Irresistible Empire: America's Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe

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Irresistible Empire: America's Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe

By Victoria De Grazia
Harvard University Press, 2005
608 pp. $29.95
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This wonderful book, written with extraordinary erudition and verve by a social historian, is a study of the way in which the American ethos of mass consumption has "conquered" Europe since the interwar period. De Grazia traces "the rise of a great imperium with the outlook of a great emporium," how it broke down well-established patterns of consumption and class distinction. For each of her themes -- from the triumph of American-style mass distribution and marketing to the irresistible sweep of American entertainment -- she focuses on one key actor, a device that gives her account great readability. It was President Woodrow Wilson, she shows, who first advocated "a global traffic in values as well as commodities," with little regard for sovereignty, and the Rotary Club that boasted the virtues of "Babbittry" to its European members. The advent of the European Common Market, meanwhile, facilitated American penetration by transforming "local, delimited and familiar groups of clients into international, unlimited and unknown masses of consumers." There is some ultimate irony, however, in the fact that the U.S. government's deliberate export of "salesmanship" has resulted in "salesmanship becom[ing] not an instrument of statecraft but a substitute for it."