Hey Reddit! I am Dr. Shannon Bontrager, a military and cultural historian currently teaching U.S. History and World History at Georgia Highlands College. My dissertation was on how Americans remember their imperialistic past through their commemorations of the war dead and I have written a book on the cult of the fallen soldier from the Civil War to the First World War. Throughout my career, I have always prioritized getting historical knowledge to as wide of an audience as I can as well as trying to explain what historians do and how they know what happened in the past. One common theme I’ve noticed is that a lot of my students don’t get exposed to the American empirical expansion into the Pacific, and I get a lot of bewildered looks every time I mention America as an empire. So, i wanted to hop on here and answer any questions you guys have regarding US expansion into the pacific, US as an empire, or US history in general. I will be on here live on Tuesday May 25th from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM to answer any questions you might have! You can also check out my book at: https://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu/nebraska/9781496201843/ <%22>Proof: check out the post on my twitter https://twitter.com/STBontrager/status/1397191997295898625<%22> .Also check out my website: http://www.shannonbontrager.com and my appearance @ The Bookshelf on YouTube : https://youtu.be/vXjMivr39dY<%22>Also check my appearances on The Curious Man’s Podcast: https://thecuriousmanspodcast.libsyn.com/shannon-bontrager-interview-episode-23 <%22>and The Packaged Tourist Podcast: https://anchor.fm/matthew-dibiase/episodes/Shannon-Bontrager-interview-eqv7oh<%22>

Comments: 351 • Responses: 34  • Date: 

Iaminyoursewer126 karma

In terms of 'No Empire lives forever' where do you see the USA in it's "life" as an empire right now?

STBontrager18 karma

Great question, thanks for asking it! The answer depends on who you ask, I suppose. If one subscribes to the idea of American exceptionalism, then America is the only real empire and its fall will be the end of history. People in this camp would most likely suggest that America is in the prime of life and they take it for granted that it will live forever. They most likely think this because the idea of American exceptionalism suggests that America is unique and a nation that will never be equaled because our origins are founded in the Enlightenment and the ideas of equality, life, liberty, and happiness, which is what makes us different from everyone else. If one believes that these ideas are fixed in nature, and if one believes that the U.S. exemplifies these ideas, then it is nearly impossible to envision an end to America's life cycle because then there would be a vacuum in nature itself. People in this camp might also argue that America is not an empire.

The premise of your questions suggests you do not subscribe to this idea. There are critics of the American empire that have argued, with good evidence, that the American empire really only existed for a few short years. They might suggest that the empire began with the end of the Second World War and that its decline began with the Vietnam War. They might argue that we are currently "living on fumes" so to speak and we are only sustained by our technological innovation and massive economic wealth. This will soon dissipate, they argue, because the system of capitalism is unsustainable and the imbalance between economic prosperity and democratic insecurity, potentially brought on by environmental global warming or the rise of a competing empire, will cause the U.S. to decline soon. Some of these individuals will say that we live in "late stage capitalism."

Still others will argue that we are in an adolescent stage. They might point to empires of the past, Roman or British, which had long life cycles particularly because they could reinvent themselves over time. If that is the case then one could argue that the U.S. is going through one of those life cycle regenerations, kind of like Dr. Who. Vietnam was just a phase that brought on adolescence and as time goes on, we will mature again.

From my perspective, I would argue that the American empire is in a peculiar position in which it is too difficult to predict the future. This is of course, how history actually works...no one in the past could predict the future with any kind of certainty and neither can we. But here is what history suggests. The U.S. developed as a nation and an empire through the guise of regeneration and competition. It had to regenerate after the Civil War. No longer was slavery, agrarian economies, and de-centralized state governments the norm. The U.S. had to structurally change by eliminating slavery, going through an industrial revolution, and transforming the economy, and moving to a federalized government. Each of these events were catastrophic at the time but the U.S. emerged from them because they had to compete against European empires intent on pouncing. In other words transforming, labor, technology, and the definition of democracy is what allowed the U.S. to regenerate. This was imperfect and it took another regeneration a century later in the Civil Rights movement. Here in the 1960s America experienced another technological, labor (mechanization of labor), and access to democracy. Again the U.S. changed the definition of democracy and controlled technology and incentivized labor to adapt to the competition of Communism during the Cold War. What we are living through now is a third revolution--technology (digitalization), labor (the threat of automation), and access to democracy. In the past we have had outside enemies to keep us somewhat united internally. Today, we have no external enemy except the War on Terror, which is very ambivalent and vague. The answer to your question depends on whether the U.S. empire can control technology (especially silicon valley) effectively, can expand the idea of democracy to include more and more people, and balance an economy that allows far more people to participate all while rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, greening the economy, and keeping hot spots around the world from morphing into full on conflicts.

This is a lot to ask of anyone, which is why a lot of people think we are at the end of the life cycle. It could very well be that we are Michael Jordan playing for the Wizards. It also could be that we are Michael Jordan playing for the Birmingham Barons! The next 15 to 20 years may give us more insight.

Iaminyoursewer4 karma

Exceptional reply! Thank you!

STBontrager2 karma

You're welcome, thanks again for the great question!

SirWynBach36 karma

From my perspective, it seems like many Americans are ignorant of the many wars/conflicts that America engaged in to build its empire and they are resistant to learning about them. There’s a prominent strain of nationalism that depicts the USA as the protagonist of history and, therefore, the USA must always be depicted as “the good guys” in any conflict.

How do you approach this subject with people who hold such views? Are you ever accused of “hating America” and how do you respond?

absurd_alligator33 karma

It's funny, I have the opposite perception. It seems like everybody (in the circles I travel in) is aware of this, and we're just tired of hearing about it. Like, we get it, America is evil. It seems like, in academia at least, there's no counterbalance with the stuff the US got right. If you choose to view this through the lens of any morality, you must condemn the nation only, and any discussion of its virtues means you're either historically ignorant or a right-wing nationalist.

So, my question would be: Is there any room in academic circles for this balance, where we acknowledge the moral complexity of the issue? If not, how can we make room for a deeper/more balanced discussion once the issue of morality is broached?

Edit: Nevermind. Looks like there is no room for this discussion, and never will be. I suspected as much. Carry on.

Double edit: I'll try and suspend my cynicism

STBontrager2 karma

Thanks for this question! It too, just like the previous one, is a very important question to ask. The answer is yes, there is plenty of room in academia to acknowledge the moral complexity of an issue and produce a more balanced discussion. To be honest, this exactly what I strive for in my classroom. I often try to use primary sources to accomplish it. For example, when thinking about the reservation system, slavery and emancipation, or thinking about the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I use primary sources to provide multiple interpretations of the event. First hand accounts are important and when students read different points of view placed directly next to each other it gives them a complex way to approach the past. Hopefully then can make their own interpretations based on good information that allows them to weigh and sift the evidence reasonably easy. Sometimes these primary sources reinforce their world view and sometimes they challenge them. Everyone though, will have to, at one point or another, recalibrate their thinking and reinterpret their knowledge. https://sheg.stanford.edu/history-lessons?f%5B0%5D=topic%3A8#main-content#main-content#main-content Here is a large collection of primary sources I use in class that cover the entirety of American history. They are really useful in the classroom. I hope you find them interesting and thought provoking! I hope this answers your question.

STBontrager4 karma

Thanks for your question, it is indeed something that comes up in my classes and classrooms across the country. I think what one needs to remember is that historians try to understand the past from multiple perspectives or interpretations. Historians can only argue interpretations that have evidence. If there is no evidence presented then one is not really doing history, they are doing something else.

