Infrastructures of the “American Century”: Technology, Mobility, and Materiality in Post-World War II US History

AHA Session 298
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Embassy Room (Omni Shoreham, East Lobby)
Jenifer Van Vleck, Smithsonian Institution
Jenifer Van Vleck, Smithsonian Institution

Session Abstract

In a 1941 editorial in Life magazine, publishing magnate Henry Luce famously described the twentieth century as the “American Century.” As “the most powerful and vital nation in the world,” Luce wrote, the United States had “a duty and opportunity to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence”—including “the right to go with our ships and our airplanes where we wish, when we wish, and as we wish.” Luce emphasized, however, that the United States did not seek to conquer territory. Its power, rather, would derive from the worldwide diffusion of U.S. capital, culture, technology, and ideology. Calling upon his millions of readers to embrace a “truly American internationalism,” Luce argued that global thinking and ambitions should become “as natural to us in our time as the airplane and the radio.” Indeed, in Luce’s view, culture and technology had already created a global American Century: “American jazz, Hollywood movies, American slang, American machines and patented products, are in fact the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common.”

This panel examines the technological, economic, and cultural infrastructures of U.S. global power during the so-called American Century. It features papers by historians whose work bridges multiple fields: the history of technology, the history of capitalism, and cultural history. Consistent with the conference theme, the panel aims to examine connections between the global and the national, between post-World War II processes of globalization and the enduring ideological salience of nationalism. The panel’s unique contribution will be its emphasis on the significance of materiality: the “stuff” of history, from airplanes to satellites. Recent literature on the history of capitalism has focused on finance, at the expense of considering logistics and infrastructure. Meanwhile, scholarship on the history of technology has tended not to engage robustly with the efflorescence of work on the history of U.S. foreign relations and the global political economy. These papers (and the panelists’ larger book projects) address both historiographical gaps. Infrastructure, as a concept, allows a productive reconceptualization of the historical relationship between materiality and ideology. The panel also, as the AHA’s call for papers suggests, compels us to “rethink the boundaries of the nation itself”—and the infrastructural factors that both constrain and enable movements across national borders.

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