Cultural Relations and Policies - Twentieth century through world war ii: americanization and reaction




By 1900, then, there were already complex layers of intercultural relations, some subtle new forces and others that were crude echoes of the past, but all constituting parts of the developing trends toward globalization. These layers continued to evolve after the turn of the century. The history of intercultural relations in the twentieth century is extremely difficult to characterize, since it is an ongoing process. It is possible, however, to examine the period before the outbreak of World War II in terms of two contradictory currents: univer salistic and particularistic tendencies. On the one hand, there was every indication that American influence was spreading to other lands; at the same time, there grew self-conscious opposition to American and Western cultural predominance in the world.

By the time of World War I, the United States had established its position as the leading Western power, not only in industrial production, trade, and foreign loans and investments but also in armaments and political influence. While this was not the same thing as cultural hegemony, there is little doubt that the United States came to stand and speak for Western civilization at a time when the European countries were engaged in fratricidal conflicts and disputes. One reason why President Woodrow Wilson wanted to postpone American entry into the war was his fear for the survival of Western civilization. He came to see his country as a guardian of that precious tradition, a sentiment shared by an increasing number of British. But similar views had also been expressed by Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, who had come to take for granted the spread of benign American influence to the rest of the world. Civilization, as Taft never tired of saying, was based on an unlimited interchange of goods and capital, which in turn contributed to international peace, harmony, and understanding. Americans would carry their wares throughout the world and promote economic modernization and political awakening. Because of their superiority in technology, organization, and business practices, Americans were bound to emerge as the most influential group in the new world of enlightened international relations. They would be among the foremost agents of change in the twentieth century. Wilson fully accepted such ideas and elevated them to a vision of internationalism in which American values would reign—valid not as American but as universal values. No wonder that he was eager to promote missionary activities and was captivated by the idea of establishing American mandates in various parts of the world.

Because the European countries lost population, productive capacity, morale, and prestige as a result of the war, the United States was able to replace European power and influence in international affairs. American technology, epitomized by the automobile, dominated the postwar world, as did popular American culture such as jazz, radio, and motion pictures. In Europe one talked of the "decline of the West" after Oswald Spengler's book of that title was published in 1918, but somehow the West that was declining did not seem to include the United States. Observers such as the sociologists Thorstein Veblen and Pitirim Sorokin discussed the ramifications of the emerging mass society; but they implied that this was the way of the future, that developments in the United States portended what was to take place elsewhere. To understand modern society one looked at the United States. Whether one liked it or not, it seemed that Americanization was an inevitable phenomenon of the postwar world.

This was also the way American influence was perceived in non-Western countries. In Turkey, India, China, Japan, and elsewhere, the war had caused European prestige to suffer; but the United States appeared more vigorous and resilient than its European cousins. American trade was the most extensive in history, and a growing bulk of it was conducted with non-European countries. Americans appeared in areas where earlier one had seen only Europeans, investing in oil fields and establishing manufacturing plants. John Dewey's instrumentalism became the most popular philosophy in universities throughout Asia, and women in distant societies turned to American women not only for fashions but also for political ideals and social visions, such as women's suffrage and population control. Jazz, baseball, and Charlie Chaplin became just as popular in Japan as in America. "Modern times" was synonymous with American culture for people of the 1920s. Even in the 1930s, it is possible to argue, American influence did not abate; the process of cultural Americanization proceeded unchecked until well into the decade. Visits by American baseball teams were always important news to the Japanese, often overshadowing any feeling of crisis as a result of the latter nation's imperialistic activities on the Asian continent. Charles Lindbergh was as well known across the Pacific as across the Atlantic, and even Japanese martial music had definite traces of American influence. Children and women shed their traditional costumes and started wearing Westernized clothes, and bars and cabarets mushroomed. In many ways Japan on the eve of Pearl Harbor was a society more Americanized than ever before.

While the interwar era, then, was a period of rapid Americanization, it is also true that the 1920s and the 1930s saw self-conscious opposition to, and even rejection of, the West by some non-Western countries. They began to assert their identity, no longer content to remain objects of Western expansion and receptacles of Western influence. This second trend, toward particularism, was already visible at the beginning of the century, when people everywhere noted signs that seemed to indicate the non-West's rise against the West. The Russo-Japanese War, which the Japanese took pains to characterize not as a racial conflict but as one between civilization and barbarism, nevertheless was cheered by non-Westerners from Egypt to China as a victory of a colored nation over a white nation. In the Near East and North Africa, Islam was becoming self-conscious and militant; Islamic spokesmen talked of an Arab renaissance and the coming jihad against the Christian West. Mosques began to be built in American cities.

The Young Turks, the Persian nationalists, and the Armenian revolutionaries felt betrayed by the peace settlements after World War I. Asians became disillusioned by the alleged universalism of Wilsonian internationalism when the Western powers failed to adopt a racial equality clause as part of the League of Nations Covenant. The Chinese were bitter toward the United States and Great Britain for their alleged failure to stop Japanese encroachment on Shantung. The Turks viewed the postwar settlement as an imposition by the Western nations at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. For these varied reasons, the international order after 1919 appeared to be an "Anglo-American peace," as Prince Konoye Fumimaro of Japan said.

