The Abandonment of the West

The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy


By Michael Kimmage

Formats and Prices




$24.99 CAD



  1. ebook $18.99 $24.99 CAD
  2. Hardcover $32.00 $40.00 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 21, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

This definitive portrait of American diplomacy reveals how the concept of the West drove twentieth-century foreign policy, how it fell from favor, and why it is worth saving.

Throughout the twentieth century, many Americans saw themselves as part of Western civilization, and Western ideals of liberty and self-government guided American diplomacy. But today, other ideas fill this role: on one side, a technocratic “liberal international order,” and on the other, the illiberal nationalism of “America First.”

In The Abandonment of the West, historian Michael Kimmage shows how the West became the dominant idea in US foreign policy in the first half of the twentieth century — and how that consensus has unraveled. We must revive the West, he argues, to counter authoritarian challenges from Russia and China. This is an urgent portrait of modern America’s complicated origins, its emergence as a superpower, and the crossroads at which it now stands.


Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.



The Rise of the West


The Columbian Republic, 1893–1919

So, on beyond Zebra!


Like Columbus!


CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS HAD been worshipped in America since at least the eighteenth century. A historical reference point, his name was transformed into the goddess Columbia, and so divinized Columbia came to represent the civilizational pedigree and novelty of the United States. Columbus was perceived as the exemplary Christian explorer, the man of science, the conqueror who planted Europe’s flag in the Americas. Too restless to stay within the known confines of the Old World, he was both brave and curious enough to go out in search of the new. Such were the trappings of the Columbus legend. He had set out to explore on his own, the immigrant navigator and traveler, and he was certainly different from those he met in the India of his imagination. He was so different that he stood on their land with the expectation of converting them and changing their ways to the religion, language and customs that were unapologetically his.

Luckily for Americans on the lookout for a national hero, Columbus was not British. He was thus entitled to serve as the patron saint of the new republic, an American before the fact. Destiny made him the one to join America and Europe into a shared civilization and to advance a distinctively American impetus within this civilization. Americans adored him for his twinned European and American roles. “Fixed are the eyes of nations on the scales / For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails,” the poet Phyllis Wheatley wrote in a 1776 ode to George Washington. The Columbia of Wheatley’s poem did not just represent an incipient American nation in the watching eyes of the other nations. Columbia was the American nation itself, the republic George Washington had pried loose from the British Crown. The Latinate word, Columbia, depicting a goddess rather than a saint, was coined in 1697. Almost a century later, Wheatley was writing in the established genre of the “Columbian ode.”1

Christopher Columbus the American prefigured George Washington, and Washington fulfilled the Columbian mission. In the national legend, the two of them brought the gift of freedom. A few years after Phyllis Wheatley penned her ode, the minister-scholar Timothy Dwight contrasted Columbia’s Western liberties with the bloodletting of a despotic East: “Let the following crimes of the East ne’er encrimson thy [Columbia’s] name / Be freedom, and science, and virtue, thy fame.” Americans found countless ways to honor their homespun and de facto saint. The Columbian Magazine was launched in 1786, and one of Washington, DC’s first major intellectual societies, the Columbian Institute, was founded in 1820. In 1791, shortly before the three-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s arrival, the still unbuilt national capital on the Potomac was declared the “Territory of Columbia,” which would evolve into the District of Columbia. Today’s Washington, DC, continues Wheatley’s association of George Washington with Christopher Columbus, and vice versa: the American and the Columbian Republic were the same. In the beginning, “Columbian” had more cultural meaning than the inscrutable adjective “American,” homage to Amerigo Vespucci, the lesser known explorer in 1776, and at that point a word without a history.2

Having been absorbed into the American Revolution, Columbia and the Columbian motif continued to spread across the early republic after the War of 1812. “Hail, Columbia,” the unofficial national anthem since 1798, gave way with the War of 1812 to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but everywhere else Columbia was gaining ground. George Washington proposed the idea of a national university in Washington, which would carry the name Columbian College. King’s College in New York was renamed Columbia in 1794. The Columbian College in Washington was duly founded in 1821, and in a typical switch it later became George Washington University. A popular Columbus biography, authored by Washington Irving and emphasizing Columbus the pious Christian, was published in 1828. The first permanent monument to Columbus, the Columbus Obelisk, went up in Baltimore in 1792. Other place names traced a story of their own: Columbia, South Carolina (1786); the Columbia River (1792); Columbus, Ohio (1812); Columbia, Missouri (1821) and Columbus, Georgia (1828).

