"Heretofore Americans have come to Europe as students, whether as
passionate pilgrims with Henry James, or more irreverently with Mark
Twain as innocents abroad. But now we come not to study your culture,
but bringing our own."
Francis O. Matthiessen, Salzburg Seminar, 1947.
"'American Studies' is taken to mean the efforts to build up a
systematic knowledge and understanding of America and its civilization
as a connected whole, particularly in those fields—human geography,
history, politics, law, religion, language, and literature—which
constitute a national culture."
Sigmund Skard, The American Myth and the European Mind, 1967.
The American Studies movement began in the United States around World
War I, but its explicit use as a form of cultural outreach abroad was
mainly a product of the Cold War. The U.S.-Soviet conflict was not
limited to military and economic confrontation, but also involved an
intense ideological and cultural rivalry, all such strategies falling
under the category of the so-called "soft power." There were many, like
U.S. historian and literary critic Francis O. Matthiessen, who did not
want Americans to be "innocents abroad" any longer. Rather, they wanted
to disseminate the nation's artistic creations and cultural production:
they were intellectuals, businessmen, journalists, and university
professors who traveled to the other side of the Atlantic as
"missionaries" of Americanness, and champions of U.S. values,
institutions, and beliefs.
They were many, but not as many as some Manichean versions of the Cold
War are eager to portray. Not all of them were disciplined and
submissive pawns of a well-oiled American cultural propaganda machine,
nor were all of the projects for the teaching of English and U.S.
culture abroad spearheads of imperialism, even if they were perceived as
such in certain contexts. There was, on the contrary, room for
disagreement as well as the clash of public and private interests.
This essay will briefly describe how this context affected the evolution
of American Studies. Up to the late 1950s, U.S. cultural proselytism
focused mainly on Western Europe, considered to be the hottest spot of
the Cold War. Conversely, a similar form of "recruitment" took place in
the Soviet camp, as Moscow used its intelligentsia to show the rest of
the world the superiority of Soviet arts and letters in relation to the
Americans'. Later on, targets and sources were diversified, in order to
reach the so-called Global South. The geopolitical dynamics emerging
from the Bandung Conference (1955) and the later independence of former
European colonies, as well as the Cuban revolution (1959) were important
turning points, which also prompted American authorities and
universities to develop other "area studies" as fields of expertise. In
1963, historian Louis Morton saw this evolution as a logical response to
the "greatly increased obligations of the United States in international
affairs," while John F. Kennedy's foreign policy advisor McGeorge
Bundy remarked that the Office of Strategic Service (OSS), precursor to
the CIA, had actually proved to be "the first great center of area
studies." For instance, the Cuban revolution was the
occasion for Washington to "rediscover" Latin America, which in turn
"stimulated the dramatic expansion of Latin American studies in North
America over the next decade." In other words, cultural promotion of
the U.S. and expertise on other nations' cultures were developed as dual
strategies entangled in geopolitical objectives. In this context,
"American studies" was at times considered a weapon of mass persuasion.
This essay centers mainly on the period from the 1920s to the 1970s. It
does so because that half-century is the period about which most of the
research has been done to date, and also because the Vietnam War eroded
the world image of the U.S., considered theretofore to be the champion of
Western values of freedom and liberalism. Thus the evolution of American
Studies from 1970 until the end of the Cold War was quite different from
that of the previous period. In general terms, the first stage was one
of consolidation, and government interference was more intense; the
second was one of maturation and autonomy from governmental
intervention. Our understanding of the second era (1970-91) is still
more limited, and requires further research.
The Early Steps: from Harvard to Salzburg
Yale, Harvard, and George Washington University (GWU) were some of the
universities which began, during the 1930s, to offer programs in
American Studies, sometimes called "American Civilization" at the time.
