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A Sense of PowerA Sense of Power

The Roots of America's Global Role

John A. Thompson

Narrated by James Robert Killavey

Available from Audible

Book published by Cornell University Press

Why has the United States assumed so extensive and costly a role in world affairs over the last hundred years? The two most common answers to this question are "because it could" and "because it had to." Neither answer will do, according to this challenging re-assessment of the way that America came to assume its global role. The country's vast economic resources gave it the capacity to exercise great influence abroad, but Americans were long reluctant to meet the costs of wielding that power. Neither the country's safety from foreign attack nor its economic well-being required the achievement of ambitious foreign policy objectives.

In A Sense of Power, John A. Thompson takes a long view of America's dramatic rise as a world power, from the late nineteenth century into the post–World War II era. How, and more importantly why, has America come to play such a dominant role in world affairs? There is, he argues, no simple answer. Thompson challenges conventional explanations of America's involvement in World War I and World War II, seeing neither the requirements of national security nor economic interests as determining. He shows how American leaders from Wilson to Truman developed an ever more capacious understanding of the national interest, and why by the 1940s most Americans came to support the price tag, in blood and treasure, attached to strenuous efforts to shape the world. The beliefs and emotions that led them to do so reflected distinctive aspects of U.S. culture, not least the strength of ties to Europe. Consciousness of the nation’s unique power fostered feelings of responsibility, entitlement, and aspiration among the people and leaders of the United States.

This original analysis challenges some widely held beliefs about the determinants of United States foreign policy and will bring new insight to contemporary debates about whether the nation should—or must—play so active a part in world politics.


“We ought to know the story by now. Why did the United States, for so long reluctant to project political and military power beyond the New World, come to underwrite world order as a matter of course? Yet in A Sense of Power, John A. Thompson reveals how poorly we answer this question. He writes in the judicious timbre of a distinguished historian, but Thompson, an emeritus reader at the University of Cambridge, takes a scythe to half a century of theories and refutations. In the process, he delivers a penetrating narrative of U.S. foreign policy from McKinley to Eisenhower, illuminating how many reasons Americans perceived not to lead the world.”

—Stephen Wertheim, The National Interest

“Thompson has written a provocative, thoughtful overview of U.S. foreign policy from the 1890s to the 1950s. In a non-polemical manner, Thompson vividly outlines many shortcomings in the realist and revisionist critiques of American foreign policy. He cogently and skillfully reviews the literature, raises the level of debate, and offers a wise and thoughtful analysis of his own.”

—Melvyn P. Leffler, H-Diplo

“John A. Thompson is an experienced historian at the top of his game, and publication of his A Sense of Power is an important moment in the evolution of American diplomatic history. Thompson argues that America's rise to power is about just that: power. Realizing the rapid growth of their power as the twentieth century dawned, and appreciating its potential to effect change around the world in subsequent decades, he shows how American leaders actively chose to create a world order based on their system, their values, and their leadership. The American Century did not just happen. It came about because Americans were strong, and knew it.”

—Jeffrey A. Engel, Director of the Center for Presidential History, Southern Methodist University

“Asking why the United States took up an encompassing global position despite significant costs, this wonderful analytical history appraises, challenges, and incorporates economic and security-centered understandings of capabilities and behavior. With deep learning, razor-sharp insight, and uncommon thoughtfulness, A Sense of Power offers a closely reasoned alternative, a process-centered interpretation that effectively embeds American foreign policy within democratic opinion and choice.”

—Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time

“What motivates U.S. foreign policy? John A. Thompson provocatively argues that neither strategic nor economic factors have decisively shaped U.S. policy. Instead, he stresses the importance of power and the sense of responsibility that power bestows. Rarely has a historian so luminously analyzed the factors shaping U.S. decision-making. This is a wonderful book that all students of international relations must read as they ponder the appropriate role of the United States in world affairs.”

—Melvyn P. Leffler, Edward Stettinus Professor of American History, University of Virginia, author of For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War

“In this elegantly written book by a seasoned observer of American foreign policy, we find an insightful explanation as to how the United States came to dominate world affairs in the twentieth century, an explanation based not so much either on 'realism' or on ‘economic interest’ (although these factors certainly counted) as on analysis and debate by the country's leaders as to the nation's place in the world. The book closes a full generation ago, but it raises a question very much still with us today: Will, better can, an equivalent ‘sense of power’ persist in the rapidly changing world of today? The discourse that shaped an earlier worldview remains dominant, but can it stay that way? This book offers no answer, but it points to the importance of debate within the United States as to its place in world affairs in a way that summons the present to recall its past so as to better contemplate its future.”

—Tony Smith, Cornelia M. Jackson Professor of Political Science, Tufts University

“John A. Thompson's book is required reading for all those interested not only in how America rose to superpower status, but why it did so. In offering a new explanation for America's extraordinarily active role in world politics, he has made a major contribution to the historical debate.”

—Richard Fontaine, President of the Center for a New American Security

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University Press Audiobooks