Changing the World

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Alan Dawley. Changing the World: American Progressives in War and Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. pp. x + 409. $49.50. Cloth: ISBN 069111322X. $22.95. Paper: ISBN 0691122350



In Changing the World, Alan Dawley examines the ways in which early twentieth-century American Progressivism related to both national and international events. Combining cultural, social, and international relations history, he argues that Progressivism, particularly what he terms “progressive internationalism, meant not only reforming the United States but also improving the world.(1) He draws largely on printed material, including pamphlets, newspapers, journal articles, as well as editorial cartoons, advertisements, and propaganda posters.

Dawley begins by looking at the strengths, weaknesses, and objectives of the Progressives. He argues that while there were many varieties of progressivism happening in different ways throughout the pre-World War I nation, all progressives shared a basic commitment to social justice and civic engagement. Although clearly biased towards the overall actions of the Progressives, Dawley acknowledges their failings, in particularly “in the area of racial justice” (52). Each chapter shows what Dawley clearly sees as positive aspects of Progressivism, until he examines the records of Progressives on racial issues. In keeping with his global-facing focus, he discusses the intersections of progressivism and imperialism, both in imperialist progressivism and an anti-imperial progressivism which sought international cooperation, particularly in relation to the building of the Panama Canal and U.S. intervention in the Mexican Revolution (such as the seizure of Veracruz in 1914 and the Punitive Expedition of 1916). While some progressives supported U.S. intervention in Mexico as part of the country's role as a "policeman," others like Robert La Follette believed that intervening only served monied interests (30-32).

The World War proved a major challenge to international progressivism, and further divided progressives as they responded with calls for intervention, neutrality, and pacifism. In the discussion of the war and intervention, Dawley introduces the idea of “messianic Americanism,” where the United States serves as the cultural and military savior of the world. He argues that this belief in America’s “God-given mission of redemption” (109) led both to isolation and nationalistic fervor. America’s involvement in the World War allowed some progressives to pursue their objective of changing the world while others found new causes at home with rising censorship and race and class conflict. The Russian Revolution contributed to the feeling among progressives throughout the west that a social revolution was underway. At the close of the war, Wilson’s 14 Points served as a “magic mirror” (186) in which various ethnic and political groups saw their hopes reflected, leading them to try and participate in the treaty process. Ultimately, Dawley sees the Treaty of Versailles and the immediate post-war years as a betrayal of progressive possibilities and rise of conservatism. However, progressivism did not completely die, but focused more narrowly on economic justice during the 1920s, responding to a changing consumer culture which made social issues harder to promote.

Throughout the work, Dawley emphasizes the contingent nature of history, indicating the paths not taken without descending into speculative history. Although he sees the Cold War as a dormant period, he asserts that Progressivism has survived in certain forms in the United States, and its potential in the period of the first World War must not be forgotten.


David McKenzie, Spring 2015

In Changing the World, Alan Dawley focuses on the relationship between reform at home and reform abroad for Progressives in the United States during the early 20th century. Dawley argues that the international context cannot be ignored. Unlike Daniel Rodgers in Atlantic Crossings, Dawley does not so much focus on the transmission of ideas from abroad as he does on how events in other parts of the world influenced the Progressives' programs, and how they attempted to influence events outside of the United States--making Changing the World an apt title.

Dawley's focus on the revolutions of the 1910s--in China (although discussed little), Mexico, and Russia--shows how Progressives eyed reform not just in the United States or North Atlantic, but in the world as a whole. While some Progressives called for U.S. intervention, particularly in Mexico, others looked to these revolutions as means of creating new societies in poor, backward countries. Dawley's discussion of John Reed's idealism about the Mexican Revolution (33-35) is particularly strong in showing how individual Progressives responded to this event. Dawley also shows how some Progressives supported U.S. interventions in other parts of Latin America because of their views on race (seeing darker-skinned peoples as needing uplift, part of the "white man's burden") while others revilved these actions.

Dawley's discussion of the Treaty of Versailles brings a needed corrective to the idea that the U.S. rejection of the treaty was a resurgence of knee-jerk isolationism. Instead, Dawley shows how fear of radicalism--especially in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and First Red Scare--combined with ultimately prophetic warnings about the treaty's harshness toward the vanquished Germany led to the United States not participating in the League of Nations, but nonetheless remaining involved in world affairs throughout the 1920s.