Like other pioneers in the field, Robert Bolwell—regarded as the
"father" of American Studies at GWU—first specialized in British
Studies before he ventured into the budding terrain of American
Studies. Bolwell became professor of American Literature in 1929,
with hopes of developing it as an autonomous discipline, "not with just
a course or two." He strove to study American writers with the "same
sort of critical analysis as had been applied to their English
Before the Second World War, the number of teaching chairs in Europe
devoted to American history or literature—the most significant
subjects included under the label "American Studies"—was meager. The
situation was not much brighter in the United States: few American
universities were offering programs in American Studies before 1945.
However, the outcome of World War II caused the paradigm to shift in the
Western European bloc, albeit at a slower pace than expected by the
American side. While the United States was consolidating its position as
a superpower, interest in understanding and learning the nuances and
peculiarities of its past, its art, its political system, and its
economy was progressively increasing. Firstly, European citizens wanted
to know more about the victorious Allied forces from the other side of
the Atlantic. Secondly, their American counterparts, imbued with a
patriotic sense of cultural nationalism, began to express more interest
in the topic and endeavored to overcome popular European stereotypes
and prejudices. In the realm of literature, scholars argued that the
goal was to free the U.S. from its inferiority complex, as its
literature was usually studied as an "appendage" to the British
New demand served as an incentive for those who were supporting the
American Studies movement. That interest did not, however, result in
spectacular and rapid advance. The evolution of this new discipline
was anything but smooth, varying from country to country. At Harvard
University, Francis O. Matthiessen and Perry E. Miller were among the
pioneers involved in the new courses about America. These exceptional
scholars developed an interdisciplinary approach to literary and
historical studies in the 1930s, as witnessed by Leo Marx. Yet from
the very beginning, a rivalry emerged between the two men, due to
antagonistic political views. On matters of American foreign policy,
Miller was more of an aggressive "hawk" while Matthiessen could be
labeled a "dove." This division reflected the dilemma suffered by many
intellectuals before and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in
December 1941 because, as Harvard philosopher Ralph Perry put it in
August of that year, "we all have a sort of propaganda-phobia at the
The awakening of a form of cultural-literary nationalism, which, as
previously mentioned, inspired the first steps of the American Studies
movement, reached its peak during World War II. In that context,
scholars were perceived as vital assets "in the guidance and
mobilization of public opinion and in the determination of public
policy." The promotion of American Studies overseas was understood to be
a weapon in that struggle. A pamphlet was launched in June 1942 asking
American citizens to contribute to the total war effort by showing
greater appreciation for "U.S. cultural heritage" and "giving unselfish
service to the country and its preservation." This initiative
to persuade American people of the relevance of their cultural legacy
was meant to overcome a well-entrenched inferiority complex.
While some academics were uninterested in the war, Perry Miller was
convinced from the very beginning that he needed to step forward,
traveling up and down America's East Coast lecturing about American
history, literature, and the Constitution. He then enrolled voluntarily
and served in the army from June 1942 to December 1945. Soon after
enlisting, he affirmed, "I am here to do what I can toward winning the
war." He worked for the Office of Strategic Services composing
brochures and pamphlets that celebrated the greatness of American
democratic values while denouncing totalitarianism.
Miller's dedication was no exception. A number of first-generation
Americanist scholars had worked with intelligence and propaganda units,
or were veterans from wartime in Europe, at a time when much urgency was
felt for boosting America's image around the world. Norman Holmes,
another pioneer of American Studies, and editor of The Oxford Anthology
of American Literature (1938), also worked for the OSS and then for
Yet not all were equally convinced and eager to obey that imperative.
Francis O. Matthiessen, author of the widely praised The American
Renaissance (1941), was a supporter of socialist and labor
movements, a position that attracted the attention of McCarthyism and
made him a target of inquiry. Such political harassment, together with
the bullying which he reportedly suffered due to his homosexuality, has
been proffered as the reason for his suicide in 1950.
