Financial Missionaries to the World

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Emily S. Rosenberg. Financial Missionaries to the World: The Politics and Culture of Dollar Diplomacy 1900-1930. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. Pp. vii+334.


Using the emergence of “dollar diplomacy” as a tool of United States foreign policy, Rosenberg attempts to bridge the disciplines of diplomatic, political and cultural history in her book. She uses the growth of economic professionalism as the background for discussing the emergence of American financial clout on the international stage. But, professionalism, which is male-dominated and the exclusive territory of whites, is juxtaposed against primitivism that Americans used to define the non-European world. Using the concept of primitivism as her basis, Rosenberg sees “dollar diplomacy” as a foreign policy developed in a culture in which American white males saw themselves as responsible for organizing the financial affairs of countries dominated by non-whites who are weak and irresponsible.

“Dollar diplomacy,” which Rosenberg describes as using U. S. banks loans to leverage financial supervision of other nations (p. 253), involved three parties—U. S. banks who made the loans, financial experts who oversaw the financial affairs of the borrowing country, and government officials. The book concentrates on the work of the financial experts reflecting the changing environment in America concerning U. S. government involvement in affairs of other nations. Because of legislative resistance to American imperialism, the State Department kept the involvement of government officials in foreign countries’ financial affairs very low key. This made the most prominent figures in "dollar diplomacy" the financial experts who arranged for loans to developing countries after gaining some concession from the host country to allow financial supervision of the borrowing nation. Repayment of debts was guaranteed by this expertise rather than through military intervention.

Rosenberg has organized the eight chapters of her book to chronologically follow the evolution of “dollar diplomacy” from its conceptual origins following the colonization of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, to its first use in the Dominican Republic, to its demise after World War I after its ineffective use in Germany and Poland. This organization allows the reader to better understand how the professional-managerial discourse was used to counter anti-banking rhetoric that had been popular throughout the nineteenth century. The professional-managerial ideas emphasized the order and expertise that banking and the new science of economics brought to under-developed peoples. This aid to and organization of primitive countries replaced the fear of concentration of financial resources as emphasized by anti-banking rhetoric. The chronology shows U.S. demands that developing countries organize central banks and use the gold standard to keep currency values stable. Rosenberg ends her story as the great depression begins, the wisdom the gold standard is questioned, and anti-banking discourses become ascendant once again.

This study relies upon government archives and personal papers for much of the information concerning the evolution of “dollar diplomacy.” Rosenberg uses secondary sources almost exclusively to develop the cultural background in which the new foreign policy evolved. The mixing of the diplomatic, political history with the cultural history is the real innovation of this book, but the cultural changes do not occur in lock step with changes to foreign policy and becomes a challenge for Rosenberg to keep the chronological flow of her story while asserting the importance of cultural factors in developing American diplomacy.


Curtis Vaughn, Fall 2007

The promise of the book to blend diplomatic, political, and cultural history is fulfilled in an awkward manner as Rosenberg relies on secondary sources to make her arguments concerning the importance of cultural factors in the development of “dollar diplomacy.” The book concentrates on early economics professionals such as Charles Conant, Jeremiah Jenks, and Edwin Kemmerer. Their work led to a succession of like-minded professionals who continued with their theories into the 1920’s. In spite of detailed descriptions of their economic work, Rosenberg does not offer any direct evidence about how their work was influenced by the emerging culture of manliness and racism. Rosenberg has researched the papers of a number of white males of the period without connecting the personal archives of any these men with the culture of the period as presented in this book. The cultural influences on the development of “dollar diplomacy” would have been much clearer with more direct evidence.

Much of the evidence of the gender and racial based cultural influences of the early twentieth century is taken from the work of Gail Bederman offered in her book, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States 1880-1917 (University of Chicago Press, 1995). Bederman saw an emerging twentieth century masculinity that is both civilized, in that it is self-controlled and protective, and primitive, in that it is connected to its native power. Rosenberg opens the second chapter of her book restating much of Bederman’s work and using it as the cultural underpinnings of the Dominican model of “dollar diplomacy” that rejected territorial annexation and imposed control and protection over the affairs of the country through the power of financial experts.

There is no detailed discussion of cultural influences after chapter 2 until Bederman’s discussion of primitivism in chapter 7. In this discussion, she uses such familiar characters as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan to explain the lure of the primitive in the early twentieth century. She eliminates the racial implications of primitivism by citing the work of Franz Boaz who argued that cultural differences defined primitive societies. If primitivism was a cultural rather a racial trait, white males could draw on their primitive instincts without being characterized as non-white. This translated into diplomacy in which economics was power without the use of physical force.

The discussion of the cultural underpinnings of U. S. foreign policy is a useful thought process. It would be more helpful if the evidence could have been more directly attributed to persons who were implementing the new “dollar diplomacy.”

--Clvaughn 19:01, 22 Aug 2007 (EDT)

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