Like Megan Brett suggests, Dawley could have cut some of the tangents to which he is prone throughout the book. While providing biographical information helps the reader understand how his protagonists came to their views, sometimes the narrative gets bogged down in these details. Other times, Dawley throws down the gauntlet with hyperbole and overgeneralization. For example, he suggests: "From Yankee traders to compulsive shoppers, no people were more commercially minded than Americans, yet none recoiled more quickly from their own materialism" (138). While lines like this make excellent candidiates for inclusion in general-interest compilations of quotations, they add little explanatory value and beg for further proof, which is often lacking.

Especially when read with Atlantic Crossings, Changing the World is a needed expansion of our view of the Progressives' expansive worldview, one that did not end at water's edge. Dawley goes a long way toward giving a more thorough explanation of the ideas of the Progressives, rescuing them from accusations of provincialism and showing how they, even in an allegedly isolationist era in the 1920s, were involved in the world around them.

Beth Garcia, Spring 2015

In tracing Progressivism from the prewar period to the postwar years, Dawley demonstrates a persistent link between the domestic and the global, arguing that international events had a profound impact on social reform efforts at home. By examining reform across time (and across continents), Dawley is able to effectively show that American Progressivism was not a uniform movement but one shaped and transformed by experiences of war, revolution, and empire. Dawley’s depiction of Progressivism as an evolving movement, one whose traditions endured throughout the twentieth century precisely because of this flexibility, is one of the text’s greatest strengths.

One of the more interesting pieces in Changing the World is the link that Dawley draws between revolution abroad and reactions at home. The Bolshevik Revolution in particular sparked fears among American officials who were threatened by an “ideology of collectivism that seemed to strike at the propertied family, the very foundation of the social order” (252.) Linking world revolution to domestic disorder, officials tried to silence dissent at home, cracking down on industrial workers and other reform efforts and even developing a top-secret federal strategy to quell discontent (the War Plans White.) Though the threat of revolution at home may never have been as real as these reactions suggest, Dawley shows that this link between the international and the domestic was very real to those Washington officials who began to see domestic disorder as "a mortal threat to the Republic" (276).

Dawley does a nice job in his treatment of women in this text, demonstrating that women were active participants in reform efforts (though he relies heavily on the same core group of female reformers to make this point). While his inclusion of women is commendable, his treatment of race is perhaps less effective. At times, Dawley seems to downplay race tensions at home to write about Progressivism and a generic “oppressed peoples”. In one example, Dawley writes “Mutual support for anticolonial struggles helped break down barriers between them (Africans, Jews, and Irish), adding an important element of ethnic pluralism to progressive internationalism… Clearly, a sense of international citizenship was having a healthy impact on citizenship at home” (237). During an age of race riots and exclusionary practices that often pit these groups in direct conflict with one another, this seems an especially optimistic statement.

As the other commenters have mentioned, Dawley does at times stray from his primary narrative but it is not enough to distract from his larger arguments. And while some may find his less staid writing style perhaps too colloquial at times, it makes his work highly readable and more accessible to non-academic audiences.

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

While Dawley's arguments about progressive internationalism and the influence of international events on progressivism were convincing, the text at time wandered from the main point in tangents which were not always clearly related to the primary topic. These tangents may have been meant to illustrate alternate forms of progressivism or internationalism, or alternate paths that liberals and leftists could take. On the whole, however, this is a well-written work. Dawley's attitude towards President Wilson seems mixed, holding the man up as a key progressive and yet also constantly pointing out his failings; one feels that Dawley, like the progressives he writes about, is disappointed that Wilson is imperfect.

One of the strengths of this book was the incorporation of pop culture, particularly the repeated use of period music as a metaphorical motif. Dawley describes the spread of Progressive reform as "syncopated," evoking both the unevenness of the reform and the feel of the time. Throughout the work, but particularly in chapters 7 and 8, he brings in architecture, film, and art as evidence, unpacking the way these non-textual expressions relate to the wider cultural moment. Although these non-textual sources seem to be added for color as much for argument, they strengthen his argument and demonstrate the utility of looking beyond the page. Another strength is Dawley's careful attention to the way constructions of gender relate to his work, in particular tensions about the role of women and the nature of masculinity. His gender analysis may be stronger than his racial analysis, which is less elegantly incorporated into the text.

Changing the World presents an engaging and useful model for writing about the United States and the world, in addition to being an informative perspective on the Progressive era.

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