Gateway to the World Henry Berger considers St. Louis in global time and space.

St. Louis and Empire: 250 Years of Imperial Quest and Urban Crisis

Henry Berger (2015, Southern Illinois University Press) 368 pages with notes, bilbiography, index, maps, and illustrations

In my decades of work in urban affairs, I do not know that I have ever thought of “foreign relations” as a productive lens for the study of American cities, much less St. Louis. However, this is exactly where Henry Berger begins his analysis of this city. He takes a field normally reserved for nation-states and uses it at the city and regional level. It is an especially intriguing approach to St. Louis, a city that has forever identified with its domestic status as a gateway to the western lands. The examination proves worthwhile, and Berger uses a biographical approach to illustrate the people and institutions that were caught up in global forces from the middle of the American Midwest.

Berger takes the reader from the 18th century to the 21st, and provides valuable insight along the way. St. Louis’s very founding was as a city among empires, and the governance of the city itself shifted as the various flags of authority blew in the wind of the Mississippi Valley. The early leaders of St. Louis and Missouri had a world view and an imperial memory in their approach to governance and economy. Thomas Hart Benton, Missouri’s first senator, saw St. Louis as leading an empire stretching westward and across the Pacific to “the rich commerce of Asia,” carrying American values and technology along the way.

Berger adds considerably to our understanding of St. Louis’s experience by digging deeply into archival materials, such as the Missouri History Museum’s records of the St. Louis Merchants Exchange, to uncover experiences that go beyond the events recorded in extant histories like Primm’s epic Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri (1981).

Rather than the tired recitation of event-by-event histories, Berger examines ongoing global forces and how the region’s players were both drivers and navigators in those forces. The timelines of chapters overlap, showing that from a foreign relations perspective activity was happening along parallel paths.

As an example, consider the robust but largely unexplored connection St. Louis developed with Mexico in the later decades of the 19th century and the role played in particular by John F. Cahill (a name that does not appear in Primm’s classic work). He was one of multiple noteworthy Southerners who came to St. Louis after the Civil War with an eye toward capitalizing on the city’s growing economy. Cahill saw potential in linking St. Louis with the growing opportunities of the burgeoning southwest. He quickly involved himself with the city’s commercial leadership and the export/import merchants. In the fall of 1876, he established a bi-lingual English/Spanish newspaper, El Comercio del Valle (The Commerce of the Valley), where he served as owner, editor, and primary reporter. His monthly publication was large by newsprint standards and grew in size and influence over the years. In 1879, he printed 40,000 copies of a special edition with distribution in the American Midwest and southwest through Mexico, Latin America, and even into South America. El Comercio became affiliated with the Mexican and Spanish American Commercial Exchange in St. Louis and Cahill took his seat as a powerful broker of international relations.

Berger gives an interesting content analysis of the publication. The newspaper was boosterish for St. Louis, listing its statistics and advantages. However, Cahill included content about foreign policy and editorialized on congressional proposals for tariffs and trade agreements. The paper pushed for improvement and expansion of rail links between St. Louis and the Southwest—which ultimately led to linking the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway to the Mexican National Railway system. St. Louis became a key distribution point by both water and rail heading to South America and what would become the Canal Zone.

Mexico and South America proved to be great economic boons to the St. Louis economy. This city became a center of coffee production thanks to this link, and St. Louis industrialists became invested deeply in Mexican mining operations, cattle farms, and railroads. St. Louis products were marketed there, including Shapleigh’s hardware, Bixby’s rail cars, and the beers of both Busch and Lemp. Berger provides detailed statistics on the economic growth of both St. Louis and Mexico, as well as the foreign policy decisions that encouraged it.

Cahill wined and dined Mexican officials in St. Louis, and served as the consular of Mexico here. He had a personal friendship with Mexican President Porfirio Diaz and Foreign Minister Matias Romero. Where there is commercial success, there are imitators and competitors. Other interests rose up and Cahill was challenged from multiple sides. Just as foreign relations theory defines how the power of states shifts, Berger defines how the power of individuals shift. Cahill’s “monopoly on diplomacy,” as Berger calls it, was not to last. Political personalities, economic competition, and world events would change this international relationship over time. Cahill had built an important chapter in St. Louis’s history and Berger has brought it to light.

