Tuesday, January 19, 2010

David Ekbladh's "The Great American Mission"

David Ekbladh is assistant professor of history at Tufts University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order, and reported the following:
Harry Truman is the center of action on Page 99. Readers catch him in the midst of justifying a major foreign policy initiative. To do so, he did what politicians still do: relate it to domestic American life. What’s happening on the page illustrates some elements that are at play throughout a book that traces the role of modernization in U.S. foreign affairs in the twentieth century.

In 1949 Truman proposed the “Point Four” program as part of his Cold War strategy that would promote modernization on an American pattern worldwide. But what would the United States actually do to poorer nations? He had to make “Point Four” legible to domestic (and foreign) audiences. He compared it to a reigning model of how liberal societies could promote economic and social development—the New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority.

“We [the United States] are somewhat famous for...technical knowledge. What I propose to do is to present to the peoples of the world that know-how... That is what Point Four means... I see immense undeveloped rivers and valleys all over the world that would make TVA’s... All it needs...is somebody who knows the technical approach to their development.”

Such a comparison was popular with important constituencies. There were those who saw the TVA and similar projects as huge successes, proof that the deflating urge for reform at home could be successfully reinvigorated and transmitted overseas. John Gunther, a popular journalist of the day, concurred when he said that the TVA “proves the idea of…development works” and that “its horizons could be illimitable.”

Truman’s talk of the TVA shows how politics and ideology are connected with modernization and exposes the links between domestic reform and development Italicefforts abroad. These links were apparent even before Truman made his plea.

Of course, the rhetoric recounted on page 99 only begins to reveal the depth of the story. There is much more as the book covers the sweep of how such ideas and the policies they inspired were actually applied. Crucially, the liberal brand of development the TVA epitomized and Truman grasped as a Cold War tool, would be used around the world to contain the influence of fascist and communist models of progress. In places like China, South Korea, Iran, and South Vietnam tracing the impact of U.S. sponsored programs demonstrates that modernization did not always live up to the claims of its boosters.
Read an excerpt from The Great American Mission, and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue