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Book Review


Guarneri, Carl J. America in the World: United States History in Global Context. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007). 320 pp, $26.88.

     Over the last twenty years, a number of journal articles, panels at academic conferences, and professional organizations have urged historians to look at United States history in a global context. Those who teach undergraduate survey classes, however, have been slow to respond to these demands. Most instructors have enough to study when they teach US history within a national framework and are understandably reluctant to spend more precious time learning the history of other countries. US history textbooks are of little help as they invariably focus on events within the borders of the United States and make little connection between the US and the rest of the world. Some recent editions of textbooks have added one or two new chapter introductions or panel inserts that mention global trends but, until now, no textbook with an international focus has appeared. Carl Guarneri's America in the World: United States History in Global Context provides an excellent blueprint for those looking for a way to situate the United States more fully into the larger transnational and global framework.

     Guarneri, previously the editor of America Compared (1997), a reader which features a comparative approach to US history, has produced a short text that is designed to be adopted as a supplement for world history courses or as a textbook for US history classes. Guarneri's study includes familiar staples of the US survey course such as European settlement, African-American slavery, the Revolution, westward expansion, the Civil War, immigration, industrialization, progressivism, both World Wars, and the Cold War, but he casts them in a new light. He adopts a comparative perspective to show the similarities and differences between the US experience and events in other countries. Guarneri also demonstrates the connections between United States history and world history by describing the influence of other countries on the US, the impact the US government and culture has had on the rest of the world, and parallel developments in other parts of the world.

     So what does this international approach produce that is so different? The periodization that Guarneri adopts differs from that traditionally employed in the US survey class. The book divides US history into four overlapping stages: 1530-1680s, when North America was a frontier of European civilization; 1607–1783, when America was a British colony; 1776-1930s, when the US constructed national institutions; and finally the period from the 1880s to the present when the US achieved global influence and which Guarneri calls the Age of Empire. By examining developments elsewhere, the author also suggests that the history of the US is not that exceptional from that of Europe or the rest of the West, but rather provides simply one variant in a common history.

     Many major events and periods in US history are seen in a new way in America in the World. Until the mid-1800s, the US was a minor nation, often directly influenced by events in Europe. The American Revolution was not only important in American history but also inspired many revolutions elsewhere. Even though many believe that the new nation was strongly isolationist, Guarneri asserts that the US quickly became involved in foreign affairs and international systems. Guarneri draws parallels between the American Civil War and nineteenth century wars of national unification in Europe and the Americas. They all featured conflicts between those who supported a strong centralized nation state and those who resisted these tendencies. Although seen as a "Melting Pot" of races and ethnic groups, in fact the US was not unique in welcoming millions of immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally, Guarneri argues that the Civil Rights movement was part of a worldwide struggle for racial justice.

     Much of this information is drawn from secondary sources, and is familiar to most historians of the US and world history, but to see this transnational perspective included in an undergraduate textbook is very welcome. This international context helps students understand the significance of many of the events they study. More than this, the book clearly elucidates the role of the US in the modern world. Guarneri spends a lot of time carefully outlining the global cultural influence of the US as well as the nation's economic and military commitments that have increasingly impacted the rest of the world. Students, who ever more operate in an interconnected world, will better understand the role of the US outside its borders by reading this book.

     My one disagreement with Guarneri's text concerns his periodization of US history. His emphasis on four stages of US history reflects America's global origins, cultural connections with Britain, national consolidation, and growing influence in the world. However, to focus on 1776 to the 1930s as a period of nation building seems too long and cumbersome. The nation's political institutions and parties, geographical borders, and attitude to slavery, had all been resolved by the end of the Civil War. Conversely, the 1880s seem rather late as a starting point for America's imperial project. The US had already expanded to the Pacific Ocean, gone to war with Mexico, and acquired Alaska by this time.

     Although eloquently written and thought provoking, the book tries to do too much. A common complaint laid against history textbooks is that they are too detailed and encyclopedic in nature, and hence publishers have rushed to produce brief or concise editions of textbooks. By adopting an international approach to US history, however, historians have to include even more material in their textbooks. Yet Guarneri has written a brief text, barely half the size of the usual history textbook covering the whole span of US history. Therefore, there is little space to draw biographical portraits of major figures and important events are either rushed or omitted altogether. World War II is dealt with in three and a half pages, for example, while the feminist movement is covered in only two.

     Many teachers of US history who are reluctant to consider the international approach because of the time and effort involved, will welcome this book. However, the brevity of the book and the scant treatment of important events and themes may mean that teachers of United States history will read America in the World for background information but not assign it to their students. I am also not sure if teachers of world history would adopt a short textbook like this in addition to, or in place of, their core text. This is a shame because we can all learn much from this insightful and groundbreaking attempt to rewrite United States history from a global perspective.


John F. Lyons
Joliet Junior College


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