Apart from individual scholars and universities, philanthropic
foundations such as Rockefeller, Ford, and the Carnegie Corporation—to
name only the best-known—as well as learned societies, joined the
effort to promote American Studies at home and abroad. To this end, the
American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) encouraged the creation of
the Committee on American Civilization (CAC) in 1947. This committee was
probably the first ad hoc body to pursue the institutionalization of
American Studies in university classrooms in the United States and
abroad. It was not fortuitous that the establishment of that
organization coincided with the onset of the Cold War. In March of that
year, President Harry S. Truman delivered his famous Truman Doctrine
speech to the U.S. Congress. Part of it addressed the effort required
from civil society as a whole, and some pioneers of American Studies
seemed largely committed to the great responsibilities Truman mentioned.
The makeup of the CAC's board is a good example of the philosophy
driving the American Studies movement in that period. In its first year,
it was composed of an assortment of professors from various
fields—history, medicine, literature, sociology, and philosophy—its
chairman being a member of the Russell Sage Foundation. It was thus
a community of common interests or "temporary symbiosis" that was also
integrated by the U.S. diplomatic corps.
In the same year, the first Salzburg Seminar in American studies was
held (July 15-31, 1947). Norwegian scholar Sigmund Skard defined this
gathering in the Austrian city as a "spearhead" for the promotion of
American Studies in European universities. He categorically stated that
the seminar was only fueled by private interests and "avoided the
political suspicions of skeptical Europe." Following the same line
of reasoning, another outstanding pioneer of American Studies, Henry
Nash Smith, claimed that "the leaders of the seminar have earnestly
tried to avoid close relations with government agencies [...] in order
to guard against political pressures and the flavor of propaganda."
The above notwithstanding, the fact that the idea for that seminar
emerged in February 1947, only a few weeks before the Truman Doctrine
was launched, made it a difficult context for the noble,
internationalist purposes its creators set forth. The so-called
"Cultural Cold War" looming on the horizon proved to be a serious
pitfall for the continuation of the seminar as a non-politicized venue.
The early "innocence" of the initiative soon melted away under the
pressure to win "hearts and minds," as President Eisenhower put it.
An example of that polarization lies in the fact that two of the
colloquium's promoters, Clemens Heller and Francis O. Matthiessen, fell
under suspicion of Communist activities during the McCarthy witch-hunt.
The U.S. Government's Involvement Increases
By the late 1940s, the U.S. government began to look much more closely
at what was happening inside the group of disciplines labeled "American
Studies." Until then, the impulse had mostly rested on private
shoulders. In Washington circles, the idea began to grow that more
public attention should be paid to this field and that the laissez-faire
approach toward private initiatives was detrimental to national
interests: it seemed convenient to enroll American Studies in the
psychological and cultural contest against the Soviet Union.
The consolidation of the discipline turned out to be of special
relevance for several reasons: first of all, because it could resolve
Americans' long-held feelings of cultural inferiority; and secondly,
because it could contribute to erasing doubts about the strength of U.S.
international leadership. As a consequence, the promotion and diffusion
of American Studies became a deliberate strategy, implemented in the
following years by American diplomacy in the context of the Cultural
A good example of this new collaborative climate was the constitution of
the American Studies Association in 1951. Among those involved were
professors convinced of the need to improve the teaching of
"Americanness," philanthropic foundations ready to support the
organization financially, and the U.S. government, with the Library of
Congress providing logistical support. Generally speaking, the
foundations and the universities willingly accepted their role as
Cultural Cold Warriors. They were sharing with the American government a
desire to prevail "through the minds of the men," as Eisenhower
emphasized in his "Atoms for Peace" speech on December 8, 1953.
With that objective, either on their own initiative or in coordination
with the diplomatic corps, they adopted several strategies to promote
American Studies abroad, most notably international conferences,
seminars, and exhibitions. Numerous American corporations, and some
European ones to a smaller degree, also joined the "mission,"
shouldering part of the financing. Private funding allowed the U.S.
