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Book Review


Robert C. McGreevey, Christopher T. Fisher, and Alan Dawley, Global America: The United States in the Twentieth Century.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. xxxii + 446.  Maps, Photographs, Figures, and Index.  $39.95 (paper).

David A. Hollinger, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2017.  Pp. xiii + 390.  Photographs and Index.  $35.00 (cloth).


     It has been a quarter century since the Journal of American History published a round-table on "The Internationalization of American History," which was followed by a series of conferences on that theme coordinated by Thomas Bender. This intellectual trend, which emerged soon after "world history" took off as a teaching and research field, posited that significant aspects of United States history could be better understood in conjunction with global developments and influences. In A Nation Among Nations: America's Place in World History (2006), Bender argued that this international approach yields not only more accurate history but challenges "American exceptionalism," an ideology that both stemmed from and resulted in an "arrogance" in U.S. politics and culture about this nation's place in the world.

     The two books under review represent complementary ways in which this overlapping of U.S. and world history has developed. Robert McGreevey and Christopher Fisher have completed a modern U.S. history survey textbook begun by their late College of New Jersey colleague, Alan Dawley, who died in 2008.  Global America tacks back and forth between international influences on the U.S., American influence in the world, and comparisons between American developments and those elsewhere, just as the originators of the "internationalization" approach recommended. David Hollinger, a former president of the Organization of American Historians, tackles a more narrowly-defined topic, the American Protestant missionary enterprise. He argues that the importance of these missionaries was not so much their influence in converting others to Christianity but in developing among themselves and their children a more open approach to other peoples, societies, and religions, and thus a more critical approach to Christian and American assertions of superiority. Hollinger's identification among his book's subjects of a rejection of American or Christian "exceptionalism," and of instead a turn to "missionary cosmopolitanism," parallels Bender's wish that such an international approach would produce "cosmopolitan citizenship" among Americans.

     Despite their different scope and projected audience, Global America and Protestants Abroad employ similar metaphors in helping readers grasp their main points. McGreevey, Fisher, and Dawley point to "a system of feedback loops" (xxviii) in which American actions abroad result in unintended reactions, or ramifications, back home. "The unacknowledged irony of American power," the authors conclude after describing U.S. intervention in the Mexican Revolution and World War I, "was that going out to change the world simultaneously curbed American freedom" (115), through the loss of civil liberties and the manipulation of Woodrow Wilson by foreign diplomats. Hollinger, meanwhile, identifies a "Protestant boomerang" (1), in which those who set out to change the world by exporting American and Christian ideas brought a different set of ideas back home.

     Of course, recent U.S. history cannot be conceived in isolation from the world, and typical textbooks recount a litany of international events: imperialist expansion, the world wars, the Cold War, etc. But Global America distinguishes itself by its more rigorously international focus. For example, the authors compare the exploitation and authoritarianism on Southern cotton and tobacco plantations with those operated by United Fruit in Central America, the scapegoating of African Americans by some white Southern populists with similar animus against Jews and Slavs by contemporaneous German Agrarians, and, more provocatively, the post-World War I American Legion with emerging European fascism. McGreevey, Fisher, and Dawley compare and contrast Progressive Era movements and responses to the Great Depression on both sides of the Atlantic, and they effectively situate the dramatic American events of 1968 as part of that year's "worldwide revolt against authority" (291). Global America first develops Coca-Cola's international role in its dependence upon imported substances during the era of unabashed imperialism – sugar, coca leaves, kola nuts – and later as a symbol of dominance of American exports to the world market. Such smart comparisons and connections appear on almost every page of the text.

     Global America is more analytical than comprehensive, and its strength lies especially in elaborating the dilemmas posed by capitalism's development as a globally integrated system. The two most consistent messages that students will receive from this book are that economic growth and transformation have not resulted in shared prosperity or even long-term stability, and that the choices Americans have made in attempting to resolve such issues often lead to further problems, at home and abroad. Its coverage of American reactions to radical challenges at home and revolutions abroad lead to two deviations from the standard U.S. survey text. The Wilsonian response to the Bolshevik Revolution and similar challenges from 1918 to 1920 gets a chapter of its own, separate from World War I and the 1920s. Similarly, decolonization abroad is effectively grouped with domestic demands for civil rights in a chapter distinct from both the Cold War more generally and "the crisis of authority" of the late 1960s. Especially in the book's first half, the authors devote impressive attention to patriarchy and feminism, in full international context.

