Many observers have noted the surprising resilience of certain ideas in American history. "Liberty," the belief that individuals should live free from most external restraints, is one particularly powerful American touchstone. "Enterprise," the virtue of hard work, business acumen, and wealth accumulation, is another. The belief that all people should share these ideas has prohibited Americans from ever accepting the world as it is. The assumption that individuals will, when capable, choose these "self-evident" propositions has made the nation a force for revolution. America's foreign policy has consistently sought to remake the external landscape in its own image.
As early as the eighteenth century, New World influences helped inspire revolutionary upheavals throughout the old empires of Europe. This pattern continued in the nineteenth century as thinkers from diverse cultures studied the American Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution to guide modern state building. During the first half of the twentieth century, American soldiers fought to undermine authoritarian regimes and revolutionize the workings of the international system. By the end of the twentieth century, American cinema, music, and fashion challenged traditional values in all corners of the globe.
Self-confidence and ignorance of the wider world fed the nation's revolutionary aspirations. These qualities also made Americans intolerant of the diversity of revolutionary experience. The imagery of the thirteen colonies' fight for independence from British rule in the late eighteenth century provided a template for acceptable foreign revolutions that became more rigid over time. The whole world had to follow the American revolutionary path. Heretical movements required repression because they offered destructive deviations from the highway of historical change.
Enthusiasm for revolution, in this sense, produced many counterrevolutionary policies. These were directed against alternative models, especially communism, that violated American definitions of "liberty" and "enterprise." In the second half of the twentieth century this paradox became most evident as the United States employed revolutionary concepts like "development" and "democratization" to restrain radical change in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. "Globalization" came to reflect the dominance of the American revolutionary model, and the repression of different approaches. Paraphrasing French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, America has forced much of the world to be free, but only on American terms.
Appleby, Joyce Oldham. Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination. Cambridge, Mass., 1992. A provocative discussion of how Americans have thought about revolution.
Brinkley, Douglas, and David R. Facey-Crowther, eds. The Atlantic Charter. New York, 1994. A series of thoughtful analyses of the Atlantic Charter and its legacy.
Cooper, John Milton, Jr. The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Cambridge, Mass., 1983. A superb comparative study that analyzes the politics of early twentieth-century America.
Curti, Merle E. "Young America." American Historical Review 32 (1926): 34–55. Still a penetrating account of American thought regarding overseas revolution in the midnineteenth century.
——. "John C. Calhoun and the Unification of Germany." American Historical Review 40 (1935): 476–478. An insightful document on Calhoun's views of European revolution.
Davis, David Brion. Revolutions: Reflections on American Equality and Foreign Liberations. Cambridge, Mass., 1900. A probing series of lectures on American views of revolution.
DeConde, Alexander. This Affair of Louisiana. New York, 1976. A thoughtful account of the politics surrounding the Louisiana Purchase and American imperialism.
Dull, Jonathan R. A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution. New Haven, Conn., 1985. A concise account of the American Revolution in a broad international context.
Engerman, David C. "Modernization from the Other Shore: American Observers and the Costs of Soviet Economic Development." American Historical Review 105 (2000): 383–416. An excellent study of how ideas about economic development influenced American views of the Soviet Union.
Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. New York, 1970. A penetrating account of American political ideology around the time of the Civil War.
Ford, Worthington Chauncey, et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. 34 vols. Washington D.C., 1904–1937. An indispensable source on early American revolutionary aspirations and foreign policy.
Fukuyama, Francis. "The End of History?" The National Interest 16 (Summer 1989). An extremely influential and controversial argument about the triumph of America's revolutionary vision around the world.
Gaddis, John Lewis. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York and Oxford, 1982. The best analysis of the sources and implications of America's containment policy during the Cold War.
Gardner, Lloyd C. Safe for Democracy: Anglo-American Response to Revolution, 1913–1923. New York, 1984. A broad account of Wilson's opposition to radical revolution.
——. Pay Any Price: Lyndon Johnson and the Wars for Vietnam. Chicago, 1995. A provocative analysis of how American liberal ideas contributed to the Vietnam War.
