Laying the groundwork for American empire was an international enterprise—so why doesn’t the world want to be American?
“The earth’s people have more often envied than imitated America,” writes Rauchway (History/UC Davis; Murdering McKinley, 2003), preferring parliamentarianism and welfare statism to republicanism and laissez-faire. To find out why, Rauchway examines America’s rise to empire, which occupied the years between 1865 and 1917. During that time, he writes, America received both financial and human capital from abroad; the working class was predominantly immigrant, as was the army that tamed the western frontier, while huge flows of European cash into the post–Civil War economy made an industrial super-revolution possible, leading to a manifold increase in the nation’s wealth. Yet Americans refused to do the things that newly wealthy countries do—namely, invest in public infrastructure and build social-welfare institutions and mechanisms. Rauchway observes that just before WWI, America’s army was smaller than Ethiopia’s, while “relative to the size of its economy it had a smaller government than the Netherlands”; he reckons that at least some of the refusal to build a welfare state had precisely to do with the fact that the working class “appeared visibly to consist of people from other countries,” leading native-born Americans to look the other way when issues of, say, occupational safety and labor exploitation arose. Our laissez-faire ways seemed particularly problematic when it came time to raise an army to fight overseas, leading to the creation of particularly inept bureaucracies, for “routine competence simply did not lie within the experience of Americans who had relied for years on an incidentally benevolent world to take care of them.” And when it came time to protect the world economy with American initiatives after the armistice, Americans failed to come through, yielding worldwide depression—good reason to avoid imitating the American way of life.
Given the current reliance on foreign capital and immigrant labor, Rauchway’s book is right on time and right on target.