If anything, the intoxication with Columbus intensified over the course of the nineteenth century. Columbus’s close proximity to American nationhood was sculpted onto the Columbus doors of the US Capitol. Cast in Munich and installed in the Capitol in 1863, the bronze doors were modeled on the Ghiberti doors of the Florence Baptistery, with scenes from Columbus’s life engraved on them—The Departure of Columbus from Palos (1492), for example, and Landing of Columbus in the New World (1492). The doors were moved inside to the Pantheon-like Rotunda’s entrance in 1871, where one could also take in John Trumbell’s painting The Landing of Columbus (installed in the Capitol in 1847). At the portal to the American republic was the story of Columbus, the archetypal American in this historical scheme. Columbus was the benefactor who had discovered, among other things, the landscape of American freedom. In 1876, on the hundredth anniversary of the republic, a Columbus statue was placed near Philadelphia’s Memorial Hall, and on October 13, 1892, New York City commemorated the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s voyage with the unveiling of Columbus Circle. Manhattan mounted its Columbus on a pedestal amid five full days of Columbian celebration. A Columbian ode was composed to celebrate this particular anniversary: it would become the Pledge of Allegiance. When Woodrow Wilson launched his national tour to promote the League of Nations in September 1919, he did so in Columbus, Ohio, as if to bookend this entire chapter in the life of the Columbian Republic.3

Between the dedication of Columbus Circle in 1892 and Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to create a League of Nations in 1919, what had long ago been defined as the Columbian Republic consolidated itself economically and militarily. The pieces were in place for American leadership of the West, but they were not yet assembled into a workable arrangement in 1892 or in 1919. According to the historian Adam Tooze, “When an American sense of providential purpose was married to massive powers, as it was to be after 1945, it became a truly transformative force.” In 1918 the basic elements of that power were already there, but they were not articulated by the Wilson administration or its successors. The articulation took time, and one of its main elements was cultural. An allegiance to the cosmopolitan West and to a larger Europe was forming, though more locally Protestant and Anglo-Saxon ties were also strengthening in this period. They would culminate in the Anglo-Saxonism of the 1920s, in a reassertion of Protestantism and Anglo-Americanism against the many cultures of immigration. In the 1890s, American universities and American cities were already exceeding the borders of the Protestant small town around which the early republic had taken shape. By dressing themselves in the garb of Western civilization, these cities and universities could write themselves into a less parochial story. Appropriation of a classical past and of contemporary European idioms in the great train stations and civic architecture of the turn-of-the-century United States alluded to participation in a broadly European future.4

The acquisition of haphazard power circa 1893 instilled a taste for concerted power. The early republic took comfort in being outside international relations as Europe practiced these cunning arts. It was proudly anti-imperial, self-consciously virtuous and indigenously republican. Its presidents might worry about entangling alliances and going off in search of monsters to destroy: the monsters were far away; at home there was safety in the distance from a monstrous outside world. In the 1890s, the ascendant Columbian Republic won a war against Spain and became an empire. For the president and vice president overseeing this war, William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, respectively, imperialism was the next logical step in American foreign policy. If it was not the United States, it would be some other power colonizing the Philippines and asserting itself in the Caribbean, they feared. With international affairs a going European concern, the United States would have to play by European rules. Europe’s rules were the only rules, McKinley and Roosevelt seemed to be saying: they granted no American exception. This concession raised questions about liberty and self-government as aspects of American foreign policy. By adopting colonies, the United States was reversing the calculus of the American Revolution. Somehow it found itself on the side of the Red Coats facing an array of latter-day Minutemen. Membership in the club of Western powers, however gratifying to some, tarnished the ideals of the American Revolution.

