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Response to Review no. 1052

I’d like to thank Andrew Muldoon for his thoughtful and helpful review of my work. His perspective, as a scholar of Britain and India, allows him some distance which helps to situate my work in a somewhat different context than I usually place it, demonstrating some places where I could profitably have asked different questions or pushed analysis a little farther. He also kindly implies that it is useful for historians of the British Empire to situate their work in different contexts than they usually do. The conversation is, for all involved, exciting.

In my response, I would like to clarify one issue which Muldoon raises in his review, and offer preliminary answers to the questions he raises at the end. At several points in his review, Muldoon suggests that Americans saw themselves as in some ways an anti-colonial presence in the region. I was careful not to say that explicitly myself, because those Americans active in Southeast Asia almost without exception did not see themselves as anti-colonialists. They did not think colonialism was a desirable long-term solution for governance anywhere, but were more than satisfied for the continuation of colonial rule as long as it was necessary. Given American assumptions about the (in)capacity of Southeast Asians for self-rule, they were prepared to accept a very long period of tutelage. Muldoon’s reading of my work in this way, though, serves as reminder that there were more strident American voices which, during the 1930s especially, cried out against colonialism in India. Those voices were rarely official ones, but British officials may have found it difficult to discern who was speaking with authority about which parts of the world.

Towards the end of the review, Muldoon asks about the people, from the United States, who were important actors in colonial Southeast Asia, and the extent to which they spoke with one voice, and whether this presumably elite group had some kind of coherent idea about the role of the United States in Southeast Asia and in colonialism more generally. I agree that the issue of who acted in an imperial capacity for the United States needs much more study. The field of American imperialism is dramatically underdeveloped compared to its European counterparts and there is little scholarship about the biographies and characteristics of Americans acting overseas in imperial capacity.

From the little that has been done, however, I could make two very broad statements. First, those among this group who are truly elite, possessing a good college education and coming from families of some wealth and standing, participated in the colonial aspects of government or industry only as a brief step along a career path which led to other institutions and other geographical locations. A important but relatively small cohort did concern themselves with imperial matters for their whole careers, but moved among different government departments and especially to universities to make a meaningful career. A second important point is that many Americans who were important for carrying out and interpreting imperialism in Southeast Asia were not particularly elite, especially in British eyes. They may have attended college, but not a prestigious one, for instance. The degree to which this diversity among American imperialists shaped their interactions with each other and with other imperialists awaits further research, however.

Muldoon’s generous review provides a thoughtful assessment of my work, but what I appreciate most are the places where he has shown how much we still do not fully understand. There is work to be done, and the conversations that we have across geographical and disciplinary boundaries will foster that work.