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Globalization, Americanization and Europeanization (Part II)

How did the wars of the 20th century influence the trends of globalization, Americanization and Europeanization?

November 14, 2007

Credit: Borislav Bajkic -

Just as the late entry into World War I by the United States had tipped the scales in favor of the allies and against the continental European monarchies, America was also the only power to emerge strengthened from this highly destructive conflict.

With its very productive industrial economy, the United States could have filled the economic and power-political vacuum that the fading of British hegemony had left.

Volker Berghahn:
Globalization, Americanization and Europeanization
Part I
Part II
Part III

There were some prominent Americans who wanted their nation to do this, with the aim of restoring the pre-1914 liberal-capitalist trading system — and thus to resume the globalization process.

They were prevented from realizing this goal by the strong political isolationism that motivated the ordinary voters in the early 1920s, especially in the Midwest. These voters pressured the politicians in Washington to retreat from the world scene.

Instead of helping the Europeans to reconstruct their shattered socio-economic and political systems, they let them “stew in their own juice” and insisted on the repayment of war loans.

However, abandoning Europe posed a threat not just to the stability of the world economy, but also of these countries’ political systems, as European voters were becoming radicalized due to their dire economic and social straits under those circumstances.

Some far-sighted U.S. politicians and businessmen advocated Washington’s re-engagement with Europe, especially after the postwar crisis there had culminated, in 1923, in the virtual collapse of Germany’s economy and parliamentary-democratic system.

The majority of the U.S. population was still unwilling to make a public commitment to the European reconstruction effort. Consequently, the United States could reappear on the scene only through the backdoor. Accordingly, from 1924 onwards, Wall Street bankers helped the Europeans to settle the contentious reparations problem that in turn encouraged U.S. industrialists and investors to appear on the scene.

With the U.S. economy booming in the mid-1920s, financial institutions and individuals, some of them speculators, took up the loans and bonds issued by European companies and municipalities desperate to modernize their production facilities and local infrastructures. A few U.S. corporations, such as Ford and General Motors, either built their own production facilities or bought up European enterprises.

The U.S. industrial dynamism was rooted in its embrace of Taylorism and Fordism. While the ideas of Frederick Taylor and the Scientific Management movement were primarily concerned with the rationalization of production, Fordism, by contrast, was not merely about assembly-lines and work organization — but also about passing some of the gains of mass production on to the ordinary consumer.

In other words, Henry Ford’s views on mass production and mass consumption were two sides of the same coin. Accordingly, the United States experienced in the 1920s a lowering of prices for automobiles and other consumer durables that until the Great Depression of the 1930s produced a period of considerable — if socially uneven — prosperity.

Meanwhile Europe, suffering from continuing structural problems in its economies stemming from the ravages of World War I, saw at best the modest beginnings of an age of mass consumption, especially in the field of affordable entertainment and leisure

Nor did European business take over U.S. mass production methods and management systems wholesale. As before 1914, there was a good deal of skepticism and resistance. But the practices introduced in some branches of industry allow us to speak of a partial Americanization.

This also applies to the importation of U.S. mass culture. Hollywood arrived in Europe as an economic power-house that quickly outpaced the European film industries. The images and happy-end stories that California’s dream factories told on the silver screen influenced the attitudes of millions who went to the movies at least once a week and came away envisioning for themselves the better life that they had just seen and associated with the United States.

With the film stars also came U.S. jazz musicians and dancers and dances, such as the Charleston. Sections of Europe’s youth became mesmerized by these cultural imports from across the Atlantic.

On the other hand, the older generation of educated middle-class Europeans tended to reject the products of American popular culture. Upholding notions of an allegedly more refined European high culture, Hollywood and jazz were often derided as primitive and vulgar — and fed a fairly widespread cultural anti-Americanism.

The steep decline of the U.S. stock market in 1929 and the subsequent worldwide depression obliterated these efforts to re-establish a global economy, this time under American aegis. The United States and Europe sank back into economic protectionism and an integral political nationalism. Worse, large numbers of German voters rebelled against the postwar order.