Woodrow Wilson’s self-styled mission was to realign American foreign policy with liberty and self-government, and so to contemplate American-style leadership of the West. He built upon the work of his predecessors, continuing treaty-making projects that were important to the budding foreign-policy establishment of the early twentieth century. Liberty and self-government hammered out through deliberation and multilateral treaties were ideals Wilson inherited from Roosevelt and his energetic secretary of state, Elihu Root. Wilson also profited policy-wise from the military investments Roosevelt and others had made, but the international scene around him was startlingly new. France and Britain were the only empires to emerge from the Great War unscathed. The German Kaiserreich Empire, the Russian Romanov Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire all collapsed as a result of the war and with them the European stranglehold on international affairs. It was an extraordinary opening for the United States, and Wilson tried to make the most of it. Yet Wilson’s bid for an American-led West and his gesture toward liberty and self-government were as premature as they were consequential. They died in the US Congress. The road not taken before World War II, the American-led West of the 1940s would not have come together into a transformative force had the preconditions—the power and the cultural and political missions—not been approached long before. They were first approached by the Columbian Republic of the 1890s.

THE APOGEE OF Columbian fervor was reached four centuries and a year after the Italian explorer crossed the Atlantic. It occurred not in New York or in the District of Columbia but in the landlocked Midwest. In 1890, the House of Representatives passed an act “to Provide for the celebration of the four-hundredth Anniversary of the Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus by holding an International Exhibition of Arts, Industries, Manufactures and the Products of the Soil, Mine, and Sea, in the City of Chicago, in the State of Illinois.” The World’s Columbian Exposition exceeded its congressional mandate, demonstrating the stunning modernity of the United States to a global audience, the vitality and the might of the maturing Columbian venture. A child of European civilization, the United States was asking Europeans to travel to America in 1893 and to gaze in wonder at the Chicago World’s Fair. Many Europeans—from the Duke of Veragua, said to be a descendant of Columbus, to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination would launch the First World War—were happy to oblige.5

The Chicago World’s Fair was a laboratory sample of the Columbian Republic. Columbus was its more-than-allegorical hero. Spain sailed replicas of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria into Chicago. At the fair itself, a copy of the monastery where Columbus decided to make his voyage—La Rabida in Palos, Spain—was among the attractions. A separate Columbus statue, fashioned by the sculptor Mary Lawrence, depicted Columbus with waving flag, cross and sword—Columbus the onward-rushing Christian soldier. On the fair’s enormous columned peristyle was the quadriga, a statue of Columbus in a chariot and in Roman garb, staring over at the Statue of the Republic and across to the Columbian Fountain. The fountain was elaborate, a huge boat flanked by statues of Fame and Time. Famous over time, the remembered Columbus was transformed into a symbol of America, a center of industrial power, art and democracy. At the World’s Fair, Columbus and Columbia were also inchoate symbols of American foreign policy. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner indicated this obliquely in the lecture he gave in Chicago during the fair. He noted the closing of the frontier: “And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, the frontier was gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.” (In this same lecture, Turner dissociated the United States from Europe, contending that “the growth of nationalism and the evolution of American political institutions were dependent upon the advance of the frontier.”) The fair suggested that the next frontier would be the outward expansion of the United States in the Pacific and the Atlantic. Hoping to unite Europe with Asia, Columbus had not stood still. Neither would the country that defined itself as the living embodiment of his legacy.6

The Columbian Republic’s grandiose foreign-policy ambitions were intimated in less-than-eternal poetry and prose. At the fair’s dedication ceremony, Harriet Monroe’s “Columbian Ode” was put to music and sung by a chorus of five thousand:

Columbia, my country! dost thou hear?

Ah? dost thou hear the song unheard of time?

