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In Promise and Peril, Christopher McKnight Nichols challenges traditional historiography regarding the emergence of isolationism in the United States which argues that the era after World War I provided the catalyst for Americans to question global interaction, especially militarily. Nichols’s thesis, however, rests upon the premise that “isolationism had Progressive origins in the imperialist/anti-imperialist [End Page 127] disputes of the 1890s, a generation earlier than previous historians have noted” (p. 8). By concentrating exclusively on prominent figures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, William James, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Jane Addams, Nichols provides readers with the intellectual scaffolding that supports his Progressive-oriented examination of the debates surrounding major events of the era, including the 1893 depression, the Venezuela boundary dispute, the Spanish-American War, the ensuing crisis in the Philippines, and, eventually, World War I.
This book positions the concept of isolationism within its proper framework; advocates of isolation did not desire complete withdrawal from the rest of the world but instead supported, to varying degrees, economic, political, and cultural interactions with other nations. The persons examined in this work wrestled with the concept of modernization and its implications for the United States and the world. According to the author, two main strands of isolationism, political and protectionist, existed from the 1880s to American involvement in World War I. Political isolationism was “often aligned with liberal market-oriented economic views” while protectionist isolationism adhered to a concept of “inward focus” and was critical of “foreign economic ties” (pp. 347–48). Nichols provides readers with an extended essay titled “Strains of Isolationism” after the conclusion that delves deeper into these two strands of isolationism; however, integration of these concepts should appear more prominently at the beginning of the text rather than in a separate section at the end of the book.
Nichols relies on the isolationist sentiments of Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe in his bid to examine the thought processes of influential Americans; it is from this top-down historical perspective that he begins his analysis of the representative figures of the era and their respective ideologies concerning American interaction with other nations, particularly those in Europe. Divided into seven chapters, Promise and Peril begins with a discussion of isolationists with an expansionist political philosophy, including Senator Henry Cabot [End Page 128] Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, and Alfred Thayer Mahan. “Voices of the People,” the fifth chapter, is the most original. In this section, Nichols dissects the “tensions among regionalism, nationalism, isolationism, and internationalism” as these pertain to the American South and the activities of the most prominent socialist of the era, Eugene V. Debs (p.180). Nichols presents a cogent argument that the South was not against Debs’s antiwar ideology but rather, Debs “found approving audiences widely throughout the South and the Midwest” in addition to “the urban bastions of socialism” because he spoke to these citizens in the language of the common man and not as a radical intellectual (p. 226).
Promise and Peril has nearly seventy pages of endnotes; many of these provide extended discussion and analysis of sources. It is evident that Nichols has a firm grasp of the writings of the persons analyzed as well as the vast secondary literature for the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A separate bibliography would have been helpful for readers to acquire ready access to the source base. In addition, the monograph contains sixteen images that include photographs of the political and intellectual elites examined and cartoon editorials from prominent newspapers of the era.
In sum, Nichols presents a convincing argument concerning the emergence of isolationism in the United States. This tome should provide scholars, especially Americanists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with much to debate and contemplate. Promise and Peril would be an excellent text for a graduate seminar on American foreign relations or American intellectual history.
Jeffrey O’Leary is a doctoral student in...