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The man who redrew the world

American Empire Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization Neil Smith University of California Press: 584 pp., $39.95

April 18, 2004|Blanche Wiesen Cook | Blanche Wiesen Cook is university distinguished professor of history at John Jay College and the author of "Eleanor Roosevelt."

At Cold War's end, we entered a new century to find a self-proclaimed unipower astride the globe. We seem quickly to have acknowledged the basic maxim of most geographers: All the world's places are connected. But who rules? Who decides? After a century of total war, we have learned one lesson: There are no final victories. The world map gets redrawn: There are fluid frontiers, porous borders, shifting alliances. Today, as a U.S. president is poised on the brink of wars without end, concerned citizens must wonder: How did it come to this? Where will we go from here?

Neil Smith's vividly written, brilliantly researched "American Empire" is profoundly illuminating for these dangerous, crescendo times. His 20-year immersion into private papers, government documents and various sources has resulted in a portrait of Isaiah Bowman (1878-1950), a leading American geographer, advisor to presidents and president of the Johns Hopkins University. The book is also, Smith writes, "a history of geography, but even more a geography of history."

Because Bowman helped design the maps that heralded America's rise to globalism, and because Smith writes with verve and audacity about politicians and visionaries from World War I through the Cold War, "American Empire" changes the substance of our perceptions -- especially regarding the goals of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Smith's two most stunning contributions concern Bowman's influence on the geography of rescue during World War II (which developed out of his disdain for Jews and horror of communists and political refugees) and the evolution of geography into geopolitics and economics (from empire as territorial conquest to business investment). As a leading geographer, Bowman went from a discoverer of old worlds to a creator of a new empire.

World War I obliterated antique regimes: The Hohenzollern, Hapsburg, Ottoman and Romanov empires were history. New nations were created along lines of confused ethnicity and damaged shards of the rival past. A buffer of troubled states arose to strangle Russian and German ambitions. After 1919, new geopolitical realities emerged; everything changed. Smith describes the tensions, the "fiesta of egos and intrigue" within Wilson's think tank known as the Inquiry and in America's leadership class, from a fresh geographic perspective.

As director of the American Geographical Society and as geographic advisor and bridge between the War Department and the National Research Council, Bowman was disinterested in the more liberal aspects of negotiation -- native rights, the prohibition of forced labor, minorities treaties -- and preferred "forced assimilation and ethnic dilution." The importance of the "war to end all wars" was the separation between economic expansion and direct military control of territories. The new geography promised permanent peace and fulfilled Wilson's 1912 campaign slogan to "broaden our borders and make conquest of the markets of the world," thus motivating Bowman's future work. But it was immediately suspended by geography's old realities: Germany's territorial reduction and anguish, Russia's upheavals and the Allied intervention against the new Communist regime.

Bowman fought valiantly for the covenant of the League of Nations, which he believed was the hope of the new world order. But the Senate rejected the League, and the U.S. entered an isolationist phase incomprehensible to Bowman. He spent the inter-war years on the board of the Council of Foreign Relations, working to craft a new political geography devoted to U.S. interests and world development. Smith's chapter on the council and the future of economic and political power brilliantly illumines the trajectory of America's half-century.

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