Power struggle

The Dominion of War: empire and conflict in America, 1500-2000

Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton <em

How did 13 former British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard become a continental superpower with global reach? The Dominion of War purports to answer this question. In their introduction, Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton promise an alternative to self-congratulatory, jingoistic accounts of US history: "Ours begins with the proposition that war itself has been an engine of change in North America for the past five centuries and indeed has largely defined that history's meaning."

The authors argue that US expansion across the continent, and the naval expansion and US participation in the world wars that followed, were not responses to real geopolitical dangers, but the product of purely domestic forces of "imperial ambition". It is an argument that depends entirely on the premise that the United States has been free from genuine great-power threats for most of its history. If this were true, it would certainly be interesting, but Anderson and Cayton fail to acknowledge - far less refute - any of the evidence that undermines their arguments.

Two examples must stand for many others. The authors write: "Great Britain and the United States ceased to compete militarily after 1815, leaving Mexico, which declared its independence from Spain in 1821, as the last remaining obstacle to the domination of the United States in North America." This is misleading at best. Though the US and the British empire did not go to war after 1815, the geopolitical competition between the US and Britain lasted until the late 19th century, when the threat of imperial Germany produced the Anglo-American rapprochement.

After American settlers and their native allies broke off Texas from Mexico in 1836, Britain and France negotiated with Mexico in an attempt to contain the US by blocking the annexation of Texas. British negotiations with the Republic of Texas frightened Congress into annexing it in 1845. When, as a result, Mexico declared war on the US, Commodore Sloat of the US navy, under secret orders from President James K Polk, seized the port of San Francisco, very shortly before Admiral Seymour's British fleet sailed into the harbour.

The geopolitical purpose of the US annexation of Texas, the American portion of the Oregon territory, California and the south-west was to prevent the encirclement of the US by states governed by or allied with the British empire, and to control the major Pacific ports important for trade with Asia in a mercantilist world. Indeed, Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, sought to make California a British protectorate.

In a 520-page book, Anderson and Cayton somehow can find no space to discuss the Anglo-American rivalry that shaped US policy towards Texas, Oregon and California, except a single sentence that mentions the US-British Oregon Treaty of 1846. A close equivalent would be a treatment of the Cuban missile crisis as a bilateral conflict between the United States and Castro's Cuba, with no mention of the Soviet Union or the larger Soviet-American rivalry.

Nor can readers learn anything from Anderson and Cayton about the intense German-American naval rivalry that began in the 1880s and which underlay the Spanish-American war and the seizure by the US of Caribbean and Pacific islands, including the Philippines. The first mention of imperial Germany comes in connection with the Zimmermann Telegram of 1917, in which the Kaiser's government promised to support Mexican territorial claims on the US if Mexico went to war with the US as Germany's ally. One would never know, from reading The Dominion of War, that the fear that Germany would succeed in its ambition to control the Philippines was a prime motive in the bloody and inhumane American conquest of the former Spanish colony; that, in 1899, an Anglo-American force and a German-backed native government fought a brief battle in Samoa; that the chief of the German admiralty declared that Mexico's grant of coaling stations to Germany in 1907 would "be a thrust . . . into the very basis of the Monroe Doctrine"; and that "Operationsplan III", devised between 1898 and 1906, provided for German naval attacks against New York and Boston in the event of a war between Germany and America, while the German Pacific fleet, based in Asia and Latin America, would attack American and British shipping.

A book that accurately considers the emergence of the US in the context of great-power rivalries in North America would be a good idea. The Dominion of War is not that book.

Michael Lind's The American Way of Strategy will be published by Oxford University Press next spring