So why read another book about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War? “Because you’ve heard only half the story.”
A Pulitzer Prize-winning author made that comment in praise of a newly published book, Lincoln in the World, by foreign correspondent turned historian Kevin Peraino. Mr. Peraino reveals a lesser-known Abraham Lincoln — a diplomat in chief who skillfully manipulates the great European powers during the Civil War and sets the stage for America’s emergence into the global scene.
To win the war, “Lincoln had to have one eye on Europe at all times,” Mr. Peraino said in a recent interview in Ridgefield.
He pointed out that Lincoln never traveled to Europe. He knew no foreign languages. He had no European friends. Yet somehow Lincoln and his team pulled off “one of the most breathtaking feats in the annals of American foreign policy: They avoided European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, which could well have led to a Southern victory.”
Kevin Peraino grew up here and graduated from Ridgefield High School in 1994. He will give a talk about Lincoln in the World at the Ridgefield Library on Tuesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. in a program sponsored by the library and Books on the Common.
Americans are well aware how, on our side of the Atlantic, Lincoln saved the Union. But many of us don’t know the neglected “half the story” Mr. Peraino tells: Lincoln was a great foreign policy president acting in an era surprisingly like our own.
The mid-19th Century was an age of invention and globalization. Steamships reduced the Atlantic passage to little more than a week. Telegraph lines carried communications across continents and beneath oceans. Because of the popularity of the new steam press, the number of American newspapers exploded from 850 in 1828 to more than 4,000 on the eve of the Civil War.
This proliferation of periodicals brought public opinion into the political equation. Whereas past American presidents considered it undignified to engage with plebeians and their perceptions, Lincoln learned how to use the “soft power” of public persuasion effectively. “It was Abe Lincoln, not Teddy Roosevelt, who first utilized the bully pulpit,” Mr. Peraino said.
In lively and compelling prose, Mr. Peraino shows how Lincoln and his team — chief among them Secretary of State William Henry Seward — handled the constant threats and pressures from the European powers. (Seward was a powerful and effective player in his own right. But for the purposes of his book, Mr. Peraino focuses on situations dominated by Lincoln.)
Although the Europeans rejected slavery, their economic interests aligned with the South. The livelihoods of more than 200,000 Frenchmen and a million Britons depended on a textile industry that gobbled Southern cotton.
By September 1861, three-quarters of British textile workers were unemployed or under-employed. Lord Palmerston, the British prime minister, questioned his policy of non-intervention. “We do not like slavery, but we want cotton,” he said.
Many of the monarchs and aristocrats who ruled Europe considered democracy a degenerate form of government. They doubted popular government could organize itself to win a war. In any case, they would feel less threatened if the emerging American nation were dismembered.
The North had a staunch ally in one Londoner, however. Karl Marx, who never doubted the North would win, had a gig writing two opinion pieces a week for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, the largest newspaper in the States. Like many Americans, Lincoln pored over the Tribune, Mr. Peraino writes. No record exists that Lincoln read Marx’s dispatches. “But they would have been difficult to miss.”
It’s important, Mr. Peraino writes, to study Lincoln’s lapses in judgment as well as his achievements: “His foreign policies also included some turkeys.” Overall, though, Mr. Peraino’s research reveals “a textured and surprising portrait … of a diplomat in chief whose presidency helped point the way to America’s rise to power.”
After Kevin Peraino graduated from Northwestern University, he was hired by Newsweek magazine. As a foreign correspondent, he was embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division during the Iraq invasion. Later he became a Middle East bureau chief. Based in Jerusalem, he reported from most of the countries in the region, including Syria, Libya and Yemen. He also covered the 2004 presidential campaign, for which he and his team won a National Magazine Award.
Mr. Peraino began working on Lincoln in the World four years ago. As a foreign correspondent, he’d dealt with foreign affairs “from the street level. I wanted to take a step back — to take a broader view of American foreign policy. I started reading, and the Civil War period sucked me in!”
Not only were there great individuals like Lincoln and Seward, but there were also colorful characters like Cassius Marcellus Clay, Lincoln’s ambassador to Russia. Ambassador Clay, with pistols and Bowie knives dangling from his waistband, strolled the streets of St. Petersburg, picking fistfights.
Mr. Peraino and his wife, Reena Ninan, a journalist with ABC News, moved back to Connecticut to raise their two young children, Jack and Kate. The family has settled in Greenwich to minimize Ms. Ninan’s commute.
Mr. Peraino thinks Fairfield County is a great place to raise kids. He remembers Ridgefield as an “open-minded, outward looking, cosmopolitan place” that piqued his interest in the wider world.