Transatlantic Perceptions: A Source Collection

Transatlantic Relations and Mutual Perceptions of Europe and the United States

The transatlantic careers and the transnational networks discussed in the other sections of this website took place against the broad, dynamic background of European-American relations during the second half of the twentieth century. The sources collected in this section (largely drawn from mass media of the era) were selected to provide context for the broader development of transatlantic relations after World War II—a period the included the Cold War, tremendous economic growth, social movements, and the beginning of the process of European integration. The sources also help to gauge changing mutual perceptions of Europeans and Americans during a time when the United States was considered by many as a beacon of modernity and a model for social and political change. Still, Americans continued to look to Europe for inspiration and European developments continued to influence the thinking of American and transatlantic elites. Through their prominence, furthermore, many elite migrants helped shape American perspectives on Europe in the postwar period.

The American Century, Americanization, and Transatlantic Relations during the Cold War

In February 1941, TIME editor Henry Luce famously announced the advent of the “American Century.”[1] Indeed, after World War II the United States was the preeminent global political and economic power. Furthermore, since the interwar years, American commercial culture (including music, movies, and advertising) had begun to capture the imagination of audiences abroad as well as at home. To many in war-torn Europe, the American model appeared to offer a glimpse of a better future.

This was clearly a departure from the dominating role European powers had played during the nineteenth century. Up to the 1920s, American reformers and innovators were heavily tied into transatlantic networks that connected cities like London and Vienna, Berlin and Chicago, and Paris and New York. Americans traveled to Europe in search of solutions to the era’s common social and economic problems that arose from industrialization and explosive urban growth (see e.g.“Americans Abroad: A Study in Evolution,” 1931). European high culture and art as well as academic institutions continued to set international standards and the forced migration of European intellectuals to the US following the 1930s was perceived by many (if not by all) as a significant gain for American society (“The Laughs are on Hitler,” 1943). The balance of the transatlantic relationship certainly changed as the United States gained dramatically in economic influence after World War I and in political influence after World War II.[2]

Europeans had discussed the spread of “Americanisms” such as jazz, consumer products, and Taylorist production and management methods as early as the 1920s and 1930s. Following World War II, an even broader debate ensued over the so-called Americanization of Western Europe, its popular culture, social structures, business, and economic development. Through Marshall Plan funding and related institutions, American advisers exerted influence on the continent while European experts in fields ranging from industrial design to urban planning traveled to the United States to study American methods and solutions (see e.g. “‘Consumerism’ Rises in World,” 1956). For much of the twentieth century, “America” signified an ideal future to some European commentators and a dystopian vision to others. Many Europeans rejected American models or American political and military influence, and anti-Americanist sentiments were frequently intertwined with Americanization debates. Historians have employed Americanization as an analytical category to understand societal change and what was long discussed as postwar “modernization” in Europe. Recent scholarship has emphasized, however, that this process rarely involved the simple adoption of American models. It was characterized by a complex translation and adaptation of ideas and practices to the European context. Comparative studies have shown, furthermore, that European societies in many ways did not become “Americanized” at all. Instead, as Western European nations attained substantial prosperity of their own by the 1960s and early 1970s, they regained a level of confidence in the viability of their own political, social, and economic arrangements (“The Rivals: How America Looks at Europe,” 1973).[3]

The United States’ role in Cold War Europe nonetheless remained central, particularly in military and political terms. American policies, such as the Marshall Plan, were not only geared towards rebuilding allied European countries economically, but frequently reinforced the East-West divide on the continent. In many ways, American perceptions of Europe in the postwar decades focused primarily on those countries in northern, western, and southern Europe that were on the American side of the Iron Curtain (“Shift in Western Policy Suggested by Acheson,” 1959). American policy was heavily guided by the Cold War to shore up ideological alliances and frequently transcended traditional diplomatic efforts. Cultural diplomacy through organizations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom, America Houses, and the Voice of America was as much part of the American arsenal as the promotion of American studies and student exchange programs.[4]

