonzalez forced to leave. They expected to return soon. Continue reading “Enclaves of Science, Outposts of Empire”→
One of the earliest films to be shot and then screened throughout India were scenes from the Delhi Durbar between 29th December 1902 and 10th January 1903. The Imperial Durbar, created to celebrate the accession of Edward VII as Emperor of India following the death of Victoria, was the most expensive and elaborate act of British Imperial pageantry that had ever been attempted. Nathaniel Curzon, as Viceroy of India, oversaw the construction of a tent city housing 150,000 guests north of Delhi proper and what occurred in Delhi was to be replicated (on a smaller scale) in towns and cities across India.
The purpose of the Durbar was to contrast British modernity with Indian tradition. Europeans at the Durbar were instructed to dress in contemporary styles even when celebrating an older British Imperial past (as with veterans of the ‘Mutiny’). Indians, however, were to wear Oriental (perceptibly Oriental) costumes as motifs of their Otherness. This construction of an exaggerated sense of Imperial difference, and through it Imperial order and Imperial continuity, was significant. It was a statement of the permanence of Empire, of Britain’s Empire being at the vanguard of modernity even as the Empire itself was increasingly anxious about nascent nationalist movements and rocked by perpetual Imperial crises.
It’s unlikely that Stephen Frears watched these films from 1902 or 1903 upon finalising the screenplay and then shooting Victoria & Abdul. They have only recently been digitized and archived by the British Film Institute. But his recent movie, filmed when most visions of the past are obscured by the myopia of the present, is an unconscious reproduction of films produced and shown when Empire was an idée fixe in the British mind. Abdul Karim, one of several Indians at Victoria’s court during her long reign, is a cypher throughout the film who has no emotion or sentiment or stirring rhetoric except when genuflecting before his Empress – kissing her feet upon their first meeting, stoically holding her hand upon her death, sitting as a sentinel by her statue in Agra into his dotage. Continue reading “Victoria & Abdul: Simulacra & Simulation”→
We are delighted to announce a new online collaboration with our colleagues in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Not Even Pastand theImperial & Global Forum will be cross-posting articles, sharing podcasts, and sponsoring discussions of historical publications and events. We are launching our joint initiative this month with a blog, cross-posted from Not Even Past, based on a new book by Exeter’s own Martin Thomas and Richard Toye, Arguing About Empire: Imperial Rhetoric in Britain and France.
“At the present moment it is impossible to open a newspaper without finding an account of war, disturbance, the fear of war, diplomatic changes achieved or in prospect, in every quarter of the world,” noted an advertisement in The Times on May 20, 1898. “Under these circumstances it is absolutely essential for anyone who desires to follow the course of events to possess a thoroughly good atlas.” One of the selling points of the atlas in question – that published by The Times itself – was that it would allow its owner to follow “most minute details of the campaign on the Atbara, Fashoda, Uganda, the Italian-Abyssinian conflict &c.” The name Atbara would already have been quite familiar to readers, as the British had recently had a battle triumph there as part of the ongoing reconquest of the Sudan. Continue reading “Arguing about Empire: The Dreyfus Affair and the Fashoda Crisis, 1898”→