Review of ‘Spreading the American Dream’

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Historian Emily S. Rosenberg’s Spreading the American Dream, traces America’s global expansionism during the first half of the twentieth century. Written in a somewhat dry, textbook style, without footnotes or references, this book looks at the country’s economic and cultural expansion from 1890 to 1945 as it changed from a primarily private endeavor led by American business to one dominated by government.

An interesting book in many ways, but the author gives an unbalanced view, with a bias to the economic aspects and only touching lightly on the cultural. In the introduction the author states that she wants readers to consider if America, in its expansionist mood, fell victim to the same sins as other expansionist powers, but except for slight references to the many contradictions in the American message to the world, she doesn’t offer much to enable a reader to come to any logical conclusion.

For example, when she talks about the great Chicago Exposition of the late 1800s, she points out that America’s prowess in manufacturing agricultural implements was showcased while the over production, land misuse, and crushing debt faced by American family farms was ignored. Nowhere in the book, for example, does she address the stark contradiction between the American cultural message about its exceptionalism and the way it treated women (who make up half the population) or minorities (blacks and Native Americans). While selling the American dream to other countries, it was withholding that dream from a significant percentage of its own citizens. She does point out many of the contradictions in the economic sphere—America pushing for free and open trade while fiercely protecting its own industries—a case of do as I say, not as I do.

Despite these deficiencies, the book is useful to anyone who wants to understand the beginning of American global hegemony. It only needs other material to fill in all the blanks.

I received this book as a gift. For months, I let is gather dust on my book shelf, until the 2016 election and the question of America’s place in the world began to occupy my thoughts more and more. While I was not wildly impressed by it, I’m glad that I read it nonetheless. It gives me a point of departure for further reading and study. I give this book three and a half stars.

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