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How The World Fell in Love with America

America as a "vast conspiracy to make you happy"

Kevin Lee/Getty Images News

My favorite movies growing up were Westerns. Cowboys, horses, six-shooters: these were daydream fuel for an eight-year-old boy. This was in the early ’80s, hardly the heyday of the genre—in America, at least. But in the Philippines, where I was born and raised, Pinoy Westerns were the rage, with all the idioms, gestures, and tropes of the American originals transplanted onto native soil.

The fact that Filipinos cowboys giddyapping past coconut trees seemed normal was less a testament to Philippine cinematic acumen than the power the originator had over us. America was in the air, in the water, in our heads. Reading Peter Conrad’s How the World Was Won: The Americanization of Everything brought back those years and the curious experience that I and billions of others have lived in the last half century: how one can be on the outside of America looking in and still feel engulfed by it.

An Australian critic whose erudition is matched by his eloquence, Conrad has written books and essays on a wide range of big topics: opera, Orson Welles, New York, now America itself. He admits that his latest project is close to his heart. How the World Was Won tells the story of Americanization—its power, its problems, its seeming inevitability—from an admiring outsider’s perspective. Its timing is propitious, for haven’t we heard that America is now in decline? This breezy cultural history proceeds from the postwar boom years to the troubled 1960s and ’70s, right up through Reagan’s Morning, September 11, and the glum decade and a half since. It is less a rigorous history than an idiosyncratic, free-associative memoir of cultural consumption—and a fervent “thank you” to a country and culture that haven’t always been welcomed by the world.

The chapters on those first couple of decades after World War II are the most fun, not least because they foreground an image that seems a tonic in these days of cranky American middle age: the United States as young colossus, brash, barely scathed, unconscionably happy. That happiness became something of a trademark. “Americans pursue happiness with a will and expect to attain it,” Conrad writes. Who wouldn’t want to submit to its culture’s gravitational pull? Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, Conrad was a member of the first generation “to have its gaze forcibly redirected” to America. He did not resist, for “Americanization meant the gift of hope.”

If America was, in John Updike’s words, “a vast conspiracy to make you happy,” it was a conspiracy rooted in the material world. Relatively untouched by the war, America entered the second half of the twentieth century on a seeming glide path to perpetual prosperity. Conrad tells of a signal moment at the 1959 Moscow World’s Fair, where a fully furnished ranch house was displayed for the Russian public. Dubbed “Splitnik”—visitors took it all in by walking down a corridor that split the house in half—it was an emblem of American prosperity seen up close by the citizens of the rival superpower. The color TV set, hi-fi, cabinets bustling with goods, a fridge full of Pepsi (they beat Coke to the punch): these were all “reminder[s] of abiding inequalities.” No less revelatory was Edward Steichen’s Life cover photo from the Moscow fair, which juxtaposed an elegant Pat Nixon with the dowdier Mrs. Khrushchev and two other politicians’ wives—one of whom trains her “downcast, covetous eyes” on the positively regal American.

That double-edged glance could well have been a metaphor for how the world saw America. In the Manila suburbs of my childhood, it was a truth universally acknowledged that everything “stateside” was better: better made, better performing, better looking. But that awe mingled easily with resentment. We obsessed over American culture even as we lamented its dominion over homegrown creations. We lusted after American products even as we sneered at the allegedly stupid, lazy Americans who made them. (A grade-school memory: making fun of my American pen pal’s terrible penmanship and numerous misspellings. My meanness was repaid many times over when I started middle school in New Jersey.)

The ambivalence was rooted in Jean Baudrillard’s observation: “America is the original version of modernity. We are the dubbed or subtitled version.” Pop culture shoved American superiority in the faces of billions, inspiring both desire and resentment. “Films were shop windows,” writes Conrad, and the rest of the world wanted to go shopping. Where American products couldn’t be bought, they were copied. In Made in USA, Jean Luc-Godard gave French places and faces American names—“the French, Godard thought, had become ersatz Americans, so why not complete their abject surrender of identity?” Lars von Trier, who has savaged the American way in his films, once grumbled, “Sixty percent of the things I have experienced in my life are American. … In fact, I am an American.”

Underneath that discontent is a suspicion that the happiness that America is peddling really obscures something darker. Many see in its bliss the usual complement: ignorance. Paul McCartney, after his first taste of America, had the temerity to call the country of the future “a bit backward.” Simone de Beauvoir lodged a graver complaint, saying that Americans had no comprehension of evil. Graham Greene saw a naiveté that was hardly harmless. “What vexed Greene most was the American determination to make the world better,” Conrad notes.

That was the worry—that “[u]nder cover of disseminating happiness, Americans may have been exporting an affliction.” The country, to its critics, was a contradiction: a democracy of conformists. Was Americanization not the mechanism to take this conformity global? Writing of Allen Ginsberg’s travels in the ’50s and ’60s, Conrad notes that “foreignness [is] hard to come by in an Americanized world.” Sure enough, a world dominated by America conditions us into thinking that America is universal: When I was growing up, I saw Coke as less an American symbol than an omnipresent global brand. By the same token, it becomes easy for America to assume that it is the best that the world can offer. Or have you never noticed that the champions of America’s pro sports leagues have the unthinking habit of calling themselves “world champs”?

The notion of “America as a normative concept,” as historian Edward Purcell put it, is central to the story of Americanization. Purcell saw in the postwar period a belief taking hold in its people—and specifically among its intellectuals—that America was the best possible expression of democratic governance. In that attitude one finds the tension that has defined Americanization: an American idealism and irrepressibility that has endeared it to billions, inextricable from an arrogance and hypocrisy that has repelled the world at the same time.

A sweeping meditation on the complexities and contradictions of the global response to America, How the World Was Won is not ambiguous about how it feels toward its subject. Conrad concludes his mash note by declaring that “a world without America would be a dull, constricted place, hardly worth living in.” So ardent is his love that Conrad probably stinted on interrogating America and Americanization with a more critical eye.  

But as a fellow outsider who fell in love with America long before I set foot in it, I can hardly blame Conrad for his sentimentality. Unironic expressions of love for American culture have long been unfashionable on the left, with Americanization seen as little more than the imperial spread of a stultifying commercialism. But while it has had its malign effects, Americanization has been on the whole a force for good: a dynamic, irresistible phenomenon that gave those of us on the outside a glimpse of unknown pleasures and possibilities. Moreover—and this is what many critics miss—Americanization was hardly forced upon the world. “We were captivated rather than conquered—consensually Americanized,” writes Conrad. Perhaps that accounts for the grumpiness of the Godards and the von Triers—they know they invited the colonizer in.

What gives Conrad’s encomium added poignancy is the diminished stature of its subject. America is still the world’s superpower, of course—but it is hardly the young, strapping titan of Conrad’s childhood. “The skyline of Shanghai makes Manhattan look stumpy, Bollywood is in ruder health than Hollywood, and in the autumn of 2012 the latest dance craze originated in Korea”—reminders that the American century may be nearing its end.

When America’s reign does end—and it will; all things do—I wager that the world will miss it. Certainly this imperfect country has disappointed us time and again. But that the world is so invested in America that it feels entitled to be disappointed by it speaks volumes about how much it still occupies our moral imagination. It may not be able to bear the weight of the aspirations of billions, and maybe it never could. But that the world should care so deeply that it live up to its ideal—and still entertain hopes that it will—is the enduring legacy of the Americanized era.