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The Great Anglo-Celtic Divide in the History of American Foreign Relations


Thomas A. Breslin


Praeger Series on American Political Culture

Westport, CT: Praeger, 2011

Hardcover. xviii + 411 p. ISBN 978-0313397936. $58.00


Reviewed by Élodie Chazalon

Université de La Rochelle




In The Great Anglo-Celtic Divide in the History of American Foreign Relations, Professor of politics and international relations Thomas A. Breslin deals with American political culture and, more importantly, with what differentiates it from other nations: a double Celtic and Anglo-American heritage that partly accounts for the uniqueness of the country’s political history from the early Republic to the present time. Contending that the ethnic heritage of the U.S. presidents has played a significant part in their respective domestic and foreign policies, Thomas A. Breslin looks askance at the classical approaches of U.S. history such as the class-based, realist and neo-realist ones which, he assumes, have overlooked the importance of the multi-ethnic aspect of American politics.

Breslin’s original and challenging position is partly portended by the fact that the book is published in the “Praeger Series in American political culture.” The word “culture” is given its real significance in the book. The author’s approach is underlined in the introduction and is made apparent in the foreword, which places the book in the wake of The Temper of the Seventeenth Century in English Literature (1904) in which American academic and Harvard Professor Barrett Wendell had emphasized Britain and America’s common language but also the creative aspect of their divergent cultural backgrounds.

In order to set out the impact of the double legacy that lies behind American foreign policy and the “contentious division” [1] between Anglo-Saxon and Celtic heritages on the U.S. cultural history, Breslin examines the US presidents’ impact on foreign policies, from George Washington to George Bush, insisting on their contrasting ethnic heritages and using as background information a seemingly comprehensive range of secondary and primary sources dating from the late 19th century and going to the contemporary period.

The introductory chapter, “The Bi-Cultural Roots of American Foreign Policy,” maps out this double heritage. It starts with the colonial period and emphasizes the strong interethnic conflicts that originated from Ireland and, to some extent, France’s resistance to England’s model of expansion on political and religious grounds. If Breslin draws parallels that might appear axiomatic, notably when comparing England’s attitude and strategy towards the Irish in Europe and that of Anglo-Americans towards the Amerindians and Ulster Irish in the coastal North East of America, his analogies aptly stress the trends that resurfaced throughout the successive presidencies. The “gulf” between the Irish and Anglo-Americans, says Breslin, “has manifested itself in a grand, recurring cultural and political struggle over the means and ends of American foreign policy” [15]: while the Anglo-Saxons were on the side of economic and religious expansionism, designed subdued strategies, and used treaties rather than armed force, the Celts were “anti-establishment,” “contentious and hard to control,” but also “fierce and able warriors” [6] oriented “toward heroics and pain” [15] in their  attempt to “break free of the coastal Anglo-Americans” [7], a feature that proves accurate throughout the book.

The sixteen chapters that follow are organized in chronological order and go from George Washington to George W. Bush’s governances. They point out the alternation of Celtic-American and Anglo-American Republics and convey Breslin’s visceral attachment to the cultural heritage that he considers a cornerstone of political relations. One may deplore the abundance of sources mentioned as well as the labyrinth of political actors, anecdotes, and historical events, some of them well-known and others much less familiar to the inexperienced reader. This, added to Breslin’s effort to underline the strong connection between the Anglo-American’s policy in the Unites States and that of the English on the other side of the Atlantic, often makes the book difficult to read. Nevertheless, the titles of most of the chapters play upon cultural allusions and binary oppositions (e.g. “Rum vs. Whiskey,” “From Brink to Bog to Helicopter,” etc.), which partly makes up for these intricacies and helps the reader to not lose sight of the book’s leitmotif.

For instance, “Rum versus Whiskey: The Faithless First Anglo-American Republic, the Break with France, and the Persecution of the Alien Irish” (Chapter 2) deals with the opposition between the Anglo-Americans and the Spanish and French under the presidency of George Washington and John Adams, respectively first and second Presidents of the United States and notorious Federalists. The “struggle between rum and whiskey cultures” image [27] illustrates both the controversies between the Anglo-Americans and the Celts on the excise tax on alcohol, which ended in the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion, and the enduring conflicts between the Anglo-Americans and the Spanish and French in matters of lands and maritime policy. These events stand for the Anglo-American “inclination to control others” [23] as opposed to the “freedom loving Celtic-Americans” [27] and to the French who had experienced the French Revolution.

