But in the late 1950s and early 1960s concern over the implications of American culture bounced back to Europe, where it inspired a debate that would dominate academia for the next thirty years. Indeed, academics everywhere increasingly internalized the debate on U.S. culture abroad but they also dramatically revised previous assessments. A blooming leftist movement associated capitalism with a host of things characteristic of twentieth-century society, including consumerism, modernity, bureaucratic "soulless" organization, and the conflict between society and the individual. Their findings would lay the groundwork for the study of U.S. cultural imperialism.
Again, the theme—a critical interpretation of American culture in the world—was not entirely new. Since the early 1900s, if not before, European conservatives such as D. H. Lawrence and Adolf Halfeld had criticized American civilization for its lack of soul and education. Americans, these writers argued, scoffed at high culture. Americans' essential national identity and values, such as productivity, efficiency, and rationality, stood in contrast to the most fundamental characteristics of Kultur, including quality work, contemplation, and the creative use of leisure. Many observers, that is, interpreted American civilization not just as plainly different from but as a treacherous threat to European culture.
The critics of the early 1900s found a faithful audience among post–World War II intellectuals. In the 1940s and 1950s, European leftists also began worrying about American influences, such as McCarthyism and consumerism. Horrorstricken at the term "mass," the Frankfurt School, a group of philosophers, sociologists, and historians, viewed the United States as a mass society with a mass culture that annihilated liberty, democracy, and individualism. The sociologist Herbert Marcuse stated that Americans represented a prime example of how human existence in advanced industrial societies remained passive, acquiescent, and unaware of its own alienation. In his writings, Marcuse developed the image of the "one-dimensional man" (the title of one of his books), an individual incapable of thinking dialectically and of questioning his society. Instead, humans had willfully subordinated themselves to the domination of technology and the principles of efficiency, productivity, and conformity.
The Frankfurt School was particularly worried about the demise of Kultur. Intellectual leaders such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and Leo Lowenthal devised a theory based on Marxism that stressed the subliminal totalitarianism of news agencies, television, and broadcasting. Fostered by the media, American capitalism had turned into an economically and culturally repressive force. High culture no longer represented a foreign, opposing, and transcendental sphere that contrasted with reality. Instead, in the struggle between East and West, Kultur (that is, the individual philosopher, the preservation of theory, art, and high culture) had mutated into a propaganda tool and, thus, to a consumer good. By materializing and mass-producing aspects of high culture, modern humankind had mutilated its original meaning.
The Frankfurt School influenced more than a generation of American thinkers. Disillusionment originating from the Vietnam War and domestic urban and student revolts captivated a culturally influential segment of Americans who came to condemn both the free-market economy and the U.S. government. The promotion of democracy by the United States seemed hypocritical and meaningless in the age of napalm bombs and the Watts riots. Journalists and scholars such as David Riesman, C. Wright Mills, Vance Packard, and William H. Whyte studied the subject of the mass media in the 1940s and 1950s. They believed that the United States was the dominant promoter of capitalism around the globe and concluded from their study of the mass media that it represented a tool of U.S. capitalist ideology, perpetuating U.S. capitalism at home and abroad. To criticize the United States for its military involvement in the Third World, notably Vietnam, implied automatically a critique of American capitalism proper. Capitalism was bad because it threatened human wholeness, true individuality, the sense of community, social bonds, self-realization, and authentic values.
This critical interpretation of the nature of American capitalism profoundly influenced the writing on U.S. foreign relations. Discontent with the "realist" approach of historians such as George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and others, a new generation of "revisionists" shifted the study of the international system to the impact of domestic ideology as well as economic and social forces on U.S. diplomacy. And as American society grew wealthier, critics turned their attention away from the American working class to suppressed domestic minorities and the Third World, where they found that American capitalism, in search of new markets, raw materials, and cheap labor, acted as a victimizer, brutalizer, and exploiter. The making of American diplomacy had to be seen as part of America's capitalist political economy, argued New Left historians such as William Appleman Williams, because the health and persistence of the domestic economy depended on ever-expanding markets abroad. Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and others stressed the economic motivations of U.S. diplomacy and, thus, turned the investigation of the East-West conflict into a struggle between capitalism and socialism. U.S. policymakers constituted the foremost guilty party in this scheme because their actions were motivated solely by their greed, their quest for new markets that the Soviet Union did not even want.
The historiography of U.S. economic and political imperialism formed the foundation for the study of cultural imperialism. Although the term "cultural imperialism" had appeared in scholarly analyses before, it was only in the 1960s that this critique came to be a catchword as well as a coherent argument. The 1977 edition of the Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought defines cultural imperialism as "the use of political and economic power to exalt and spread the values and habits of a foreign culture at the expense of a native culture." Critics of cultural imperialism were united in their portrayal of Western culture as an expansive, predatory force. They cast their critique in a structuralist framework that associates political ideas with an underlying discourse that, in turn, shapes the entire culture in the context of which such ideas are expressed. Unlike the discussants of the 1950s, who had called for more American culture abroad, the critics of cultural imperialism reproached the U.S. government and the business community for spreading that culture beyond U.S. borders.