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  • Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America's Civilizing Mission
  • Daniel R. Headrick
Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America's Civilizing Mission. By Michael Adas. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. 542 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

In the past few years, bookstores have been deluged with books critical of American foreign policy, and specifically condemning the actions of the Bush administration in the Middle East. In Dominance by Design, Michael Adas carries that critical interpretation of American policy into the past, arguing that throughout history the attitudes and actions of Americans toward non-Western peoples have been characterized by condescension, arrogance, and violence. In a mirror image of the tale of American exceptionalism found in so many histories, he presents the history of the United States as an ongoing moral disaster. This is the case not only when American actions resulted in political failures, as in Vietnam and currently in Iraq, but also when the United States was politically victorious, as in its expansion across the North American continent or its colonization of the Philippines.

Adas attributes the moral blindness and overweening arrogance of the American people toward non-Western peoples to the powerful technologies they have adopted or developed. He does not discuss the origins of America's technology or the reasons for its superiority over that of non-Western societies, subjects dealt with in many other books. Rather, he concentrates on technology as a cause of America's superiority complex toward non-Western peoples, as revealed in the words of its leading politicians and intellectuals.

Among the myriad cases of American encounters with non-Western peoples, Adas singles out a few for detailed analysis. The first is Commodore Matthew Perry's visits to Japan in 1853–1854, during which his crew had the opportunity to demonstrate a number of American technologies: steamships, cannon, a model railroad, and a telegraph line. In chapters 1 and 2, he turns to the first European settlements in North America and the expansion of European Americans across the continent and their attitudes toward Native Americans. His third example is the American occupation of the Philippines and the Panama Canal Zone and the efforts of the colonial officials to demonstrate American superiority through engineering projects.

In contrast to Adas's examination of American attitudes, his description of the technologies used in these case studies is rather unsatisfying. In the chapters on the expansion of the United States, European American technologies are mentioned in very general terms, [End Page 108] such as guns, railroads, plows, and steel; Native American technologies are referred to as "Stone Age" technologies as contrasted with the European "Iron Age" technologies. In the chapter on the Vietnam War, the only technical item mentioned by name is the m-113 armored personnel carrier. Only in the case of the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11 does Adas give a thorough technical explanation. Readers familiar with Western technological history can easily fill in the blanks; others, however, will need to look elsewhere to get a comprehensive picture of the technologies that inspired the cultural techno-hubris among Americans.

More disturbing from a world history perspective is the lack of agency on the part of the non-Western peoples affected by American actions. Though we learn a great deal about American efforts to "modernize" the Philippines during the colonial era, we learn very little about the reactions of the Filipino people to these efforts. Even more surprising is the case of Japan, for the book opens with a remarkable quotation by Matthew Perry extolling the "inordinate curiosity" of the Japanese who saw the inventions he brought with him. After that, unfortunately, we hear nothing more about how the Japanese reacted to the American technological pressure.

The paradigm of American techno-hubris aimed at passive non-Western recipients changes in the second half of the book, as other societies emerge as agents of their own fates and adopt modern technologies in ways that undermined America's sense of superiority. Adas makes the case that in their eagerness to modernize the rest of the world in their own image, the Soviet Union and the United States showed...


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