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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.2 (2003) 78-81

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Christian G. Appy, ed., Cold War Constructions: The Political Culture of United States Imperialism, 1945-1966. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. ix 1 340 pp. $19.95.
John Fousek, To Lead the Free World: American Nationalism and the Cultural Roots of the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. xiv 1 242 pp. $49.95.

The two books under review reflect the conviction, shared by a growing body of mostly younger historians, that culture rather than power is the key to solving the puzzles of international relations.

The stated intention of the volume edited by Christian Appy is "to address the connections between domestic political culture and U.S. cold war foreign policy" with a view to providing "interpretations that scrutinize the unchallenged assumptions of the lived experience" (p.3). Only a shamefully inadequate summary of the contents is possible. The eleven essays touch upon seemingly uneventful pre-Cold War relations with Vietnam, some ups and downs of U.S.-Indian relations in the 1950s, the adoption of Asian infants by Americans, State Department attempts to use black American jazz musicians as a way of refurbishing the country's image in Africa, fruitless attempts to make use of modernization theory, a letter-writing campaign to Italy prior to the critical 1948 elections, depictions of Iran in the American mass media prior to the 1953 coup, the larger meaning of a doodle sketched by Dwight D. Eisenhower during a discussion of the Guatemalan crisis of 1954, the operations of the Vietnam lobby in the 1950s, the Elvis-like appeal of Fidel Castro prior to his coming to power, and the thinking of an expatriate African-American Cold War critic, Julian Mayfield.

Taken individually, most of the essays are quite interesting to read, in contrast to the dull material one encounters all too often in historical writing about foreign relations, and this is probably justification enough for their publication. But although a measure of critical indulgence is customarily granted to anthologies for their lack of coherence, less leniency may be in order because of the cognitive claims made by cultural advocates.

The editor's introduction puts forward political culture as an organizing concept that has the potential to transform our understanding. But political culture is still culture, a protean concept that raises a host of knotty problems. To judge from a collection [End Page 78] of essays in a recent issue of the journal American Anthropologist, anthropologists are no closer than ever to arriving at a consensus on the meaning of culture. Indeed, a sizable number deny that any such thing as culture exists. If the meaning of culture is unclear, so too are its political implications, which are only hazily suggested, at best, in this volume.

Some of the more forceful essayists are not bashful about asserting culture's relevance. Mark Bradley, for example, argues that pre-Cold War U.S. relations with Vietnam demonstrate the "persistence and centrality of cultural forces in decision making" and that culture "fundamentally framed the horizon of choice" (p.27). But what does it mean to frame foreign policy? It is clear that frames set limits, but, less obviously, it is also true that they are a necessary condition of freedom. If culture is thought of as a frame, how much political invention is possible within its borders? The question of culture's determinative role is important: If we were to conceive of an art museum that displayed only frames in an exhibit that purported to be about foreign policy, I doubt that it would have many paying visitors. Unless a better sense of cultural limits and possibilities is provided, we are left with an unacceptable vagueness as to its causal workings. Judging from the content of these essays, political culture has more a scholarly than a real-world function: to allow consideration of just about anything...