In their contribution to American Space/American Place: Geographies of the Contemporary United States , John Agnew and Joanne Sharp describe the context and import of Frederick Jackson Turner’s famed “Frontier Thesis.” Turner wrote in the context of the downturn of the 1890s, and his argument was partly about the future of American expansion and business. America would have to continue to expand “in order to lower unemployment, reintegrate American labor into the American Dream and thus reduce the appeal of subversive politics.” With the close of a terrestrial frontier, America would have to look elsewhere: “Turner insisted upon the need for an end to American isolationism . . . and for the development of ‘a vigorous foreign policy . . . and for the extension of American influence to outlying islands and adjoining countries’” (88).

Americans were ready for Turner’s justification of a leading role on the global stage:

“To extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean had always seemed too geographically neat not to be the product of fate or the hand of Providence.” Given their nation’s birth in an anti-colonial revolt, however, Americans were ambivalent about territorial conquest. Their “colonialism” had to take a more ideological and economic form: “American investors would provide needed capital. American trade would bring sophisticated American goods. American reform would bring new institutions and practices and break down barriers of caste and creed. In other words, America would bring progress as attested to by America’s own experience of developing a consumerist economy” (89).

The ideology was Americanism: “There was a mission, contentious but unmistakable, to spread American values. Pushing American ways of economic and political organization was more than simply a mechanism for increasing consumption of American products.” It did increase the sale of American products “later epitomized in the global audiences for MTV, the near-universal popularity of Coca-Cola, and the global consumption of McDonald’s hamburgers.” But it was always about more than making a buck. Americans wanted to make a buck, and spread American idealism at the same time.

From this effort emerged “a new pattern of foreign direct investment designed to gain access to foreign markets for large firms.” It was not, in America’s view, for her leaders to “preach against European territorial colonialism as American businesses created a whole new phenomenon of internationalized production.” American business was “laying the groundwork for the globalization of production” (89).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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