Spreading the American Dream

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Emily S. Rosenberg, “Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945,” (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.) ISBN number: 9780809001460



In “Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890-1945” Emily S. Rosenberg looks at the ways in which the United States spread its technology-based economy and mass culture around the world. This expansion was justified by what Rosenberg terms the “ideology of liberal developmentalism” (p. 7). This ideology had five major components: “belief that other nations could and should replicate the America’s own developmental experience; faith in private free enterprise; support for free and open access to trade and investment; promotion of a free flow of information and culture; growing acceptance of governmental activity to protect private enterprise and to stimulate and regulate American participation in international economic and cultural exchange” (p. 7).

This ideology grew out of nineteenth century ideas of liberalism that focused on individual initiatives through private enterprise, and morphed throughout the first half of the twentieth century to support and call for more governmental regulation in pursuit of similar goals. These changes occurred throughout three main periods: the promotional state, the cooperative state, and the regulatory state. Outside of the Western Hemisphere, the promotional state from the 1890s to World War One was categorized by private business investment, individual charity and missionary work, and entertainment moving abroad without the direct help of the federal government, but with federal encouragement (leading, sometimes, to private goals conflicting with national goals). Within the Western Hemisphere, though, the United States did not hesitate to use its military to enforce its economic and political mandates on other countries, but stopped short of outright colonialism after the Spanish American War. The 1920s and 1930s saw a rise of the cooperative state, where in increased American presence abroad through trade, investment, and culture led to an increased role of the federal government abroad. Laws, agencies, and regulations were created to foster international investment, help protect those investments abroad, and attempt to ensure that all private investments abroad fit with the government's overall aims; contrary to popular belief, this was not a period of isolationism. The final stage was the regulatory state which grew from the 1930s to World War Two. In this stage the regulatory controls of the federal government were extended and solidified because the global depression and WWII showed that direct governmental control and oversight was needed for international economic and political stability. Following the war, institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United States had strong backing from the U.S. government.


Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

One of the strengths of this book was in challenging the idea of America as an isolationist nation in the interwar years. In this reading of history private investment showed an internationalism which was directly and indirectly supported by national institutions which clearly had interests abroad, though the fully expanded promotional state had not yet been created. Another strength came from showing the ways in which the regulatory state developed over time in the international context.

While I think that overall the use of the ideology of liberal developmentalism is a useful way to think about the American impulse to spread socially and economically abroad, I do not understand from Roseberg’s work how it is that this idea was created and become so widespread. By picking up the narrative in 1890, when this liberal developmentalism is already solidly in place, the reader has no understanding of how this idea developed or became so overarching. Additionally, Rosenberg argues that this liberal developmentalism was encouraged by so many corporations because they saw American trading expansion as “an evolutionary necessity.” (Page 22) But it was unclear to me whether this assertion was propaganda on the part of business leaders looking to expand profits, or if they truly believed it.

Perhaps the greatest weakness however was the way Rosenberg dealt with her international subject matter. Americans, whether they be business people, missionaries, or politicians, were the only people acting with any agency in this story. Indeed, the rest of the world seemed to be blindly following and accepting America’s economic and cultural influences throughout this entire period.

Kirk Johnson, Spring 2013

Rosenberg's book sets out to analyze the process of "expansion" as it was conceptualized and (often inconsistently or even hypocritically) implemented. This is a large topic, and her decision to not also look at the effects of this "Americanizing" process on others certainly kept the scope of her studies somewhat manageable. All the same, the book--especially in the final two chapters--often feels rushed and incomplete. Her decision to track both economic and cultural expansion over a period of 55 years in a relatively short text doesn't allow her to develop some of her more contentious claims more fully. Because this is a revisionist history relying largely on a synthesis or summary approach to the existing literature, it would be helpful for her to explain why she believes her interpretation of the subject is valid.

That said, this book does have some strengths which recommend it not only as a response to existing historiography, but as an interpretive work in its own right. In one sense, Rosenberg tracks the evolution of Gilded Age Liberalism as an ideological construct into Progressivism as a political and social movement; and the subsequent slow metamorphosis of Liberalism as a laissez-faire creed into the New Deal Liberalism of a powerful, activist state. Her argument--that the seeming incompatibility of these two "liberalisms" actually masks an underlying continuity of what she calls "liberal-developmentalism" (page 7)--is provocative, and the interpretive scheme of "promotional", "cooperative", and "regulatory" states (page 13) presents a way to discern continuity in American foreign policy where standard histories have generally seen only inconsistency. Her argument that the Republican administrations of the 1920s were only "isolationist" in style not substance deserves further attention.

This theme of "liberal-developmentalism", however, gets muddled and lost about halfway through the book. The first several chapters are more persuasive, or at least more provocative, although perhaps Rosenberg assumes too much agreement between her interpretation and the reader's understanding of what "Liberalism" meant in 1890; the reader would do well to be familiar with works such as Nancy Cohen's The Reconstruction of American Liberalism 1865-1914, which develops the ideological basis of the creed Rosenberg discusses at great length. She is at her best when illustrating how a genuine belief in limited government and economic liberty shaped government policies towards issues which seemingly called for an activist state directly controlling the means of economic and cultural expansion--but didn't. Rosenberg does persuasively argue that American neo-imperialism and seemingly hypocritical efforts to establish and maintain hegemony were justified by an almost circular-reasoning reliance on this creed, even long after the American state had abandoned outward allegiance to its limited-government tenets.

David McKenzie, Spring 2015

In Spreading the American Dream, Rosenberg seeks to show how the United States exerted power in the world (that is, outside of the North American continent) during the first period that it arguably could--that is, in the period of 1890 to 1945, when the United States's booming economy was among the factors making it a force on the global stage. During this period, as Rosenberg shows, the country consistently used its own development model, which she calls liberal-developmentalism, as the means to spread its influence.

While Bestebreutje is correct that this book is incomplete by not focusing on the reception of U.S. efforts abroad, I agree with Curry that Rosenberg's conscious decision to limit her scope is valid. This book represents a significant step in the historiography for its date of publication, and seems one of the pioneering works examining the United States's role in the wider world. Many works, including titles in Duke University Press's "American Encounters/Global Interactions" series (of which Rosenberg is one of the editors), pick up on this legacy and focus on specific stories of reception of U.S. policies and actions abroad. This work represents a significant stepping stone, one that likely helped to make those further elaborations possible by providing a cohesive framework for the U.S. side of the equation.

Rosenberg's division of U.S. expansion into the outside world into three phases--the promotional state, the cooperative state, and the regulatory state--provides a useful framework for changing U.S. actions. Additionally, her focus on private-sector involvement in U.S. expansion, and the private sector's relationship with the public sector, is an important element often overlooked in traditional diplomatic studies. One critique is that Rosenberg implies that this facet is somewhat exceptional. While one could argue that the extent of private-sector involvement in U.S. expansion has been larger than that for other empires (especially considering the informal nature of U.S. empire), it is not exceptional. Spanish conquest of the Americas was largely accomplished through the agency of individuals acting in concert with or, often (as in the case of Hernán Cortes) acting with belated sanction from, the Crown. Similarly, much early British overseas expansion came from the efforts of private, albeit state-supported, companies. In that way, U.S. expansion, especially into a world of stronger sovereign entities like Latin American states than previous empires faced, was not so exceptional for involving the private sector.

This critique does not, however, detract markedly from the importance of this work in laying the groundwork for further understandings of the U.S. transition from a continental power into a global power.

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