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Surfing today evokes many things: thundering waves, warm beaches, bikinis and lifeguards, and carefree pleasure. But is the story of surfing really as simple as popular culture suggests? In this first international political history of the sport, Scott Laderman shows that while wave riding is indeed capable of stimulating tremendous pleasure, its globalization went hand in hand with the blood and repression of the long twentieth century.

Emerging as an imperial instrument in post-annexation Hawaii, spawning a form of tourism that conquered the littoral Third World, tracing the struggle against South African apartheid, and employed as a diplomatic weapon in America’s Cold War arsenal, the saga of modern surfing is only partially captured by Gidget, the Beach Boys, and the film Blue Crush. From nineteenth-century American empire-building in the Pacific to the low-wage labor of the surf industry today, Laderman argues that surfing in fact closely mirrored American foreign relations. Yet despite its less-than-golden past, the sport continues to captivate people worldwide.

Whether in El Salvador or Indonesia or points between, the modern history of this cherished pastime is hardly an uncomplicated story of beachside bliss. Sometimes messy, occasionally contentious, but never dull, surfing offers us a whole new way of viewing our globalized world.



Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National (The List, March 31, 2014)

BBC Radio 4 (Thinking Allowed, June 25, 2014)

TED-Ed (“The Complicated History of Surfing," November 16, 2017)



“Laderman has joined a sophisticated discussion of the global history of surfing to a careful examination of its relationship to the cultural politics of United States engagement with the wider world. The chronological frame and impressive transnational source base he utilizes allow him to consider not only the long arc of surfing history but also to root his discussion of its relationship to American diplomacy and global politics in a deeper historical frame.”

Mark Philip Bradley, University of Chicago

“Laderman’s book provides a much needed ballast to the history of surfing, orienting it in a global historical context that allows us to gaze at the activity through the lens of the political. This is a much needed addition to the narrative surf canon that has largely overlooked the socio-political impacts of surfing as it has evolved into a multi-billion dollar global industry.”

Cori Schumacher, three-time Women’s World Longboard Champion and two-time North American Women’s Longboard Champion

“This book combines the rich detail of first-class historical research with the insight of a lifelong surfer, tracing the rise of surfing in the context of the rise of imperialism and global capitalism. In doing so, it exposes the darkness that often lay at the heart of the search for the perfect wave. This is a book that must be read by historians of leisure, sports scholars, and critically-minded surfers.”

Tony Collins, International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University



“[W]ell-researched and illuminating....”

Alex Wade, Times Literary Supplement

Empire in Waves is the best (anti-)beach book I've read in a long time. I highly recommend taking Laderman on vacation with you – he'll absolutely ruin it.”

Tim Paulson, MAKE: A Literary Magazine

“In rhetoric that echoes the blistering critique of American economic imperialism first advanced by William Appleman Williams in his sharply revisionist The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), Laderman effectively connects the dots between American foreign policy, the expansionist policies of American corporations, and the globalization of the leisure sport of surfing.”

Richard O. Davies, American Historical Review

“Laderman has done an outstanding job of bringing politics, and the morality of politics, to the fore of surfing.... Empire in Waves is essential reading for those interested in the history of surfing, the politics of sport, and the politics of popular culture.”

Douglas Booth, Sport History Review

Empire in Waves deserves the widest possible audience, for it addresses head on the often-made comment 'Politics have no place in sport.' Always persuasively argued and based on remarkably wide-ranging primary and secondary sources (especially from the United States and Australia), this is an excellent example of entertaining writing from a scholar who displays the ability to be critical and objective while continuing to chase the waves.”

Ed Jaggard, Journal of Sport History

“With surfing as a multibillion-dollar transnational industry that inserts itself into and and exploits the most marginalized communities in the world (one recent study found that places with good waves contribute $50 billion annually to the global economy), surf culture can no longer morally justify ignoring its impacts on these peoples and places. Empire in Waves is a wake-up call to this truth.”

Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Left History

“Laderman has crafted a history book with a unique perspective, sure to appeal to anyone who has a fascination with the ocean or even a mild interest in historical personalities and their little-known connections to surfing. [...] He set out to catch himself a big wave and nailed it.”

LA Weekly

“[A]n authoritative account of the intersection of politics and surfing. Before heading on your next surf trip, give it a close read.”

Brian Unger, The Surfer's Journal

“Laderman convincingly argues that surfing has carried with it the seeds of U.S. imperialism since Hawai'i's annexation in 1898 to contemporary global neoliberal capital formations embedded in commercial surf culture.”

Glen Thompson, Radical History Review

“Everywhere you look everyone tells you surfing is all about fun, fun, fun. Warm sunshine, sandy beaches, girls in bikinis, and glorious wave riding. But dig a little deeper and, as Laderman’s in-depth research reveals, the rich cultural history of surfing and the natural global phenomenon it's turned into has so much more to offer.”

