The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order

The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order

The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order

The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order


The Great American Mission traces how America's global modernization efforts during the twentieth century were a means to remake the world in its own image. David Ekbladh shows that the emerging concept of modernization combined existing development ideas from the Depression. He describes how ambitious New Deal programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority became symbols of American liberalism's ability to marshal the social sciences, state planning, civil society, and technology to produce extensive social and economic change. For proponents, it became a valuable weapon to check the influence of menacing ideologies such as Fascism and Communism.

Modernization took on profound geopolitical importance as the United States grappled with these threats. After World War II, modernization remained a means to contain the growing influence of the Soviet Union. Ekbladh demonstrates how U. S.-led nation-building efforts in global hot spots, enlisting an array of nongovernmental groups and international organizations, were a basic part of American strategy in the Cold War.

However, a close connection to the Vietnam War and the upheavals of the 1960s would discredit modernization. The end of the Cold War further obscured modernization's mission, but many of its assumptions regained prominence after September 11 as the United States moved to contain new threats. Using new sources and perspectives, The Great American Mission offers new and challenging interpretations of America's ideological motivations and humanitarian responsibilities abroad.


Make no little plans: they have no magic to stir men's
blood … Make big plans: aim high in hope and work.

Daniel Burnham, 1908. Quoted by Eugene Staley

THROUGHOUT HIS LONG CAREER, Eugene Staley often quoted Daniel Burnham and his maxim of “make no little plans.” Unintentionally, Staley was revealing much about himself and the ideas with which he surrounded himself during the mid-twentieth century. An economist by training, Staley ranged the globe working on the stirring and critical mission of international development when its resonance on the world scene was at its height. On the surface, Staley might not seem a peer of Burnham, the architect responsible for the dramatic Chicago Exhibition of 1893. But both men shared a faith in modernity, particularly its American example. Burnham, too, carried this faith abroad. It is no surprise that Staley, who believed in development as both a humanitarian need to adjust societies to the pressures of an all-encompassing modern world and a critical means to contain ideologies that would pull peoples away from the healthy means to achieve progress, found a kindred spirit in Burnham.

Nothing about the ideas and policies that Staley and ranks of others flung into the world was little. Their ambitions and goals were as vast as the process to which they committed. To ensure that their methods to achieve a future brightened by the hallmarks of modernity were chosen by other peoples, they did indeed have to “stir men's blood.” Pulses would be quickened by standards of living raised by the application of technology. Power plants, dams, roads, bridges, and a host of other massive expressions of applied science offered revolutionary commodities that would change how people lived. New ways of living would emerge as people bent their personal existences to the opportunities and the boundaries marked by these forces. Change would be constant and it would be as intimate as it was vast.

Guiding progress was not a new concept when Staley took up the task. For Americans the concept went well back into their history. But, unintentionally, Burnham's words evoke the qualitative difference in the efforts during the twentieth century. Behind them lay the “big plan.” For Burnham, plans meant ambitions, but for his successors, planning in relation to development implied the marshalling and management (often by government authorities) of resources for a particular goal. The concept of . . .

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