In the same manner, “Cavaliers and Irish” (Chapter 3) delves into the overt conflicts and underlying tensions that punctuated the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Cavaliers James Madison and James Monroe, and John Adams. Breslin keeps emphasizing the image of the Anglo-American as a “land speculator” interested in the “frontier” [39] via the tactics adopted by Thomas Jefferson and his successors to get access to the Gulf of Mexico, develop free trade, and take over the land possessed by the Amerindians in the West and the Spanish in the South (especially Florida and New Orleans) either by seizure or purchase. If the multiple tensions that led to the second War of Independence of 1812 and its aftermaths are clearly stated, it is difficult to untangle the underlying tensions between the multiple parties and groups involved (Amerindians vs. Anglo-Americans, Amerindians vs. Celtic-Americans, Spanish and French vs. Anglo-Americans, Americans vs. English, accomodationists vs. anti-accomodationists, etc.). It is no easier to clarify the tensions linked to foreign trade, not only in the Mediterranean and on the Canadian coasts where England was blocking American shipping and trade, but also in Cuba, Latin America and the West Indies where John Adams tried to suppress piracy.

Andrew Jackson, whose strong personality is underlined in Chapter 3, is the central political character of Chapter 4, “The rapacious First Celtic-American Republic: The Age of Jackson.” This title suitably conveys the entering of the United States in an era of great expansion as regards foreign commerce and foreign policy. The First Celtic-American (and Democrat) president and a Calvinist, Jackson is characterized as a belligerent man whose policy “differed markedly from his predecessor” [64]. Despite Jackson’s mercilessness in banishing Amerindians westward and of the rise of domestic discontent due to the tariff question, his success in conducting foreign affairs was undeniable. Jackson’s “deft political touch” [66] and sense of compromise when dealing with England ended up in the reinforcement of the United States’ navy and in the growth of its foreign trade in areas where the domination of England was less perceptible, like the Ottoman Empire, Asia,(1) and Latin America (e.g. Chile, Peru, Bolivia). The end of the chapter quickly goes through the governances of Jackson’s successors, who remained in his shadow. While Martin Van Buren, known for being the leading figure of the Albany Regency, “spent his term trying to manage the consequences of Jackson’s eight years of presidential aggressiveness and obsession” [74], John Tyler, a noticeable “Anglophobic” [78], had to struggle with diplomatic issues with England (e.g. the McLeod case, the American-Canada border).

“From the Mexican War to the Brink of Civil War” serves as a conclusion to the first Celtic-American republic. In this fifth chapter, Breslin mainly examines the presidency of James Knox Polk, of Scots-Irish background. Considered as “Jackson[’s] protégé” [89], Polk’s boldness was in line with that of Jackson, a feature perceptible in his ardent fight to annex Texas, Oregon, New Mexico and California. While the Mexican War is thoroughly described, Breslin enhances the crucial importance of Polk’s aggressiveness, which contributed to “increase[ing] the size of the United States by 66 per cent” [100], although dissensions remained unsolved about the slavery issue. Once more, the chapter highlights the sharp contrast between Celtic-American and Anglo-American presidencies, as Breslin specifies that Polk’s two successors, namely Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, were “Anglo-Americans who maintained the constitutional order and enlarged the United States and its economic system through negotiation rather than war” [101]. The same goes with the last two presidents of the first Celtic-American Republic: the moderate Anglo-American Franklin Pierce and the more aggressive Celtic-American Buchanan whose administration “harkened back to those of Jackson and Polk” [105]. The presidency of the former was marked by compromise (e.g. reciprocity treaties with England’s Canadian colonies and on Central American issues) whereas the latter’s interventionist policy “embodied the spirit of Manifest Destiny” [106].

