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Promise and Peril


Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011, new paperback March 2015)

*Promise and Peril named a top-12 “best global book of 2011” by Bailard International*

*Promise and Peril selected as a top-25 “overlooked political book of 2011” by the Huffington Post*


Spreading democracy abroad or taking care of business at home is a tension as current as the war in Afghanistan and as old as America itself. Tracing the history of isolationist and internationalist ideas from the 1890s through the 1930s, Nichols reveals unexpected connections among individuals and groups from across the political spectrum who developed new visions for America’s place in the world.

From Henry Cabot Lodge and William James to W. E. B. Du Bois and Jane Addams to Randolph Bourne, William Borah, and Emily Balch, Nichols shows how reformers, thinkers, and politicians confronted the challenges of modern society—and then grappled with urgent pressures to balance domestic priorities and foreign commitments. Each articulated a distinct strain of thought, and each was part of a sprawling national debate over America’s global role. Through these individuals, Nichols conducts us into the larger community as it strove to reconcile America’s founding ideals and ideas about isolation with the realities of the nation’s burgeoning affluence, rising global commerce, and new opportunities for worldwide cultural exchange. The resulting interrelated set of isolationist and internationalist principles provided the basis not just for many foreign policy arguments of the era but also for the vibrant as well as negative connotations that isolationism still possesses.

Nichols offers a bold new interpretation of the isolationist and internationalist impulses that shaped the heated debates of the early twentieth century and that continue to influence thinking about America in the world today.

Reviews and endorsements:

“A deeply thoughtful study about the power of ideas in the making of U.S. foreign policy during the critical period from the 1890s to the Great Depression. Nichols demonstrates how intertwined were isolationist and internationalist views about the use of American power abroad.” 

-Michael Kazin, Professor of History, Georgetown University, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

“Isolationism as turning inward? In this vivid and brilliantly conceived book, Nichols demolishes that canard, demonstrating that the isolationist tradition actually signifies the search for ways to engage the world consistent with authentically American principles.”

-Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor of History and International Relations, Boston University, author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War

“This is a book whose time has come. Largely forgotten by historians and political leaders alike, early-twentieth-century isolationism has never been more important than it is today. Nichols’ lively prose and strong narrative account of the isolationist path not taken will offer readers alternative ways of seeing the U.S. role in the world.”

-Glenda Gilmore, Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History, Yale University, author of Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights

“Just what did isolationists think–and say–in the early twentieth century? Christopher Nichols provides some provocative answers to that question in Promise and Peril, which is far more intellectually venturesome than its textbookish title suggests. Nichols has written a rediscovery of the isolationist tradition, a thorough and timely account of thinkers as diverse as William James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Randolph Bourne, Eugene Debs and Jane Addams…Nichols has accomplished a major feat, demonstrating that isolationism was a far richer and more complex intellectual tradition than its critics have ever imagined–one that still speaks to our own time, freshening the stale formulas of the Washington consensus and allowing us to re-imagine the role of the United States in the world.”             

-Jackson Lears, review in The Nation

Challenging familiar caricatures of ‘isolationist’ ideology and the simplistic polarization of isolationism and internationalism for polemical purposes, Christopher Nichols offers a nuanced analysis of how varied strands of ‘isolationism’ evolved and mutated from the 1880s on. Debates over the U.S. global role, Nichols convincingly argues, have always involved differing visions of the kind of society America should be. Promise and Peril recasts familiar foreign-policy controversies and finds fascinating affinities among surprisingly diverse public figures. Not only first-rate intellectual history, it is also a welcome contribution to contemporary discussions of America’s place in the world.”

-Paul S. Boyer, Merle Curti Professor of History Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of When Time Shall Be No More

“This is an important book that broadens the context of turn-of-the-century isolationist thought and the domestic politics of American foreign relations. Most fundamentally, it demands that historians take isolationism more seriously than we have hitherto. Nichols provocatively prompts us to see it not as a limited and reactive political movement of 1919–20 or of the 1930s, but rather as a malleable and evolving intellectual and political tradition… Nichols has produced a very fine book that should reopen discussion of American isolationism. He deserves a round of applause. Promise and Peril should be widely read.”

