A Pan-American Flight

Do the Americas have a common history? The question seems first to have been posed in these words in 1941. It was chosen as the title for the English translation, published by the Pan American Union, of an article that originally appeared in Spanish under the title of “Hegel and Modern Pan-Americanism.” Its author was the distinguished Mexican philosophical historian Edmundo O’Gorman, best known in the English-speaking world for his book The Invention of America, which provocatively argued that America was not “discovered” by Columbus but was a European “invention” of the sixteenth century.

O’Gorman’s article, first published in Havana in 1939, included a characteristically vigorous denunciation of the famous presidential address delivered by Herbert Bolton to the American Historical Association in 1932 in which he argued that the time had come to move beyond national history and write an “Epic of Greater America.” Bolton’s thesis was that the hemisphere had a larger historical unity that transcended the traditional distinctions between North and South, Anglo-Saxon and Iberian, America. It was the existence of so many shared features of the various New World societies, like their common frontier experience, that called for and justified the “Greater” American approach he so forcefully advocated. O’Gorman would have none of this. Bolton, like Hegel, was the victim of a “geographical hallucination” that had led him to subordinate history to a “geographical category.” As a result, he had succumbed to a facile Pan-Americanism, which he then sought to buttress by historically dubious arguments—for instance that “the essential unity of the Western Hemisphere” was revealed by the solidarity of North and South America in opposing Germany during World War I.

It was indeed true, argued O’Gorman, that “larger historical unities” existed, but these were “unities of Nature and not of human nature, which is the essence of history.” Bolton, in his reductionist approach to the history of an American continent perceived in purely spatial terms, had ignored the whole dimension of cultural history and the sharp contrasts between Anglo-American and Ibero-American civilization. Something more than a Pan-American highway was required if we were to believe in the existence of a Greater America.

Since the days of Bolton and O’Gorman, much has changed, and much has not. Bolton’s address failed to inspire the next generation of historians to embark on an “Epic of Greater America,” and in some respects, as historians and university history departments proliferated, there was, if anything, increased compartmentalization between the histories of the United States and Latin America, with a corresponding narrowing of vision as specialization intensified. Yet at the same time the idea of a history that embraced the hemisphere refused to lie down and die, as can be seen from the publication in 1964 by the distinguished Latin Americanist Lewis Hanke of an anthology of articles about the Bolton theory, under the title Do the Americas Have a Common History? In spite of the strength of exceptionalism, whether North American …

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