Surf Europe

“[T]his remarkable historical interpretation is a thoroughly engaging and provocative work that will leave readers reconsidering their assumptions the next time they see someone riding a wave. [...] It deserves a place on the shelves of scholars seeking to understand the unintended consequences of U.S. political, corporate, and cultural activities overseas, and it is a superb choice for courses on U.S. foreign policy, economics, and sports that demonstrates the perhaps unanticipated role and impact of surfers.”

H. Gelfand, Pacific Historical Review

“[W]ell-written and engaging....”

Glyn Ford, Asian Review of Books

Empire in Waves raises important and underanalyzed issues in surfing history and culture. With its impressive notes and bibliography, it will contribute to university classrooms and aid academic research in future surfing scholarship.”

Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, Journal of Pacific History

“What do surfing and politics have in common? Scott Laderman, author of Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing, is about to shock a few naive souls. [...] His book is a must-have in your surf library.”

“[A] fine, clever book. [...] Laderman writes clearly and covers a broad swath of historical and geographical terrain ... while never losing the thread of the connections (and disconnections) between surfing and global politics. Highly recommended.”

Derek Catsam, Choice

“Laderman’s highly-readable and broadly-documented analysis of surfing’s political history is a timely arrival, not only to the rapidly-evolving scholarly index of surf studies, but also to a contemporary waveriding culture forcefully embracing the political potential of surf-driven initiatives in the form of non-profits, Enviro Business, and drives for sustainability across the surfing world.”

Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee, Canadian Journal of History

“A historian and surfer, Laderman brings both academic rigor and a waterman's perspective to his subject. [...] Empire in Waves offers exactly what Laderman points out is too often missing from surf literature, a critical assessment of the ways that riding waves is a political (as well as pleasurable) pursuit.”

Steve Estes, H-Soz-Kult

“Perhaps not since Samuel Eliot Morison has a historian applied such personal knowledge of the sea to add depth and excitement to historical narrative—and had so much fun doing it. [...] Empire in Waves provides insights into global history in a way that is both meaningful and a joy to read.”

Richard Ian Kimball, Passport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review

Empire in Waves is an important and impassioned work. Without a trace of fire and brimstone, it reminds the surfing community that it has a history that is inescapably political—and it provides a primer on responsible global citizenship. Without sacrificing discliplinary precision, it asks historians of U.S. diplomatic and transnational history to both expand and deepen our understanding of empire and international power. And it prods both readerships to question the mischievous notion of American exceptionalism.”

Dennis Merrill, Passport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review

“It is the purpose of innovative and provocative books to inspire debate, and Scott Laderman deserves the highest praise for writing an engrossing, fast-paced, and informative narrative that academics and activists aspiring to reach popular audiences will find worthy of emulation. Empire in Waves makes an important contribution to U.S. transnational history, and it will engross professional historians, human rights activists, undergraduate and graduate students, and actual and armchair surfers alike.”

Christine Skwiot, Passport: The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations Review

“Laderman’s history offers intriguing moments in which he pulls together surfing narratives ... illustrating the degree to which pleasure and power were intimately linked in the world that American foreign policy produced. ”

Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez, Journal of American History

“What Laderman presents is a fascinating account of a sport whose proponents believed it to be apolitical, but facing the politics of a modern world. ”

Mark Sachleben, H-Diplo

Empire in Waves demonstrates that surfing is truly global in its popularity and impact, catching the attention of politics and governments; scholars, too, should pay attention to Laderman’s examination of surfing as a way of understanding broader international histories and transnationalism.”

Heather L. Dichter, Southern California Quarterly

“History professor and surfer Scott Laderman places surfing within a sociopolitical context in this meticulously researched book.”

Honolulu Star-Advertiser

“[Empire in Waves] highlights the connections between commercialism and race that have not, as yet, been substantially explored. That Laderman is also a surfer enables him to provide an insight into a culture that tends to be difficult to access for those who do not participate. [...] Laderman has presented meticulously researched historical material and his writing style is clear and accessible.”

Joan Ormrod, Cultural and Social History

“Laderman demonstrates that the seemingly simple pleasure of riding waves can be linked to international diplomacy, Western economic imperialism, and multinational capitalist systems of marketing and production. [...] This accessible study challenges future historians of surfing to grapple with the economic, sociological, and ecological impact of the sport, rather than simply chronicling its geographic expansion, extraordinary participants, and changing fashions.”

William D. Moore, History: Reviews of New Books

“Scott Laderman’s impressive Empire in Waves debunks the myths surrounding surfing that enable its apolitical mysticism and cachet.”

Brendan Hokowhitu, Journal of Tourism History

Empire in Waves can serve as a model for how to write a revelatory history of a sport, linking it to the broader social context.”

Hilary Levey Friedman, Sociology of Sport Journal

Empire in Waves is a thought-provoking book that calls attention to the role of politics in the ways we practice, communicate, and promote sporting cultures across the globe. [...] Laderman’s book offers much to work with for scholars of surfing, as well as of sport, nation, and race politics more broadly.”

Rebecca Olive, International Journal of the History of Sport


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