The argument that you allude to is something that historians call American exceptionalism or some call "The Consensus school" of history. It argues that America is unique and exceptional. No other nation has accomplished or will accomplish what America has accomplished. Most who subscribe to this theory see in the American past that there is an unfolding march toward democracy that is inevitable and immutable. The argument is that America, unlike its European cohorts, never had to deal with feudalism and so therefore was free to create a nation based on the ideals of enlightenment: equality, life, liberty, happiness.

The problem usually comes when someone who espouses this theory fails to understand that there are other interpretations of the past that are often better at explaining the past. For example, some historians argue that American history is about making laws that bring about progress (progressive historians) while others argue that American history is about building institutions (Organizational historians) still others believe that American democracy is in decline, these are called New Left historians. To be honest, some of these theories explain somethings well but not other things. For example the Progressive historians explain the early 1900s well while the Organizational historians explain the Great Depression well and the New Left does a nice job of explaining the 1960s.

When someone believes that there is only one CORRECT interpretation of American history, it allows them to reject all the others. When this happens in the classroom, it is my job to get them to at least accept that there are other interpretations out there. For example, how can you explain the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of exceptionalism? African Americans clearly did not have access to equality, life, liberty, and happiness and that is why they protested. It is useful to show images of segregated water fountains to illustrate this point. If I can get someone to concede that sometimes other interpretations are more useful than I feel I have done my job. They can still maintain their overarching interpretation that they favor but they have to at least acknowledge that other interpretations are valid too.

If I can get them to see the validity of other interpretations, then it becomes a bit easier to discuss wars of empire in the Pacific or in the Caribbean or in the Middle East because I have given them the tools to interpret these wars more effectively. I don't always succeed, but most of the time people are happy to think about the past from a different perspective. Thanks again for asking this question! It was a good one!

leadrain8624 karma

I’ve noticed in my college American history classes that it’s almost become a sort of hip fad to constantly be left leaning and negative about America’s history.

While I think it’s important to recognize and learn about the racism and atrocities in America’s past...I’m noticing that professors and, subsequently, college students seem hyper focused on being negative about America and it’s past.

Have you noticed that trend as well? And do you think it’s harmful?

I for one would like to hear the positives and negatives about American history.

Bufus34 karma

I am a non-American with a Master's Degree in American History, so I can try to give you a legitimate answer.

First, I would note this: the study of history is in many ways the study of "conflict", whether political, social, diplomatic, cultural, etc. Even someone studying something seemingly fun and easy like, for instance, the history of fast food, is going to be looking for conflict, because that is where there is room for analysis. Facades don't start to crack until there is conflict. Now, conflict is by definition an adversarial process, meaning that there will be "winners" and "losers". What this means is that history generally has a fairly "negative" twinge to it, even at its most basic level.

However, I don't think that is really what you are talking about....

Yes, I would say as a rule that academic history is a pretty "negative" field. I would also say that history as a whole is pretty "leftist" (with some huge exceptions). I don't think this is a "hip fad" though; the reason for this is fairly simple....

Just as studying history is about looking for conflicts, writing history is also in part about "creating conflict". What I mean is this: no historian wants to write something that simply confirms the way we currently think about things. No one wants to write a book that says "how we currently think about Watergate: 100% accurate, and here is why". Historians want to upset the applecart. They want to change our minds about something. That is inherently conflictual.

Now, the thing that historians deep down really want to do is to change how society thinks about things. They don't just want to convince other lefty academics, they want to make REGULAR PEOPLE rethink their world. This is where the BIG CONFLICT in history is.

You see, while "academic history" is pretty leftist, "popular history" (i.e. the way that regular people interact with history) is very conservative and patriotic. Sure, regular people might be aware that there were a few 'dark days" here and there in American history, but in general they think "America is great, and have done so much for the world!" See, the USA still to this day has all sorts of prevailing narratives about freedom, liberty, the American dream, heroism, equality, etc. These narratives still persist in the American consciousness in a big way.

So this is the situation: we have a bunch of historians who want to change how people see things, and we have a general public who see history through the lens of these positive, patriotic narratives. The result of this combination: NEGATIVE HISTORY.

If I am a historian writing a paper, I don't want to write about a time when Americans were really patriotic or where equality was demonstrated. NO! We know that there are examples because they have been DRUMMED INTO OUR HEADS for decades. I don't want to spend hundreds of hours of painstaking reserach to just confirm these already present narratives. Where is the fun in that?

No, what I want to do is CHALLENGE those prevailing narratives. "You think America is a land of freedom and equality? Ha! Look at all the ways that black people have been subjugated for centuries!" "You think the American Dream is REAL!? Well here is an economic breakdown of the lack of class mobility over the last 200 years!" And guess what: there is an awful lot of negative American history you can draw on to disprove these narratives.

You see, despite what I have suggested so far, historians don't just see these "narratives" as a challenge to be overcome for their own sake. Historians see these narratives as a threat. For historians, the prevailing idea that America is a "land of the free" is not just wrong, it is used to cover up a lot of bad things that America does. These narratives often act as a shield for wrongdoing, and historians see it as their duty to uncover the roots of these narratives in order to expose the truth, and force society to have a discussion about what something like "the land of the free" really means. This is the case in a lot of societies that rely on "narratives" in this way.

The reason that "Negative History" seems so pronounced in the United States compared to other countries (although it still exists in other countries) is that the American Right still weaponizes and uses "history" to such an extreme degree that historians feel all the more reason to attack the country's history. For instance, the Republican Party still constantly references the Founding Fathers as justification for their policies. But like many aspects of American History, Republicans "canonize" the Founding Fathers, turning them from real historical figures into untouchable gods of virtue. So the counterreaction from historians (who, it turns out, really hate it when people do that) is to say "No no! These guys were assholes, and had flaws. Maybe we shouldn't listen to them as arbiters of good government!"

Anyway, the point is this: as long as the prevailing narratives in society about history are used to obfuscate the truth, and prevent society from really reckoning with their past in a meaningful way, then history as a discipline will remain fairly "negative". History as a discipline is about challenging narratives. It isn't a "hip trend" to attack America, it is just what is needed from historians right now.

STBontrager2 karma

I must respectfully disagree with some of this post. I do not think it articulates what historians actually do. Historians have a discipline with rules that they must follow. They must have evidence and they must scrub that evidence as best they can before they can use it. I do not think that historians write to create conflict but they write to try to interpret the past. We have a tool kit that is made up of historiography that acts as a control group on any given interpretation. If one's interpretation is outlandish by either not using evidence or misinterpreting the evidence, other historians can contest the interpretation. Some people do weaponize history but I don't think historians should engage in this behavior. There are a lot of positives to examine in American history and many people write about the positives...a lot, for example ending slavery, the success of the Civil Rights Movement, the success of the Women's Rights Movement, the sacrifice of nurses and soldiers and underdogs interspersed all throughout the past. The advancement of medicine, the creation of helpful government bureaucracies, etc. etc. There is a lot to be optimistic about and historians do a nice job of writing these histories because they follow rules of the discipline and get others to review their work but most importantly because they use evidence to support their arguments.

