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Abe’s legacy as a foreign policy president revealed in ‘Lincoln and the World’

October 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Abraham Lincoln is usually remembered for his work on the Emancipation Proclamation, not for his contributions to U.S. foreign policy. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Kevin Peraino, author of "Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power" about another side of Lincoln's presidency so often overlooked.
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GWEN IFILL: Now a look at the surprising roots of our modern global foreign policy.

Hari Sreenivasan has that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In his new book, “Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power,” veteran foreign correspondent Kevin Peraino explores the side of the 16th president that we haven’t really seen before.

You’re talking about foreign policy.We think of Lincoln as the great emancipator.We think of him in the context of civil rights.I mean, simply put, what is the foreign policy that President Lincoln had?

KEVIN PERAINO, “Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power”:Right.

Well, we think of the Civil War as a domestic conflict, but it was also a global conflict.And Lincoln had to deal with a series of crises over the course of his presidency from France, from Britain, from Spain.Even Russian ships showed up off the Atlantic Coast in the middle of the war.

Any one of these crises could have changed the course of the war, if handled badly, could have changed the course of American history, I don’t think it’s too much to say.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So it’s one really success that he kept Europe out of our own fight.But how do we know that he was thinking about slavery in a global context?

KEVIN PERAINO: Well, Lincoln viewed the Emancipation Proclamation partly as an effort to speak across the Atlantic Ocean to ordinary Europeans.

One thing that’s interesting to me is that the 19th century, the mid-19th century, like our own age, was also an information age.The telegraph, the steamship, and the exploding number of newspapers were shrinking the world.Lincoln realized this, and he decided, you know what?I have the capability now to speak directly to ordinary Europeans.

And this is a generation before Teddy Roosevelt and the bully pulpit.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so, really, he was seizing technology to try to say soft power and public diplomacy is very important and really recognizing the power of public opinion almost. KEVIN PERAINO: Right.

It was a very interesting period, because on the one half — on the one hand, the telegraph, you could flash news from one part of the — North America to the other.On the other hand, the transatlantic telegraph wasn’t yet working, so news took 10 days to two weeks to get across the Atlantic Ocean.

And so this created a lot of interesting things.I think, sometimes, the fact that news took so long to get across the Atlantic defused some of these crises.It gave passions time to cool down.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK.And let’s talk a little bit about the impact that the first lady had on foreign policy.

It something that we don’t hear much about.People think about Sally Field playing the character.But she was much more shrewd, in the sense that she is the person that is kind of well-read.And you say in the book that he’s kind of the common guy from Illinois.

KEVIN PERAINO: Right.She was far more cosmopolitan than her husband was.

She went to a school when she was growing where the students spoke French.And in her house growing up, it was filled with the French mahogany furniture and Belgian rugs.And Henry Clay, the great American diplomat, was a neighbor.And so, yes, she was far more cosmopolitan than Lincoln.And she let him know it.And on a number of occasions, she tried to influence diplomatic appointments.

She tried to get her friends and allies appointed to key posts.Sometimes, it worked.Sometimes, it didn’t.But it was an interesting dynamic.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sometimes, you’re saying that some of the requests were really that we should station this diplomat out in Hawaii, or the Sandwich Islands at the time, because he’s really not doing too well and the weather would do him good.

KEVIN PERAINO: Right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It wasn’t a very structured process.

KEVIN PERAINO: Right.That’s one of my favorite stories, that in the middle of the Civil War, a delegation comes to Lincoln and says, we want our guy appointed in the Sandwich Islands in Hawaii.

And he says — and they say — you know, they make their case on the merit, and then they say, you know, by the way, he’s really sick.The climate would do him good.And it’s one of my favorite lines.Lincoln says, you know, guys, unfortunately, there are eight other applicants for that job, and they’re all sicker than your man.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so how is it that Lincoln is so written about?I have heard estimates from 5,000 books on Lincoln and higher.Why haven’t people tackled foreign policy?Why are we not seeing that dimension of him?

KEVIN PERAINO: I think part of the problem is that Lincoln had a very strong and competent secretary of state in William Henry Seward.He delegated a lot of day-to-day responsibility to Seward.

And so I think a lot of the books that have looked at Lincoln and foreign policy, if you try to put Lincoln at the center of his own foreign policy, you end up getting a hagiography.And so what I have tried to do is look at the things that Lincoln did do in foreign relations, which are hugely important, without saying he did everything, or without even saying he did everything right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you mentioned that Secretary Seward probably was the predecessor to an early blogger.He was actually publishing for P.R. reasons.That’s something new at the time.

KEVIN PERAINO: Right.

He published his diplomatic dispatches partly for P.R. reasons.Lincoln had — you remember this flap about Twitter mole this week that was fired at the national security staff.Lincoln had his own kind of equivalent of a Twitter mole.There was a Polish count working in the State Department that published his diaries, tell-all diary, where he trashed the president and the secretary of states during the course of the war.

Lincoln had to fire him, just like this one was fired.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You know, one of the interesting tidbits I found was that Karl Marx was writing for a paper that Lincoln read very closely.Well, how do we know that?

KEVIN PERAINO: That’s one of my favorite chapters in the book.

So, we focus on Marx.And the reason that Marx is interesting to me, Marx and Lincoln didn’t know each other personally.They kind of exchanged letters.But I think a lot of people don’t even realize that they were contemporaries.And one thing that they were both doing is struggling with this — of how to operate in this information age.

As you said, Marx was also a journalist.Aside from writing capital and writing his academic treatises, he wrote for The New York Tribune.And so the two of these guys are trying to figure out, how do you make sense of this world in which there are no secrets, in which the world was smaller?And I think they both did it to varying degrees of success.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And they both saw the impact it would have for the outcome of the Civil War in different ways.

KEVIN PERAINO: Right.

Marx was a supporter of the union.He thought that if the bourgeois union could defeat the Southern aristocracy, then that was one step closer to the proletariat triumphing over both.So he wanted Lincoln to win the Civil War.And he didn’t initially have a strong opinion of Lincoln, a favorable opinion of Lincoln, but, by the end of the war, Lincoln had gained a measure of Marx’s respect.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We are going to continue this conversation online.We will talk a little bit about Lincoln and perhaps how he would react to the news of today with Kevin Peraino.He’s the author of “Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power,”

Thanks so much.

KEVIN PERAINO: Thanks, Hari.