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Reviews 2023-1

Piero Gleijeses, America’s Road to Empire: Foreign Policy from Independence to World War One

Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. Pp. 400. ISBN: 1350028673
Jon-Wyatt Matlack
Bibliographical reference

Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. Pp. 400. ISBN: 1350028673

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1While President Biden professes to wage a battle for the soul of the American nation, historian Piero Gleijeses sets his efforts to demystifying the past of the United States in his book, America’s Road to Empire, a new entry in Bloomsbury’s New Approaches to International History. Readers hoping to reinvigorate their patriotic pride by partaking in this thorough study of American foreign policy will only find disappointment. Rather than further indulging historical assertions of a Jeffersonian empire for liberty, Gleijeses dissents against American pretensions to exceptionalism. Invoking Wilsonian rhetoric, the author’s narrative begins by characterizing US foreign policy as “‘kin to all the world’” (1) in the period beginning with the founding of the Republic and ending with the First World War. By this, the United States is to be interpreted through the same analytical lens as one would study the other imperial and colonial European powers of the 19th century. Exceptional, perhaps, in one particular aspect; insatiable expansionism. Where previous studies dedicate considerable attention to the War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Civil War—with a strong bias to intrigue with European powers—this author more pointedly focuses on the United States’ interactions with nonwhite peoples and nations. Through this analytical framework, the US cannot be viewed as an overarchingly peaceful power, as many previous scholars have asserted, but rather as a country having ruthlessly driven its expansion forth at the express expense of nonwhite victims. Most prominently, Native American tribes, Mexico, Cuba, and Haiti receive rich treatment and are skillfully interwoven into this history.

2 Owing to the author’s authoritative use of multilingual sources, the evidence provided is deepened with an international perspective. Guided by research conducted in Spanish, French, and German, as well as by UK and US based archives, the narrative’s plea towards transnational analysis is well grounded. This book series on new approaches to international history by Bloomsbury is therefore well served by the wide credibility rendered through this expansive research. Where the author enters into a dialogue with previously established scholarship, particularities in French or Spanish language scholarship are interrelated against the norms circulated in English language literature. Regarding, for example, the Louisiana Purchase, French historians’ propensity to undercut the apparent diplomatic mastery of President Thomas Jefferson is amusingly questioned; “gallic bias or sober assessment?,” directly citing American historians who more pointedly praise Jefferson’s statecraft (49). Gleijeses ultimately sides with French interpretations, a view substantiated by the author’s own review of French primary and secondary sources. In light of Bloomsbury’s stated goal of providing books for pedagogic use in classrooms, or for experts looking for a starting point on this topic, the interconnectivity of multilingual historiography provides readers with an extensive trove of relevant literature to peruse. A comprehensive bibliography awaits any eager researcher both in the narrative and the citations.

3 The book is divided into fourteen digestible chapters. The first five chapters restrict themselves to the founding of the United States through to the culmination of the War of 1812. Dedicating fully one third of the monograph to the first five decades was a prudent approach. Gleijeses meticulously asserts how viewing US foreign policy through the prisms of slavery and “Indian removal” is fundamental to decrypting decision makers’ mindsets. The author makes clear that “white” America was exclusionary by design. Even as Native Americans and the enslaved found themselves residing within the territorial confines of the United States, they were regarded contemptuously as objects of foreign policy more broadly. This, therefore, constitutes the truly “revolutionary” aspect of the US foreign policy; that ostensibly republican institutions could carve out new provinces from the “open” territory of the West as white America advanced towards the coast (23). Castigating Eurocentric approaches to US history writing, the author preemptively defends his approach; “to judge Jefferson by Haitians and Native Americans—how parochial! But by what standards should we judge the idealism of his foreign policy? By his foreign policy towards Europe?” (79).

4 Chapters six through eight depart from the more linearly illustrated opening sections, focusing on broader concepts, such as “Indian Removal,” “Manifest Destiny,” and the “Limits of Sympathy” Latin Americans had for the United States. These chapters benefit from the maturation process of the author’s framework established in the book’s beginning. Rather than reducing these themes as the atrocity of one political caste, or ascribing these machinations to one individual, ethnic cleansing in these chapters is poignantly professed as the “will of white America,” evidenced by the white populations’ tolerance or outright endorsement of oppressive policies (130). When later addressing the quintessential milestones building towards the US Civil War, episodes such as the political chaos of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 are resolved in concert with US policy towards the Texas annexation, planned invasions of Cuba, and War with Mexico, further cementing the author’s thesis that slavery was the paramount force driving foreign policy (176). Even where in concluding chapters, surveying for example the US annexation of the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, slavery’s lasting influence is disturbingly illustrated through the inherited cultures of violence white soldiers drew from the Civil War experience (229). The supposition that US expansion is indelibly imbued by racism, even after the Civil War, maintains its salience. “It is impossible,” the author concludes, “when looking at the first 150 years of US foreign policy to talk about ‘America’” as a singular nation (277). White Americans never intended to share the continent, nor to share its culture by “blot” or “mixture” with nonwhites, as Jefferson asserted (279).

5So fluid are these articulations, one reflexively finds fault initially in the relatively truncated treatment of the Civil War and Reconstruction, forgetting, briefly, that this monograph dedicates itself chiefly to foreign entanglements. The immediate decades after the Civil War similarly receive cursory review, though this constraint owes to the United States’ limited foreign excursions beyond its borders in that period. Those intending to embark on a foundational journey through the long 19th century’s foreign policy will be exceptionally well served by Gleijeses’ exacting account.

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Electronic reference

Jon-Wyatt Matlack, Piero Gleijeses, America’s Road to Empire: Foreign Policy from Independence to World War OneEuropean journal of American studies [Online], Book reviews, Online since 27 February 2023, connection on 10 December 2023. URL:

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