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An American Century? US Foreign Relations from 1898 to the Present


Admission requirements

Required course(s):

  • Birth of the Modern World


In February 1941, in a soon-to-be-famous editorial in his LIFE magazine, Henry Luce proclaimed that the twentieth century would be the ‘American century.’ As war raged across Europe and Asia, Luce believed that the United States would become the world’s pre-eminent economic, political, and cultural power. “Consider the 20th century,” he told his fellow Americans; “It is [ours] not only in the sense that we happen to live in it, but ours also because it is America’s first century as a dominant power in the world.”

This course surveys the United States’ interactions with the world in what Luce (and others with him) called the ‘American century.’ Starting with the US’s emergence as an imperial power at the turn of the twentieth century, it traces the evolution of American foreign relations through the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War. Furthermore, it considers how the United States came to rise to its present position of power within the international system, and how the exercise of American power (military, political, economic, and cultural) in turn came to transform the lives of millions. Throughout the course, we will touch upon key themes in American international history, such as isolationism, the ‘new world orders’ proposed by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, the emergence of the Cold War, and subsequent challenges to American hegemony, from Vietnam to Iraq. We will also consider the different ways that historians have evaluated and interpreted the history of American foreign relations.

The course relies heavily on the use of primary sources, which students will be asked to incorporate both in their class readings and their written work.

Course Objectives

The primary objective of the course is to equip you with the necessary skills and knowledge to comprehend the evolution of American foreign relations in the twentieth century, and to study this subject through the use of primary and secondary sources. Successful completion of the course will enable students to:

  • Understand key themes and approaches relevant to the study of the history of American foreign relations;

  • Develop a critical perspective when reading and analyzing texts and source materials;

  • Organize an independent research project, based on a thorough investigation into a primary source;

  • Formulate clear arguments in discussion and debate.

  • Improve presentation and public speaking skills.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2022-2023 will be published on this page of the e-Prospectus.

Mode of instruction

The course consists of fourteen two-hour seminars, which will consist of (short) lectures, group discussions, and other exercises based on the readings. During the course, students are expected to participate consistently in seminar discussions by presenting and defending their ideas.

Assessment Method

The following methods of assessment will be used in the course:

Web Post
Each student will write one web post on two of the assigned primary sources. The web post should focus on two primary sources from one of the seminars. It will introduce and describe both sources (i.e. their authors, types of sources, their audiences, etc), analyze their contents, and explain the broader historical context. Furthermore, the web post should include two relevant discussion questions. During the seminar, the student will use their web post to lead part of the seminar discussion.

Take-Home Exam
This will be held around halfway through the course. It is a short take-home exam, with written answers, covering the topics of the first half of the course.

Document Analysis Proposal and Paper
In the second half of the course, students will work on their document analysis paper. Each student must select a primary source document (archival source, oral history transcript, newspaper article, etc.) and write a paper that draws on relevant academic literature to explain the historical significance of the chosen source.

Before writing the paper, students must submit a short written proposal in week 6. It should briefly describe the chosen document (i.e. the author, type of source, the archive or database from which it was procured, its audience, etc.), explain its historical significance, and highlight relevant academic literature that will be used to evaluate its significance. Please note: the chosen primary source must be directly relevant to one of the seminar topics. The relevance of the source to the course must be clearly explained in the proposal. Moreover, each student must choose an original primary source. You may not choose one of the excerpts from the Engel et. al. (eds.), America and the World.

The document analysis paper expands upon the proposal. It should describe the source and analyze its main features, explain the historical context of the source, and justify its significance to the history of US foreign relations.

In week 7, each student will deliver an oral presentation on their document analysis proposal. The presentation should complement the document analysis proposal and explain its main components (i.e. their chosen document, the author and type of source, the archive or database from which it was procured, the historical context of the source, its historical significance, relevant literature, etc.). The presentation should include a visual component (e.g. PowerPoint, Prezi, video, the primary source, etc.). A brief Q&A session will follow each presentation. Students will receive oral feedback on their document analysis proposal from their peers and the lecturer.

Students are required to submit written work through the TurnItIn tool on Blackboard. Failure to do so will prevent that particular piece of work from being graded. Students must submit all work to pass the course.

The final grade for the course will be calculated using a weighted average based on the following components:

  • In-Class Participation (15%) – Ongoing (Course Objective 4)

  • Web Post (15%) – Ongoing (Course Objectives 1 and 2)

  • Take-Home Exam (20%) – Week 4 (Course Objectives 1 and 2)

  • Document Analysis Proposal (5%) – Week 6 (Course Objectives 2 and 3)

  • Presentation (10%) – Week 7 (Course Objective 5)

  • Document Analysis Paper (35%) – Week 8 (Course Objectives 2 and 3)

Further details on the assignments can be found in the syllabus.

Reading list

The course will make use of the following books, and you are strongly advised to purchase them:

  • George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations since 1776 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  • Jeffrey A. Engel, Mark Atwood Lawrence, and Andrew Preston (eds.), America in the World: A History in Documents from the War with Spain to the War on Terror (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Further readings are either available through the Leiden University Library Catalogue or will be provided via Brightspace.


Courses offered at Leiden University College (LUC) are usually only open to LUC students and LUC exchange students. Leiden University students who participate in one of the university’s Honours tracks or programmes may register for one LUC course, if availability permits. Registration is coordinated by the Education Coordinator,


Dr. Oran Patrick Kennedy,