-Jay Sexton, review in the Journal of American Studies

“In this important new book, Christopher McKnight Nichols invites a broad reconsideration of the concept [isolationism] by tracing its origins back to the debates over U.S. imperialism at the end of the 19th century and its surprising continuities — and surprising bedfellows — over the next-half century. … Nichols is also good at untangling underlying continuity amid sometimes rapidly changing circumstances. … Nichols has done us a valuable service in providing us with tools to see history anew — and to wield it responsibly.”

-Jim Cullen, review on History News Network

“One of the subthemes running through the GOP presidential debates is whether the United States should be more or less active overseas. That is hardly a new tension in American politics, as a wonderful new book by Christopher McKnight Nichols called Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age makes clear. Nichols traces the debates between internationalists and isolationists from the 1890s through the 1920s as they fought over America’s role in the world. Along the way he introduces a fascinating cast of characters, including Randolph Bourne, Eugene Debs, Henry Cabot Lodge, and one of my all-time favorites, William Borah of Idaho. He was known as ‘the great opposer’ because he so frequently argued against rather than for things.” 

-James Lindsay, Council on Foreign Relations’s “Water’s Edge” blog

“Where other scholars have looked for the origin story of twentieth-century isolationism in World War I and the ensuing battles over the League of Nations, Nichols argues that the debates over war and empire in the Pacific and Caribbean set the contours of modern isolationist thinking.” In particular, “Nichols makes new contributions to the voluminous literature on [William James and Eugene Debs] by illuminating their internal contradictions and surprising connections. … Capturing [Randolph] Bourne’s revulsion at nativism ‘run amok’ (p. 128), Nichols also highlights the destructive hypernationalism that coursed through the Wilsonian moment. …The biographies in Promise and Peril capture multiple strains of isolationist thinking, fiercely resisting any attempts to oversimplify it or reduce to a willful disengagement. By the end of Promise and Peril, I found myself asking at what point isolationism becomes so nuanced and its strains so multiple, multi-varied, and entwined with internationalism that the term ceases to work … It speaks to Nichols’s insight and acumen that he should invigorate such a discussion.”

-Adriane Lentz-Smith, Diplomatic History

“Don’t miss the new monumental work by Christopher McKnight Nichols, which examines internationalists and isolationists in the early twentieth century. It is terrific and includes terrific scholarship …” 

-Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom website “Advancing Women as Peacemakers”

“This is a thoughtful and important contribution to the intellectual history of U.S. foreign relations and to scholarly understanding of the forces shaping a broader U.S. international engagement in the twentieth century.” 

-Ian Tyrrell, review in the American Historical Review

“Christopher McKnight Nichols’ Promise and Peril is a very good history of American anti-imperialism and non-interventionism from the 1890s through the 1930s. “

-Daniel Larison, the American Conservative online

“Christopher McKnight Nichols’s Promise and Peril is an ambitious examination of isolationist thought in the United States. … One strength of the book is the reminder that antiwar sentiment runs deep in American history. … Nichols demonstrates that isolationists came from differing social and intellectual backgrounds and they exhibited a variety of isolationist formulations. He conveniently summarized these tangents in an appendix that defined “strains” of isolationist thought that contained eight different emphases. … Nichols’s survey of isolationist thinking reminds us that America’s interventionist foreign policy since World War II has abandoned the Washingtonian and Jeffersonian strictures about foreign entanglement.” 

-Ballard Campbell, review in the Journal of American History

“Nichols makes a valuable contribution to the intellectual history of American foreign relations at the dawn of the nation’s career as a crusader state. In so doing he rehabilitates in convincing fashion the mental universe of the first unabashed-and often prophetic-isolationists.”