STBontrager2 karma

That's a great question, thanks for asking it! I don't know if I would agree that it is a fad. Here is what I have noticed. The way U.S. history is taught in K-12 is a bit problematic. James Loewen describes this in the introduction to his book, which I can recommend, Lies My Teacher Told Me. The problem is that history is only taught from one perspective in K-12 and all other perspectives are reduced or even eliminated. So, students learn a distorted view of the past. They learn to heroify founding fathers and not to criticize the nation's past. Basically the reason for this is politicians, PTA members, and school board members, usually with very little historical knowledge of their own, make the decisions about what to teach and test in K-12.

When people get to college/university and they begin reading some of the problems of America's past, such as segregation, imperialism, etc., they are shocked because they have never heard these things before. It is a total moment of humiliation for many because they feel duped. They get upset because they feel they have been disrespected in the K-12 system, and I would argue that they have.

So in college many people have to go through an "un-learning" process before they can really form their own opinions about what happened in the past. This is, by the way, a foundation of Enlightenment thinking. We all have to reject indoctrination at some point in order to really understand our humanity. College is a place that facilitates this and K-12 does not always do so even though K-12 teachers are trying to do so. They just don't have the power to tell politicians, school administrators, and school boards what should actually be taught in k-12.

In the past, it was more difficult to present different interpretations of history because only those who went to college could access the debates. Those who didn't go to college were left with the inadequate K-12 knowledge of the past. Today social media platforms allow for much more dissemination of information and so now many people can access different interpretations in ways that could not have been feasible in the past. This can also produce misinformation.

I do not think it is harmful to present different interpretations of the past. I think it is harmful to only present that past from one solitary perspective. Historical events never change but historical interpretations are alive and dynamic, especially when new evidence emerges. How can one tell a history of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, for example, without acknowledging that they were indeed slave owners and Jefferson even fathered slave children. I think these kinds of points are important to acknowledge and it may change the way we think about them as human beings as well as the work they produced in the beginnings of the U.S. nation. The trick today is to use history to combat the proliferation of misinformation that can be found on digital and social media platforms. To me, this misinformation about the past is almost as dangerous as presenting the past from only a single solitary perspective. I hope this answers your question! it was a good one!

slamorte24 karma

In what ways does the US empire differ from earlier, more "traditional" types of empires, and in what ways it is similar?

STBontrager56 karma

What a great question! The most basic difference is that usually more "traditional" empires (Britain, France, Spain, Germany etc.) are "territorial" empires. Meaning that they build their empires by acquiring territory, which are usually defined as a colony or colonies. Most of the time the people from these empires engage in what is called "settler colonialism" which means that they leave the empire and go to the colony with the intent of never going back a la the British in Australia (or North America). They often have to invest heavily in the infrastructure of their new colonies, which comes from taxpayer expense. They have to build roads, schools, bridges, ports, etc. The U.S. is more often seen as an empire of "semi-colonies" or as a "pointillist" empire. Meaning that the U.S. doesn't acquire territory so much as it acquires strategic choke points. For example, Guantanamo Bay in Cuba allows the U.S. to hold a military installation on the island of Cuba! Americans do not have to go to Cuba, nor do U.S. taxpayers have to pay for Cuban hospitals, roads, or schools. All U.S. taxpayers have to do is pay for the military installation but doing so allows the U.S. military to patrol and control the entire Caribbean effectively. It is building an empire without having to pay for the overhead of holding vast amounts of territory. Whenever the U.S. tries to mimic the European model of territorial control, such as in the Philippines, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. It usually is not successful. What the U.S. is able to do is acquire strategic points from which they can more easily influence larger regions. Think of Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Diego Garcia, and others as originally shaping these points of control.

STBontrager22 karma

Hello Reddit! I am now live and will respond to your questions as the come! Thanks so much for asking questions and starting a conversation!

8andahalfby1120 karma

Stratfor published an article in 2016 that describes geography as being the main driver for "American Imperialism" as most people see it today, rather than culture or moral beliefs. Do you agree with this assessment?

If not, what other factors play into it?

If you do agree with it, then what is your response to people who do look at Expansion as having a Cultural/Moral dimension to it?

STBontrager2 karma

This is an interesting article, thanks for sharing it. In history there are two opposing ideas always in tension with each other. These ideas surround the question who or what makes history? Structuralists (a term from the 1960s school of sociology) argue that structures drive the historical process. The idea of geography is a structure. The implication here in this article is that geography makes history and people can only adapt to the predetermined structural formation they inherit. The problem with this idea is that people are by and large absent from the historical process. They can't think critically ( or practice free moral agency) or make contingent decisions to undermine the structure.

So post-structuralists argue that structures are not important and people are. People have the ability to go around or deconstruct structures and this process of deconstructing is what makes history happen.

Cultural historians then came along and said that while structures are important so are people. It isn't important whether structures or people dominate, what makes history is how people and structures interact. I would consider myself a cultural historian.

With that introduction, I would argue that geography is crucially important for American imperialism. Some historians have argued, and I think this makes a lot of sense, that the industrial revolution allowed corporations to massively overproduce. This would eventually lead to economic depression and even to socialism in America as the government would have to prop up unemployed workers. The answer to this problem some politicians believed at the turn of the 20th century, was geographic expansion. Not only did they have to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via railroads and the Panama Canal. But they needed to connect the West Coast to China. This would mean that American corporations could never overproduce because it could simply distribute surplus commodities across the Pacific to be sold in China with its massive population that far outstrips the U.S. population. To do this, however, Americans had to gain control of river networks inside the U.S. and they had to remove Native Americans onto reservations who were in the way of American expansion.

On the other hand, people decided to interact with geography along these lines. Why did they choose to do so? For many reasons which includes a religious impetus. Protestant Christianity encouraged many to move into western geographies to spread the gospel, to Christianize others, and to expand the nation. Capitalists wanted to expand their corporations and wanted to subdue labor to maximize profits. Nativists wanted to eliminate immigrants, especially Catholics, but also Chinese and Hispanic/Latino peoples from the places that they thought they should dominate.

I could go on with a longer answer but, I think what is important to consider is not only the structure of geography or the moral agency of people but how the two intersect. In this way, I would argue that American empire is absolutely built out of a geography and an environment in which people made moral and cultural decisions to manipulate but they were also manipulated by these geographical environments. In turn the had to develop new contingencies in order to keep the culture of empire alive. I hope that answers your question. Thanks for asking it!

Iaminyoursewer15 karma

What are you personal feelings/beliefs on the American annexation of Hawaii?

STBontrager29 karma

Thanks for your question, which is very interesting because I do not know that I have ever been asked about my personal feelings on the issue. I usually think about the annexation of Hawaii based on my understanding of the history of the annexation of Hawaii, which was incredibly problematic. American corporations, with an assist from the U.S. federal government overthrew the government of Hawaii in the nineteenth century, which was a kind of monarchy with democratic aspects to it. This act by U.S. actors profoundly undermined the ideals of democracy in its raw naked economic takeover of the islands. There was also a lot of Japanese immigration to Hawaii and the U.S government wanted to stop that as it gave Japan a competing claim to the islands. We should mention that Hawaii has always had a racial tension with white Americans on the mainland. Hawaii is also a crucial strategic point that allows the U.S. to patrol and control the Eastern Pacific ocean and the Western Hemisphere. So I think all of this is quite unfortunate. Even pre-annexation has brought a lot of devastating consequences, for example, European and American settlers brought sexually transmitted infections with them that infected Hawaiian women, making many sterile and reproduction difficult. American investors also turned Hawaii into an American tourist location for white Americans to exploit Hawaii. Agriculturalists also acquired huge plantations to export fruit. All at the expense of local people. Annexation exacerbated all of these issues. It became a centralized naval base in the Pacific important for U.S. pacific interests. One could argue that without Hawaii, the U.S. would not have been drawn into WW2. Others could argue that without Hawaii, the U.S. could never have dominated the Pacific World. I think for local Hawaiians, the annexation was probably not a very good turn of events and for mainland Americans, it was a very good acquisition. The best think I can say, is that unlike other islands in the Pacific, i.e. Guam or Samoa, Hawaii was able to move beyond annexation and become a state. This, at least, allows Hawaiians a say-so in American politics. Personally, I would love to travel to Hawaii (I have never been). It must be an incredibly beautiful place but I wish that America's relationship with Hawaii did not have such a troubling past.