diplomatic corps to insist that Washington's intervention in public
diplomacy was much more limited in scope than Moscow's propaganda
The venture met with difficulties nonetheless, with friction sometimes
occurring among some of the governmental bodies responsible for carrying
out the effort of obtaining greater space in the European classrooms for
American Studies. For instance, the United States Information Agency
(USIA) and the State Department found themselves locked in a territorial
rivalry, and some confusion over their respective attributions and
responsibilities arose. In 1955, the creation of an ad hoc commission,
the State-USIA Joint Task Force, had only limited effects in resolving
Also, in the pressurized environment of the Cultural Cold War, these
institutions were tempted to use the diffusion of American Studies
abroad for propaganda. Some intellectuals felt uneasy about the
government's interference in the realm of culture and education, while
some others eagerly adopted the role of Cultural Cold warriors. The
fervent and politicized atmosphere of the American-Soviet tension
proved to be a challenging ground for those who were eager to defend the
value of American Studies but did not want to sell blatant cultural
propaganda abroad. The line was blurring.
A quick overview of the Spanish case
Spain offers a case in point. After the Second World War, the
American military came to regard Spanish territory as an important
strategic region in the event of a clash with the Soviet Union. At the
same time, Spain's dictator General Francisco Franco urgently needed
U.S. support in order to overcome the international ostracism caused by
his previous "dangerous friendship" with Hitler and Mussolini. Thus, the
Spanish-American agreement of 1953 can be seen as a "marriage of
convenience." On the one hand, the United States received permission to
build military bases in Spain. On the other, Franco obtained the
long-desired "American embrace."
From the first moment, Washington's information services warned that
a warm relationship with the Franco regime was needed—access to
military installations depended on it—although it was unwise to drift
too far away from the republican-democratic opposition either, as its
role was likely to increase after the dictator was displaced. It was
easy for U.S. officials to envision a future without Franco in power; it
was more complicated to foresee where the Spanish people would go,
whether toward Western European-style democracy or down a revolutionary
path. Obviously, the United States was counting on the first option.
Intending to contribute to this turn of events, one assessment written
in 1965 succinctly summed up the goals of U.S. public diplomacy and its
In Spain, because of regime sensitivity to contacts with opposition,
or even under certain circumstances with university students, United
States Information Service diffuses this objective [evolutionary
progress toward more democratic political processes] under the
rubric, 'American Studies,' covering our supporting informational and
cultural activities across-the-board.
However, the road was not free from obstacles. The anti-American
feelings expressed by many Franquista personalities were quite intense
in the first Franco regime (1936-1953). Shows of hostility and scorn
against the United States were habitual, especially in sectors of the
Spanish Catholic Church, the Army, and the fascist Falange—and not
only on the left, as has been wrongly assumed until recently. The
signing of the 1953 Military Agreements in Madrid did not completely
change this attitude. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that
these opinions remained in hibernation, at least for another decade or
so. Indeed, anti-American feelings among right-wing politicians could be
found right until the very end of the Franco regime.
Members of the anti-Franco opposition held even more bitter opinions
toward the United States, which was beginning to be perceived as the
dictator's protector. Such perceptions were conjoined with acrimony
dating as far back as the 1898 Spanish-American War. Stereotypes
portrayed the United States as a young, materialistic nation, not keen
on cultivating literature and the arts. The question floating in Spain's
academic circles was something like, "What can American
Studies—especially the humanities—contribute to Spain, the cradle of
brilliant artists, the motherland of the brave conquerors?" Spaniards
were interested in U.S. scientific progress and technical
development—far less in American culture.
Most of the time, U.S. cultural diplomacy operated without a sense of
urgency in Spain. Franco's friendship was perceived as steadfast and
permanent. Consequently, the diverse cultural relations programs
implemented by Public Affairs Officers—Fulbright included—were not
as generously funded as those deployed in West Germany, France, Italy,
or Great Britain, to mention but a few. The promotion of American
Studies in Spanish classrooms reflected the difference. Also, it should
be remembered that a substantial majority of these soft power strategies
were developed in other countries as a part of the containment policy.
In Spain, the threat of an extension of communism was already being
watched, with unparalleled zeal, by Franco himself. Consequently, it
seemed that Washington trod on the gas pedal of cultural promotion only
at timely moments, specifically when it was perceived that the
relationship with Franco's Spain was entering a turbulent period. As a
result, the Cultural Affairs Officers' interest in promoting American
Studies went through several ups and downs.
