I am currently teaching a unit at Monash University on the American Civil War. Earlier this semester I assigned my students the task of explaining why they were interested in American History and why they, as Australians, were interested in the United States. They had 500 words to answer the question. I figured I would put my response, in the interests of explaining to people who ask me the same question.
As I have already explained on this blog, my current research project explores the influence of American power and ideas on Australian policy in Southeast Asia between 1945-75. The transnational route has been a departure for me, as I was previously just interested in American History.
Ever since I studied the Vietnam War as an undergraduate I have been interested in the political history of the United States. As the dominant power in world politics, I feel it is necessary to understand how America came to be the country it is today.
While it wasn’t until the period following the Second World War that the US really took the reins as global leader, the stage had been set in the previous several decades. As a historian, I am intrigued by the way American power developed, and by the reluctance they exhibited in exerting that power. My previous research project explored the Wilsonian period, where the US missed a crucial opportunity to exert global leadership.
Why this reluctance? Understanding the answer to this question (which cannot be provided in less than 500 words) helps us understand America today. In the same way, understanding the developments of the American Civil War helps my students recognise some of the difficulties the US faces today.
But why is it important for us to understand these ideas in Australia? I think there are two primary reasons: Firstly, Australia has consciously caused itself to become part of the American-led world system; and secondly, the widespread influence of American culture and politics effects Australia to such an extent that understanding the US helps us understand ourselves.
Australia and the US share some striking similarities. Both countries dispossessed large numbers of indigenous peoples in a colonisation process that was effectively genocide. Both countries enjoy relatively peaceful democratic political systems that are underpinned by stable economies. Both countries experience a level of prosperity that the majority of other countries envy. It seems obvious that studying the history of America helps us understand our own history.
Obviously differences exist between the two countries. The US enjoys a level of global prominence that Australia will never attain. Race and multiculturalism are experienced in different ways. Geographical and ecological differences have resulted in vastly different settlement patterns. But recognising and exploring the differences only helps us understand the other more effectively.
Personally, the final reason is perhaps the most important. As an Australian, I find the United States fascinating. Full of contradictions, the more I learn about the history of the USA the more interesting the country becomes.