ThatBoyHanz12 karma

How has your outlook on American history changed as you’ve dug deeper into the subject? What are the differences on your outlook from, let’s say, when you for your bachelors, to now that you’ve done so much more research on it.

STBontrager4 karma

Thanks for asking this question! It is very interesting! I'll say that I was born and raised in a very religious worldview, some would argue a cult which viewed the world in a way that rejected a lot of what history had to say. I went to a college in this kind of environment and didn't become a history major until my last two years of college. From there I went on to do a Master's degree and I began a journey that became an internal revolution. History was very liberating for me because it taught me howto think differently about the world. History, for me, is extremely liberating because it allowed me to discover what was true and what was indoctrination. It allowed me to decolonize my mind. So for this, I am eternally grateful. Perhaps I am a bit naive, but I think it has the power to do something similar for everyone.

To know about the past allows one to have more control over the present. But to know about the past requires a thoughtful process that anyone can accomplish. It helps people think critically about the past and in turn about the present. It helps people communicate more effectively, develop arguments more persuasively, and to think more creatively.

I have learned lots of crazy cool stories too! I think about it everyday and the more I learn the more interested I become in it. It is a never ending process of discovery, liberation, and decolonization for me. I am not sure that this is exactly what you were asking but I hope you will appreciate the direction I took it!

Theduckisback10 karma

How much do you think that the closing of the frontier in the 1890s impacted Americans desires for imperialism? There's a lot of historians who posit that the frontier acted as a kind of pressure release valve for social conflict for much of America's early history. When the frontier closed, was that when the idea of overseas empire became more attractive? Or did it begin even before then?

STBontrager3 karma

The classic frontier thesis by Frederick Jackson Turner has influenced the way historians have thought about the frontier for over a century now. I think people at the time were influenced by the idea. It has come under a lot of criticism from academic scholars. The idea being that westward movement, as you state, was a safety valve for social conflict. And yet there was incredible violence on the frontier and incredible social conflict on reservations. I do think the frontier played a major role in American history but not the way Turner thinks. I think the frontier actually created social angst rather than solved it. In my book I argue that westward migration actually disrupted families as much as the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution. It tore families apart and separated them, sometimes forever. I also think the frontier was never closed. Yes Americans had control of the Pacific seaboard by the 1890s but Americans had always been interested in going beyond California. They wanted to go to the Pacific and they continued to do so well into the twentieth century.

Some historians have argued that expansion into the Pacific is what allowed capitalism to flourish. Had the U.S. not expanded into the Pacific, America would have been forced to implement more socialist politics. The idea being that corporations would overproduce and saturate the marketplace and without new markets, the overproduction would lead to layoffs and high unemployment and the government would have to fix this long-term problem. By expanding into the West, capitalism flourished but with real hard consequences for laborers, Native Americans, the environment and indigenous peoples in the Pacific. This may be a sort of socialist interpretation of the closing of the frontier.

My own thoughts are that the frontier was an important place that Americans chose to exploit in a specific way and while that exploitation helped made the U.S. wealthy it was morally problematic especially in the way the U.S. treated people it conquered. I also think that the frontier is getting its revenge to a degree in that the environment that was so polluted by mining, ranching, and farming practices is pushing back against the U.S. in the form of global warming, wildfires, and flooding. The frontier, in this way, is a powerful force of nature that not even the U.S. empire can fully control. Great question!

karmalizing6 karma

What does "American empirical expansion into the Pacific," mean in the simplest of terms?

What made you want to use the word "Cult" in your book title?

STBontrager1 karma

In the simplest terms, I would argue that imperial expansion in the Pacific is to control key choke points of oceanic trade networks. This would include controlling non-white, non-Protestant, non-capitalist people who inhabit those choke points. The U.S. uses several kinds of power to accomplish this including racial, cultural, economic, and political/military.

I used "cult" in my work because I am referencing George Mosse's idea that a cult of the fallen soldier emerged after the First World War. Jay Winter argues that this cult of the soldier has fallen away after the holocaust and the use of atomic weapons in the 1940s. Commemorations moved away from the cult of soldiers and more to the victims of mass violence.

AugustusKhan6 karma

What stopped the American Empire from being more aggressive in its expansion past its continental borders?

It just seems strange for such a militaristic and capitalist driven nation to only grab some islands here and there, when the nation had so many resources to support further expansion.

STBontrager2 karma

What a great question! If you read Daniel Immerwahr's How to Hide an Empire, he basically argues that technology is the answer. For example in the nineteenth century Americans need raw materials such as bird guano from Howland Island that made the best fertilizer for Southern cotton plantations. Cotton robs the soil of nutrients and so needs a lot fertilizer and bird guano is more reliable fertilizer than horse or cow dung. So we expanded into the Pacific to acquire these remote islands. But as chemical fertilizer was invented and developed we no longer needed the bird guano and so technology is an anti-colonial force. He argues the same for airplanes, why does the U.S. need colonies in faraway places when all you need is an airfield. So the technology of airplanes made America less colonial, he argues.

I find his argument to be less than satisfactory overall. This kind of idea seems to ignore the religious, racial and sexual underpinnings of empire. Americans who were anti-Catholic didn't want to expand into Catholic regions where brown-skinned and "uncivilized" people dominated. Others, however believed that the U.S. should colonized "barbarians" so as to convert them to Protestantism and Capitalism.

Another argument is that the reason Americans stopped acquiring territory is because corporations were able to get the resources they needed. For example the Dole fruit company in Hawaii was able to undermine the Hawaiian government without much help from the U.S. military and so was able to dominate Hawaii economically.

But I also think that America developed a new kind of empire, one that was more innovative than European empires, in that the created semi-colonies. The idea is that they could hold strategic choke points by having a collection of military bases throughout the world without having to control huge swaths of territory. This means that the U.S. can have an effective empire without having to pay for the expense of maintaining colonies.

milagr05o55 karma

The "American Empire" and the EU for that matter are under threat from long-term-serving (pseudo) elected leaders in Russia and China. Specifically, with the power of their intelligence services, both Russia and China are playing long-term strategies, thus shifting the world economy, subverting democracy, and overall getting away with whatever they wish. Short-term elected representatives seem powerless. Do you foresee an adaptive response to these global threats, one that would/could defend America from all enemies, foreign and domestic?

STBontrager4 karma

This is a great question and a difficult one to answer. Let me start with the idea that I agree with the premise of your question with one exception, which is that the U.S. also has very powerful intelligence services, is also playing long-term strategies, and is also capable of shifting the world economy. Some would go so far as to say that the U.S. gets away with whatever it wishes too. So that being said, one of the advantages of having "short-term" elected representatives is that the U.S. can change course and adapt to different moments more nimbly than can the long-term-serving leaders that you refer to. Although, I might qualify this by saying that the U.S. also has more opportunities to make mistakes. Whatever the case, Russia and China, at the moment, or locked in with the leadership that they have and we can see even in the case of Navalny and others just how hard it is to crack these kinds of institutions. The U.S. can change strategies and bring new ideas to the table every couple of years. This is an argument that suggests that democracy, at the end of the day, is more effective than authoritarianism.

