David Ekbladh . The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order . 408 pp. Notes, Illustrations, bibliography, index. $35.00 (cloth), $24.95 (paper) .

Since the publication of Michael Latham's Modernization as Ideology in 2000, diplomatic historians have devoted a great deal of attention to the influence of modernization theory on American foreign policy.1 They could scarcely have chosen a more important or relevant topic. Modernization theory was crucial to American thinking about the world during the 1950s and 1960s. It determined America's perception of, or relationship with, almost every non-European country in one way or another. Moreover, because the theory contained some of the same notions of Western superiority and guided progress that had informed imperialist ideologies in prior centuries, studies of modernization have been able to very profitably draw connections between the informal empire that Americans built during the Cold War and the more formal empires that Europeans created in Asia and Africa in earlier eras. During the last decade we have seen studies that probed the meaning of modernization, examined how it was implemented in specific countries and regions, and compared capitalist and communist versions of the concept.2

David Ekbladh's The Great American Mission is a new and important contribution to this literature. Despite the quality of many of the existing studies on modernization theory, they have not really explored where the idea came from. Much of this literature focuses chiefly on the 1950s or 1960s when modernization theory's influence was at its apex and emphasizes how the theory shaped actual policies. Ekbladh differentiates himself from other scholars working on the subject by examining the origins and rise of this very American style of development. He skillfully integrates the activities of a range of state and nonstate actors that sought to promote different types of modernization from the early twentieth century until the 1970s.

The first two chapters of The Great American Mission are where Ekbladh makes his most striking and original contribution. Here, he offers a prehistory of modernization theory, tracing the roots of Truman's Point Four program and Cold War development policy to earlier American efforts to foster economic progress both in the United States and abroad. The author contends that lessons learned about planning and social engineering through reconstructing the south after the Civil War and launching the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Great Depression informed America's approach to the third world during the Cold War. Ekbladh demonstrates very convincingly that these critical episodes in America's past were born of the same faith in liberal culture that would guide Rostow and other leading Cold War–era development experts.

The early chapters of Ekbladh's work also discuss the global activism of American philanthropic foundations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during the years before World War II. Although the activities of some of the organizations that Ekbladh mentions had been covered before in works such as Emily Rosenberg's Spreading the American Dream, the author demonstrates much more explicitly how the ideas and goals that these organizations espoused were relevant—in very immediate ways—to the postwar era.3 The Rockefeller Foundation's support for the Peking Union Medical College in China during the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, prefigured far more ambitious American efforts to build modern educational institutions in Asia during the Cold War. Ekbladh deserves credit for being the first to demonstrate the intellectual linkages between the somewhat scattered activities of American NGOs before World War II and the much more centralized and systematic efforts to develop the third world that would come later.

The second half of The Great American Mission is somewhat more uneven and idiosyncratic than the first half, however. Chapters four and six mainly focus on specific case studies—South Korea and South Vietnam—while chapters five, seven, and eight continue to trace broader trends in how American development experts thought about the world. Generally, Ekbladh is more effective when he is dealing with broad intellectual trends than when he narrows his focus. His analysis of the Eisenhower administration's initial emphasis on trade instead of aid and the disagreements that this approach created with intellectuals who continued to espouse large-scale development programs helps to explain some of the seeming contradictions in American policy toward the third world during the 1950s. Similarly, Ekbladh's treatment of the “crisis of development” that emerged during the 1970s after modernization theorists had repeatedly tried but failed to promote rapid development in the third world offers a lucid account of how the consensus that had existed around developmentalism during the Kennedy and Johnson era swiftly unraveled in the gloomier international environment that prevailed during the 1970s.

Ekbladh's chapters on South Korea and South Vietnam offer less that is new, however. Of course having written a monograph on nation-building in South Korea that covered some of the same ground as Ekbladh does, the reviewer recognizes that his criticism might be considered somewhat suspect on this point. Nevertheless, in my own book, I devote significant attention to a facet of South Korean development that I believe was critical but that Ekbladh, for the most part, leaves out, namely, the creation and evolution of the Republic of Korea military as a powerful force in Korean society. In Ekbladh's narrative, South Korea jumps from being a rat hole where hundreds of millions of dollars of development aid were wasted in chapter four to a success story in chapter six; yet there is no explanation for why this happened. Some analysis of the military route to modernization that occurred in South Korea would have made this point more clear.

The limited attention devoted to the South Korean military in The Great American Mission also highlights another limitation of the work, namely, its general lack of attention to the military as a force for development in Asia societies. It was not only in South Korea but also in some Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia where Americans hoped that indigenous military officers with their experience at managing and commanding large, powerful organizations could lead their societies to modernity. By the 1960s, this had become a critical aspect of the United States overall strategy for promoting development in Asia, and Ekbladh would have benefited from paying some more attention to it.

Ekbladh's analysis of American efforts to promote modernization in Vietnam is competent and provides some new insights, but it does not add very much to the plethora of recent works that have looked at American development policy and counterinsurgency in South Vietnam.4 The Great American Mission might have broken more new ground in this chapter if it had made a more comprehensive effort to pair up its analysis of American modernization programs in Vietnam with those that had been carried out in South Korea. Why did similar strategies succeed in South Korea but fail in South Vietnam? Admittedly, this kind of question lies outside the parameters that Ekbladh set for his study. But this study's failure to raise and address questions like these show the limitations of its methodology, which is generally to trace out the evolution of American thought using chiefly American sources without trying to move toward a more international history of the subject.

While there are places where one wishes Ekbladh had probed a little deeper or paid more attention to the impact of the ideas that he describes abroad, however, his study makes an excellent contribution to the literature on modernization theory. To a much greater extent than previous work on the subject The Great American Mission grounds modernization theory and its advocates in American history and culture. In doing so, it yields a host of fresh insights into what exactly modernization was and the concept's very deep roots in American thought.

  • 1

    Michael Latham, Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill, NC, 2000).

  • 2

    On modernization in general, see Nils Giman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Baltimore, MD, 2004); David Engerman et. al., eds., Staging Growth: Modernization, Development and the Global Cold War (Amherst, MA, 2003). For examples of how the theory informed American policies toward specific countries, see Gregg Brazinsky, Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans and the Making of a Democracy (Chapel Hill, NC, 2007); Bradley Simpson, Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations (Palo Alto, CA, 2008). Odd Arned Westad's influential The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (Cambridge, 2005) included a comparative look at American and Soviet conceptions of development.

  • 3

    Emily Rosenberg, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion 1890–1945 (New York, 1982).

  • 4

    See, for instance, Philip Catton, Diem's Final Failure: Prelude to America's War in Vietnam (Lawrence, KS, 2003). James Carter, Inventing Vietnam: The United States and State Building, 1954–1968 (Cambridge, 2008), in particular, covers a lot of the same ground as Ekbladh does.