An Everyday Alliance: U.S. Military Wives, German Women, and the Making of the Cold War

Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:50 AM
Superior Room B (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Emily L. Swafford, University of Chicago
In the spring of 1947, one U.S. military wife in Germany lamented the lack of modern amenities in the hastily fitted out, military issue houses for dependent families: coal stoves, unheated bathrooms, closet-less bedrooms. By the next spring, she hoped, family housing would be transformed into “a bit of the United States transplanted to Germany.” The efforts of the U.S. to democratize Germany, from its local government to its school system, seemed to imply a transplant of a grander scale, and indeed, Americanization is often taken for granted in the history of twentieth-century Europe. Such a one-way transfer, however, is an incomplete picture. Chronicling the everyday interactions between American and German women highlights the cross-pollination as well as transplantation in postwar U.S.-German relations.

Encounters between American and German women were numerous and varied. Some had clear power differentiations and economic implications, as in the relationship between a domestic servant and her employer, or when women encountered each other as traders on the black market. In others, power was more diffuse, the contacts laden with markers of cultural similarity or difference, such as when Americans visited German churches at Christmas, or when Germans visited American PTA meetings or schools. At the heart of all of these encounters was the negotiation of new relationships within the context of a growing Cold War that depended, in part, on a U.S.-West German alliance. While this alliance was determined, in part by the formation of NATO and increasing antagonism between the Soviets and the U.S., the everyday interactions of German and American women that were integral in working out the shape of this alliance on the ground. Indeed, by 1952, High Commissioner John McCloy described U.S. military families as “a net gain to the German economy and a contribution to American-German friendship.”