However, let me say this, I think that America could be more nimble if it could facilitate more democratic policies within the U.S. and beyond its borders. China for example, builds rail in Pakistan and roads and hospitals in African countries and wins the allegiance of people and governments in these places. In other words, at the moment, "communism" in China is accomplishing things that capitalism is seemingly incapable or unwilling to do. The Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP was supposed to impede China's ability to influence the Pacific economy. By creating free trade in the Pacific, China would be forced to change their "communist" ways and join the TPP or face economic decline because they would not be able to dominate trade. Americans chose, instead, the path of tariffs, which has not worked out very well, and so the American electorate has now switched back to a different strategy (possibly TPPII). We will have to see how this pans out over time.

There is a case to be made that by facilitating more economic security around the world (definitely NOT through military invasions but perhaps through investment, loan forgiveness, and local more autonomy), the more marketplaces will be created for the U.S. to engage with. And thus the economy could bend more toward the U.S. rather than China. I would also say that this same argument could be made by investing within the U.S. and engaging people along the ideas of economic security and political stability. This also means along racial and gender lines. Usually the two (political stability and economic vitality) go hand in hand and capitalists make the case that if everyone is more stable, it is much easier to undermine foreign and domestic threats.

There is another argument that suggests that if the U.S. could lead on environmental measures that would reduce global warming, it would be possible for the U.S. to influence other places in the world more effectively especially if it created partnerships with other countries to invest in environmental infrastructure. But this would mean a rather large and significant re imagining of the American economy in ways that have not been considered since the 1930s-1960s. More local production, higher taxes on the wealthy, and more power distributed to workers and teachers etc. Some believe this is possible after emerging from this Covid revolution and others or not so sure.

These are just a couple of thoughts and I am sorry for making my answer so long but it was a very good and complex question to try to tackle! Thanks for asking it!

cancakir30005 karma

What are your thoughts on the conceptualisation of "Empire" by Hardt & Negri?

STBontrager2 karma

Thanks for this question. I unfortunately have not read Hardt and Negri and so I can't comment too much. I think the idea that the empire had a foreign and domestic aspect is spot on and I have argued as such in my own work. Memories of the domestic front, especially regarding race, are transported to the frontier by American imperialists where they implement their ideas abroad. When they return, they take their refined imperialistic ideas and impose them on the domestic front. This is how the idea of segregation and racial violence can unfold in American history. I am probably much more influenced by Immanuel Wallerstein's idea of a World-System theory. Sorry I can't make more of a statement as this sounds like a really interesting work to engage with!

HappyJaguar4 karma

Hi Dr. Bontrager,

One thing that stuck with me from a Hardcore History lesson on the Mongol empire was how meritocratic their system was. The more I learn about American influence on the geopolitical scale, whether it's the Iran-Contra affair or the invasion of Iraq for non-existent WMDs, the more it paints a negative picture. What's a positive contribution or aspect of the American empire you can point to?

STBontrager9 karma

Hi HappyJaguar, what an interesting question. I think we get too caught up in the idea that empire (or the American nation for that matter) is good or bad. If we focus on the details, as you say, there are a lot of unfortunate moments in American history, especially when America acts imperialistically. Rather than thinking about the past in terms of good or bad, I think we should think about the American past in order to understand how we can better live within the American empire as thoughtful and responsible citizenry. If so, then there are quite a few hopeful moments in American history. For example, the U.S. developed enlightenment ideas in applied them to politics in innovative and powerful ways such as the ideas equality, life, liberty, and happiness. And although there have been major inconsistencies and even hypocrisies about this process, there have also been people willing to fight for it. We can think about slaves who risked their lives to flee via the Underground Railroad or the idea that the U.S. would end slavery even if it was a long arduous process that took too long for some. We can think about enlightenment ideals as stimulating new ways to think about contributing to humanity such as technological advancement, scientific discovery, and medical so-called miracles. Look at Covid for example, only an enlightenment process in which we and China and other nations shared genome sequences and engaged collectively could have created such powerful and effective genetic therapies in less than a year. This is not solely an American achievement but Americans have contributed to this process. We can look at women who fought for the right to own property and to vote and to be considered equal to men as powerful and important moments in American history. We can look at the Civil Rights era as a movement that had global consequences particularly in places like in Ireland and in South Africa. I think it is important to consider ourselves, Americans I speaking about, as part of a solution to problems rather than as the only ones who can solve a problem. We have a big environmental problem in our midst. Is it possible to take enlightenment ideas and work together with others who share this planet to apply solutions to global warming? If so, then this is another way that the American empire can think of itself as part of the solution and champion hopeful ideas. I think the key to answering your question is that we need to harness our understanding of the Enlightenment and our knowledge of the American empire (whether you agree with its past or not) to make hopeful contributions.

ewok2remember4 karma

Hi Dr. Bontrager, and thank you for the AMA. I'm not sure if you're familiar with it, but I read Godfrey Hodgson's The Myth of American Exceptionalism as part of my final paper written during undergrad. In it, he hits on the many texts and speeches that American culture has taken out of context to feed the narrative that the United States and the citizens therein are exceptional and wholly unique throughout the world.

He first cites Reagan's fondness for John Winthrops' "A Model of Christian Charity" (probably better known as the "city on the hill" sermon) and how Americans have wrongfully assumed Winthrop was breaking away from the British crown but was instead proudly loyal to it. Centuries later, Americans were using that sermon as a point of pride in their perceived exceptional status when it, in reality, had nothing to do with them or the yet-to-be-created United States

Do you know of any other wild misinterpretations or misrepresentations that American culture has used to promote itself while missing the mark like this?

STBontrager3 karma

A fascinating question! I have not specifically read Hodgson but this is a debate that all historians must contend with. Although the American Exceptionalism argument has been around a long time, its was most powerfully articulated by Louis Hartz in his book The Liberal Tradition in America. The term liberal here does not mean liberal politics i.e. a liberal democrat, it means democracy or republicanism. So he is talking about the democratic tradition in America. In essence he argues that America is special and unique, no other nation or people can do what we can do, because of 3 basic ideas that all Americans coalesce around 1) liberty 2) private property and 3) materialoism. This is often called "Whig" history or history that is "whiggish." It is especially a powerful argument for politicians in both parties because they know they can get elected by advocating for the uniqueness of the American people. Reagan, as you point out, was powerfully effective at harnessing this idea that socialism was a European thing and because we are American we choose a different path of individualism. But we could say a similar think about Kennedy especially as he marked a new generations of Americans born in the twentieth century to take the reigns of power. So your example is a classic example of politicians uses American exceptionalism in a pretty naked way. I might suggest historians can do similar things especially in regards to Native Americans. We can look at how we understand "The First Thanksgiving," how we justify the reservation system (especially through American Expansion. I use this image in my class all the time. Its called "American Progress" by John Gast https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Progress. It is the use of people in 1872 to use the themes of American exceptionalism to justify Westward expansion. I would also argue that our understanding of General Custer's failings at Little Bighorn are symptomatic of American exceptionalism. Our invasions of Mexico in 1846-8, our invasion of Cuba in 1898, and ore recently our invasions of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq were based on the premise that we are exceptional and the other nations of the world must conform to our ideas or be subjugated in a similar way that we subjugated Native Americans in South Dakota. I hope this answers your question. Some of these thoughts are sketched out but I could be more specific if pressed.

xcar9114 karma

Do you think the US will end up splitting?

