Selling the American Way

At first sight it is a little hard to know why the astonishing economic recovery of Europe after World War II should have provoked so much controversy. Yet from the 1950s onward, few questions have been more vigorously discussed than that of how and with what consequences Western European nations entered the age of affluence. Commentators and critics on both the left and the right debated the new economic order, lambasting or lauding a newfound affluence and consumerism. The debate, of course, was never just about the economy, but was part of what was seen as the struggle between American capitalism and Soviet communism for the heart and soul of Europe.

Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe is both a study of the forces working to “Americanize” Europe and a contribution to the debate about their value. Its aim is twofold: to examine the long-term history of the idea that selling America’s commodities would help convert other nations to an American way of life and, more controversially, to chart what she sees as the inexorable triumph of what she calls “the Market Empire,” “a great imperium with the outlook of a great emporium.”

The strength of her account lies in its long-term perspective: she opens not, as we might expect, with the postwar recovery that began in the 1950s but with a speech Woodrow Wilson made in Detroit in 1916 to the first World’s Salesmanship Conference in which he urged American entrepreneurs to “go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America.” Thereafter most of her study focuses on the 1920s and 1930s when companies like Ford, J. Walter Thompson, Woolworth, and Gillette penetrated European markets and tried to develop a mass market, large-scale retailing, branding, and product recognition through corporate advertising. Their success, she shows, was far from complete. Widespread poverty, social snobbery, the puritanical attitudes of the left, and the tendency of right-wing governments in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to subordinate their economies to “national” political interests prevented American companies and their supporters from transforming Europe into an outpost of the Market Empire. Only the reconstruction of Europe after 1945 and the Marshall Plan, she claims, made this a reality.

De Grazia approaches the issue of Americanization through a series of finely drawn case studies which examine not merely the obvious examples of American commercial practice—the chain store, big-brand goods, Hollywood movies, and the supermarket—but also the mechanisms by which she believes American capitalist values were spread through Europe. Many of these individual chapters read like stand-alone essays—nuanced, witty, and carefully polished accounts, for instance, of the Rotary International or the European poster industry. But there is often a big stretch between these case studies—filled with larger-than-life characters like Edward Filene, department store millionaire, founder of the Twentieth Century Fund, proponent of scientific merchandising, and outspoken critic of Nazi Germany, or …

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