A Pulitzer Prize–winner comprehensively documents America’s expansion—one audacious land swindle, one gunpoint accession, one bloody conquest after another.
Not until the 1840s did a journalist memorably codify the grandiose notion, traceable to the most illustrious among our Founders, of “manifest destiny.” By then, of course, fighting off threats from at least four European powers, the great American land-grab was well underway, with the “backlands” of the 13 original colonies already carved up by the Northwest Ordinance, Louisiana purchased and Florida seized. Still to come was the annexation of the Texas Republic and the Mexican War, which pushed our boundaries still farther south and west, and the muscling of Britain out of the Oregon Territory; there followed Seward’s Folly, the purchase of Alaska from Russia, the eventual annexation of Hawaii and the high-water mark of American imperialism, the Spanish-American War, resulting in the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. Covering all this and more, Kluger’s deeply researched, smoothly erudite narrative sickens even as it informs. Look away if you cannot bear the sight of America repeatedly betraying its professed ideals, building a nation on the backs of slaves, exterminating a native population. As his slyly sardonic subtitle suggests, Kluger (Ashes to Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris, 1996, etc.) identifies few heroes in a story where even our greatest leaders (all cloaking their acts in the most high-flown rhetoric) succumbed to land-fever, safeguarding and enriching the republic by their unconstitutional acts, manufactured wars, repeatedly broken treaties and sometimes deceptive, other times arm-twisting diplomacy. Indeed, by the terms of Kluger’s relentlessly moralistic discussion, our greatest presidents were Cleveland, for his staunch refusal to sign off on a U.S.-led coup in Hawaii, and Carter, for his give-back of the Panama Canal. Still, by dint of his impeccable scholarship, Kluger has earned his virtuous tone.
A brilliant book, likely to be for some time the last word on how the American map evolved.