Berger is to be commended for taking a new approach to familiar topics that are already well-documented in previous works. What examination of St. Louis’s past can be complete without the requisite inclusion of Auguste Chouteau, the 1904 Fair, and Anheuser-Busch? All are in there, but he treats them as cogs in a larger machine of global forces.

Rather than the tired recitation of event-by-event histories, Berger examines ongoing global forces and how the region’s players were both drivers and navigators in those forces. The timelines of chapters overlap, thereby showing that from a foreign relations perspective activity was happening along parallel paths. He works these parallel paths skillfully into a larger narrative in a way that complements the extant analyses on the same names, such as Harper Barnes’ masterful biography of David R. Francis, Denise DeGarmo’s interesting treatment of Mallinckrodt’s Manhattan Project legacy, and Clarence Lang’s thoughtful documentation of St. Louis’s Civil Rights movement.

One of St. Louis’s most global citizens arguably was David R. Francis. He was mayor, governor, and capitalist—which would be enough accomplishment for some. Francis, however, went far beyond this. He was Grover Cleveland’s choice for Secretary of the Interior in 1898, President of the World’s Fair in 1904, and Woodrow Wilson’s ultimate choice for Ambassador to Russia in 1916—just months before the revolution. In a well-researched analysis that complements Barnes’s biography on the subject, Berger highlights how Francis not only maintained his official work, but also engaged professionally in financial transactions with Russia. In fact, he advertised the availability of Russian loans through his financial house in St. Louis (noting that President Wilson already had condoned direct lending). Francis was a complex individual, with supporters and detractors regarding his record of service in Russia. Berger has done considerable original research and provides a good explanation of Francis’s efforts to manage the emerging Bolshevik power base at the same time a reluctant United States was entering World War I. Aside from his diplomatic role, Francis played an important economic one. Trade with Russia was at an all-time high by 1917, and even into the 1920s there were substantial deals for food, medicine, and shoes from St. Louis. Russia would remain an influential part of the St. Louis economy for decades to come, though not as an ally.

Berger’s narrative around St. Louis’s role in the Cold War is a wonderful synthesis of personalities and institutions. The “feisty” James McDonnell said that the demand for his aircraft will continue “so long as the necessity exists for the United States to patrol a disorderly world.”  St. Louis became the arms merchant to NATO and the Middle East. Nobel-laureate Arthur Holly Compton was called back to St. Louis at the end of World War II from Chicago to lead Washington University, and with his friend Edward Mallinckrodt, brought considerable Manhattan Project staff here. These leaders, funded by research contracts from the Defense Department, created a “military-industrial-academic complex” in the region that, in some ways, lasts to this day. Unfortunately, Berger speculates, a region so deeply invested in the Cold War did so at the expense of addressing local needs, and the decline of the Cold War political economy “aggravated” long-neglected problems.

In many ways, St. Louis’s successes “postponed and disguised” the problems in our midst. And those local needs that were never addressed along the way? Those showed up on the streets of Ferguson in 2014.

If I were to summarize Berger’s treatment of contemporary St. Louis, I would say that St. Louis became a victim of its own success. The Manhattan Project work done by Mallinckrodt and others in St. Louis was cutting-edge, but has left a legacy of pollution and hazardous waste. The great industries of St. Louis—Brown Shoe, Emerson, Monsanto, Boeing, Arch Coal, and Peabody—all look to global markets for growth and have less and less invested in St. Louis. Still others—Anheuser-Busch and Ralston Purina—have become units of global corporations altogether. The rise of China as a manufacturing and trading partner still has the attention of St. Louis’s economic leadership, as it did with Thomas Hart Benton. In many ways, our successes “postponed and disguised” the problems in our midst.

And those local needs that were never addressed along the way? Those showed up on the streets of Ferguson in 2014. Berger points to the successes St. Louis has experienced with its immigrant communities—Bosnians, for example—but notes that “the stasis demands far more extensive attention” than it has been getting. The region must bring stability and prosperity to its people, not just its real estate. It is vital that the region pursue its agenda abroad while attending to vital affairs at home. That is wise counsel for cities around the world.

St. Louis and Empire is a thoughtful work that makes a unique contribution to the literature on St. Louis. It is well-researched and respectful of its sources and subjects. Further, it provides a research lens for the region that has not been applied before. In that sense, it sets the stage methodologically for future analyses and rebuttals.