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It may feel like U.S. relations with the Middle East began in 1973, or even in 1945, but in fact they had an oversized role during the first forty years of the country's existence. At that time, however, the Muslim world reduced not to the Levant and the Persian Gulf but to the "Barbary states" of North Africa, which over that period of time captured some 700 Americans from 35 ships.

The seizure of those Americans makes an obvious and striking pattern with the 1979-81 U.S. embassy seizure in Tehran and the 1982-92 hostage-taking in Lebanon. Government and public alike debated the choice of tactics (stop at nothing to free them, or posture indifference to decrease their value?). Then, as now, the actions of Middle East regimes had profound repercussions on American attitudes toward Islam; in both eras, the U.S. public devoted inordinate attention to the fate of the tiny number of captives, turning their plight into a national trauma. And in both eras, Europeans looked on with amazement at the American obsession.

The story has been told many times before; Allison helpfully goes beyond the political narrative to put it into an American cultural context. He summarizes, for example, the many plays and stories on the topic of the captives; also fascinating, he shows how outrage at the "slavery" of white Americans in Barbary had an impact on the debate over the all-too-real slavery in the U.S. South.