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American Empire

Roosevelt’s Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization

Neil Smith

Publication Year: 2003

An American Empire, constructed over the last century, long ago overtook European colonialism, and it has been widely assumed that the new globalism it espoused took us "beyond geography." Neil Smith debunks that assumption, offering an incisive argument that American globalism had a distinct geography and was pieced together as part of a powerful geographical vision. The power of geography did not die with the twilight of European colonialism, but it did change fundamentally. That the inauguration of the American Century brought a loss of public geographical sensibility in the United States was itself a political symptom of the emerging empire. This book provides a vital geographical-historical context for understanding the power and limits of contemporary globalization, which can now be seen as representing the third of three distinct historical moments of U.S. global ambition.

The story unfolds through a decisive account of the career of Isaiah Bowman (1878–1950), the most famous American geographer of the twentieth century. For nearly four decades Bowman operated around the vortex of state power, working to bring an American order to the global landscape. An explorer on the famous Machu Picchu expedition of 1911 who came to be known first as "Woodrow Wilson’s geographer," and later as Frankin D. Roosevelt’s, Bowman was present at the creation of U.S. liberal foreign policy.

A quarter-century later, Bowman was at the center of Roosevelt’s State Department, concerned with the disposition of Germany and heightened U.S. access to European colonies; he was described by Dean Acheson as a key "architect of the United Nations." In that period he was a leader in American science, served as president of Johns Hopkins University, and became an early and vociferous cold warrior. A complicated, contradictory, and at times controversial figure who was very much in the public eye, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Bowman’s career as a geographer in an era when the value of geography was deeply questioned provides a unique window into the contradictory uses of geographical knowledge in the construction of the American Empire. Smith’s historical excavation reveals, in broad strokes yet with lively detail, that today's American-inspired globalization springs not from the 1980s but from two earlier moments in 1919 and 1945, both of which ended in failure. By recharting the geography of this history, Smith brings the politics—and the limits—of contemporary globalization sharply into focus.

Published by: University of California Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

List of Maps

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xxii

In November 2001, U.S. forces seized a rural part of southern Afghanistan near Kandahar, and in a staged display jubilant marines hoisted an American flag on the highest point of the terrain. The reference to Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders on San Juan Hill at the dawn of the first moment of U.S. global ambition or to U.S. marines on Iwo Jima ...

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pp. xxiii-xxviii

So deeply did the conundrum of a lost geography churn inside me that “I either had to write the book,” as Hermann Hesse once said, “or be reduced to despair.” It took a long time, and the work has left me in massive intellectual debt. ...

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1. The Lost Geography of the American Century

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pp. 1-28

The story is told, perhaps apocryphally, that in May 1898 when William McKinley received the news that Commodore George Dewey had sailed into Manila Bay, routed the Spanish navy, and claimed the Philippines, the president was immediately jubilant—but also quickly puzzled. ...

Part I. From Exploration to Enterprise: Geography on the Cusp of Empire

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2. 1898 and the Making of a Practical Man

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pp. 31-52

The Spanish-American War of 1898 was a watershed in the historical geography of U.S. expansionism. The national and state boundaries of the United States were effectively in place, even though several territories had yet to consummate statehood, and the geographical claims that resulted from the war were less about national consolidation than international colonization. ...

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3. “Conditional Conquest”: Geography, Labor, and Exploration in South America

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pp. 53-82

As the conquests of 1898 suggest, the first mappings of the American Century represented a continuity with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more than a harbinger of new geographies. To be a geographer in the passing era was to be an explorer, an adventurer into the “unknown space and barbaric chaos,” ...

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4. The Search for Geographical Order: The American Geographical Society

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pp. 83-110

The United States at the turn of the twentieth century was gripped by a “search for order,” according to historian Robert Wiebe in the classic book of that title. Through most of the nineteenth century, the country encompassed a society without a core, a highly decentralized agglomeration of communities and towns with equally dispersed political and economic powers. ...