STBontrager11 karma

Interesting question! Of course, this is constitutionally impossible. The Civil War proved that once a state joins the United States, it is a forever deal. So if the U.S. ever splits, in my mind, that would mean the end of the U.S. I would interpret that to mean that there is an incredible amount of inertia going on to keep the U.S. intact. That does not mean that there won't be disagreements and controversies along the way. I do not envision a second civil war in the U.S. As bad as things are at the moment politically, the U.S has had moments when it was a lot more violent and a lot worse than it is now. The Constitutional argument is that the U.S. is adaptable enough to absorb disagreements and even emerging revolutions. I must confess, however, that I am a historian and I make a living at looking at the past. Your question is about the future and I am poorly equipped to make a resounding prediction! I will, however, have plenty to say, should the U.S. split, about 20 years after the fact! (historian's joke, sorry)!

kwentongskyblue4 karma

why did the american govt colonize the philippines while cuba was granted independence shortly after the spanish-american war?

STBontrager3 karma

That is a great question and one that is basically political in nature. Let me throw one caveat out there on the word "granted." There are 2 histories of the Spanish-American War. The American version argues that Cubans did very little in the war and so independence was "granted." This has become the normative in American classrooms. The Cuban interpretation of the Spanish-Cuban-American War more correctly understands that Cubans played a major role in the conflict. Without the armies of the Cuba Libre movement, for example, the war would not have been won. So I like to make this point in my classes (and also in my book) so that everyone understands the politics of the war still resides in the way we talk about it, even today.

That being said, in a general sense, the Democrats that largely represented Southern, Western agrarian centers, and a few big cities were anti-Imperialists. And the Republicans, which were much more industrialists, won the support of corporations, and free wage labor tended to be more Imperialists. There was some political party crossover but this is the general position both parties took. Both sides felt justified in invading Cuba because they both thought it was a good idea to eliminate Spain from the Western Hemisphere and turn the Hispanic/Catholic dominated Caribbean economy into a North American capitalist/Protestant economy that agrarians could largely dominate. In Cuba, there was a homegrown Cuba Libre movement that played a major role in eliminating the Spanish (something American history textbooks often don't acknowledge). So there were a lot of interests in Cuba. Some wanted to colonize it, some wanted Cuba to have independence, and the Cuba Libre movement had a lot of weapons and soldiers at their disposal. In essence the peace treaty went to Congress in 1898 to be debated. It was hotly contested but the anti-Imperialists narrowly won the vote by a very small margin. The U.S. would not colonize Cuba. What helped push this over the edge was the Platt Amendment. Senator Platt from Kansas attached an amendment that gave Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. in a never-ending lease from the Cuban government. By acquiring this small part of Cuba, the U.S. built military installations (and more recently an infamous prison) in the bay. Here the Cubans accepted the terms in part because the Cuba Libre movement was able to claim an independent Cuba. Some in the Cuba Libre movement were absolutely dismayed at this concession. So, is Cuba independent? Can it be independent with U.S. military installations permanently on Cuban soil? I argue in my book that Cuba is actually a semi-colony and this is the reason why I describe it as such.

While Cuba is a solitary landmass, the Philippines are an archipelago with thousands of islands. Here it was a completely different setup. Filipinos actually did all the heavy lifting in forcing the Spanish out of the islands (which they held as a colony since the days of Magellan). The U.S. used its Navy to assist with bombardments and to defeat the Spanish Navy anchored in Manila. Filipinos declared their independence at the same time that the U.S. paid Spain $20 million for the rights to the archipelago. The debate in Congress took place several months later after the debate about Cuban independence. By this time the Imperialists were able to get the upper hand in the vote, only be a few votes, to annex the Philippines. Filipinos did not want American colonization and created their own declaration of independence based on Thomas Jefferson's model. You can read it here:

STBontrager3 karma

Sorry, you can read it here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Philippine_Declaration_of_Independence. However, Imperialist politicians in America were interested in getting access to the Chinese marketplace through the policy of an "Open Door" and realized that if they could control the Pacific Ocean, they could force China to open its doors to U.S. commodities. So, After 1898, the U.S. acquired many islands in the Pacific that served as coaling stations for steamships and naval installations to patrol and secure the Pacific. The two cornerstones of this Pacific distribution chain was Hawaii on the Eastern Pacific and Manila in the Western Pacific. Commodities could now be made in NYC, shipped by rail across the Trans-Continental Railroad to San Francisco and put on steam ships that could safely cross the Pacific and deliver commodities to Asian countries for purchase. If the Chinese resisted, then we had a very large naval installation in Manila to persuade the Chinese otherwise. Notice even to this day, China and the U.S. are trying to control the seas around the Philippines. This distribution networked, on paper, worked better if the U.S. colonized the Philippines.

So Cuba was a semi-colony and the Philippines were a full-fledged colony. Later when the Panama Canal opened, Guantanamo Bay served as a strategic defense of the canal and now commodities could be made by laborers on the East Coast of the U.S. and but on boats that steamed through the Canal on their way to Asian destinations. Cuba and the Philippines are a big part of how the U.S. controls the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific Ocean and I would argue that the U.S. builds a more formidable and profitable empire than the British ever could in India or the French in Vietnam. I hope this provides some insight! Thanks again for asking such a great question!

CrassostreaVirginica4 karma

Did your book on "the cult of the fallen soldier from the Civil War to the First World War" talk about the veneration of Confederate soldiers and how that tied into the Lost Cause Myth? If so, could you speak to the ways in which Southern and non-Southern historical memories in the US treated the memories of fallen soldiers differently?

STBontrager13 karma

Thanks for your question about my book. Yes, I do discuss the veneration of Confederate soldiers and the Lost Cause myth. Initially at the end of the Civil War, Northerners were not interested in commemorating Confederate soldiers in fact, they were purposely left out of any kind of official government commemorative traditions. They were not allowed to be buried in national cemeteries and many Northerners supported the Republican Party's plan for racial equality during Reconstruction. While some Southerners were opposed to the Confederacy and opposed to commemorating the Confederate dead the politicians and local elites built a counter narrative to the American idea of freedom and emancipation. Here they developed the so-called "Lost Cause" literally in the Confederate cemeteries, one of the few places where they were allowed to speak out against Reconstruction and emancipation. They decided to commemorate their war dead to the Lost Cause, which, as I argue, was in essence a False Cause based on a purposely distorted interpretation of the war. As the nineteenth century unfolded, and in the face of those Southerners who committed themselves to the False Cause, Republican politicians began to move away from the politics of racial equality and began expanding U.S. borders in the West and in the Pacific to fuel the American economy. Particularly William McKinley looked to the West and the Pacific to "solve" the problems of the economic depressions that happened in 1873 and again in 1893. Expansion, he and other Republicans such as Teddy Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan believed, would cure any potential economic crisis. This is the context in which the Spanish-Cuban-American War began in 1898 after the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. When the U.S. invaded Cuba, it was the first major military operation in which Northerners and Southerners fought side-by-side since before the Civil War. So McKinley, and later Roosevelt, tried to win Southerners who supported the False Cause over to their political side by appealing to the war dead. They not only sought to commemorate Northerners and Southerners who fought in Cuba but also tried to retroactively commemorate the Confederate dead from the Civil War. McKinley gave a famous speech in Atlanta, Ga in 1898 promising Confederates that the federal government would now include their war dead in cemeteries. This is where the movement began to place Confederate dead in Arlington National Cemetery complete with a monument that is there to this day. Not all Confederate sympathizers supported this federal takeover. Some hard core Confederate women in the United Daughters of the Confederacy tried to stop this process because they did not want to mix the Confederate with American war dead. They ended up losing this argument but they continued to celebrate an "unreconstructed" commemoration of Confederate dead in their local Confederate cemeteries. I argue this debate illustrates one way that the ideals of the Confederacy--slave-based, anti-democratic, agrarian, de-centralized government was fused through a reunification process with the U.S. ideals of emancipation, industrial, and federalized government through the guise of the Lost Cause, which I refer to as the False Cause.

crazy_angel13 karma

How much do you think American imperialism was to blame for the Cold War?

crazy_angel12 karma

And also how big of an affect do you feel McCarthyism has had on American politics?