Recent transnational scholarship has made clear, however, that transatlantic relations during the Cold War era were not confined to the level of government sponsored programs, but extended instead to networks of a myriad of civil society actors. Returning migrants often played a significant role in shaping mutual, transatlantic perceptions (“Meet Max Brauer,” 1950). Especially with the rise of new social movements in the 1960s, European-American relations were heavily shaped by transatlantic cooperation and exchanges (for example, the student movements). Such contacts, furthermore, frequently crossed the otherwise impenetrable East-West divide, and were often openly critical of official Cold War policies. One example of this is the transatlantic opposition movement to the war in Vietnam. As central as Europe was as a staging ground of the Cold War, however, its global role became marginal in light of the increasingly global political arena and the influence wielded by the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.[5]

Postwar Europe: Perspectives on a Changing Continent

Europe changed in profound ways during these decades. In many ways, European nation states that had been fierce rivals and had accentuated their national differences came closer together following World War II. The European integration process that culminated in the European Union had its institutional beginnings in the 1950s. While hopes for a United States of Europe did not come to fruition and political integration progressed slowly, economic integration proceeded swiftly. Cooperation in heavy industry and a customs union, as laid out by the Treaties of Rome in 1957, provided the first, crucial steps for the emergence of supranational institutions shared by western European nations.[6] To some, this process held the promise of a new European model and the increased Europeanization of life on the continent (“The Year of Europe: Here Comes the European Idea,” 1972).

The western part of the continent grew together in other ways as well. The shared experience of the economic boom, which consisted of nearly thirty years of sustained growth and rising real incomes across most of Western Europe, allowed for broad social and structural change and a common sense of new-found prosperity. European economies rebounded from wartime devastation and while the “American Challenge” was still discussed during the 1960s, distinct European paths to prosperity had emerged.[7] Even though most of Western Europe had embraced the market economy, European political economies tended to be mixed, with the state playing a bigger role than in the United States. The social market economy in West Germany and state-guided planning efforts in France are two examples of the many ways in which governments helped shape market economies through regulation, public ownership of industries, and policy making.Labor unions, too, played a bigger role in many European countries by influencing the political process or through employee co-determination in businesses. Central European or “Rheinisch” capitalism, in particular, retained a more organized and corporatist structure than its competition-oriented Anglo-Saxon counterpart. Large banks, rather than the stock market, set the tone for economic development. As European exports (alongside those of Japan) increasingly challenged America’s dominant role in global markets, American observers once again paid close attention to European business developments(“Small-Car Invasion Prods Detroit to Act,” 1957).[8]

Postwar prosperity meant increased consumption, and contemporary observers at times discussed this as an element of Americanization. European consumption patterns, however, not only converged across national borders, but also retained distinct differences from the United States. Europeans continued to spend more on food and less on cars than their American counterparts. The style and design of many consumer goods retained a distinct flavor, and during the postwar decades Americans paid close attention to French fashion, Scandinavian furniture, and other luxury items (“Modern Living: Those Designing Europeans,” 1975). The consumption of public goods and services, such as mass transit, communal pools, and museums, played a more important role in the lives of middle class European consumers. This was the result of the extensive welfare state that became a characteristic of many European countries. While important differences remained between, e.g., Britain’s welfare regime that was introduced following the 1942 Beveridge Report, the Social-Democratic Scandinavian welfare states, and the more conservative French and German social security regimes, American advocates for extended social spending could look to a variety of European models. Public housing was a related field in which American architects and planners would look to European efforts. In this and many other areas of expanded state involvement, however, postwar Americans were less eager than their Progressive Era predecessors to adopt European approaches.[9]

While social housing was less attractive in the United States at a time of suburban sprawl, the development of European cities remained of interest to American observers. Despite their many differences and regional varieties, cities in Europe had—on the whole—managed to retain both residential and commercial activity within the urban core. While cars were on the rise in Europe as well, efforts to construct inner city pedestrian shopping streets during the 1960s and 1970s helped to keep many cities lively and livable (“City Planning: Why it Works in Europe,” 1972). As American cities were undergoing a severe crisis, planners and the public drew inspiration from European cities when it came to inner city revival projects or the advent of New Urbanism, a design movement that advocated walkable cities and mixed-use neighborhoods, in the later decades of the century.[10]