Part II. The Rise of Foreign Policy Liberalism: The Great War and the New World

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5. The Inquiry: Geography and a “Scientific Peace”

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pp. 113-138

Shortly after the “lovely little war” of 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed between a vanquished Spain, finally stripped of its colonies, and a victorious United States only beginning to descry world power. Whatever the treaty’s profound implications, the peace negotiations that produced it were a decidedly low-key affair. ...

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6. A Last Hurrah for Old World Geographies: Fixing Space at the Paris Peace Conference

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pp. 139-180

On a cold December day in 1918, three army trucks arrived at pierside in Hoboken, New Jersey, where the SS George Washington was being prepared to transport the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference. The “war to end all wars” was being followed by the conference to end all conferences, ...

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7. “Revolutionarily Yours”: The New World, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Making of Liberal Foreign Policy

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pp. 181-208

“Even the empty spaces of the world are no longer non-political,” Bowman announced after the war.1 This could well have been adopted as the anthem for the new liberal foreign policy that developed in the interstices of 1920s isolationist ideologies in the United States. ...

Part III. The Empire at Home: Science and Politics

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8. “The Geography of Internal Affairs”: Pioneer Settlement as National Economic Development

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pp. 211-234

Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous deployment of 1890 census data enshrined the belief that the frontier in the United States was gone. More important, it crystallized a national myth that the western frontier involved the defining experience in “American” history. This was ominous. ...

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9. The Kantian University: Science and Nation Building at Johns Hopkins

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pp. 235-270

The idea of the modern university dates to the German idealists, especially to Kant. The university for Kant is devoted to reason, internally ordered by the logical division of knowledge into faculties and “disciplines” that express the conceptual divisions of the world, and the individual thinker is its central figure. ...

Part IV. The American Lebensraum

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10. Geopolitics: The Reassertion of Old World Geographies

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pp. 273-292

The end of World War I closed the curtains on the first formative moment of the American Century. It intimated a new calibration of geography with economic expansion and was for many a time of optimism.Woodrow Wilson’s new diplomacy and his aspirations for a tidied map of Europe were meant to take international political and diplomatic relations beyond a concern for geography. ...

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11. Silence and Refusal: Refugees, Race, and Economic Development

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pp. 293-316

In late June 1933, the president of the American Geographical Society, Dr. John Finley, received an unusual letter from Berlin. It came from Hubert R. Knickerbocker, a journalist with the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post, and it concerned the young German geographer Karl A. Wittfogel. ...

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12. Settling Affairs with the Old World: Dismembering Germany?

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pp. 317-346

When on 17 March 1944 Bowman was summoned to the White House to consult with Roosevelt over his impending State Department mission to London, it was a familiar routine for him. But this time the press corps at the White House gates buzzed with excitement. ...

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13. Toward Development: Shaking Loose the Colonies

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pp. 347-373

On the eve of World War II, more than 60 percent of foreign direct investment from the developed capitalist world was targeted at the developing world. As anomalous as this was historically, it fostered the assumption that postwar economic expansion would focus on what came to be known as the third world. ...

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14. Frustrated Globalism, Compromise Geographies: Designing the United Nations

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pp. 374-416

With war drawing to a close, attention in the U.S. State Department increasingly turned toward the design of the United Nations, the jewel in the crown of the postwar American Lebensraum and the fulcrum on which the second moment of the American Century balanced. ...

Part V. The Bitter End

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15. Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

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pp. 419-453

The end of World War II should have been Isaiah Bowman’s crowning moment. The United Nations Charter was ratified in October 1945, and to his initial relief a more conservative, farm-raised midwesterner now occupied the White House. “We can look forward to the greatest age in mankind,” Harry Truman had announced at Potsdam in July 1945 ...

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16. Geographical Solicitude, Vital Anomaly

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pp. 454-462

The American Century is synonymous with globalization. The first formative moment, from 1898 to 1919, adumbrated the vision of a global political economy that would simultaneously surpass the regional parameters of the European empires and entwine a global political structure (the League of Nations) with an already accomplished world market. ...

Collections Consulted

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pp. 463-464


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pp. 465-538


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pp. 539-557

Production Notes

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p. 587-587


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pp. 588-593

E-ISBN-13: 9780520931527
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520243385

Page Count: 584
Publication Year: 2003