- Suburbia and American Exceptionalism
More than twenty years ago, Elaine Tyler May suggested that the ideology of traditional family and home central to post-World War II American life amounted to an informal policy of domestic "containment." She dove into the now famous "kitchen debate" between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and showed how the Cold War was fought over the "commodity gap" as much as the "missile gap." Most importantly, she argued that renewed commitment to strict gender roles—as well as a consumption-driven economy fueled by desire for suburban homes, appliances, and other appurtenances of postwar affluence—was greeted by leaders and popular commentators as evidence of the country's fitness for its global contest with the Soviet Union. Political and military "containment" of the Soviet Union abroad was strengthened by social "containment" on the home front in the form of an investment in home and hearth necessary to quell possible domestic disturbances on the part of women dissatisfied with their lot.
May's yoking of domestic and international concerns, while quite familiar to a whole generation of scholars, remains revelatory reading today. Strangely, however, few historians of the suburbs have chosen to follow her lead. Most accounts stick closer to the ground, tracking transportation, land use and building patterns, federal housing policy, ideals of home and homeownership, the spatial elaboration of consumer society, the fall of liberalism and the rise of conservatism, regional clashes between city and suburb, and divisions of race, class, and gender.1
Now, however, Robert Beauregard has seen and raised May, writing a synthetic essay that manages to coax suggestive conclusions from a range of familiar materials. He hopes to bridge the divide between cultural analysis and political economy by investigating the knotty relationships between transformations in place and national identity and the rise of the United States as a global power in the postwar era. The rise of the suburbs, he suggests, provoked a fundamental recasting of American identity and forged a new form [End Page 594] of American exceptionalism ready to be put to work as part of America's new international mission. In sum, When America Became Suburban makes a bid to not only bring many of the disparate threads of previous suburban history together, but also to display what Beauregard calls "the global dimensions of suburbanization" (p. xiii).
Beauregard, however, does not regard his book as a work of history. He floats freely over the details of postwar life, never tarrying to relate the activities of actors either famous or obscure. When America Became Suburban is a work of "interpretation," he writes, not "explanation." The key actors are "social forces" rather than "people and organizations" (p. xv). It is "historical," he says, but rather than track events or a series of "generative sequences," he wants to reveal "the confluence of events previously treated as autonomous" (p. xiii). These events are contextual actors, conditions shaping the large and small decisions Americans made for themselves, their localities, and their nation. This approach—while no doubt anathema to many historians—has its rewards and its pitfalls. He is able to show how social forces propel change and how contexts have consequences. Drawing the great structural changes of postwar life into new interpretive constellations reveals a fundamental link between global and domestic concerns. And yet, making one's way through When America Became Suburban, it's easy to feel that the entire text reads like a somewhat belabored introduction to a "real" history book. Did particular people or groups negotiate, express, or exploit this relation between suburban life and the United States' global project? Who did this and why? How and to what ends? Consider these questions proof not of Beauregard's failure, but rather of his gifts to future historians.
When America Became Suburban is particularly concerned with "four momentous events" that "collided" between 1945 and the mid-1970s (p. xiii). In these years, the period Beauregard calls the "short American Century," the United States enjoyed unprecedented...