     Unfortunately, even an instructor who likes Global America's approach would be hesitant to adopt it. Errors abound, embarrassing in a textbook and a university press publication: misspellings ("Dick Chaney" [359]); minor errors of fact (the pharmaceutical factory that the Clinton administration bombed in 1998 was in Sudan, not Tanzania [387]); consequential misstatements (Obama could not campaign in 2008 on "his vote in the Senate against the Iraq War" [414], because he was not yet in the Senate in 2002 when the crucial vote on the war took place). There are significant omissions in the final chapter – nothing on the death of Bin Laden, or the Paris climate change accord, for example – which result in a jumbled narrative. Too many maps, photographs, and graphs do not adequately illustrate their intended points. Chapter organization results in considerable repetition, and the authors often ignore their own idiosyncratic chapter periodization; both problems will alienate student readers.

     Perhaps more significantly, the focus on political economy means that certain aspects of American interaction with the world receive short shrift, especially after 1920: religion, transnational ethnic ties, and the legacy of America's territorial empire. There is no mention of American Jews and Zionism, or of immigration resulting from the Cuban revolution and the Vietnam War, or of emigration by Vietnam War draft evaders. Despite extensive coverage of American imperial conquests, the text does not mention Philippine independence (or its neo-colonial status) or continued U.S. rule over Puerto Rico. The brief reference to the Guantánamo Bay prison fails to identify it as a legacy of the Spanish-American War.

     McGreevey, Fisher, and Dawley mention here and there the work and cultural impact of American missionaries. But in their reference to Pearl Buck's work during World War II to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, they describe her merely as "the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Good Earth (1931), a novel about life in China" (191). Hollinger, who devotes fifteen pages to Buck in Protestants Abroad, would point out that Buck's early life in China as the child of American missionaries undergirded her life-long sympathy for the Chinese and her anti-racist activism. Hollinger demonstrates conclusively that returned missionaries and their children became major figures in government, academia, and social movements seeking to change U.S. policy towards and attitudes about Asia and Asians, and many came to question the place of Protestantism itself in the world. Indeed, Hollinger illuminates one of Global America's signature arguments, that "the more America sought to change the world, the more the world changed America" (Global America, xxviii).

     World historians, of course, are familiar with the idea that some Christian missionaries, such as Matteo Ricci and Bartolomé de las Casas, returned home with increased respect for non-Christian peoples and that experiences abroad led them to cast a critical eye on their own societies. While not engaging this literature, Hollinger does a great service for world historians in debunking the paradigm that American missionaries in the twentieth century were simply agents of empire, cultural or otherwise. He restores non-Western agency to the analysis of the missionary endeavor by showing that both those who converted to Christianity and those who did not taught their would-be teachers a thing or two. Indeed, some of these returned missionaries and missionary children, as well as other Americans they influenced, became leading interpreters of these non-Western societies to their compatriots, thus helping to lay the groundwork for the emergence in the U.S. of the world history discipline.

     Hollinger synthesizes a wide body of research on Protestants who worked or grew up in Asia or the Pacific, and he is generous in crediting the work of other scholars. But Hollinger has also consulted dozens of archives and countless obscure pamphlets and periodicals. Some of his subjects are well-known, such as novelists Buck and John Hersey, publisher Henry Luce, academics W. Norman Brown, Edwin Reischauer, and John King Fairbank (the founders, Hollinger suggests, of "area studies" on India, Japan, and China, respectively), and State Department officials John Paton Davies and John Stewart Service, who were purged for their openness to working with the Chinese Communist Party.  

