Is America an empire? Merely to ask the question is to unsettle, or even offend. Because of the thoroughgoing idealism of American political rhetoric, Americans are rarely content to see their history presented as a record of complex, partially obscure, and very human events; they require a neat morality tale that manifests a glorious national essence and a sacred national purpose. Empire is a category of mere history, in which pride, stupidity, greed, and hatred may be relied upon to play their usual pervasive part, and contact with mere history threatens to tarnish the American mythos.

As Richard H. Immerman observes, however, recent foreign adventures have made it difficult for anyone to maintain that the U.S. is not, at present, in some sense imperial, even if words such as ‘hegemon’ are preferred because they “generate less emotion and controversy.” In Empire for Liberty, he provides compelling evidence that, whether laudable or deplorable, recent American foreign policy is not a historical aberration; objectives meaningfully described as “imperial” have always been a central aspect of American policy. And although American imperialism has always been “inextricably tied to establishing and promoting ‘liberty,’” the vague, shifting, sometimes contradictory notions of liberty invoked have led to national behavior that most contemporary Americans would not consider uniformly admirable.

To make his case, Immerman profiles six influential men whose lives span the history of the American republic: Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Seward, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Foster Dulles, and Paul Wolfowitz. Although Immerman does not use this distinction, I will divide this group into two main phases in the history of American imperialism—the progressive and the apocalyptic.

In the progressive phase the dominant imperial perspective was exceptionalist. It presented the U.S. as a great and uniquely free country, destined to spread freedom across North America and act as the harbinger of global progress. There was however, pragmatic acceptance, as unfortunate but stubborn facts of life, of sub-American states and peoples, and the coexistence of rival great powers.

This phase begins with Benjamin Franklin, the earliest theorist of what would later be called Manifest Destiny. God and nature, he believed, willed a great and exemplary empire to dominate North America. In the language of the day, any large jurisdiction comprised of “previously separate units now subordinate to the metropolis” could be called an empire, and this label had no negative associations. Franklin’s North American empire would be great in conventional terms; that is to say, it would be large, wealthy, powerful, and hospitable to the arts and sciences.

At first Franklin imagined that Britain and her North American colonies would rise together by adopting a new, cooperative imperial model in which the mother country provided the fruits of industry and the Americans farmed and provided a market for British manufactures. For this model to work, Franklin thought, British North America needed more land and security. He therefore advocated aggressive territorial expansion and the political unity among the colonies required to deal effectively with the French and the Native Americans. When it became clear to him that the British preferred to maintain the Americans in strict subordination, he continued to advocate these policies, but with a view to consolidating an exclusively American empire, fit to take its place among the world’s great nations.

But although Franklin and most of the other founders worked toward conventional greatness, they also believed that the United States should, in keeping with the spirit of the American Revolution, be distinguished by a special connection with liberty. It is with this special connection that the complications begin.

It was agreed that America should be in some sense an empire of liberty and in some sense an empire for liberty, but there was no agreement about how it should be each of these things nor about which should take precedence. Confusion about the nature and meaning of American liberty drove controversy about foreign and domestic policy at least until the Civil War. There was, for example, a notable conflict between the localist, agrarian ideal of Jefferson and the nationalist, industrial ideal of Hamilton (Franklin, the nationalist agrarian, split the difference). But there were even more fateful questions. Was slavery compatible with or perhaps even integral to an authentic idea of liberty? Could or should non-Anglo-Saxon peoples be integrated into the Empire of Liberty? When did attempts to expand the sphere of liberty (that is, to act as an empire for liberty) undermine America’s integrity as an empire of liberty?