Those strange sounds lure thee on, for thou shalt be

Leader of nations through the autumnal gales

That wait to mock the strong and wreck the free

Monroe placed American leadership of nations somewhere in the future—“thou shalt be”—its current strength necessary against the mocking and illiberal autumnal gales. At the opening ceremony, President Grover Cleveland associated the fair’s magnificent buildings, their gargantuan size and scale, with the grandeur of liberty and self-government, which he termed popular government. President Cleveland did not limit his purview to the United States. He spoke in a global vocabulary: “We have built these splendid edifices; but we have also built the magnificent fabric of popular government, whose grand proportions are seen throughout the world.” This optimism and this hunger for an audience (“seen throughout the world”) were the fair’s obvious program. According to Henry Adams—the historian, grandson of John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of John Adams—“Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a unity.” Foreign policy, industry, architecture and art were all aspects of the national unity Adams sensed in Chicago.7

The Chicago World’s Fair conveyed unintended messages in addition to the pompous official ones. The fair drove home the country’s social and racial stratification. Its prestigious center was Euro-American, neoclassical and dedicated to the achievements of industry and high culture. (On tour in America, Antonin Dvorak conducted a concert at the fair.) Outside this neoclassical core, the so-called Midway Plaisance was given over to popular pleasures—the fair’s beloved Ferris wheel, a German beer garden, burlesque and variety shows. (In a charming irony of American intellectual history, the Midway Plaisance was eventually absorbed into the campus of the nation’s most serious university, the University of Chicago.) The Plaisance also featured Orientalist entertainment and zoo-like displays of non-European peoples, a Dahomey village and a Java village. Frederick Douglass criticized the Dahomey village for featuring “African savages brought here to act the monkey.” Others referred to Chicago’s fair as “white America’s World’s Fair,” a pun on references to the fair as the White City because so many of its buildings were white. Just outside the fairgrounds, crowds flocked to Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, a further association of non-European peoples with lowbrow entertainment. Despite Harriet Monroe’s accent on freedom and President Cleveland’s accent on popular government, the fair was more stylistically in tune with European imperialism than it was with an open-ended democracy, although ethnic and racial division was hardly a foreign import to the United States. These hierarchies and divisions were the melody of post–Civil War American politics. The rallying around Columbus, the progenitor of Spanish dominion in the New World, tipped the scale further toward a celebration of empire.8

After the fair, with all its contradictions, was taken down in the fall of 1893, a germinating idea of the West drew on the vast, almost limitless reservoir of neoclassicism and general Europhilia in American life. In the Columbian Republic, the institution that domesticated Western civilization was not the state and not the church. It was the university, which in the 1890s and early twentieth century was manufacturing Western civilization on native ground. Many of the nation’s colleges and universities were islands of a dream Europe superimposed onto the American landscape, quasi-European institutions with an American purpose. They were suggestive of an antiquity that had nothing to do with the Western Hemisphere. Columbia University situated an oversized Pantheon in New York City with Low Library (1895), its campus a neoclassical haven as far in spirit as could be from the skyscrapers and frenetic streets of Midtown and Downtown. The University of California at Berkeley erected its lovely Greek Theater (1903) in a Mediterranean setting, with some financial support from William Randolph Hearst of newspaper fame, money from a grubby modern business washed clean by a sparkling bit of academic neoclassicism. Harvard University finished building its massive pillared temple to learning, Widener Library, in 1915.

Turn-of-the-century American universities were eager to make the classical or Western heritage more accessible. This was hardly education for all, but its effects were supposed to ripple beyond the miniscule elite who attended college. The universities tried to reach out by building antiquities museums and by cultivating great-books programs in English. Harvard ceased making the command of classical languages compulsory in 1883. By 1905, most American colleges had dropped Greek and Latin requirements, paving the way for a Western civilization curriculum of translated texts to which any able high school student could be introduced. Even so, between 1890 and 1915 more American high school students studied Latin than all other foreign languages combined. In these years, it could be hard to study either American history or American literature at American schools and universities. It was certainly less prestigious than studying European letters. In a representative example, the young W. Averell Harriman, a future giant of Cold War diplomacy, graduated from Groton in 1909. There he absorbed Latin, Greek, ancient history and the history and culture of England. His teachers encouraged him to look down on the study of American history.9