     Other figures Hollinger chronicles, and there are dozens, will be new to all but a handful of readers.  Ruth Harris, a teacher in China, became the lead organizer of Methodist youth in civil rights actions from the 1950s to the 1970s – and was a closeted lesbian. Sherwood Moran was among the returned missionaries or missionary children from Japan whose language skills the U.S. armed forces needed during World War II to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war, and Moran, employed by the Navy, decreed that there was to be no torture, but treatment as "brothers." Many readers will recognize Margaret Landon as the author of Anna and the King of Siam (the basis of the 1951 musical, The King and I), but all will better understand her work after reading Hollinger's chapter that jointly considers Margaret and her husband Kenneth, the leading government expert on Thailand from the 1940s to the 1960s.

     Hollinger, in formulations resembling rationales for world history, concludes that "the missionary contingent changed American public life…by putting established Anglo-Protestants into sustained contact with people who were different from themselves" (296), and that they "tried harder than did most of their contemporaries to take larger segments of humankind into account, intellectually, morally, and politically" (299). This contact led many to question the goal of conversion and even to abandon the assumption of a distinctive global role for Christianity, contributing to what the author labels "post-Protestantism." Hollinger restores the missionary enterprise to center stage in American interactions with the world even as its trajectory ushered in its increasing marginalization.

     Among Hollinger's other historiographical contributions is his rejection of the idea that "area studies" programs in the United States began mainly to further Cold War ends. He deflates the view popularized by Edward Said that Americans viewed Asians primarily through an undifferentiated "orientalist" lens. Hollinger also carefully examines his subjects' weaknesses and hesitations, whether Reischauer's reluctance, when ambassador to Japan, to publicly criticize the Vietnam War, or Margaret Landon's conventional portrait of Thais as needing Western tutelage but having nothing to offer in return.

     Protestants Abroad will become the indispensable starting point for anyone researching or teaching about these missionaries and their changing world-views, but it is not without problems. Considering that Hollinger attributes some misconceptions about missionaries to Barbara Kingsolver's 1998 novel of American evangelicals in the Congo, The Poisonwood Bible, he devotes surprisingly little attention to Africa. His chapter on the Middle East, while undoubtedly correct in showing that former missionaries urged greater U.S. consideration after World War II to Arab concerns and opposed the tilt toward Israel, ignores the desire of some missionaries after World War I to reestablish Christian control of the formerly Ottoman "holy land." His chapter on the American civil rights movement, despite strong portraits of Ruth Harris and pacifist George Houser, is disjointed and weaker than it could be. (The Fellowship of Reconciliation, which helped form Houser's anti-racism, was decidedly Christian, not secular, despite Hollinger's claim – among the few outright errors in this erudite study.) While he devotes considerable attention to Buck, Harris, Margaret Landon, and a handful of other women, Hollinger offers an unconvincing explanation as to why so few women are represented here. He might easily have said more about Maud Russell and Ida Pruitt, among others.

     More importantly, Hollinger does not adequately substantiate his subtitle, that the missionaries "changed America." Several chapters conclude wistfully that U.S. policy-makers ignored these experts and thus failed to turn away from racism, ethnocentrism, arrogance, and even war. Hollinger points out, too, that some returned missionaries, missionary children, and those influenced by them, including Luce and diplomat John Foster Dulles, went only part-way, at most, towards rejecting traditional missionary conceptions; Luce and Dulles even contributed to the firing and marginalization of some of Hollinger's heroes and heroines. Hollinger understands that the missionary enterprise remained contested terrain among American Protestants, but he categorizes too neatly the distinction between "ecumenicals," the main subjects of his book, and "evangelicals," whose continued influence he downplays.

     Both Global America and Protestants Abroad will impart to readers, as the study of world history should do as well, the idea of Bender and other pioneers of the "internationalization of American history" that global experiences and analyses should lead to a sense of "humility," rather than "arrogance," as Americans interact with the world.

Robert Shaffer,, is Professor of History at Shippensburg University. He has written two prior book reviews for World History Connected (October 2013 and October 2017) and an essay on Indonesia expert Raymond Kennedy (February 2016). Among other recent publications is "Religion and International Relations: The Christian Century's Protestant Critique of the U.S. Embrace of Fascist Spain," Journal of Church and State, Autumn 2017.


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