Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s

By Benjamin L. Alpers | Go to book overview

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THE ROMANCE OF A DICTATOR
DICTATORSHIP IN AMERICAN PUBLIC
CULTURE, 1920s-1935

In the summer of 1927, Studebaker introduced a new car. Originally called the Model EU Standard Six, the smaller cousin of the Big Six Commander and President models was soon given a name that would fit in with the rest of the line: the Dictator. There were, of course, some political problems connected with the name "Dictator." A number of the European monarchies to which Studebaker exported the car were wary of the moniker. Diplomatically, the company marketed its Standard Six as the "Director" in these countries. In the United States, however, the name appears initially to have caused no problems. In its introductory year alone, Studebaker produced over forty thousand Dictators, which the company advertised—one assumes with no pun intended—as "a brilliant example of excess power." 1 The Dictator continued as the bottom of Studebaker's standard sedan line, its sales seemingly affected only by the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929. Yet after 1937, the name "Dictator" was abruptly dropped by the company. No internal records of the reasons for this decision exist, but a name that had been commercially worth keeping in the United States despite uropean protest had suddenly become unusable.

With decades of hindsight, the decision to drop the name appears only natural. As one history of the Studebaker Corporation puts it, "no one could have predicted in the peaceful days of 1927, however, that a madman would arise in Europe to give dictators a bad name forever." Such an account side- steps a more interesting history. Studebaker Dictators were named not out of political naïveté, but out of political-cultural calculation. When the first of these cars rolled off the assembly line in South Bend, Indiana, Americans would have thought of only one person when they heard the word "Dictator": Benito Mussolini. In the five years since he had assumed power, Mussolini had already vividly indicated to the world that Italian Fascism was not entirely "peaceful." Studebaker executives, like other Americans, would

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