The will to Americanize a classically inflected Western civilization was widespread, and it served more than educational ends. For Chicago’s Jane Addams, access to classical culture was a way to combat poverty and to raise the poor to a higher level of respectability. Charles Eliot Norton, a nineteenth-century polymath, “concocted Western civilization” at Harvard, in the words of his biographer James Turned. For Norton, the very origins of Americans’ lives are classical: “With the Greeks our life begins,” he wrote. Education must connect American students to “the historic evolution of our civilization,” he argued, a trust held in common and accessed (for Norton) through study rather than through biological lineage. For Norton, Greek and Roman antiquities gave Americans access to their civilizational self. Classical antiquities also held within them the secrets of power, the wonders of civilization that were case studies in the exercise of power. Through antiquities students could “gain fuller acquaintance with the genius of these commanding races, and a truer appreciation of their works, and thus a better understanding of the origins and nature of their own civilization,” Norton wrote. His logic was not at all atypical in 1900. Students gain understanding of their own civilization through the appreciation of ancient works, and by doing so they come to know the genius of the commanding races. This was not an education in speaking truth to power. It was an education in refining power with truth and in learning the truth so as to hold power in the right way. Norton’s pedagogic convictions delineated the typical Columbian aptitudes. In the Columbian Republic, as at the Chicago World’s Fair, genius and command were cognates.10

Building on the fair’s eclecticism and global reach, American universities had a fixation on the West that might open students’ minds. The West could be simultaneously modern and classical, pagan and pious, Catholic and Protestant. It was a civilization of stimulating, irresolvable contradictions, which suited a country of immigrants that was heading out into the world commercially and in its foreign policy. The historian Lawrence Levine writes of the Western Civilization programs as integrative: “Western Civilization promised to be a unifying and assimilative force which taught the separate groups that they had common and deeply rooted heritage that bound them together.” Classical antiquity led to medieval Europe, which led to the Renaissance, which led to the medley of modern times. Such was history’s three-part rhythm, and to know it as an American was to know (however improbably) our own civilization—that was the overarching idea. This capacious West overflowed the boundaries of Anglo-American or Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, which otherwise continued to drive elite American culture. A popular 1916 textbook, Ancient Times: A History of the Ancient World, by James Breasted, gave students a narrative of civilization to which Christianity was peripheral. In 1816, despite the overweening obsession with classical antiquity, Breasted’s dislodgement of the Christian faith would have been less popular. It might even have been scandalous. In 1916, it was within the academic mainstream.11

The ethos and architecture of the Chicago World’s Fair redefined the American city as well as the American university. It launched the City Beautiful movement, which consisted of large-scale planning, grand buildings, open spaces and neoclassicism run amok. Nowhere was the effect more meaningful than in the nation’s capital. The only planned city in the United States, Washington once had a Tiber Creek. The city had been envisioned from the start as the Rome of the Western Hemisphere. The Capitol Building, a work in progress from 1793 to 1863, was no Athenaeum. Its enormous dome signaled the power of the people or it signified power as such. When finally completed, the Capitol was a building that sacrificed graceful proportion to gargantuan size. The Capitol was a republican structure that could fit the continental empire manifestly destined to be American: the o in its name was there to remind Americans of their ancestral ties to Rome, to the Roman Senate and to the Capitoline hill that had once been the locus of Roman governance. Such ancestry ran through an appropriated political philosophy more than through any one recognizable genetic line (British or American).