John Quincy Adams embodied these tensions. He believed that continental expansion was required to nurture and protect the new empire of liberty, and to that end he formulated the Monroe Doctrine as Secretary of State to President Monroe. The republic of liberty would only flourish if Americans had adequate room to move and resources to exploit, and the country needed to drive all potentially hostile powers off the continent (indeed, out of the hemisphere). Expansion, however, had to be limited by two considerations that may seem contradictory to readers who assume that all abolitionists confessed our contemporary liberal universalism, which insists on the political irrelevance of race, culture, and religion. For Adams, it was scandalous that a republic of liberty contained slavery, and he was determined that it should not spread slavery. But Adams also doubted (and in this he was not alone) that large populations outside the Anglo-Saxon Protestant cultural orbit were, at least at this stage of history, capable of participating as full members in a free society. For both these reasons he opposed bringing large areas of Central and South America under American control. He spent his last energies fighting “Mr. Polk’s War” in Mexico, and famously declared that the U.S. should be “friends to liberty everywhere” but should not go abroad looking for “monsters to destroy.”

Like Adams, William Henry Seward was a curious compound of abolitionist and ethnocentrist. He considered slavery wicked and “ignoble,” but far from considering ethnic particularism incompatible with the promotion of liberty, he declared, with unsurpassable explicitness, that the two were mutually supportive. He praised the “ruling homogeneous family” of Caucasians that, “having a common origin, a common language, a common religion, common interests, sympathies, and hopes” was in form for dynamic, beneficial action on the world stage. So important was this ethnic unity that Seward preferred it to the claims of justice even within the empire of liberty. During Reconstruction, Seward wrote that the North should “get over this notion of interference with the affairs of the South. . . . I have no more concern for [the negroes] than I have for the Hottentots. . . . They are not of our race.”

Since effective application of the Monroe Doctrine had made the United States secure from foreign domination, Seward was free to focus on America’s role as an instrument of global progress. Although he believed in the objective superiority of republican government, his main concern was to open the world to American capitalism. He believed that commerce had “largely taken the place of war,” and declared commerce to be the foundation of America’s future global supremacy and the chief means by which it would bless the world. He counseled Americans to stay aloof from conquest, having faith that a vibrant America would grow in size and influence by a natural process of “selective osmosis.” Despite being a senator from New York, the “empire state,” he tirelessly advertised the potential of California to serve as the true seat of a glorious commercial empire, and he campaigned for the acquisition of Alaska in the belief that it would serve as a bridge to the Asian market. He hoped that the resulting cultural and economic exchange would revitalize Asia, producing a “new and more perfect civilization.”

The phrase “new and more perfect civilization” may stand as the definitive expression of the imperial spirit during the progressive phase. This phase ended in the late 19th century with a period of atavistic nationalism that made it incontrovertibly false to say, as did President George W. Bush, that the United States “has never been an empire.” The great representative of this period was Henry Cabot Lodge. In a climate dominated by Lodge and his fellow imperialists, the United States followed the European fashion of colonization, annexing Hawaii and the Philippines and otherwise parading American “muscularity.” Lodge embraced much of Seward’s vision for America’s future, but in his view the causes of wealth and liberty were subordinate to a grand notion of national greatness. He did not share the misgivings of men like President Grover Cleveland, who argued that threatening Hawaiian sovereignty represented “a perversion of our national mission.” Lodge dismissed such qualms with all the Enlightenment idealism of Achilles: “We are a great people; we control this continent; we are dominant in this hemisphere; we have too great an inheritance to be trifled with or parted with . . . . I cannot bear to see the American flag pulled down when once it has been run up, and I dislike to see the American foot go back where it has once been advanced.”

The only curb on Lodge’s ambitions for an American empire was his increasing worry that his earlier progressive attitude toward ethnicity had been mistaken. He began to doubt that those outside Seward’s “ruling homogenous family” could be taught the “stock of ideas, traditions, sentiments, modes of thought” needed to integrate into American society or even to make liberal democracy a success in their own territories. Later in his career, therefore, Lodge became an ardent supporter of restrictive immigration policies and entertained belated doubts about the wisdom of annexing the Philippines.

The apocalyptic phase of American imperialism began at the end of the First World War. It was distinguished by a new sense of urgency: the United States should not only strive for power and influence, but should immediately seize and preserve uncontested headship and actively direct the remaking of the world, preferably in America’s image. Unsurprisingly, the rhetoric of anti-imperialism, directed primarily at the British and the French, becomes more common and strident during this phase. After all, advocates of imperial policies sought to reorder the world so thoroughly that American dominance had to be considered fundamentally different from (and superior to) all previous forms of hegemony.