The following two chapters span the Second Anglo-American Republic. Chapter 6, “The Crusading Second Anglo-American Republic: Puritan Counterattack and Global Ambitions,” analyzes the series of events and frictions that led to the Civil War, starting with the Planters’ War for Southern Independence which opposed Cavaliers from the South and Puritans from the North. This event, Breslin notes, was mostly linked to the diverging economic interests at stake, as Southern planters wanted “a loosely organized, agrarian empire” [113] based on free trade and slavery whereas Puritans were intent on developing a self-sufficient, transcontinental system. The second marking event was the election of the “circumspect” [114] Republican Abraham Lincoln, whose controversial policy reflected “the English practice of using other peoples to fight one’s wars” [114]. His lavish use of Irish, Germans and German Americans in the war resulted in the draft riots and led to strong opposition in the multicultural North. Breslin then studies the economic concerns (e.g. weak British maritime forces, French and Spanish domestic and diplomatic issues, economic incentives abroad) that accounted for Russia, England, France and Spain’s reluctance or inability to help the Confederacy. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and a Scots-Irish Unionist, precipitated Black emancipation in the South while trying hard to expand commerce and naval forces abroad and to cope with major diplomatic issues, like the French intervention in Mexico, Irish-American’s covetousness for Canada, and claims for war reparations.

Chapter 7, “Confronting the English Cousins,” focuses on the Reconstruction period and on Republican Ulysses S. Grant, a leading figure of the Union during the war, and his successors Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and Grover Cleveland. Willing to untangle issues that had remained unsolved by former presidents, like the despoliation of Amerindian tribes and tense relationship with England, and to maintain peace on a national scale and safe commercial interests abroad, Grant conducted a policy based on diplomacy and commercial reciprocity. This made him stand as the “protector of Amerindians and blacks, enemy of slavery, and champion of the Union and its ideals” [135]. Rutherford B. Hayes proved weaker in dealing with suspicions of compromise among the Republican Party and in standing in line with his predecessor, notably concerning the Indian policy. In spite of his first Secretary of State’s (James G. Blaine of Maine) catastrophic foreign policy with England and Latin American countries, Irish-American Chester A. Arthur prompted “modest but fundamental change” [138] by cooperating with England and rebuilding agreements with Japan and Korea, thus manifesting “the Celtic-American tendency to tilt away from China, where England was the dominant foreign power” [137]. For his part, Grover Cleveland had to handle both the increasing tensions between Anglo-Americans and Celtic-Americans and the more and more powerful Germany of Bismarck who sought to take control of Samoa. His anti-imperialist views and his meddling with the Venezuelan-English border dispute, in a country already economically fragile, led to the election of Republican William McKinley,

McKinley’s election in 1896 paved the way for the second Celtic-American Republic and for “McKinley’s Anti-Catholic Crusade,” as stated in the subtitle of chapter 8. Fuelled by economic depression, by a growth in number of Catholics, and by the taking of power of Irish Catholics in Northern cities, the anti-Catholic sentiment – and, to some extent, McKinley’s Methodist zeal and “belligerency” [164] – pervaded foreign affairs. The president had to cope with tensions with Japan about the annexation of Hawaii where white planters feared the increasing number of Japanese and faced the rebellion of natives. Even more strained was the situation in Cuba, where Spain was fighting Cuban rebels. Even though “there were alternatives to war” [155], successive provocations fostered the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898 as well as the Filipino Insurrection. Backed by primary sources, namely McKinley’s speeches to the Senate and at the White House, and drawing constant parallels with previous Celtic-American presidencies, Breslin insists once more on the paramount   importance of cultural backgrounds and religious motives since “like Mr Polk’s war, Mr. McKinley’s War was initiated under questionable circumstances by a Celtic-American president bent on war against a weak neighbor” [155].

With chapter 9, “Bullies in the Pulpit: Foreign Warfare under the Celts from Theodore Roosevelt to Wilson,” Breslin explores the contrasted last presidencies of the second Celtic-American republic: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. Of mixed Dutch and Celtic-American breed and motivated by his personal interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, Roosevelt was influenced by his Southern origins in the way he conducted foreign affairs in Cuba, the Philippines, Panama, Germany, and Morocco. In line with his predecessor, the belligerent president not only “tied Cuba to the United States” [170] and obtained commercial advantages in terms of coaling and naval stations, but he waved a relentless war to take over the Philippines, which caused the United States to “spend a great deal of treasure and spill[ed] much blood” [171] notwithstanding Howard Taft’s effort to reduce tensions on every front. Nevertheless, Breslin does not fail to highlight Roosevelt’s complex personality: his “greater sensitivity” [174] to Catholics’ claims, his success in relieving tensions between France and Germany over the fate of Morocco, and his denouncing of the mistreatment of Asians and African-Americans stand in sharp contrast with his aggressive temperament. Taft, who sought a less “personalized, politicized and sometimes disjointed approach” [182] centered on economic issues by implementing “Dollar Diplomacy.” Moreover, he “relied far less on the military and threats of military intervention” [183]. The improved relation with China stands as an outstanding example of Taft’s international politics. Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1912. “Intensely aware and extremely proud of his Scots-Irish ancestry” [184], he showed nevertheless a “naiveté” [186] in terms of diplomacy and foreign affairs which turned him into an intolerant “bully in the grand pulpit of the presidency” [186] both on the domestic and international grounds: war against Germany, harassment of German-Americans and other ethnic groups (Jews, Italians, Russians, Irish Catholics) are but a few examples.

