America's Advance through 20th-Century Europe

By Victoria de Grazia

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 586 pp. $29.95

According to the "official" view enshrined in the utterances of every U.S. president from the second Roosevelt to the younger Bush, history's abiding theme is freedom. America's distinctive calling is to hasten history's journey to its predetermined destination. In this regard, the United States stands as both the ark of liberty and freedom's chief exponent.

In Irresistible Empire, Victoria de Grazia, a Columbia University historian, sets out to subvert that view. Her subject is a seemingly familiar one: European-American relations over the past hundred years. But she devises a decidedly new map for this familiar terrain. As a consequence, de Grazia consigns to the periphery matters that figure as central in the official account. She cares less about the clash of rival ideologies -- liberalism vs. Nazism vs. communism -- than about the migration of American business methods across the Atlantic. She attributes less importance to nation-states or governments than to the transatlantic activities of Rotary International or the Ford Motor Company. Paying only glancing attention to presidents and cabinet secretaries, she elevates Edward Filene (the department store magnate) and Stanley Resor (head of the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm) to the status of major players. For de Grazia, ideals don't shape events -- they're just window dressing. Techniques are what count: innovations in polling, marketing, product standardization and product distribution.

De Grazia's "American Century" begins not in 1941, when Henry R. Luce coined the term, but in 1916. That year saw President Woodrow Wilson admonishing attendees at the first ever World's Salesmanship Congress, convened in Henry Ford's Detroit, to "go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America." Making a buck, spreading happiness and promoting American ideals: According to de Grazia, Wilson's countrymen eagerly followed his lead in conflating the three.

In the standard account of the American Century, Europe figures as a dependent, liberated from slavery by U.S. forces in 1945, the beneficiary thereafter of American largesse and protection, yet given to self-destructive urges if left to its own devices and unable to manage its affairs without Washington's benign supervision. In this telling, the peace and prosperity enjoyed by present-day Europeans testify to the enlightened character of U.S. policy and the continuing imperative of American global leadership.

In de Grazia's tale, however, Europe matters for an altogether different reason. By the beginning of the 20th century, American entrepreneurs looked upon Europe as a lucrative opportunity. Here lay a largely untapped market with the capacity to absorb American exports and thereby sustain American prosperity -- but only if bourgeois Europeans could first be persuaded to abandon their hidebound traditions. Successful economic penetration, in other words, required the transformation of Europe's commercial culture: This, not advancing the cause of freedom, accounted for America's burgeoning interest in the countries of the Old World.

From Europe itself, this increased interest elicited a range of responses. Members of the business class sought to accommodate the genial and enterprising Babbitts from across the pond while searching for ways to modify American practice to suit European circumstance. Others -- fascists, socialists, the Catholic Church -- mounted a determined resistance, only to be hopelessly outclassed. When it came to promising utopia, Mein Kampf, the Communist Manifesto and papal encyclicals just couldn't compete with the beguiling images conjured up by Hollywood, Madison Avenue and Ronald McDonald.

By century's end, according to de Grazia, the Americans had prevailed. Europe had succumbed to the patterns of consumption defining the American way of life. "The rise of a great imperium with the outlook of a great emporium" was just about complete. Freedom had won out -- and seemed to be taking the rest of the world by storm. But in its "overweening confidence in technology, raucous commercialism, and tolerance for social wreckage as the price paid for progress," this variant of freedom bore a peculiarly American stamp. Freedom now expressed itself chiefly as the pursuit of happiness -- understood as accumulating brand-name products and attending to the infinitely variable demands of lifestyle. The "American notion of the sovereign consumer" had displaced more exalted pursuits. For the European, now a citizen-consumer, life's big question amounted to choosing among competing detergents; utopia had become the prospect of "neatly folded piles of fresh-smelling laundry."

By the standards of contemporary scholarship, Irresistible Empire qualifies as an immensely sophisticated achievement. Yet its sophistication accounts for its defects, which are substantial: This is a book with moral pretensions but lacking a moral center. De Grazia tells her story in rich, even exhausting detail, drawing on a dizzying range of sources. She laces her account with acute observations, witty asides and allusions to all manner of fashionable theories and thinkers. Her tone throughout is cool and sardonic, making plain her disdain for the process that she describes.

But what, finally, is the point of the exercise? Whacking away at the conventional narrative that attributes to the 20th century an epic grandeur, de Grazia offers a hollow and deeply unsatisfactory alternative. With great causes and great conflicts consigned to the margins, history's center stage is occupied by buying and selling, manipulation and hype, selling out and settling for less. The book's subtitle might as well be "Hucksterism Triumphant." This much is for sure: If de Grazia is right, she won't be selling many books -- we'll all be down at Wal-Mart stocking up on DVDs, beauty aids and laundry detergent instead. *

Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, is the author of "The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War."

Pan American stewardesses display their uniforms in London in 1971.