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St. Louis and EmpireSt. Louis and Empire

250 Years of Imperial Quest and Urban Crisis

Henry W. Berger

Narrated by Nate Daniels

Available from Audible

Book published by Southern Illinois University Press

At first glance, St. Louis, Missouri, or any American city, for that matter, seems to have little to do with foreign relations, a field ostensibly conducted on a nation-state level. However, St. Louis, despite its status as an inland river city frequently relegated to the backwaters of national significance, has stood at the crossroads of international matters for much of its history. From its eighteenth-century French fur trade origins to post–Cold War business dealings with Latin America and Asia, the city has never neglected nor been ignored by the world outside its borders. In this pioneering study, Henry W. Berger analyzes St. Louis’s imperial engagement from its founding in 1764 to the present day, revealing the intersection of local political, cultural, and economic interests in foreign affairs.

Berger uses a biographical approach to explore the individuals and institutions that played a leading role in St. Louis’s expansionist reach. He shows how St. Louis business leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians, and investors—often driven by personal and ideological motives, as well as the potential betterment of the city and its people—looked to the west, southwest, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific to form economic or political partnerships. Among the people and companies Berger profiles are Thomas Hart Benton, who envisioned a western democratic capitalist empire hosted by St. Louis; cotton exporters James Paramore and William Senter, who were involved in empire building in the southwest and Mexico; St. Louis oil tycoon and railroad investor Henry Clay Pierce, who became deeply involved in political intrigue and intervention in Mexican affairs; entrepreneur and politician David R. Francis, who promoted personal and St. Louis interests in Russia; and McDonnell-Douglas and its founder, James S. McDonnell Jr., who were part of the transformation of St. Louis’s political economy during the Cold War.

Many of these attempted imperial activities failed, but even when they succeeded, Berger explains, the economy and the people of St. Louis did not usually benefit. The vision of a democratic capitalist empire embraced by its exponents proved to be both an illusion and a contradiction. By shifting the focus of foreign relations history from the traditional confines of nation-state conduct to city and regional behavior, this innovative study highlights the domestic foundations and content of foreign policy, opening new avenues for study in the field of foreign relations.

Henry W. Berger is a professor emeritus of history at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the editor of A William Appleman Williams Reader: Selections from His Major Historical Writings.


“Berger captures [St. Louis’s 250-year-plus peculiar] history in a thoroughly engaging and entertaining way, through biographies of key players and institutions.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Plenty of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century St. Louisans thought their city lay at the center of the world—or should, anyway. More than a century later, St. Louis and Empire puts this dynamic and underappreciated city on the map but in a more careful and critical way. Berger’s understanding of the extraordinary mix of characters and commercial networks that tied the American heartland to the world (from Russia to Cuba to the Phillipines) offers both a new understanding of this complex city and a surprising perspective on an era every bit as ‘global’ as our own.”

—Eric Sandweiss, Chair, Department of History, Indiana University

“Connecting imperial dreams and the pursuit of foreign markets to the local consequences of industrial growth and decline, emeritus professor of history Henry Berger provides a very fresh way of looking at cities. He examines urban elites and the role they have played in globalization and, perhaps surprising, the shaping of foreign, not simply domestic, policy. At once a success story and a troubling look at the growing ‘disconnect between international expansion and domestic torpidity,’ this deeply researched history uncovers the roots of contemporary globalization and its discontents.”

—Jay Gitlin, Yale University, author of The Bourgeois Frontier, coeditor of Frontier Cities

“Henry W. Berger's St. Louis and Empire: 250 Years of Imperial Quest and Urban Crisis is a sweeping yet focused narrative of the city's long history as seen through the eyes of its (mostly deluded) prophets of commerce and territorial expansion. It is the product of sustained and profound reflection on mountains of original and secondary sources... This book is a significant achievement that eloquently bespeaks the years of labor that went into its production.”

—Matthew J. Mancini, Saint Louis University

“Students of American foreign policy often ignore the Midwest, assuming that the region has played no role in establishing the nation’s international goals. Henry Berger’s St. Louis and Empire, however, places St. Louis at the forefront of America’s historic quest to establish itself as the heart of a global economic empire. Berger, applies his expertise in foreign policy history to his own local-community [and] argues that St. Louis has been an outward-looking city since its founding. However, as recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, show, St. Louis’s outward focus has failed to produce widespread domestic prosperity and has left the city in a state of urban decay and decline.... Berger’s book offers an insightful reinterpretation of St. Louis’s history and clearly shows that the city deserves a spot at the table when discussing the historical evolution of American foreign policy. ”

—Thomas J Gubbels, The Annals of Iowa

“For more than a century, St. Louis has imagined itself as at the geographical center of an imperial nation. Henry Berger's wide-spanning St Louis & Empire explains how imagined geography put pressure on the rest of world. An account of scalar relations moving from city to globe, it delineates a category of inquiry commonly invisible to both urban history and diplomatic history—that is, an individual US cities foreign relations. Illustrated with masculine portraiture that looks drawn from that dusty museum wing that patrons go out if their way to walk past, the book makes one further signal intervention. U.S. imperial history need not only be rooted out of declassified documents or the testimony of those violated by it. It is engrained in everyday urban spaces—in street and building names, in monuments, in biographies of city fathers, in portraits looming over our heads. You only have to look, Berger tells us.”

—Andrew Friedman, Society for Historians of American Foreign Realtions

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