Chapters 10 and 11 respectively consider the third Anglo-American republic and third Celtic-American republic. Once more, Breslin points to the vivid contrast between the two. One the one hand, the return to “normalcy” [195] is embodied in Warren G. Harding – and, to a lesser extent, in Calvin Coolidge’s – consensual and business-oriented policy. It is under Harding, indeed, that “American businesses went through a period of intense consolidation” [196] via the purchase of overseas oilfields and European bonds. Coolidge succeeded in passing the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which broke new ground in terms of international relations and in the conduct of war. Herbert Hoover, who “nearly demilitarized American foreign policy” [197], remained in the wake of his predecessors but his non-interventionist policy in East Asia further widened the gap with England. Conversely, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who sought to reshape American military power and to open up to world trade, mainly focused attention on Europe and Asia (Japan and the Dutch East Indies) while keeping an eye on cultural exchanges with Latin America. Breslin finally analyses the differences between Wilson and Roosevelt’s tactics in waging war and dealing with Communism: Roosevelt’s global ambitions and desire to make the United States “replace England as the world’s foremost power” [208] led him to carefully handle the relationship with communist Russia, a consensual spirit which ”died with [him]” [210], as shown in Chapter 11, “The Age of Terror: The Third Celtic-American Republic: Harry Truman’s Presidency and the Brink of the Cold War.” In addition to Truman’s search for American economic domination (e.g. the Marshall Plan), the era was marked by inter-ethnic conflicts on the national (e.g. McCarthyism and containment policy) and international scale, as Truman’s foreign policy went back to imperialism. His refusal to deal with the Soviet Union and his “cho[osing] of violence rather than diplomacy” [217] with Japan led to the United States’ loss of credibility in Asia and progressively brought about the Cold War, whose escalation is largely developed at the end of the chapter.

Chapter 12, “German-American Interlude: Eisenhower’s Legacy of Fear and Ashes,” focuses on Eisenhower’s willingness to stand out from both Roosevelt and Truman via less aggressive and straightforward foreign policy, especially with Korea. This aspect, however, neither hid Eisenhower’s failure curb the virulent domestic policy and cultural “purge” [243] carried out by McCarthy, nor disguised his fear mongering as regards the conduct of the Cold War. His policy remains obscured by miscalculations and “covert” [250] actions on the international scale.

The last four chapters open with the 1960s and the election of John F. Kennedy, a Celtic-American clearly marked by anti-colonialist and anti-war views. A prominent media personality, Kennedy proved successful in building an amenable personality but sidestepped in waging war against Cuba, the Soviet Union and in Vietnam, which would worsen the relationship between the presidency and the intelligence community and alienate the military. Breslin nevertheless notes that “especially in times of crisis, his decisions to not to go to war and not to persist in war required great courage” [265-266]. The “ruthless” [265] Lyndon B. Johnson, of Celtic background, was “a physical coward and a bully” [265] who sent armed forces to Panama and expanded war in Southeast Asia “with immediate and long-term deadly consequences” [266]. Richard Nixon, of mixed Celtic lineage, led a contradictory foreign policy, ending the draft on the one hand and expanding the war on the other, with tremendous consequences for the national economy. Breslin aptly underlines that Nixon’s policy not only conformed with that of Polk and Truman in so far as he was trapped in an unpopular war, but that Nixon’s behavior was also similar to Kennedy’s as he “waited for re-election to resolve [the war issue]” [269]. After the Watergate Scandal, Gerald G. Ford, of Anglo-American descent, made efforts to “circumscribe[e] presidential war making authority” [275] while pursuing Nixon’s policy of limiting strategic arms.

