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Reviews in American History 31.4 (2003) 588-595

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Progressive Internationalism and the Road Not Taken

Michael E. Latham

Alan Dawley.Changing the World: American Progressives in War and Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. x + 409 pp. Halftones, notes, and index. $29.95.

According to Alan Dawley's new synthesis, the social conscience and political commitments of American progressives were fundamentally shaped by their internationalist sensibility. Where other historians have diagnosed progressives with an irrational case of "status anxiety," indicted them as old-line elites out to control immigrant workers, or lamented their promotion of a regulatory system that ultimately produced conservative results, Dawley points abroad to address another dimension of the literature. Despite their diverse interests and affiliations, he argues, progressives were fundamentally driven by a hope that the promotion of social justice and revitalization of public life in the United States would form the core of an international campaign. "In a world knit together by far-flung markets and the international state system," Dawley explains, "progressives confronted social problems that crossed national boundaries, and their solutions did the same" (p. 3). Revolutions in Russia, China, and Mexico inspired many of them with the sense that their reformist efforts at home might become part of a wider, global transformation in which popular needs would surpass the dictates of laissez-faire, and participatory democracy would replace imperial and dictatorial tyranny. But U.S. intervention in those revolutions and the pivotal American entry into World War I divided the movement and betrayed many of its fondest hopes. The result, Dawley argues, was a sadder and wiser politics that we would still do well to emulate, a conclusion that raises fundamental questions about the concept of progressivism itself.

To introduce the "new internationalism" that animated so many progressives, Dawley provides a series of illustrative vignettes. Rather than trying to define a single, ideological core, he focuses on the varied experiences of key individuals in a period of rapid economic change and intellectual ferment. Advances in communications, the mobility of labor forces, and the rise of an international working-class movement all led reformers like Jane [End Page 588] Addams toward what she called a "growing world consciousness." A "veritable crossroads of the world economy," Chicago was also a "crossroads of world culture," a city full of recent arrivals from Dublin to Naples, from Kiev to Canton. As modern industry recruited an increasingly diverse array of humanity, Addams framed a hopeful vision of the future. "Watching the parade of immigrants trudge past her front porch at Hull House," Dawley writes, she "concluded that the ethnic mixing she saw everyday in her rough-and-tumble Chicago neighborhood was itself a kind of international cooperation." As she wrote later, "I believed that there was rising in the cosmopolitan centers of America, a sturdy and unprecedented international understanding which in time would be too profound to lend itself to war" (p. 16-7).

Though perhaps less optimistic, progressives like Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette also became increasingly aware of transnational forces. Though most famous for his battles with American railroad moguls and exploitative industrial trusts, Dawley argues that "Fighting Bob" did more than push for commercial regulation, workmen's compensation, and "mother's pensions." He also developed a "consistent anti-interventionist position that has not gotten the attention it deserves" (p. 59). A determined opponent of William Howard Taft's "dollar diplomacy," La Follette argued that, in Dawley's words, repeated American interventions in the Caribbean "reduced the U.S. Marines to a collection agency for Yankee creditors" (p. 32). In April 1914, after Woodrow Wilson sent federal troops off to block arms shipments to Mexican revolutionary General Victoriano Huerta and put down a bloody strike in Ludlow, Colorado, progressives like La Follette became convinced that the same capitalist elite oppressed Mexican farmers and American miners. They also found ideological company on the left as Midwestern socialists "gleefully pointed out that Rockefeller was both the principle [sic] stockholder in the Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation and a major investor in Tampico oil wells close to...


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