HIS33020 United States and the World

Academic Year 2023/2024

The United States had an unusual amount of power at its fingertips during the twentieth century. Where did this power come from? How did Washington elites wield it? How did the rest of the world respond?

In the coming weeks, this course will consider one of the great paradoxes of the recent past: The United States was arguably the most successful empire of the twentieth century, yet Americans—and many observers abroad—have steadfastly denied the U.S. empire’s existence. Together, we will interrogate this paradox this semester. We start with the Wilsonian moment and then leap into the interwar years, when U.S. leaders attained enormous overseas influence only to confront rival interpretations of what U.S. ascendancy portended for Europe and Asia. The middle weeks of the semester will explore the United States’ attempts to build a “post-imperial” political order after World War II, one strong enough to appropriate both communism and nationalism. We will conclude by exploring this order’s reconceptualization after the Vietnam Wars, lingering on the way new countries and new technologies changed U.S. assumptions—and the way humanity has interacted with those changes in recent times. You have enrolled in a class about the history of U.S. world power. But this class also doubles as an argument about our world today. Why do we believe what we believe? How much longer will the status quo last?

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Curricular information is subject to change

Learning Outcomes:

If you devote time and energy to this class, you will acquire a perspective on history and an understanding of human activity, with specific reference to the United States’ foreign relations during the twentieth century. Here are six learning outcomes . . .

By the end of the semester, you will understand the following concepts:

1. The relationship between global capitalism, the modern nation-state, and U.S. empire. One of the course’s central arguments is about expansion. Unique among great powers, the United States has expanded by creating united states, i.e. legally sovereign governments that enforce comparable policies toward capital, property, and security. By December, you should understand this process and how it changed over time.
2. The relationship between U.S. power and resistance to U.S. power. The course’s second argument is that resistance to American worldmaking changed American worldmaking, over and over and over again. By December, you should understand the tension between elite liberal designs for the twentieth century and how those designs affected worldwide campaigns against capitalism, imperialism, and racism.
3. The importance of international context to U.S. world power. As we move from one chapter to the next, international context will shape how we discuss U.S. foreign relations. By December, you should possess opinions about the relative importance of structure and agency in the past (and the present).

Additionally, you will leave this course with the following analytical skills:

1. Thinking together. Ultimately, history happens in the space between individuals and their ideas, and no one thinks alone. By attending class, listening respectfully to others, and sharing your ideas, you’ll master the all-important art of thinking together.
2. Thinking with evidence. Historians use primary and secondary sources to create arguments called narrative. As the semester progresses, we will break down the craft of narrative-making by exploring the sources that support different stories.
3. Thinking in time. Deconstructing narratives will turn you into a top-flight critic, but that’s not enough. In addition to breaking-down narratives, we will commit our own interpretations to paper—that’s the purpose of historical thinking.

Indicative Module Content:

Week 1 When should this story begin?
Week 2 Did U.S. power have an ideology?
Week 3 Was Nazism anti-American?
Week 4 Did the United Nations consolidate U.S. power?
Week 5 Did the Free World repudiate the spirit of the UN?
Week 6 Was decolonization an expression of U.S. power?
Week 7 Was the Free World fated to unravel?
Week 8 Why did U.S. power bounce back after Vietnam?
Week 9 Were the 9/11 attacks inevitable?
Week 10 Can U.S. power bounce back from Iraq/Afghanistan?
Week 11 Is this story over?

Student Effort Hours: 
Student Effort Type Hours


Seminar (or Webinar)


Specified Learning Activities


Autonomous Student Learning




Approaches to Teaching and Learning:
The module will be taught through a combination of lectures and seminars. 
Requirements, Exclusions and Recommendations

Not applicable to this module.

Module Requisites and Incompatibles
Not applicable to this module.
Assessment Strategy  
Description Timing Open Book Exam Component Scale Must Pass Component % of Final Grade In Module Component Repeat Offered
Continuous Assessment: Participation Throughout the Trimester n/a Graded No


Assignment: Monthly Podcasts (3 x 10%) or written equivalent Throughout the Trimester n/a Graded No


Assignment: End of term paper Week 12 n/a Graded No



Carry forward of passed components
Resit In Terminal Exam
Spring No
Please see Student Jargon Buster for more information about remediation types and timing. 
Feedback Strategy/Strategies

• Feedback individually to students, on an activity or draft prior to summative assessment
• Feedback individually to students, post-assessment

How will my Feedback be Delivered?

Not yet recorded.

Name Role
Dr Jenna Byers Lecturer / Co-Lecturer
Professor Michael Staunton Lecturer / Co-Lecturer