In 1978 my wife and I were taking an evening paseo down the main street of the Indian village of Otavalo in the Equadorian highlands. Up ahead, we saw Otavalenos standing three deep in front of a hardware store. They were silent, hypnotized, and seemed almost ghostly in their white pants and blue ponchos. When we pulled even, we discovered the attraction: two televisions in the window showing “All in the Family.” The sound was off, and I remember wondering what message or narrative the Indians could possibly be receiving from the inaudible “talking heads” of Carroll O’Connor and company.
This reception has been the subject of a good deal of academic writing recently; pronouncements on the matter tend to the apocalyptic. Reputable American scholars have proclaimed that EuroDisney is a “cultural Chernobyl,” that Micky Mouse is the key to the Pax Americana, and that rock’n’roll brought down the Berlin Wall. And French Minister of Culture Jacques Toubon recently introduced a law to limit the use of English, while Spain’s Minister of Culture Carmen Alborach, citing the “extinction” of Spanish film, imposed such a severe American quota on cinema that the nation’s 1,400 theatres locked out their patrons. 1 [End Page 731]
Does the export of American popular culture spell a new kind of American imperium? Or is entertainment simply the United States’ last, most attractive export? The country runs billion dollar trade deficits with France, Spain, and other nations it is accused of dominating. Are we talking about anything besides economics? Would someone please shed light?
Illuminating this debate is Reinhold Wagnleitner’s Coca-Colonization and the Cold War, a study of the American “cultural mission” in Austria after World War II. While it has its faults, it is research, based on actual documents, surveys, and statistics; it gives us the history of American popular culture in one nation, and it will be a benchmark for some time to come.
Few Americans realize that the United States occupied Austria from 1943 to 1955—longer than the occupation of Germany. Austria’s strategic position—bordered on three sides by Warsaw Pact nations—argued for a slow withdrawal, after which a beacon of democracy and capitalism would be left behind. U.S. agencies worked hard to create, as the guide books used to say of Vienna, a “Little America.”
Wagnleitner’s book begins with a history of European views of America, in which he traces out utopian and dystopian conceptions of the new world. This is easy enough for Britain and France; however, he works hard to show a relationship between the United States and Austria before World War II: there is Metternich’s well-documented antipathy to U.S. democracy, played against a popular Romantic enthusiasm for America (Beethoven considered writing an opera about William Penn), and there is American sympathy for Hungarian rebel Ludwig Kossuth, but most Austrians lived outside the range of “The Pernicious Influence” until 1880. At that point America’s huge food-stocks and inventions like the Yankee apple-peeler and the Colt revolver penetrated even to Vienna. For Wagnleitner, the point of this history is that, when Europe subsequently adopts the pop culture products of the United States, it is merely importing views it created to begin with—and this explains their cultural resonance.
This historic overview seems to conflict with the main thesis that Wagnleitner develops, namely that there was a U.S. government conspiracy to enslave the world via Micky Mouse. After several pages documenting the apathy of American businesses, the medical orientation of U.S. philanthropy, and the absence of coherent government export policies, Wagnleitner suddenly concludes, [End Page 732]
As with the armaments industry, so the seemingly endless resources of the United States—from its Ivy League universities to Hollywood, from opera singers to Tin Pan Alley, from Coca-Cola to Wrigley’s chewing gum—were all centrally directed by government agencies.(51)
As he explains it, “lack of an official cultural...