Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and "Nation Building" in the Kennedy Era

Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and "Nation Building" in the Kennedy Era

Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and "Nation Building" in the Kennedy Era

Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and "Nation Building" in the Kennedy Era


Providing new insight on the intellectual and cultural dimensions of the Cold War, Michael Latham reveals how social science theory helped shape American foreign policy during the Kennedy administration. He shows how, in the midst of America's protracted struggle to contain communism in the developing world, the concept of global modernization moved beyond its beginnings in academia to become a motivating ideology behind policy decisions.

After tracing the rise of modernization theory in American social science, Latham analyzes the way its core assumptions influenced the Kennedy administration's Alliance for Progress with Latin America, the creation of the Peace Corps, and the strategic hamlet program in Vietnam. But as he demonstrates, modernizers went beyond insisting on the relevance of America's experience to the dilemmas faced by impoverished countries. Seeking to accelerate the movement of foreign societies toward a liberal, democratic, and capitalist modernity, Kennedy and his advisers also reiterated a much deeper sense of their own nation's vital strengths and essential benevolence. At the height of the Cold War, Latham argues, modernization recast older ideologies of Manifest Destiny and imperialism.


Ideologies make it easier than it might otherwise be to cope with reality. They provide simple models of complex phenomena. They suggest directions in which history is moving. They generate rhetorical justifications for action. And because ideologies perform these tasks, they tempt the leaders of states into relying upon them as guides to action.

Historians of the Cold War have been reassessing the role of ideology in the former Soviet Union, its Eastern European satellites, and the People's Republic of China. New archival sources suggest that within these states ideology played all of these roles: that Marxism-Leninism frequently determined foreign policy priorities.

But what about the United States? Was there a comparable American ideology during the Cold War? Michael Latham's careful study of three Kennedy administration initiatives—the Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps, and the Strategic Hamlet Program in Vietnam—shows that theories of modernization indeed became an ideology during the early 1960s. Based upon a remarkable injection of social science into the realm of policy, these ideas claimed to provide an objective basis for diagnosing and acting to alleviate conditions that might make for Communist revolutions in the Third World. They became, for a time, extraordinarily influential.

Latham also demonstrates, though, that what purported to be a new and dispassionate analytical instrument in fact reflected an old and passionately held set of cultural assumptions, extending all the way back to the days of Manifest Destiny. The resulting confusion of science with a sense of national mission made it difficult for American officials to distinguish successes from failures, for if ideology facilitates action, it can also cloak the effects of one's actions. It obscures reality's irritating tendency not to fit models constructed for it.

Most historians now acknowledge that the Soviet Union's collapse resulted in large part from the gap between its ideological aspirations and the realities it confronted. Latham's contribution is to show that the United . . .

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