Cover: Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age, from Harvard University PressCover: Promise and Peril in PAPERBACK

Promise and Peril

America at the Dawn of a Global Age

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Product Details


$30.00 • £24.95 • €27.00

ISBN 9780674503878

Publication Date: 03/23/2015


464 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

16 halftones


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 reimagine the role of the United States in the world.—Jackson Lears, The Nation

Christopher McKnight Nichols has written an outstanding intellectual history of isolationism… Nichols does an extraordinary job of conceptual exegesis… What is most fascinating about Promise and Peril is Nichols’ ability to communicate not only the intellectual and political contestation over ‘the meaning of America’ that occurred publicly, but also how this contestation occurred in the ‘hearts and minds’ of individuals as they struggled to integrate traditional ideas with novel circumstances.—Jeffrey Meiser, New Global Studies

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, Journal of American Studies

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, American Historical Review

[A] highly perceptive work… 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, H-Net

In this important new book, Christopher McKnight Nichols invites a broad reconsideration of [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 has done us a valuable service in providing us with tools to see history anew—and to wield it responsibly.—Jim Cullen, History News Network

Americans are always on the lookout for isolationism in the U.S.—and it never arrives. In a most clearly explicated expose, Nichols 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 U.S.’s complex ideology. The author refutes prior simplistic assessments of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s ‘no entangling alliances’ descriptor of U.S. 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 often 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.—G. Donato, Choice

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, author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War

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, author of When Time Shall Be No More

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’s 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, author of Defying Dixie

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, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

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, author of Promised Land, Crusader State

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