Nationalism, which had been inspired by the modern Western example, became a force against the West in many non-Western countries during the interwar years. It took on a culturally particularistic meaning as Chinese, Arabs, Indians, and others asserted their distinctive identity as separate from European or American civilization. In China, for instance, nationalism was not only aimed at recovering rights lost to the imperialists; it also revealed itself in a movement to develop native Christian churches and to replace Westerners in administrative posts at colleges and universities. The fascination the Chinese felt for Marxism and Leninism was in part due to the anti-Western messages, explicit or implicit, that they found in these ideologies. Marxist-Leninist thought gave the Chinese a conceptual tool with which to attack Western capitalism as well as Western civilization. The wholesale transformation of the country after the pattern of the West was no longer seriously advocated. Now there were other models and other choices; some sought a Soviet-type revolution, while others visualized a combination of Chinese tradition with modern technology as the best way to save China.

More or less the same phenomenon of self-conscious reassessment of Western values could be observed in Turkey, India, Japan, and other countries. The trend was no doubt encouraged by the literature of pessimism that Europeans were producing in the decade after the war. Many of these writers expressed doubt that Western civilization could survive, and some turned to the East as a source of salvation. As an article in a February 1925 issue of the Europaische Staats und Wirtschafts Zeitung put it, "Our Western world is weary; not weary of life, but of strife and hatred. Indeed, our peculiar society and civilization have been found wanting…. Men are looking to the East unconsciously, and therefore sincerely….The world of Asia draws us with its promise of something new and something that will liberate." Eastern philosophers like Rabindranath Tagore and Vasudeo Metta were eager to oblige and to offer this "something" for which Westerners seemed to be looking. Unfortunately, very often their thoughts were utilized in Asia for nationalistic upheavals against pervasive Western influence.

The world crisis of the 1930s that culminated in World War II definitely had a cultural dimension; it may be argued that the major difference between the two world wars was the addition of the cultural factor in the second. World War I was mainly a civil war among Western countries, whereas World War II involved peoples of diverse cultural traditions and ideologies. It was in essence intercultural warfare. This was particularly true of the United States and its relations in Asia and the Pacific. Throughout the 1930s, Japan pursued an aggressive foreign policy and gave it an ideological sanction of pan-Asianism. The concept was transparently anti-Western. Asia, according to this view, was to reassert itself against the imperialistic exploitation by the West, which had cultural as well as political and economic aspects. For too long, Japanese nationalists declared, the West had permeated Asian life, subverting traditional values and destroying age-old social customs. Asians had ceased to be Asian; they had either become Westernized or objects of Western influence. They had lost their identities and their souls. If they were to regain these things, they must stand together as Asians and develop a regional system of cultural and economic autonomy. The ideology of Japanese militarism stressed the eradication of Western values from education, mass media, and daily living, and the need to return to the essence of national culture. Apologists for Japanese aggression also viewed pan-Asian regionalism as a viable alternative to both imperialism and particularistic nationalism, two vices that they attributed to the modern West. If Asia were to reject imperialism and yet to avoid repeating the experience of the modern nation-states constantly struggling against one another, it was imperative that Asian countries organize themselves into a regional system.

For the bulk of Americans, these events in distant Asia were of far less importance than their individual struggles for economic survival at home. But there was a genuine cultural dimension in the economic crisis, in that the values of bourgeois mass society seemed less and less relevant to the unemployed, the handicapped, and the racially segregated. Western civilization appeared to be seriously threatened from within, as evidenced by the growth of Italian fascism, German nazism, and Soviet communism. Americans, no longer sure of the eternal validity of middle-class precepts and symbols, often turned to Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin as possible saviors of civilization. At the same time, many of them embraced isolationism, in the belief that by staying out of war in Europe or Asia, the United States would be able to preserve what was left of civilization and help reconstruct Europe after it had been devastated by war. For a man like Charles Lindbergh, it was nothing short of a crime against Western civilization to enter the fray on the side of either Britain or Germany. Only the uncivilized in other lands would benefit from such fratricide.

In such a context, the war between the United States and Japan could be seen in a cultural context. The irony was that the combatants fought with modern weapons, utilizing all the techniques of scientific warfare. As noted earlier, despite its profession of indigenous values and pan-Asianism, Japan in 1941 was more Westernized than ever before. The decision to establish control in the areas of Asia that were rich in natural resources could also be seen as a device to proceed with further industrialization and economic strengthening. The Japanese dream of an autonomous empire was little different from a Western conception. Cultural particularism did not cloak these ambitions.

The United States, on the other hand, regained the sense of cultural identity and confidence when war came. The self-doubt and crisisconsciousness of the 1930s were replaced by a renewed faith in the essential soundness and goodness of Western values. The faith was expressed in the universalistic rhetoric of the Atlantic Charter, the Declaration of the United Nations, and the communiqués issued by the Big Three at the end of their meetings at Teheran (1943) and Yalta (1945). The language reaffirmed the principles of peace, justice, and human rights, which were seen to be as relevant as ever because the Axis powers were pictured as the would-be architects of a world based on diametrically opposed values. It is true that many Americans saw the Pacific war in more parochial ways, stressing the racial aspect. To cite one extreme example from within the government, Captain Harry L. Pence of the U.S. Navy reiterated, at meetings of the State Department Advisory Committee on Postwar Foreign Policy, that the war involved the question of "which race was to survive." He favored "the almost total elimination of the Japanese as a race," saying, "Japan should be bombed so that there was little left of its civilization." Moreover, the Japanese "should not be dealt with as civilized human beings…. Weshould kill them before they kill us." Although representative of a current of opinion in wartime America, such views were not part of postwar planning. On the contrary, officials and opinion leaders continued to stress universalistic principles and to search for a new world order in which Japan, no less than other countries, would participate. Japan's surrender thus implied, at the level of cultural affairs, the recognition that particularism had failed and the acceptance by Japan of American ideas as more applicable to its needs.

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