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An American Century? The United States in the World since 1898


Admission requirements

Required course(s):

Birth of the Modern World


In February 1941, in a soon-to-be famous editorial in his LIFE magazine, the American publisher Henry Luce proclaimed that the twentieth century would be the ‘American century’. With war raging in Europe and Asia, Luce believed that the moment had come for the United States to step forth as 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’s 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. 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 in their written work.

Course Objectives

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 in the twentieth century;

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

  • Organise an independent research project, based on a thorough investigation into a particular source;

  • Formulate clear arguments in discussion and debate.


Timetables for courses offered at Leiden University College in 2020-2021 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 of the seminar, students are expected to participate consistently in seminar discussion by presenting and defending their ideas.

Particular components of the course will consist of the following:

Web Postings
Each student will prepare two short web postings on an assigned primary source, in which they will analyse its contents and situate the source in its historical context.

Written Exam
This will be held around half-way 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
This is the central component of the course's assessment. Each student must select a primary source document (archival source, oral history transcript, newspaper article, etc.) and develop a paper that draws on secondary sources to explain the historical significance of the chosen item. The proposal will identify the document and outline why it is chosen and which sources will be used to explain its significance. The proposal acts as a guide for writing the paper. Only documents related to US foreign relations in the 20th century are acceptable.

Assessment Method

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

The course grade will be compiled of:

  • Class Participation (15 %)

  • Web Postings on Readings (15 %)

  • Take-home Exam (20 %)

  • Document Analysis Proposal (10 %)

  • Document Analysis (40 %)

Please note:

  • In accordance with article 4.8 of the Course and Examination Regulations (OER), within 30 days after the publication of grades, the instructor will provide students the opportunity to inspect their exams/coursework.

  • There is a no re-sit policy at Leiden University College.

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, 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, 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. Thomas Mareite,