Review: Arc of Empire

Hunt, Michael H., and Levine, Steven I. Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

It is difficult nowadays to find a book on United States history that is both informative and substantive. It is even harder to find a book on the same subject that is informative, substantive, and engaging. So, when you come across a book that checks all three boxes, you know are reading a good book. Arc of Empire, by historians Michael Hunt and Steven Levine, is one of those books. (This should not come as a surprise, given that Hunt and Levine are longtime colleagues with three decades of professional experience with the material, but it does, because books this grounded are rare.) The book’s central argument is quite simple (in a good way) and can be ascertained from its title: America’s wars in Asia delineate an arc of American empire. In this formulation, “America’s wars in Asia” are the wars the U.S. fought against the Philippines, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam throughout the twentieth century. But the simplicity is deceiving, for the argument is a bit shrewder than the title suggests. As the authors unfold it, “These four wars—in the Philippines, against Japan, in Korea, and in Vietnam—were not separate and unconnected, although they are often treated as such. They were phases in a U.S. attempt to establish and maintain a dominant position is eastern Asia sustained over some seven decades against considerable resistance” (1). Each war makes up one part of a larger whole, both spatially and temporally, and that larger whole is Empire.

The success of an argument of this sort depends on a clear definition of empire, of which the authors are fully aware, and their definition is just that: “Empire is fundamentally a centrally directed political enterprise in which a state employs coercion (violence or at least the threat of violence) to subjugate an alien population within a territorially delimited area governed by another state or organized political force” (3). This is not the end of their definition, but it is the centerpiece of it. Of course, the authors anticipate the unease and protest that will almost surely result from their using the term empire in connection with America, so they offer a detailed explanation about their decision. After defining empire, Hunt and Levine make plain that “this notion of empire helps make sense of the long U.S. transpacific encounter. Americans followed a familiar imperial path marked by four features” (4). The four features were 1) believing in an American-version of the European “civilizing mission,” 2) encountering anti-colonial nationalisms that saw the U.S. as just another face of (or the heir to) European colonialism, 3) increasing the use of violence against insubordinates, and 4) witnessing the emergence of prosperous postcolonial Asia. Hunt and Levine highlight these points to tie American imperialism in eastern Asia—a fusion, in this book, of east Asia and southeast Asia—to imperial/colonial projects that preceded them, existed alongside them, or disintegrated in spite of them. This is key, for it sharpens the meaning of empire they use to make their case for an arc of American empire.

Overall, Arc of Empire is a very sensible piece of scholarship. Because of the temporal progression built into the thesis, the book’s organization is fairly straightforward. The wars are covered chronologically, beginning with the Philippines and ending with Vietnam, and discretely, with each war getting its own chapter. The chapters are similarly organized along chronological lines, with sections devoted to background, the war proper, and aftermath. The arc, therefore, is built into the structure of the book, and this not only makes for a pleasant reading experience, but also reinforces the book’s thesis. This is one of the best examples of a book’s organization supporting the author’s thesis. However, and this is the great irony, this reinforcing arc is also one of the book’s biggest weaknesses, for, at times, it has the effect of making the central argument seem too simple (in a bad way) and too contrived. Many readers will no doubt feel that Hunt and Levine are making a fairly intuitive argument; as such, the book reads less like an exegesis and more like a description. The reinforcing arc, in other words, is making the argument for them. This effect is compounded by the fact that the authors do little in the way of critical analysis. Perhaps unwittingly, the authors favor implicit interpretation, which works well in many cases but not in this book. Because of the constant reoccurrence of the arc motif, Hunt and Levine would have benefitted from more explicit interpretive work.

The analytical deficiency points to another weakness of the book: its use of sources. The authors use very little secondary sources in the chapters covering the wars, which closes out the possibility of engaging with other scholars on several important issues. This would not have been as bad if they had used their primary sources well, but there too did they miss an opportunity at analysis. Most quotes are short; many feel forced. It is unfortunate, because the book is a pleasure to read. The writing is fluid and clear, and the authors pack the book with information. They also do a good job at tying events together and relating them to the present. Without question, though, the book’s greatest strength is its ability to define (American) empire and demonstrate that phenomenon explicitly. Anyone looking for a clear and coherent discussion about American empire will find solace in Hunt and Levine’s Arc of Empire.

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