Wednesday, 11 June 2014

“America in the World” edited by Jeffrey A. Engel, Mark A. Lawrence & Andrew Preston (Princeton University Press)

EngelLawrencePreston-AmericaInTheWorld2014‘A History in Documents from the War with Spain to the War on Terror’

How should America wield its enormous power beyond its borders? Should it adhere to grand principles or act on narrow self-interest? Should it partner with other nations or avoid entangling alliances? Americans have been grappling with questions like these throughout the nation’s history, and especially since the emergence of the United States as a major world power in the late nineteenth century. America in the World illuminates this history by capturing the diverse voices and viewpoints of some of the most colorful and eloquent people who participated in these momentous debates.

Volumes such as this are incredibly valuable to researchers who, like me, do not have easy access to primary documents, or the means to acquire them. Collecting sources selected by experienced academics in the field of US foreign policy, it can take out some of the legwork required when starting a new research project.

They are, however, limited by the opinions of the editors and also the proposed/possible length of any such volume. This really is the only potential weakness of a book like this: by their very nature, they cannot be definitive. Nor, really, should people expect them to be. Because those involved in compiling such a book have limited space, they must select just the most important or interesting sources on any given subject. The breadth of time covered in this book further reduces how many documents can be included on any given subject (a pity, as certain chapters were far more interesting and useful for me than others). This is, of course, all to be expected and not a criticism of books like America in the World – it is just important to recognise that books such as this are (in my opinion) primarily beneficial as starting points. And very good starting points, too. At the same time, they can work very well for researchers who have exhausted the more obvious or easily available sources (online archives, journal archives, and other books printed on their chosen subjects). A number of the documents included in this volume sparked inspiration and brought to my attention other possible avenues of inquiry and potential resources to mine for appropriate information.

Each themed chapter begins with a note from the editors, which place the documents in their historical context. Particularly useful chapters in this volume were those on Empire (chapters 1 to 3), which included some hitherto overlooked sources that proved very useful for my current research project. While some ‘obvious’ sources and documents are included among the 200+ contained within, the editors have done an excellent job of collecting statements and writings from a diverse range of commentators – including novelists, state officials, presidents, even clergymen, poets and songwriters. It also includes documents from foreign writers, offering external views and impressions.

With clear, common-sense and well-collated chapters, America in the World is an excellent book. The documentation within is varied and interesting, and often very well-written – which makes for an enjoyable and stimulating reading experience, as well as beneficial.

America in the World is very highly recommended for researchers and enthusiasts of American history and foreign policy.

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