St. Louis and Empire: 250 Years of Imperial Quest and Urban Crisis by Henry W. Berger (review)
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St. Louis and Empire: 250 Years of Imperial Quest and Urban Crisis. By Henry W. Berger. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015. Pp. xii, 353. $39.50 cloth)

Cities have traditionally been consigned to the realm of domestic policy; discussion of foreign trade and treaties rarely appears in the pages of urban histories. In a refreshing departure from the norm, Henry W. Berger views St. Louis as a player in the international arena, focusing on the efforts of local leaders to extend the city’s economic empire through vigorous promotion of foreign trade and investment. By doing so, he performs a signal service to the study of cities, forcing shortsighted scholars to reconsider international relations as an integral part of the urban story.

Berger begins his account of the economic imperialism of St. Louis by focusing on Thomas Hart Benton. The long-serving antebellum senator loudly and persistently promoted his hometown as the gateway to the American West and eventually East Asia. He personified the expansive ambitions of early St. Louis leaders. Although an inland city two thousand miles from the Pacific coast, St. Louis would supposedly be the great beneficiary of America’s transcontinental Manifest Destiny.

After the Civil War, local boosters shifted much of their attention to Latin America, establishing strong economic ties with Mexico. John [End Page 239] F. Cahill founded El Commercio del Valle, a bilingual English/Spanish journal that promoted investment in and trade with Latin America. Cahill established a close relationship with Mexican president Porfirio Diaz and served as Mexican consul in St. Louis. During the late nineteenth century, the publisher/consul unleashed an invasion of St. Louis dollars into Mexico. Among the most notable entrepreneurs was Henry Clay Pierce, who invested heavily in Mexican railroads and oil.

During the twentieth century, St. Louis became a key player in the emerging military-industrial-academic complex that arose out of America’s Cold War expansionism. In discussing the city’s growing international role in the midcentury, Berger focuses on Stuart Symington, chief executive of the locally headquartered Emerson Electric Corporation and later secretary of the Air Force and United States senator. He also examines the development of St. Louis-based Mc-Donnell Aircraft and its dependence on lucrative Cold War military contracts. The city’s Washington University likewise benefited from Cold War research dollars, reinforcing the integral role of St. Louis in the nation’s international endeavors.

Throughout his work, Berger demonstrates the importance of an international vision to the development of St. Louis. Although an inland city in the heart of the nation, far removed from the Atlantic and the Pacific or the Rio Grande and forty-ninth parallel, St. Louis was not isolated from the world. Instead, its leaders realized that the city’s fortunes were tied to international trade and investment and dependent on the nation’s foreign policy.

Although Berger refers to “urban crisis” in his title, his work is less effective in dealing with the city’s discord or decline. He discusses the loss of population and manufacturing base briefly in the closing pages of the book, but he does not sufficiently relate this crisis to the longstanding economic expansionism of the city. Moreover, throughout the book he implies that promotion of foreign trade and investment was somehow overreaching and unsavory, repeatedly referring to the city’s imperialism and quest for empire. Some readers may question why expansive foreign trade and investment that brought prosperity [End Page 240] and growth to the city should be deemed suspect and undesirable.

Overall, however, Berger’s work sheds needed light on the expansive ambition of an American city. The nation’s traditional fear of entangling alliances and preference for isolationism did not prevent the leaders of a midwestern metropolis from reaching out and recognizing that St. Louis’s future was linked to that of the larger world.

Jon C. Teaford

JON C. TEAFORD is professor emeritus of history at Purdue University. He is the author of a number of books in urban history, including The Metropolitan Revolution (2006) and The American Suburb: The Basics (2008).

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