Thus, despite the asymmetrical transatlantic power relationship during the postwar decades of the American Century, a vibrant transnational exchange continued and Europe did not disappear from the purview of American observers. Migration continued to play a role in this process, and the contributions of elite migrants to various fields of American society and culture did not go unnoticed (see e.g. “Emergence of a Master Architect,” 1957). Traditional European immigration in the postwar decades, to be sure, paled in comparison to the influx from Europe earlier in the century. Especially after the 1960s, immigration from Asia and Latin America increased dramatically and helped reorient American attention from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Western Hemisphere. Still, Europeans continued to arrive in a variety of forms – as immigrants, as career migrants, as students, and as tourists – and at the same time an unprecedented number of Americans experienced Europe through tourism, business connections, and military service. Crossing back and forth across the Atlantic, they helped shape mutual perceptions of Europe and America and were vital for transnational networking and the exchange of ideas, methodologies, and practices.

Structure of Entries

This section features contemporary documents (or links to them) with relevance to one of several subcategories. Each primary source document will be introduced by a brief paragraph explaining what it is and its relevance to our project.

[1] Henry Luce, “The American Century,” Life, February 17, 1941.

[2] The preeminent account of transatlantic transfers and exchanges during the
American Progressive era is Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[3] The literature on American influence on Europe is vast; here are a few suggestions: Mary Nolan, Visions of Modernity: American Business and the Modernization of Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Volker Berghahn, The Americanisation of West German Industry, 1945-1973 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Richard Kuisel, Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Harm Schröter, Americanization of the European Economy: A Compact Survey of American Economic Influence in Europe Since the 1880s (Dordrecht, the Netherlands; Norwell, MA: Springer, 2005); and Robert Rydell and Rob Kroes, Buffalo Bill in Bologna: The Americanization of the World, 1869-1922 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[4] On the impact of the Marshall plan as well as on American cultural diplomacy see: Nicolaus Mills, Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age As a Superpower (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2008); Sheryl Kroen, “Negotiations with the American Way: The Consumer and the Social Contract in Post-war Europe,” in John Brewer and Frank Trentmann, eds., Consuming Cultures, Global Perspectives: Historical Trajectories, Transnational Exchanges (Oxford: Berg, 2006), 251-278; Reinhold Wagnleitner, Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria After the Second World War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Richard Pells, Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed
American Culture Since World War II
(New York: Basic Books, 1997).

[5] A comprehensive compendium on various aspects of German-American relations after the war is: Detlef Junker, Philipp Gassert, Wilfried Mausbach, and David B. Morris, The United States and Germany in the Era of the Cold War, 1945-1990: A Handbook (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). For recent research on the role of civil society organizations see: Belinda J. Davis, Changing the World, Changing the Self: Political Protest and Intercultural Identities in 1960/70s West Germany and the United States (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008).

[6] See e.g. Wolfram Kaiser, Brigitte Leucht, and Morten Rasmussen, The History of the European Union Origins of a Trans- and Supranational Polity 1950-72 (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[7] Jean Jacques Servan-Schreiber, The American Challenge (New York: Atheneum, 1968).

[8] On postwar European economic development cf. Barry Eichengreen, The European Economy Since 1945: Coordinated Capitalism and Beyond (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Nicholas Crafts and Gianni Toniolo,Economic Growth in Europe Since 1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Matthias Kipping and Ove Bjarnar, The Americanisation of European Business: The Marshall Plan and the Transfer of US Management Models (London: Routledge, 1998).

[9] On structural changes and social trends in recent European history see Hartmut Kaelble, The European Way: European Societies During the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York: Berghahn Books, 2004); Göran Therborn, European Modernity and Beyond: The Trajectory of European Societies, 1945-2000 (London: Sage Publications, 1995).

[10] On transatlantic exchanges in the field of urban planning see Christopher Klemek, The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism from New York to Berlin (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Transatlantic Perceptions: A Source Collection
  • Author
  • Website Name Transatlantic Perspectives
  • URL
  • Access Date May 28, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update November 11, 2021