Yet the city that had grown up around the Capitol was anything but Roman. It had all the hallmarks of a backwater: a modest White House and a few administrative buildings surrounded by muddy roads, taverns and inns. A mess of railroad tracks wound its way through the city center. In the satiric cadences of Charles Dickens, who visited Washington in 1842, this was the “City of Magnificent Intentions… [of] Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares, which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament.” Washington was a place to conduct business, to pass through or to get through. Its very lack of grandeur could be deemed democratic. Washington had the republican virtue of not being Paris or London or Saint Petersburg, leaving the American will to power—for a while—to Chicago and New York City, which had always had a taste for megalomaniac architecture. But neither Chicago nor New York was the capital. Whatever it could do, New York could not set the cultural tone for American politics. Still less was it the site of American diplomacy.12

For the late-nineteenth-century capital city, the Chicago World’s Fair pointed the way forward. The fair had been the product of elaborate top-down design, and its design merged the modern with the neoclassical. Steel frames held up ancient decorative motifs, with ample space devoted to the planned integration of nature. The fair buildings were required to be white, their geometry carefully predetermined. They re-created an American idea of Rome and of Venice on Lake Michigan, yet their construction involved the most advanced technology. That was the American twist—blueprints from antiquity plus the latest in engineering and convenience. The Chicago World’s Fair was first the architectural fantasy and then the designed reality of Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim and Frederick Law Olmsted, two superstar architects and one superstar landscape architect. (Olmsted had designed Central Park long before he worked on the Chicago World’s Fair.) After their spectacular triumph in Chicago, these designing celebrities turned their gaze to Washington, DC.


  • "The Abandonment of the West meticulously chronicles a tragic phenomenon as only an observer of his caliber can. A fascinating wakeup call and a call for action for America to revive the beautiful vision we invented."—John Kerry, United States Secretary of State, 2013 to 2017
  • "Michael Kimmage has written a deeply thoughtful, sensitive book that will confound the expectations of readers expecting a triumphalist defense of 'the West.' On the contrary, Kimmage explores the many contradictions underpinning the historical evolution of the very concept of the West, particularly for the 'post-Columbian Republic' that the United States has become. It is a book that rewards careful reading and reflection, one that I would recommend for students, scholars, and foreign policy advisers everywhere."—Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO, New America
  • "This is an intelligent, convincing, and highly readable account of one of the biggest ideas in American foreign policy: The West. With vivid examples, Kimmage shows how America's cultural affinity with a mythical 'Western civilization' first rose to the center of U.S. foreign policy in the late nineteenth century and why it triumphed during the Cold War. Since then, the idea of a mythical West has almost totally collapsed. Kimmage reveals why that is and how foreign policy leaders today can recuperate a new uniting idea to guide the United States in the years to come."—Caroline Winterer, William Robertson Coe Professor in History and American Studies, Stanford University
  • "World War I, World War II, and the Cold War were all wars of East against West, but in the post-Cold War period, the idea of the West has lost its role within American foreign policy. It is the cultural changes within the American society rather than any geopolitical shifts that explain this change, argues Michael Kimmage, in his elegantly written and thoroughly researched new book."—Ivan Krastev, author of After Europe
  • "In this disturbing and important book, a first rate intellectual historian, who has also served in government, reflects on the decline of the idea that once gave coherence to American foreign policy: the West. Michael Kimmage's range of learning and contemporary insight is remarkable, and his exploration of how the West fell victim, in part, to its own success is not a counsel of despair but rather a call to considered action."—Eliot A. Cohen, Dean, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
  • "To know where we stand, we must understand where we come from. In The Abandonment of the West, Michael Kimmage takes readers on a revealing journey through the history and influence of the idea of 'the West' on U.S. foreign policy. This is an important book for all those who want to better understand the complex and multifaceted relationship between the U.S. and Europe. Kimmage's work makes it clear what is at stake for us as Europeans when U.S. foreign policy abandons its relationship with the idea of the West. This is a wake-up call to Europe to promote the West-and not to give up its ideals."—SigmarGabriel, former German Vice Chancellor and Federal Minister for ForeignAffairs
  • "This is an exceedingly important book and certainly one that would benefit all American readers who wonder how we arrived at our current status in an increasingly interconnected world."—Library Journal

On Sale
Apr 21, 2020
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Michael Kimmage

About the Author

Michael Kimmage is a professor of history at the Catholic University of America, specializing in the history of the United States, Europe, and Russia. A member of the secretary’s policy planning staff at the US Department of State from 2014 to 2016 and the author of two books, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Washington, DC.

Learn more about this author