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Jennifer Delton

The 1950s have typically been seen as a complacent, conservative time between the end of World War II and the radical 1960s, when anticommunism and the Cold War subverted reform and undermined civil liberties. But the era can also be seen as a very liberal time in which meeting the Communist threat led to Keynesian economic policies, the expansion of New Deal programs, and advances in civil rights. Politically, it was “the Eisenhower Era,” dominated by a moderate Republican president, a high level of bipartisan cooperation, and a foreign policy committed to containing communism. Culturally, it was an era of middle-class conformity, which also gave us abstract expressionism, rock and roll, Beat poetry, and a grassroots challenge to Jim Crow.

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Tourism is so deep-seated in the history of U.S. foreign relations we seem to have taken its presence for granted. Millions of American tourists have traveled abroad, yet one can count with just two hands the number of scholarly monographs analyzing the relationship between U.S. foreign relations and tourism. What explains this lack of historical reflection about one of the most quotidian forms of U.S. influence abroad? In an influential essay about wilderness and the American frontier, the environmental historian William Cronon argues, “one of the most striking proofs of the cultural invention of wilderness is its thoroughgoing erasure of the history from which it sprang.” Historians and the American public, perhaps in modern fashion, have overlooked tourism’s role in the nation’s international affairs. Only a culture and a people so intimately familiar with tourism’s practices could naturalize them out of history. The history of international tourism is profoundly entangled with the history of U.S. foreign policy. This entanglement has involved, among other things, science and technology, military intervention, diplomacy, and the promotion of consumer spending abroad. U.S. expansion created the structure (the social stability, medical safety, and transportation infrastructure) for globetrotting travel in the 20th century. As this essay shows, U.S. foreign policy was crucial in transforming foreign travel into a middle-class consumer experience.