Genovese, Eugene D. The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism. Cambridge, Mass., 1994. A provocative account of southern society before the Civil War, and its implications for American politics.
Gilbert, Felix. To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., 1961. An eloquent and thoughtful essay on the meaning of Washington's address for American foreign policy.
Hahn, Peter L., and Mary Ann Heiss, eds. Empire and Revolution: The United States and the Third World Since 1945. Columbus, Ohio, 2001. A useful survey of American foreign policy in the Third World during the Cold War.
Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought Since the Revolution. 2d ed. San Diego, Calif., 1991. A classic account of how ideas about liberty and enterprise have dominated American politics.
Hogan, Michael J. The Marshall Plan: America, Britain, and the Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1947–1952. New York and Cambridge, 1987. A penetrating account of how the Marshall Plan reconstructed Western Europe on America's model.
Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn., 1987. A stimulating account of how American ideas about liberty, race, and revolution have affected foreign policy.
Iriye, Akira. The Globalizing of America, 1913–1945. New York, 1993. A compelling discussion of Americanization in the first half of the twentieth century.
Kaplan, Lawrence S. Jefferson and France: An Essay on Politics and Political Ideas. New Haven, Conn., 1967. A classic account of how America's preeminent revolutionary theorist grappled with the French Revolution.
Knock, Thomas J. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York, 1992. The best late-twentieth-century account of Wilson's revolutionary foreign policy.
Labaree, Leonard W., et al., eds. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. 35 vols. New Haven, Conn., 1959–2001. An indispensable source on early American revolutionary aspirations and foreign policy.
LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898. Ithaca, N.Y., 1963. A classic account of American ideas and expansion in the late nineteenth century.
——. The American Age: United States Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since 1750. New York, 1989. The best survey for the history of American expansionism.
Latham, Michael E. Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and "Nation Building" in the Kennedy Era. Chapel Hill, N.C., 2000. A stimulating discussion of how American ideas about development influenced foreign policy.
Leffler, Melvyn P. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Stanford, Calif., 1992. A rich account of how American values and fears of Soviet power drove foreign policy in the early Cold War.
Levin, Norman Gordon, Jr. Woodrow Wilson and World Politics: America's Response to War and Revolution. New York, 1968. A classic criticism of Wilson's opposition to radical revolution.
Link, Arthur S., ed. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. 69 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1966–1994. An indispensable source on Wilsonian ideas and foreign policy.
Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776. New York, 1972. An excellent discussion of the international context for the American Revolution.
McCormick, Thomas J. China Market: America's Quest for Informal Empire, 1893–1901. Chicago, 1967. A provocative account of America's expanding influence in Asia at the end of the nineteenth century.
Ninkovich, Frank A. The Wilsonian Century: U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1900. Chicago, 1999. A compelling account of Wilson's revolutionary influence on American foreign policy in the twentieth century.
Roberts, Timothy M., and Daniel W. Howe. "The United States and the Revolutions of 1848." In R. J. W. Evans and Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, eds. The Revolutions in Europe, 1848–1849: From Reform to Reaction. Oxford, 2000. An excellent survey of how Americans perceived the European revolutions of 1848.
Rosenberg, Emily S. Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890–1945. New York, 1982. A thoughtful account of America's cultural and economic expansion between the two world wars.
Rostow, Walt W. The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. 3d ed. New York, 1990. One of the most influential books on the role of liberal capitalist ideas in Third World development.
Smith, Tony. America's Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1994. A provocative analysis of America's support for democratic revolution abroad.
Strong, Josiah. Our Country. 1886. Reprint, Cambridge, Mass., 1963. One of the most influential polemics about America's revolutionary "mission" overseas.
Weigley, Russell F. The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy. New York, 1973. A compelling analysis of America's revolutionary approach to war.
White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. Cambridge and New York, 1991. The best account of relations between Americans, Europeans, and Indians in the eighteenth century.
Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 2d and enlarged ed. New York, 1972. One of the most important works on the history of American foreign relations, a penetrating discussion of economics, ideas, and expansion.