Richard Kluger ’56 has made a habit of analyzing important social and historical issues. An English major at Princeton who was chairman of The Daily Princetonian, Kluger has written about the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation in Simple Justice and about the cigarette industry in his 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winningAshes to Ashes. In his new book, Seizing Destiny: How America Grew from Sea to Shining Sea, he tackles the less-than-admirable means that American political leaders employed to expand the nation’s borders.
Kluger, who considers himself a social historian, says he wanted to write a book that “examined politics as well as the American character.” Published by Alfred A. Knopf in August, Seizing Destinyprovides a fascinating lesson in geography, politics, and American history from the early 1500s to the current day, focusing heavily on the 19th century.
Clever ironies abound in this text as Kluger identifies the long-embraced American concept of “manifest destiny” as sometimes simply a more polite term for some arrogant and aggressive attempts to deal with Native Americans, Europeans, and others who stood in the way of the United States’ desire to amass the acreage that lay between Maine and California.
Militant diplomacy was used for the acquisition of the Oregon territory by President James K. Polk. In his 1845 inaugural address, he ignored the longstanding joint-occupancy agreement that the British and Americans had lived by in the Oregon territory, and all but declared war by arguing, “Our title to the country of Oregon is clear and unmistakable.” The United States had been quietly encouraging settlers to populate the region with the intent of forcing their way past the British, who left in 1846 instead of fighting.
Polk later used outright war to seize land from Mexico that would become the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. Polk, who was president from 1845 to 1849, launched the Mexican-American War after Mexico refused to sell him the desired land for $20 million. He sent Gen. Zachary Taylor and his army to the Rio Grande in 1846, provoking Mexico into a fight. Two years later, after he defeated the Mexicans, the triumphant Polk was able to buy the same land for just $15 million. “One of the biggest surprises for me,” explains Kluger, “was that one of our least- profiled presidents — James K. Polk — was the most accomplished negotiator when it came to grabbing major land purchases for our nation.”
Kluger’s book uses maps, timelines, and stories to show how the United States collected its 3.5 million square miles of land. Among the calmer acquisitions were the $23 million Louisiana Purchase from the French (making up all or part of 15 states), the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia, and the 1917 purchase of the Virgin Islands from Denmark.
Kluger argues that while the United States displayed great courage in building the nation, it often revealed a self-righteousness that is, he says, “apparent in the way we have dealt with many nations around the world.”
Having written three prior non-fiction books and six novels and served as an editor at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Herald Tribune, Kluger doesn’t shy away from revealing some uncomfortable truths about the complex social and historic fabric of America. He plans to continue this in his next book, The Eagle Weeps at Medicine Creek, which explores the relationship between whites and Native Americans in the 1800s.