Other reasons for that situation are also specific to Spain. Among
the most important ones was the difference of opinion between Spaniards
and Americans with regard to which areas of knowledge should receive
priority attention from the binational educational, scientific, and
cultural exchange programs, and notably the Fulbright scholarships.
Franquista educational authorities were hoping that the establishment of
the program in 1958 would serve as a privileged channel to gain access
to U.S. scientific and technological resources and know-how—in sum, as
a way to develop valuable training for aeronautics, physics, chemistry,
medicine, and electronics specialists, identified as fields where
American research centers and universities were leading institutions in
To a certain extent, these hopes ended up being frustrated, since the
Fulbright program—inaugurated earlier in other countries—was
attempting to prioritize exchanges in the humanities and social
sciences. It was considered that these fields were likely to promote
mutual understanding in a way that "hard sciences" such as mathematics,
physics, chemistry, etc. did not. In addition, U.S. advances in the
humanities and social sciences were less known and appreciated across
the Atlantic. A good percentage of anti-American critique was precisely
directed toward the supposed "cultural naïveté" of the United States.
Until the end of the 1960s, the progress of American Studies in
Spanish curricula was rather deficient. Only the teaching of English,
and some subjects largely dependent on trends and methods from American
campuses, such as sociology and economics, seemed to take hold. In
1955-56, John Englekirk (Tulane University) was the first Fulbright
professor to teach U.S. literature at the University of Madrid. In the
following years, Barcelona, Salamanca and Zaragoza received some of his
colleagues for one or two courses, usually to complement their English
curriculum. Ten years later, no coherent American Studies program
existed anywhere, a situation which worried the Cultural Affairs
Officers responsible for facilitating and intensifying educational and
cultural relations with Madrid: "We believe that Spain must take a
special effort in this field: for [...] it is considerably behind the
other countries of Western Europe." The advanced age of the
dictator and the need to prepare for post-Francoism called for the
strengthening of ties of empathy and mutual understanding with Spanish
society, especially its universities. To this end, the promotion of
American literature, history, and political science offered a kind of
"soft appeal" that was not to be squandered.
Even with English teaching, progress was quite slow. According to a 1957
memo by a U.S. officer, a considerable number of the cultural programs
implemented did not work properly, partly because of the "language
skills barrier." In addition, American English had a terrible
reputation in those years. Those who were interested in learning
English—there were few of them, because French was still
dominant—usually preferred British English, which hardly contributed
to the acceptance and consolidation of American Studies. Another
obstacle to be overcome was the atmosphere of anti-Americanism existing
in Western European societies since the 1920s, at least—a
perception that encouraged a broad repertoire of stereotypes and images
of hostility toward the United States.
Last but not least, those who tried to introduce American Studies in the
Spanish curriculum had to fight against the traditional rigidity of the
educational system. There were some young scholars and professors eager
to learn more about the sociocultural realities of the American nation,
but, broadly speaking, they fought an uphill battle. Although they were
interested in teaching and researching American literature, art,
philosophy, or history, they were unable to change and reorient
curricula. As a result, those who specialized in American Studies had
serious difficulties getting permanent positions in Spanish
universities. Available teaching chairs did not match their profiles
which in turn caused the demand for studying these disciplines to remain
low. Hence, the Franquista educational authorities did not have strong
incentives to increase the offer; even if they had meant to do so, they
would not have found qualified personnel to hire.
The combination of all the above-mentioned factors meant that the
development of American Studies in the Spanish universities was stunted
in the 1945-69 period. Consequently, these disciplines did not succeed
as well as expected to spread America's image, warts and all, among the
An Impossible Mission?
"I cannot concede that Americans have been neglectful of propaganda in
the past, although it is possibly correct to say that we have
neglected to propagandize the finer, noble essence of our
civilization. But probably it is impossible to propagandize these
elements. When propagandized, they lose their subtle essence."
