Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism, and the World's Dispossessed

Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism, and the World's Dispossessed

Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism, and the World's Dispossessed

Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism, and the World's Dispossessed

Synopsis

Stephen Porter's Benevolent Empire examines political-refugee aid initiatives and related humanitarian endeavors led by American people and institutions from World War I through the Cold War, opening an important window onto the "short American century." Chronicling both international relief efforts and domestic resettlement programs aimed at dispossessed people from Europe, Latin America, and East Asia, Porter asks how, why, and with what effects American actors took responsibility for millions of victims of war, persecution, and political upheaval during these decades. Diverse forces within the American state and civil society directed these endeavors through public-private governing arrangements, a dynamic yielding both benefits and liabilities. Motivated by a variety of geopolitical, ethical, and cultural reasons, these advocates for humanitarian action typically shared a desire to portray the United States, to the American people and international audiences, as an exceptional, benevolent world power whose objects of concern might potentially include any vulnerable people across the globe. And though reality almost always fell short of that idealized vision, Porter argues that this omnivorous philanthropic energy helped propel and steer the ascendance of the United States to its position of elite global power.

The messaging and administration of refugee aid initiatives informed key dimensions of American and international history during this period, including U.S. foreign relations, international humanitarianism and human rights, global migration and citizenship, and American political development and social relations at home. Benevolent Empire is thus simultaneously a history of the United States and the world beyond.

Excerpt

The United States has long reached out to aid some of the world’s most vulnerable persons, but only in the twentieth century did the practice become an important way in which both the American state and civil society staked a claim for their country as a truly global power. The term “benevolent empire” emerged in the nineteenth century as a moniker for the explosion of Protestant missionary societies that spanned the continent and lands beyond to spread the Gospel and, often, the purported benefits of American civilization. By the early twentieth century, the enterprise had begun to morph into something less overtly sacred, more diversified in its participants, committed to the modern tenets of “scientific charity” and social work, and above all tied to the project of promoting American authority not just abroad, but at home too. The phrase “benevolent empire” may have fallen out of favor by the time armies of Americans committed themselves to unprecedentedly vast humanitarian projects during the era of the First World War, but the label still proved apt, albeit in altered ways, as the United States marched boldly through the new century. When Americans now thought of themselves as part of an imperial venture, it was likely to be at least as much about country as God. And though twentieth- century America would never quite mirror European- style territorial empires, Americans often implicitly conceptualized their country’s dramatic new extensions of global power through an imperial prism that partially but significantly justified America’s influence over foreign populations by its benevolent intentions for the most vulnerable and needy among them. John Winthrop’s City upon a Hill had grown big, and it refused to stay put.

Benevolent Empire interrogates this phenomenon by examining politicalrefugee aid initiatives and related responses to humanitarian crises led by American people and institutions from World War I through the 1960s. These developments open an important window onto what has been called the Short American Century, when the United States rose to a position of a major world . . .

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