-Walter A. McDougall, Professor of History and Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations, Pulitzer Prize Winner, University of Pennsylvania, author of Promised Land, Crusader State

“In a clearly written and highly perceptive work, Nichols focuses on certain liberal and radical political leaders and opinion makers, often articulate proponents of liberalism and radicalism, to show a different face to this highly diverse movement. … In each case, the author shows himself steeped in the relevant manuscript collections and the rich secondary literature as well. Certainly Promise and Peril can serve as a “usable past” for people seeking a liberal pedigree in espousing withdrawal from current commitments. … Promise and Peril is a provocative study, demolishing many stereotypes and offering new patterns concerning liberal anti-interventionism. It deserves a wide readership.”

-Justus Doenecke, review on H-Net

“Americans are always on the lookout for isolationism in the US–and it never arrives. In a most clearly explicated exposé, Nichols (Univ. of Pennsylvania) explains why. Using the bio-historical approach, he brings forth salient figures from the Gilded Age to serve as examples to elucidate the nuances of the US’s complex ideology. The author refutes prior simplistic assessments of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s ‘no entangling alliances’ descriptor of US foreign policy, shifting the focus from isolationism to ‘meaningful international involvement (where) nothing less than the meaning of America was at stake.’ Through the voices of ten articulators of isolationist thinking, Nichols convincingly concludes ‘American policy in the interwar era was not nearly as isolationist as many have characterized it.’ Rather, these individuals proposed a ‘salvific prescription to reconstitute a better society’ in the midst of turbulent times. Clarifying the strains of isolationism serves as a useful tool for understanding the nuanced argument of Gilded Age thought prescient at the dawn of a new global age. Beneath the study of isolationist thought, Nichols reawakens a discourse of what it means to be an American. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.” 

-G.Donato, review in Choice

“Christopher McKnight Nichols provides an erudite account of a period … when ideas about America’s role on the world stage were fundamentally contested. As this year’s presidential election approaches, each side will portray the difference between the candidates’ positions on foreign policy as immense. Revisiting Promise and Peril shows us just how narrow the American worldview has become, and how our public discourse has become narrower still. … The sophisticated (and plural) progressive isolationist tradition described in Promise and Peril shows us that visions for international and domestic society can never be severed from each other. Choices made in one always entail commitments in the other, and so a desire for a more just domestic order requires paying detailed attention to the U.S. role on the international stage, and how that feeds back into politics and culture at home. Much could be gained from reinvigorating the idea of a non-entangled and transnational America in contemporary progressive politics.”

-Zach Dorfman, review in Dissent magazine

“Christopher Nichols’s Promise and Peril also considers the ways in which Americans viewed the United States’ place in the world during the 1890s and the first several decades of the twentieth century. … Nichols examines the changing conceptions of isolationism and challenges existing scholarship for dismissing isolationism as ineffective and unrealistic. …Earlier investigations of isolationism resulted in standard political histories that largely ignored the intellectual and cultural origins of these policies. Nichols remedies this omission by locating the roots of modern isolationism in the closing years of the nineteenth century and tracing its development through the 1930s. Nichols urges scholars to eschew the simplistic characterization of isolation- ism as a call for ‘cultural, economic, or complete political separation from the rest of the world’ (2). … Nichols achieves his objective of analyzing the shifting con- ception of isolationism presented by prominent Americans during the early decades of the twentieth century. He adeptly traces the transformations within isolationist thought while challenging simplistic characterizations of the policy. … Nichols clearly demonstrates how this false dichotomy [between complete isolation and active engagement] has obscured the complexity and depth of isolationist thought during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In addition, Nichols makes a cogent argument recasting the 1920s as a decade in which isolation- ists and internationalists cooperated and supported policies designed to promote world peace without restricting the United States’ capacity to act unilaterally or form binding political or military commitments. … [F]uture scholars can draw upon Promise and Peril to consider how regular Americans understood and internalized these ideas.”

-Robert D. Miller, review in the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

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