Carlton Hayes, American ambassador in Spain, February 1944.
"Through the encouragement of American Studies overseas, we have
tried to stimulate leaders, scholars, teachers, writers and students
to take American civilization seriously, to learn and teach more about
us and about our past."
Walter Johnson, American Studies Abroad, 1963.
"American Studies is unevenly developed around the globe, but
systematically most developed according to U.S. international
alliances [...] Differential development can be traced from
university to university following occupation forces after World War
Richard Horwitz, Exporting America: Essays on American Studies
Overall, there was never a strong consensus about the need to promote
American Studies abroad or the best way to do so, either within the
American foreign-policy machinery or within the realm of U.S. academia.
On the contrary, contradictions and internal friction continued, with
various degrees of intensity in all the periods examined here.
Some officials, especially the Cultural Affairs Officers (CAOs) or the
so-called "culturalists," refrained from exploiting American Studies for
blatant propagandist goals. They were convinced that such a short-term
strategy would ultimately fail and probably trigger a boomerang effect.
Yet, others were determined to use the diffusion of those disciplines
overseas as "weapons of mass persuasion" in the Cultural Cold War. A
third group, enthusiastic devotees of a hardline, power-oriented
foreign policy, considered that these cultural diplomacy actions were
mostly a waste of time and resources.
Another lingering handicap was the inferiority complex suffered by
some U.S. citizens when they compared their literature, art, and history
with that of Europe. Scathing European stereotypes regarding the
supposed cultural inferiority of the American nation proved enduring.
The American people were characterized as young nation, uncouth and
perpetually inexpert and ignorant in the realm of the fine arts and
humanities, while American military and economic supremacy was readily
Thus, the action-reaction effect that was hoped for from the diffusion
of American Studies abroad, in terms of projecting a positive
international image of the United States, did not work seamlessly, nor
was it without contradictions. Some of the projects directed at
promoting and consolidating acceptance of American Studies in European
universities were somewhat naïve: it was thought that greater exposure
to American high culture would immediately lead to higher esteem for
American arts and letters, and consequently bring about a more positive
appreciation of the United States. Experience proved the truth of the
old saying, supposedly uttered by Einstein, that it is easier to
disintegrate an atom than a prejudice. Likewise, U.S. officials may have
underestimated the fact that although cultural influence can be a form
of power, it is not easily controllable, and its use to achieve
propagandistic purposes may even fire back.
American Studies, as an interdisciplinary academic subject destined to
define and to project "Americanness" in European university
classrooms, had to confront more than a few adversities. One in
particular is that it did not manage to avoid being tagged a by-product
of British culture. The rigidity of most continental institutions of
higher education curricula did not help in this respect.
As a weapon of mass persuasion directed at the European Western bloc,
the American Studies movement enjoyed only mitigated success, and a
qualified assessment remains dependent on ongoing research, and further
analysis of the situation in each European countries. On American soil,
meanwhile, the American Studies movement had already prospered and
secured an influential position within the American educational system
by the late 1950s. The hectic and turbulent 1960s put into question some
of the methodological and thematic principles of the field. Even so, the
challenge was apparently met, because in successive years the number of
American Studies programs offered in U.S. universities rather increased.
In European universities there was likewise a growing number of American
Studies programs incorporated in curricula, although at a slower rate.
That sluggish pace cannot be attributed to lack of interest in promoting
them by U.S. cultural diplomacy: in a 1965 report, U.S. diplomats
still described the promotion of American Studies abroad as "the
cornerstone of American cultural diplomacy in Western Europe."
As mentioned earlier, the Vietnam War is considered to have been a
turning point. The anti-Americanism expressed by a significant
percentage of European citizens grew as a result of Washington's
tempestuous meddling in that conflict. What happened in the different
scenarios from the early '70s to the end of the Cold War requires
further research. Hopefully, this short essay will serve as an
incentive, a starting point for a needed, more comprehensive account of
the story of American Studies abroad.