Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The American Challenge to British Hegemony, 1861-1947

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The American Challenge to British Hegemony, 1861-1947

Article excerpt

The conventional argument of historians, historical and political geographers, and international relations scholars is that America became a global hegemon only after the collapse of the Axis Powers and the end of World War II in 1945. Such conventionality is rooted in an interpretation of hegemonic struggles as almost entirely military in nature (see, for example, Goldstein 1988). As John Agnew noted, "theories of hegemonic succession have trouble accounting for the absence of war as the USA replaced Britain as the dominant world power" (1993, 133). Despite his description of America as an imperial power from the Louisiana Purchase on, Donald Meinig eschews much discussion of hegemonic challenge and succession in his magisterial The Shaping of America and argues that a "global America" emerged only from the security failures of the "hemispheric defense" policy intended to control Germany and Japan and that led up to World War II (1993; 2004, 331-336). Many of these problems stem from the tendency of academic disciplines to focus on the affairs of the nation-state in which they are embedded and to have great difficulty seeing historical events in comparative and internationalist perspectives.

For example, Meinig privileges President Woodrow Wilson's attempt to create an internationalist peace after World War I, arguing that he "clung to neutrality" in his attempts to maintain the moral high ground for America (Meinig 2004, 306). Against this classical view of Wilsonian idealism is the fact that, at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles in 1919, President Wilson was not at all neutral when he noted to Admiral William Bullard that "there were three dominating factors in international relations--international transportation, international communication, and petroleum--and that the influence which a country exercised in international affairs would be largely dependent upon their position of dominance in these three activities." In his official History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, Captain Linwood Howeth noted that Owen Young, then president of General Electric, the key company in telecommunications at the time, gave this account of his 1919 conversation with Bullard to the radio historian Gleason Archer on 5 February 1937 (Archer 1938, 164-165; Howeth 1963, 368). President Wilson's remark referred directly to an American economic struggle with Britain that can be dated back to the American Civil War in two of those three areas--international transportation and international communication. At the Paris Peace Conference the president took specific action on the factor of international communication, sending Admiral Bullard back to the United States to negotiate the creation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) as a geopolitical entity to allow the U.S. Navy to retain the control of international radio communication it had won during World War I (Hugill 1999, 119-123).

In the conventional reading the main challenge to a declining Britain came from Germany and erupted in the form of the two British-American-German Wars (more simply, the "German Wars") we conventionally call "World War I" and "World War II." "Although precipitated by British attempts to maintain its political dominance, the two world wars. ... can be seen as the United States preventing Germany taking Britain's place and culminating in the United States 'succeeding' to Britain's mantle in 1945" (Flint and Taylor 2007, 57). Meinig argues that the United States preferred continental isolation through the late 1800s, switched to hemispheric defense until the 1930s, then was finally forced reluctantly into globalism (2004). I argue here for a very different point of view, that, although Meinig was correct that a U.S. imperium came into existence in the early 1800s, America began to challenge Britain in economic terms as early as 1861. I follow Howard Fuller in arguing that America responded to a perceived British naval threat in the early 1860s (2008), and I argue that America posed a direct naval challenge to Britain in 1866. …

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