STBontrager2 karma

This is a great question too! McCarthyism is not the original witch hunt. McCarthyism has a history to it as well and we can see this going all the way back to the beginning of American history. There is a strand of American politics in which the only way for authoritarianists to accumulate power is to subdue the populace through fear and denunciations. So this pops up again and again and will probably pop up in the future too. We can look at the Red Scare in the 1920s as immigrants and labor union activists were condemned in a precursor to McCarthyism. Going back further we can see how Jim Crow and segregationists sought to silence African Americans. It has always been a part of U.S. history. Of course we can't forget about Charles Lindbergh and the America First Party, which was a Nazi sympathizer movement. We can think about Henry Ford's antisemitism and anti-communism as well as people like Father O'Coughlin and his radio broadcasts.

I think the NY Times or the Atlantic did an expose a few years ago showing how one of McCarthy's trusted aides was a mentor to former President Donald Trump. Of course Richard Nixon served on a committee for Un-American Activities and was also known as a rabid anti-communist to a fault. There are still people around who would like to shape American politics in authoritarian ways and they spend most of their time trying to convince as many people as possible to support them.

This kind of politics rears its ugly head from time to time and threatens to undermine democracy. That is why it is important to understand the past and to develop critical thinking citizens who can make choices to reject the politics of anti-democracy.

peestake2 karma

Is there an area of U.S. history you feel is really underexplored?

P.S. thank you for doing this!

STBontrager3 karma

You're welcome, thanks for the question! The argument right now is that LGBTQ+ history is woefully under explored. I agree with this and it is something that will gain more and ore attention as the years unfold. I know there are many good histories just emerging and many more in the pipeline.

I think another area ripe for exploration is environmental history which is well established but I think it will become more central very very soon. In addition Oceanic histories are now being researched and I think that will produce a lot of good histories.

I am sure there are many other areas that I am missing!

The_vert2 karma

Hate to open a can of worms but what do you think of the 1619 project? What should or could be done with it?

STBontrager3 karma

What a great question! I don't have a problem with the 1619 project. I don't think its as controversial as some politicians claim it to be. It certainly has its flaws just like all historical interpretations but it also tries to make an important point that American history needs to include the history of slavery and the perspective of slaves. This is an important and fundamental legacy for America. One of the issues I might take with the 1619 project is that it doesn't incorporate Native Americans into the story U.S. story. So I would all be in favor of someone creating a 15,000 BCE project. I think this would also be worthwhile. The thing to remember about history is it is evidence based interpretations of the past. And all kinds of different interpretations emerge. Those that use evidence well and interpret the past compellingly will stick around and those that don't, won't. The 1619 project is an interpretation made by (historians and a journalist) of the past that basically makes the case, using evidence, that slavery is a fundamental part of the American story. I don't think that is controversial in any way. In contrast the 1776 commission was a report made by a group of non-U.S. historians who actively sought to diminish the story of slavery in the American narrative. If we only study American history after 1776, doesn't that mean that colonial history is off limits? Must we say goodbye to the pilgrims and to the colonists? How are we to understand 1776 if we can't understand what came before? The 1776 commission is clearly politically motivated and that is the problem with it as well as it fundamentally distorts our view of the past. I think the 1619 project is attempting to provide a clearer focus on the past and I think it does a reasonably good job of this even though it is neither perfect nor exhaustive. Historians are not really bothered by it. Some politicians seem to be and I find that very strange and also interesting. I hope this provides some insight. Thanks for asking this important question!

Cyclopher69712 karma

The "American Empire" is always shown, depicted, or taught as the Philippines and Pacific/Caribbean islands, but that barely scratches the surface and seems kinda lazy.

Question: Does it include the conquest and repopulation of the contiguous 48 states? Is it the client states and puppets in Latin America as a result of the Monroe Doctrine and Roosevelt Corollary? Is it the way the US intervenes in other nations to protect American corporations and valuable supply chains in artificial states like Iraq?

The "American Empire" has to be more than just that 50 year period in the early 20th century.

STBontrager2 karma

I would date the American empire to roughly the 1770s. It inherited an imperial infrastructure from Britain but then began to build its own, first overland and than across oceans using all kinds of tools and ideas to accomplish their goals. The West was part of the empire at first, but then the U.S. turned the West into states and made this land part of the nation state even giving representation to these lands in the federal government, with the exception of Native Americans. One could argue that a state of internal empire still exists between Native Americans and the U.S. government but this is a long and complicated story. Colorado is not Columbia and so I would draw a distinction there.

-badgerbadgerbadger-2 karma

I love looking at history from a cultural lens, and personally feel like I can connect and empathize with those stories, can put myself in the shoes of a black man in the 1940s, or a Chinese American during World War II....military history for me how ever, seems to whitewash all personality from it’s lessons, and seems to constantly try to show a “right and wrong” side to be on, without talking about the context of how these events played out this way.... particularly when it comes to expansion in the pacific, like oh if USA Hadn’t taken all these islands and dropped all these bombshells, then the DIRTY ENEMIES WOULD HAVE WON, but very little is said about the relationships that the people on those islands had with either side. Can you suggest any authors for me who delve more into the anthropological and cultural sides of those types of events?

STBontrager5 karma

Thanks for this interesting question and I share your concern. I do have a recommendation or two for you. The big name at the moment is Daniel Immerwahr's How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States. While I don't necessarily agree with everything Immerwahr does in this work, he does a masterful job of telling stories in a way that weaves cultural and military history together. I think you might find some fascinating ideas in this book as I did too when I read it. It is long but very readable and broken up in a way that you can read a little bit at a time. For a first hand account, I highly recommend The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien who served in Vietnam but does a wonderful job of thinking about the Vietnam war and how it impacted U.S soldiers. If you are interested in the First World War, Jay Winter's recent War Beyond Words is a good book. I am reading it now. Of course, I can't help but suggest Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921 :)

yovakcans2 karma

Who won the war of 1812?