Chapter 14, “War Drums: Carter and Reagan” examines the two decades of Celtic-American presidencies that followed the Watergate Scandal and that put an end to the third Celtic-American republic. The period was marked by the widening of the gap between Congress and presidential powers, by a willingness to reinforce the dollar and national security, and by what Breslin calls the “Celtic fear” [286] of its two presidents on economic, political, and religious grounds. Although Jimmy Carter publicly insisted on more openness in the conduct of foreign affairs and on the importance of struggling for peace, as illustrated in his first Annual Messages, this champion of human rights was steeped in fear of Communism and showed mixed and contradictory attitudes, notably as regards the arms race that he “re-ignited” [282]. The chapter ends with Ronald Reagan’s mandates. Like his predecessor, Reagan was blinded by his fear of Communism and by his anti-Catholic views   which led to tense relationships in Latin and Central America. Once more, Breslin emphasizes extensively the similarities and contrasts between Reagan and his Celtic-American predecessors, giving detailed descriptions of the unfolding of nationwide and worldwide events, and concluding on the aftermaths of “the Celtic-American presidents’ five decades of ‘cold’ war against an ideology hostile to their militaristic, individualistic culture” [294].

Chapter 15, “The Fourth Anglo-American Republic: Oil and Petrodollar Wars,” illustrates some of the guidelines of George Herbert Walker Bush’s presidency, among which the supremacy of the dollar and the economic domination of Mid-Eastern and Central Asian energy. His alleviating of the conflict with the Soviet Union (e.g. Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Chemical Weapons) did not obscure the fact that the post-Celtic American era was a “miasma of corruption and economic troubles” [308]. The “Irish-American Interlude” (Chapter 16) explores William Jefferson Clinton’s two-term presidency. This interlude, however, is characterized by Clinton’s twofold governance. While his first-term was marked by the diminution of foreign arm sales, the trend was reversed during his second-term, a duality which is also perceptible in Clinton’s leniency towards China’s violation of human rights vs. American economic incentives. Added to this, the substantial cuts in the budget allocated to educational and cultural diplomacy (e.g. the Fulbright Program), and above all, Clinton’s “clumsy toughness” [317] in handling foreign issues endangered the U.S. foreign relations, especially in Southern Europe, Asia and East Asia (e.g. the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan) but also with England as Clinton got closer to Gerry Adams, one of the IRA’s major figures.

The last chapter, “The Prodigal Son: Bush Junior and the Second Oil and Petrodollar War,” analyses Bush Junior’s double mandate, which was a to and fro movement between interventionism and non-interventionism. His dual attitude in the Balkans and in the pursuit of nuclear armament limitation, as well as his obsession of taking over Iraqi oil and gas and counteract oil-price jumps, hardly maintained the “fragile symbiotic relationship” [331] between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Bush’s failure in rallying other countries in the war against Iraq, a “diplomatic disaster splitting NATO” [340], put the final blow to his already controversial and shadowy reputation and further entangled the country in a skein of complications that would go beyond his governance.

The Great Anglo-Celtic Divide in the History of American Foreign Relations is a comprehensive and demanding book aimed at scholars and historians wishing to get more acquainted with the ins and outs of major and less major events that spanned the different U.S presidencies. Its complexity lies in the tangle of events and historical characters and in the alternation of domestic and foreign issues which sometimes make the reading of the book tedious. Nevertheless, Breslin never moves away from cultural politics. Indeed, the history of U.S foreign policy is consistent with his argument that “the personality of American presidents, especially in wartime, takes on paramount importance” [265], something that Breslin is keen on demonstrating by flushing out the tiniest and seemingly insignificant historical elements. Although the polarized approach to both cultures looms over the book and may entice the reader to interpret the “divide” as a catalyst to political and cultural to and fro and tensions, Breslin never fails to highlight that the double heritage is a source of creativity from which the multi-faceted and diverse American political culture stems. Beyond the scholarly interest, the book helps us realize the strong connection between domestic and international concerns, between culture and politics, and between policy and politics.  


(1) The mention of Asia can be discussed as England was very involved in Asia at this point.


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