Blogs > Cliopatria > Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom: Review of Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism

Aug 22, 2007 3:10 pm

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom: Review of Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism

[Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of China’s Brave New World—And Other Tales for Global Times (2007). ]

We live in anniversary-obsessed times, as evidenced recently by a slew of publications inspired by such things as the fortieth birthday of the “Summer of Love” and the passage of sixty years since the end of British imperial rule in India. Historians, myself included, tend to be suckers for these sorts of retrospective moments. But as we struggle to retool a discipline long rooted in national frameworks to serve us better in a globally minded present, one kind of anniversary holds a special appeal: that of years such as 1968 and 1989 when popular upheavals broke out nearly simultaneously in disparate places. In 1998, historians put together panels and published books that took a thirty years look at student protests that had erupted in 1968 everywhere from Paris to Prague, London to Lahore, Berkeley to Buenos Aires—then segued in 1999 into retrospective assessments of the Chinese and Eastern European upheavals of 1989. Now, nearing the end of a new decade, the cycle is beginning again: the American Historical Review is planning a symposium on 1968 at forty, while some historians of 1989 have already issued a call for papers for a 2008 workshop (to lead to a 2009 publication) on that other late twentieth century annus mirabilis.

But 1919, an earlier global moment associated with far-flung protests (from anti-imperialist marches in East and South Asia, to revolutionary upsurges in Egypt and Argentina, to the Seattle General Strike) rarely gets this treatment. Its upheavals, though in some cases clearly linked, are still usually dealt with one-by-one. It is unlikely that any single book could alter this entrenched pattern. But if one could, it would be Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism, a carefully researched and gracefully written example of the new transnational history at its best.

Lest I be misunderstood, I should make it clear that Manela’s book, published in June by Oxford University Press, is not and does not claim to be a comprehensive history of 1919. For starters, he has as much to say about 1918 (when excitement about imminent liberation from imperial control swept through many lands) as he does about 1919 itself (when protests were triggered by news that World War I’s Great Power victors, meeting in Paris, wanted to keep their own imperial possessions in tact and expand Japanese holdings in China). In addition, when it comes to 1919 itself, while Manela covers a great deal of ground, both geographically (the Middle East, Asia, plus Paris and Washington, D.C.) and linguistically (using materials in Chinese, Arabic, French, and English), he does not go into detail or even mention every place where people took to the streets that year. Due to his emphasis on colonized countries, the Seattle General Strike falls outside of his purview, as do the German protests of early 1919. And even where the developing world is concerned, he makes the sensible decision to focus on just four notable struggles: Egypt’s 1919 Revolution, China’s May 4th Movement, Korea’s March 1st Movement, and Indian protests against the Rowlatt Act (a hated law passed by the British Raj that extended into peacetime repressive wartime “emergency” limitations on civil rights). This inevitably leads to some lacunae: Latin America is merely mentioned in passing, for example, and Ho Chi Minh only makes a cameo, even though (like Mao and Gandhi, two figures about whom Manela has much to say) he too was radicalized by the Peace Conference’s refusal to help colonized people realize the dreams of liberation inspired by Wilson’s talk of “self-determination” and a “New World Order.” There is still, in other words, room for a future global study of 1919—subtitled no doubt, if recent publishing trends continue, “The Year that Changed the World."

This said, Manela does much more than just provide us with a careful look at four discrete case studies linked via the person of Wilson—a man presented here (via his own writings and colorful quotation from diffuse primary sources) as someone who somewhat curiously (given his own ambivalence on issues of racial equality and the rights of colonized peoples) was venerated for a time in widespread locales as a Messianic figure able to and intent upon bringing a benighted age of empires to a dramatic close. What makes The Wilsonian Moment more than simply a set of interesting 1919 tales is the persuasive case for the interconnected nature of these national stories that the author makes. Again and again, without downplaying the significance of local factors, he teases out striking similarities relating to the motivations that drove people to the streets in different parts of Asia and the Middle East and the rhetoric nationalists turned to in order to mobilize broad populations.

Manela also underscores other ways that individual nationalist struggles benefit from being placed into a transnational frame. He points to the roles that overseas communities played in specific upheavals (stressing, for example, the centrality of exiled Korean nationalists in the March 1st Movement). He emphasizes the awareness that writers in one country where protests were underway often showed in the plight of neighboring or far-off people fighting imperialism (citing Mao’s 1919 criticisms of colonial oppression in India as a case in point). And he reminds his readers that anti-colonial nationalists from different places sometimes drew inspiration from and even crossed paths with one another while in the West. This happened at the Peace Conference itself and in other quite different venues, such as a farewell dinner held in New York for Indian activist Lajpat Rai, an occasion organized by an American supporter of Irish independence at which “a Chinese delegate gave a speech hailing Sun Yat-sen.”

The end result of all of this movement between Western and non-Western settings is a book that makes a compelling case for the value of taking a robustly international approach to events usually viewed through either a national lens (in the case of protest movements) or a Euro-American one (in the case of the Paris Peace Conference). And there are many other things to admire about this ambitious book, besides the elegance with which it shows how truly transnational history can and should be done. Not the least of its other charms is its readability and liveliness. Many of the chapters open with striking quotations and close with telling anecdotes. And even some of the chapter titles are memorable (my favorites: “Laying India’s Ailments before Dr. Wilson” and “A World Safe for Empire?”).

Finally, though Manela does not belabor this, The Wilsonian Moment is a timely book. The year 1919 was not, alas, the last time that Western promises of impending “liberation” from oppression quickly came to be seen as hypocritical and hollow talk. Anne-Marie Slaughter is thus right on target when she notes, in a back-cover endorsement, that “given its emphasis on the tragedy of disappointed expectations raised by universalistic rhetoric, this book should be read by anyone interested not only in history, but in American foreign policy.”

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