In January 1933, they brought the Nazis to power — a movement that was wedded to the creation of an autarkic economic bloc and racist Germanic “new order” in which the “non-Aryans” were either allotted the position of slave laborer or were denied the right to life altogether and murdered.

Had Hitler succeeded in defeating the Soviet Union in 1941 — as he confidently expected — we would have witnessed an attempt to Germanize Eurasia, Africa and Latin America. Even faced with this threat, Germany’s European opponents again proved too weak to stop the aggressor.

It was only the entry of the United States into World War II, covertly in 1940, and officially after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that — not unlike the situation in 1917 — the Allied victory was secured over the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan.

When this world conflict finally ended in 1945, the economic, political and intellectual elites of the United States made two fundamental decisions about the postwar order. They wanted to rebuild, for a second time, a liberal-capitalist multilateral world trading system, buttressed by parliamentary-democratic political systems.

But the most important lesson learned from the interwar experience was that Washington would not retreat, but this time use its superior economic and power-political weight to shape the postwar world.

This quest is probably best summarized in Henry Luce’s famous article in Life Magazine of January 1942, entitled “The American Century.” In it, the newspaper tycoon argued implicitly that, if the United States had failed to mold the world along the lines of its own political and economic ideals in the first half of the 20th century, it would and should certainly do so in the second half.

A major problem in building this new order was the role that Stalin’s Russia might play in it. Some Americans believed in 1945 that a global framework could be devised that would not only complete the process of de-colonization and the integration of the “Third World,” but also somehow incorporate the Soviet Union.

By 1946, it had become clear that integrating Stalin proved impossible. Instead, the Cold War divided the world along the Iron Curtain until 1989. Accordingly, the West now concentrated its postwar reconstruction effort on Western Europe.

Washington used its hegemonic weight — now both economic and military — to nudge and often pressure the West Europeans not only into closer cooperation, but also into the adoption of its ideas and practices relating to the organization of a modern industrial economy devoted to mass production and mass consumption.

The recovery program that U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced in June 1947 involved not merely the sending of material aid to enhance Western Europe’s postwar reconstruction in competition with Stalin’s efforts on the other side of the Iron Curtain to Sovietize the economies and societies of eastern Europe.

The Marshall Plan was also significant psychologically in that it gave the European “masses” hope of a better future and encouraged U.S. private industry to invest — and thus to help Europe’s industries to modernize.

This time, the United States, as the economic and military hegemon of the West — would not withdraw from international affairs as in 1918/19, but would try to shape the postwar world, nudging the nations of Western Europe to seek closer economic integration.

One of the most important players on the European side was Jean Monnet, the actual father of the Schuman Plan and of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950/51. The ECSC represented a major step on the way to the Rome Treaty of 1957 that ushered in the next phase of European integration.

All the while, American pressure for change was directed at the traditional structures of European capitalism, and its cartels in particular that were generally averse to competition in the market place. It was also aimed at transforming entrepreneurial mentalities and attitudes underlying European resistance to structural and institutional change.

These transformations did not occur overnight. The United States did not act like a steamroller that pushed into Western Europe and flattened all existing patterns in its path. Washington realized that cultural change of this kind — and this is what it ultimately was — takes a long time.

One of the key people on the U.S. side was Paul Hoffman, a former president of Studebaker, who, as Marshall Plan administrator, first promoted visits by European managers, trade unionists, politicians and civil servants to study the U.S. system of production, labor relations and consumption.

In 1950, when he became president of the Ford Foundation, then the biggest philanthropic organization in the world, he continued his policy of exchange and dialogue by funding European and international programs as part of a projection of American “soft power” (in the words of Joseph Nye) around the world.

Thus, structural change was complemented by a process of steady erosion of cultural anti-Americanism.

In this picture of generational change, it is not surprising that many of the old executives, especially in the heavy industries of Europe, were more resistant to American ideas than the younger managers. An increasing number of them knew the United States from personal visits — or even from their studies at one of the country’s universities or business schools.

Editor’s note: You can read Part I here or continue to Part III.