In a sense the first representative of the apocalyptic spirit was Woodrow Wilson, who famously sought to make the world “safe for democracy,” but it is John Foster Dulles whom Immerman chooses to profile. Dulles developed a nuanced theory of international relations that, perhaps uniquely among theories of any kind, managed to combine ideas redolent of both Hobbes and Henri Bergson. In Dulles’ view, the main aim of diplomacy was to maximize security, which he defined as “freedom from attack upon person and property.” The old model of empire, typified by the French and the British, invited insecurity because it boxed in what Dulles terms “dynamic” elements, meaning (apparently) energetic, creative, and ambitious social bodies, such as the Germans after World War I. These dynamic forces naturally resist the imperial yoke, leading inevitably to violent conflict. The United States, however, possessed the “vision” and “creativity” to design, rule, and expand a zone of security (what Dulles famously named “the free world”) in which dynamism was accommodated with a minimum of violence and participants in the system would be protected from the Soviets, who ruled their own zone inhumanely. Although the main levers of control would be diplomatic, economic, and cultural, the ultimate basis of the system would be American military power. Dulles often used the “lofty vocabulary of the Church and of America’s Founding Fathers” but his guiding goal of security was, like the “national greatness” of Lodge, quite compatible with acts that deprived other nations of sovereignty. As Immerman tells the story, the notion of “liberation” as used by Dulles meant nothing more or less than inclusion (free or forced) in the American zone of security. As proof of this, Immerman cites Dulles advocacy for American intervention in favor of Castillo Armas’ counterrevolution in Guatemala. In Immerman’s judgment, the result of this advocacy was a “sorry chapter in the history… of the United States” in which Guatemala was “ ‘liberated’… from its own people…[making] a mockery of the very word liberty.”

The final profile is of Paul Wolfowitz, who combines Dulles’ enthusiasm for the Pax Americana with Wilson’s democratic idealism. His position, Immerman suggests, is best explained as a response to the genocidal and totalitarian episodes of the twentieth century. History, read as Wolfowitz reads it, yields a clear lesson: tyrants cannot be merely “contained.” Against John Quincy Adams, he maintains that the United States has a solemn obligation to cultivate the overwhelming power needed to destroy the monsters who violate human rights. Unlike all the other figures profiled, Wolfowitz gives no indication of ethnocentrism, insisting that liberal democracy is a universal possibility and a universal right.

But although Immerman evidently feels some sympathy for the generosity and humaneness of the neoconservative impulse (at least as found in Wolfowitz), he reserves his most pointed criticisms for the policies it has inspired, which Immerman considers the most classically imperialist in American history. Revelations about American misdeeds in Iraq, both occasional and systematic, have pointed out the perpetual tension in American history between acting aggressively as an empire for liberty and maintaining integrity as an empire of liberty. Immerman closes with the hope (though he does not sound very hopeful) that the election of Barack Obama will lead to an age of humbler American foreign policy that does not sacrifice liberty for sake of empire.

Empire for Liberty is required reading for anyone interested in the history of American self-understanding. Of course, because it aims at exposition and analysis rather than creative contribution to American political theory, Empire for Liberty naturally invites many questions that it does not acknowledge, let alone answer. How are Americans to understand their national purpose? We may wish to dismiss as baseless bigotry the frank and unapologetic ethnocentrism of many who once defined that national purpose, but their views should challenge us to face some delicate problems: Are there in fact cultural prerequisites of our form of polity? If so, what are they? More fundamental still, what exactly do we mean to export under the name liberty, and in what ways and to what extent is it universally attractive and applicable? Is our understanding of the “stock of ideas, traditions, sentiments, modes of thought” among the vastly diverse peoples whom we would rescue sufficient for us to give a reliable answer?

No historian, qua historian, can give us clear solutions, but by bringing us into conversation with some of the thoughtful men who have trod our path before us, they can offer us what Richard Immerman does this book—the gift of provocation.