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  • The Liberty of Strangers: Making the American Nation
  • Laura A. Lindenfeld
The Liberty of Strangers: Making the American Nation. By Desmond King . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006; pp viii + 229. $29.95.

For many groups excluded from American nationhood because of their race, ethnicity, or national background, as Desmond King writes, "the pot failed to melt" (5). The Liberty of Strangers revisits the story of American nationalism [End Page 146] to argue that the rhetoric and ideology of "one people" or "one nation" has often contradicted actual policies and governmental systems. Paradoxically, "in a nation many define by its exceptional individualism, it is this community of groups in which the basis for a genuinely inclusive nationalism lies" (5). Through a comprehensive historical analysis of the twentieth century, The Liberty of Strangers examines the contradictions between themes of individualism and assimilation as these manifest themselves in national policy, governmental rhetoric, cultural events, and nationalist practices that base themselves on the exclusion of certain groups. In particular, the analysis often centers on national wartime politics, policies, and rhetoric. King effectively debunks the myth that group identification and group distinction will fade into a "postethnic" nation. Rather, as he demonstrates, group-based distinctions have been grossly underestimated. Appreciating and understanding the power that these divisions hold is "a necessary step to explaining how the ideology of American nationalism performs" (7). The teleological narrative of American nationhood as moving toward liberal individualism supplies an inadequate model to describe the relationship between nationalist rhetoric and actual group identities.

Organized chronologically in two parts, King's book provides a comprehensive revisiting of historical documents, many of which will be familiar to readers, but some of which are more obscure. This re-narration of twentieth century American history serves as a powerful lens through which King examines how "group divisions were made integral to American nationhood beneath the rhetoric of one people" (54). Part 1 focuses on the period from the victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898 through World War I. Policies of exclusion institutionalized hierarchies that helped to shape popular understandings of who belonged to the American nation and who did not. King points out how different categories of membership to the nation emerged throughout this period. Only people of European ethnic background were eligible for full membership in the one-people nationhood, and an intense acculturation process accompanied inclusion into the polity. During this period, educational policy strove to integrate eligible groups into the nation and helped to determine who could claim to be part of the "one people" nation. Rather than dissolving group identities, efforts to Americanize groups through education often served to strengthen group divisions.

The integration of visual culture into his analysis provides King with an especially compelling vantage point to argue for the contradiction between rhetoric and policy. King surveys visual and written documents that substantiate distinctions between "races." Rand McNally atlases with hierarchical and evolutionary typologies, world fairs that purported to legitimate racial hierarchies, and art galleries that depicted American soldiers overtaking "savage" [End Page 147] Native Americans, supported and sustained contemporary values and attitudes about group distinctions. These dominant images often "documented" the "progress" that could be achieved through assimilative education.

Following an examination of immigration policy and back-to-Africa movements, King explores the experience of ethnic Americans during World War I. Throughout this period, many ethnic groups created rituals and practices that symbolically fortified their belonging to the American nation while asserting their group specificity. At the same time, legislation to support the war effort aimed itself at nation-building at home, guided by an assimilationist ideology that required "100 percent" Americanism and, thus, a diminishment of group loyalties (67). Loyalty to one's own ethnic group became incompatible with this rhetoric. Contrary to most iterations of American nation-building, King argues that during the war we see a stronger delineation of group distinctions, rather than a more unified sense of nationhood.

In the second half of his book, King focuses on the period of time from the 1940s to what he terms "America's Post-Multiculturalist Settlement" (167). He follows the pressures placed on the United States by the international community to address civil...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5238
Print ISSN
1094-8392
Pages
pp. 146-149
Launched on MUSE
2007-04-23
Open Access
No
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