Polk, War Message to Congress (1846)

Although he was not the first to put his eyes on the territory west of the Louisiana Purchase, it was the presidency of James K. Polk (1845-1849) that put the finishing touches on the last major acquisition of new territory before the Civil War. A member of the Jacksonian-nationalist wing of the Democratic Party, Polk’s intentions were clear from the start—his famous campaign slogan, “54-40 or Fight!” indicated his intention to settle the status of the Oregon Territory with Great Britain on American terms. But even more famously associated with Polk is the Mexican-American War, and with it the acquisition of New Mexico and Upper California.

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Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (1952)

In writing The Irony of American History, Niebuhr provides a framework through which we can interpret, organize, and create patterns out of the facts of history.  In order to do so, Niebuhr points us towards three broad categories: pathos, tragedy, and most importantly for Niebuhr, irony.  The Cold War conflict between liberalism and communism, and in particular America’s role, is Niebuhr’s case study for understanding those categories of history.

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Richard Rush, Memoranda of a Residence at the Court of London (1833)

While serving as Minister to England from 1817-1825, Rush kept a journal that became the basis for his diplomatic memoirs, Memoranda of a Residence at the Court of London (covering the years 1818-9; originally published in 1833); and the less comprehensive second volume, A Residence at the Court of London, Comprising Incidents, Official and Personal, from 1819 to 1825, published in 1845. A third edition, edited by his son, Benjamin, which included an account of his time as Minister to France during the Revolutions of 1848, was issued in 1872. In part to avoid diplomatic complications that might result from his unvarnished views, Rush edited the journals to smooth out the rough edges and added explanatory material to bring the narrative context up to date. Rush and his son made it clear that one of the principal purposes in publishing these memoirs was to improve Anglo-American relations.

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Ronald Reagan, Address in Berlin (1987)

On June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan traveled to West Berlin, to the Brandenburg Gate near the Berlin Wall, to deliver a speech commemorating the 750th anniversary of Berlin.  Eastern Europe, under the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, had closed itself off from Western Europe, often through physical means (the Berlin Wall being one of the starkest reminders of that separation).  Reagan’s address spoke of a vision of Europe that was open and connected, that was no longer divided, and that was inundated with the principles of freedom.  In giving his speech, Reagan attempted to push Gorbachev more fully to the side of openness. This is nowhere more clear than the famous words uttered by Reagan during his speech: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

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Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776)

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, published in Philadelphia in January 1776, is properly recognized as a major turning point in the American Revolution.  Paine effectively publicized the basic argument that Patriots like John Adams and Richard Henry Lee had been making privately in the Continental Congress – that the cause of the

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U.S. Grant, The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885)

What was, and is, extraordinary about Grant's Memoirs is its clarity, which reflected the clarity of thought that distinguished Grant as a military commander. "There is one striking feature of Grant's orders," General George Meade's chief of staff noted, "no matter how hurriedly he may write them on the field, no one has ever had the slightest doubt as to their meaning, or even has to read them over a second time." With good maps at hand—one must have good maps—the logic and power of Grant's operational approach to the war stands out even to the unschooled reader.

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U.S. Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual (1940)

The American military and the U.S. Marine Corps in particular had been fighting and analyzing counterinsurgency operations decades before their boots marked the sands of the Middle East and South Asia. Sadly, many of the lessons from these experiences languished on the shelfs of war colleges even as they became vitally important in the field. A handful of forward thinking officers cried for their reconsideration and modernization, and these efforts ultimately led to The U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual No. 3-24. However, long before General David Petraeus blended the wisdom of soldiers and scholars to produce his manual, an earlier effort already chronicled many of the central considerations for fighting against insurgencies. The Marine Corps Small Wars Manual, published in 1936 and updated in 1940, remains an important document for understanding the historical development of American counterinsurgency strategy and tactics.

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Walter Lippmann, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (1943)

Shield of the Republic formulated what might be called the Lippmann equilibrium, which has become the standard of American realists: "Foreign policy consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation's commitments and the nation's power. I mean by a foreign commitment an obligation, outside the continental limits of the United States, which may in the last analysis have to be met by waging war. I mean by power the force which is necessary to prevent such a war or to win it if it cannot be prevented. In the term necessary power I include the military force which can be mobilized effectively within the domestic territory of the United States and also the reinforcements which can be obtained from dependable allies." If this strategic equilibrium could be brought into being, American foreign policy would command domestic support. On the other hand, if American commitments exceed American power, the resulting insolvency—"the Lippmann gap"—would lead to deep political dissension.

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William Gilpin, The Central Gold Region (1860)

William Gilpin, sometime U.S. Army officer, Western explorer, Mexican War veteran, friend of Andrew Jackson and Thomas Hart Benton, land speculator, and governor of the Colorado Territory (1861-1862), is sometimes accorded the title of America’s first geopolitician. In a series of articles and speeches, which were summarized in his best known publication, The Central Gold Region: The Grain, Pastoral and Gold Regions of North America (1860), Gilpin argued that the development of the interior of the continent, made possible in large part by a properly-sited transcontinental railroad, would create a new and dominant commercial line of communication between Europe and Asia. This would inaugurate a new era in human affairs focused around what would become the greatest civilization in history, the Republican Empire of North America.

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