STBontrager11 karma

An interesting question that is still being debated! In the short term, there is perhaps no certain answer. The Americans were able to prevent the British from moving into regions that the Americans wanted, like the Great Lakes area, and Louisiana (New Orleans was probably the most important city in America at the time.) The British could argue that they stymied the economic expansion of the former colonies and maintained a significant presence in North America. If we take an intermediate view of the war, the Americans were forced to invest more in their economy, especially its influential cotton industry, which also meant that the investment in slavery would increase. And here, one could argue that the British played a role in 1812 of encouraging the Americans to march further down the road to Civil War. However, if we take a long-term view of the war, we could argue that the Americans probably won as 1812-14 marked a moment where the British could have potentially decapitated the American government and its economy. After all, they did invade D.C. and burn the White House. In other words the British failed to curtail the long-term interests of its former colonies and over time the U.S. would eventually supplant the British as the most powerful and influential empire in the world. Perhaps this goes a bit beyond what you were asking.

beccam123991 karma

how would you change the way history is taught to children? I am a recent college graduate and I remember taking a couple US history classes and learning our history in an entirely different way. there was no “sugar coating” in college. I really enjoyed learning about our true history, I loved the book A people’s history of the united states. one of the most powerful books i’ve ever read. thank you :)

STBontrager8 karma

I think you make a fascinating observation. I agree with you about the "sugar coating." It is a problem not only for our students but also for helping students become responsible citizens. I think our teachers in K-12 do an amazing job but there are a lot of politics and mythology that get in the way too often. A good book to recommend is James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, which I have my undergraduates read every semester. On the one hand children in K dress up like pilgrims and native people in ways that completely undermine the history of European settlement in North America. I would like K classes to concentrate on the many trans-Atlantic journey of Squanto (who was kidnapped multiple times and was much more a cosmopolitan individual than were the pilgrims). I guess, what I would say is that we do not have to share traumatic stories with very young children, meaning we do not have to go into the details of slavery or the holocaust with our K-5 students. But I do think it is imperative that we begin to introduce the ideas of slavery and the holocaust to the young in age appropriate ways. For example we can talk about the very general process of race-based slavery and how slaves played a crucial role in building the U.S. but also were forced to come to a land they did not want to come to. In other words, initiating a conversation about America's past that is honest and that lays the foundation for them to ask more penetrating questions that they might discover when they are older and can handle more intense stories. Zinn's book is a powerful and influential history precisely because he engages in telling the story of the U.S. from a perspective that our textbooks tend to neglect. If I recall correctly, I believe that the state of Oklahoma has banned Zinn's A People's History from High School curriculum. It is unfortunate because I am not saying that Zinn is always right, because he makes mistakes too, but I think we need to be open to different interpretations of the past in order to figure out for ourselves which interpretations are the most helpful in allowing us to navigate our present realities. I think that this core idea should be introduced very early in the formal education process in age appropriate ways and I think Americans do not need government telling them what to read and how to learn about the past.

CharonNixHydra1 karma

What is the least known but significant imperial act the United States has engaged in that everyone should know?

STBontrager5 karma

That is a great question! I would argue that America's invasion of the Philippines in 1899 and the subsequent turning the Philippines into a colony until 1946 is perhaps the most significant and least known. In my opinion everyone should know about this because it shows that invasions in the Pacific (Guam and Hawaii but also Vietnam and Korea) are not just abnormalities of the American story but actual themes and motifs of American history. Our war against the Philippines was the longest war in American history from 1899 to 1913 until our war in Afghanistan surpassed it. And yet very few people even know about it.

whererusteve1 karma

How do you feel the UN declaration on Aboriginal rights should be played out in the USA? Does the "Land Back" movement have legal ground to start reclaiming the unceded land that was unlawfully taken from the original inhabitants of North America?

STBontrager2 karma

A great question! It looks like the U.S. Supreme Court thinks so as they recently ruled that most of the state of Oklahoma is indeed sovereign territory of Native Americans! I too am in favor of the UN declaration as is the U.S. (although they originally voted against it). I think the conversation must include more than just land. The amount of wealth generated from land grabs is an important issue and I personally think reparations should be a part of the conversation as well as real authentic mechanisms to guarantee Native American sovereignty. This has been a real problem throughout American history. Not only was land unlawfully taken but the U.S. gave ambivalent and vague promises of sovereignty to indigenous peoples that the U.S. government too often manipulates for its own interests. I hope this answers your question, it was a good one!

Harlan251 karma

Hi! Thanks for the AMA!

I had a teacher who said frequently that "History is written by the winners" and to exemplify this he referred to the belief that the US singlehandedly won WWII in Europe when the Soviets were the ones who get to Berlin first (I'm nowhere near an expert in history so I'm talking from my inexperience, please feel free to correct me) and other examples from my native country (Chile). My question is, what's your opinion on that phrase? Is there something like "objective" history in aspects like this?

Thanks again!

STBontrager6 karma

Interesting question! Yes this phrase is often stated by people for different reasons. Although I understand where it is coming from, I often disagree with it. I think it is a phrase that undermines what historians are trying to do. Historians can never be 100% objective. We are humans too and we have our bias just like everyone else. But we use the discipline of history to try our best to be as accurate as possible. There are rules that we must follow. For example, history requires evidence. Historians cannot discuss something they have no evidence for. That evidence must go through an elaborate "scrubbing" process too before it can be interpreted. For example is someone makes a claim in a diary, we can't just accept that claim as truth. We must verify it, work to understand the context of the claim, corroborate it with other accounts, and weigh it against all the other evidence that may undermine it (or support it). Only then can we interpret the diary (or any source for that matter). Our interpretations must go through a review process too. This process is called "historiography" and basically what it means is that all the other historians who want get a chance to critique our interpretation. They might point out where the historian uses evidence well and interprets the evidence effectively but they might also (and sometimes this can be really intense) point out that the historian has used evidence poorly and interpreted badly. Other historians also get a crack at writing books or articles that challenge the original interpretation. Thus if someone writes in bad faith or conjures up a story without any evidence, it will be rejected by historians out of hand. This happens regularly. To write a history then, one has to try their best to follow the rules of history or they will be called out, at least they will over time. So although winners might write the first history books, many people who have different interpretations will come along later and disrupt or even challenge those interpretations. So we should all understand that historians have a bias but they work hard (and the process requires them) to learn about their own bias and to try to admit their bias when they write their histories. I don't know that one can say that a historian is 100% objective, that is impossible. But a reader can read a historian, and then read other historians on the same issues, and come away with a pretty fair understanding of the past. I hope this answers your question! Thanks for asking it!

ProfessorDumbCnut1 karma

Hey Doc. Question more generally on the American experiment:

Is the US “failing” like other empires you’ve studied? Is it right to fear the destruction of our country, as so many currently do (often for very different reasons?)

STBontrager2 karma

Good question. I do not know if America is failing or not. I do not that the U.S. is in free fall. I think that it is important for each person to try to do the best they can and to try to be the best citizen they can be. Knowing that we will not always agree, we should try to put a good faith effort into our interactions to make the U.S. a better place then when we arrived here. For that I think if we are dissatisfied, we should try to do things to make a better place. For some this may be helping a neighbor and for others it may be serving as a teacher, and for others it may be peacefully protesting. We should seek to understand and we should seek education, especially about the past, and try to have honest interactions with each other. Perhaps not the answer you were anticipating but it helps me navigate the American empire more effectively.

Bizprof51-5 karma

Seems to me we are very much like the ancient Romans. What do you think?

STBontrager2 karma

An interesting observation! I think a lot of people make this analogy, especially since the Founding Fathers reflected on the Roman Republic when drawing up the Constitution. There are a lot of similarities to be sure, dominant player in the world-system, internal and external crises. I would agree that Rome and America are both empires. I am not sure I can make a comparison though, until the American Empire lasts as long as the Roman empire. Ask me again in a few hundred years!!