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The Influence of Affluence

ISSUE:  Autumn 1997
Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria after the Second World War. By Reinhold Wagnleitner, translated by Diana M. Wolf. North Carolina. $55 cloth, $24.95 paper.

“Bronx Man Leads Russian Revolution” announced the headline of a newspaper in the borough where Leon Trotsky had briefly resided, and this 1917 example of downright bizarre parochialism should warn against seeing large events from localized perspectives. Though Austria lost its empire nearly nine decades ago and the republic that succeeded the Danube Monarchy already had become less populous than Florida around 1970, the author of this volume does not peer at the United States from the wrong end of the telescope. An historian who teaches at the University of Salzburg, Reinhold Wagnleitner measures the cultural impact of the United States from so expansive an angle that his narrow subtitle is misleading. The decade in which G.I.’s occupied and subjugated part of his country after its defeat is hardly the exclusive focus of his analysis, which is enriched with shrewd observations and witty reflections on the global meaning of American power—including the power to shape the imaginative life of foreigners like himself. Indeed, Wagnleitner’s book should be of general interest as an illustration of the mechanisms of hegemony. For Coca-Colonization and the Cold War recounts how a superpower parlayed its military might and its horn of plenty into cultural authority so inescapable that even those who fear or detest such influence must reckon with it and at least partly submit to it.

To provide a minor instance, I witnessed a May Day parade not long ago in Vienna that included a cadre of Kurdish Stalinist separatists, bristling with ideological ferocity, though one marcher wore a baseball cap adorned with the logo of the New York Yankees. (Such team spirit may have tempered his animosity to “Yankee imperialism.”) Today about 80 percent of all the movie and television exports seen in the world have originated in the United States, slightly more than the proportion of computer programs on the planet that store information in English, which has become the first truly global lingua franca. The implications require some subtlety to spell out under the rubric of “the concept of American cultural imperialism or cultural hegemony,” which Wagnleitner argues “is much too simplistic if it is used only to describe a combination of military, economic and political pressures.” There are also “aspects of indirect structural dependency, which are probably more important but much harder to quantify.” Those aspects can be as impalpable as idiom or imagery, which is why his title should not be taken too literally. He has no brand-name loyalty, even though Coca-Cola may be the second most recognized phrase that can be uttered on the planet (after “okay”). Yet soft drinks barely feature in Wagnleitner’s account, despite the $1.5 billion that Coke has invested in post-Communist Eastern Europe, generating important multiplier effects such as the sustenance of numerous operators of kiosks—the class of petty bourgeoisie which Marxist economics had intended to eradicate.

Coca-Colonization and the Cold War is less about pauses that refresh than about causes that once seemed fresh to Europeans—the radiant promises of liberty, pleasure, and consumption that the United States projected. This book is about emancipation from the often repressive and intolerant restrictions of the past. If the choice is between an ayatollah and Coca-Cola, the author’s own preference would be clear, despite the consequence of reduced national sover-eignty. As an Austrian, Wagnleitner is especially sensitive to the limited options that confront small nations; the previous version of “cultural imperialism” that his country absorbed had emanated from the Third Reich. The choices are usually not between autonomy (or autarky) and dependence but between subjugation to local or nearby elites and to those from even further away (whether in Washington or in Hollywood). In examining the operations of cultural power, he ranges broadly to make his case, whether in surveying across two centuries how Europeans envisioned America, or in assessing how they came to appreciate jazz, or in showing how U.S.movies were intended to tip the balance against Italian Communists in the 1948 elections. Though sprawling and somewhat disheveled in its organization, Coca-Colonization and the Cold War is packed with fascinating nuggets of information (often statistical) and savvy perceptions (often ironic); Wagnleitner is a one-man Office of Facts and Figures.

His considerable research is nevertheless lavished on the Austrian Republic. However much it was dwarfed by other nations, its strategic locale made it pivotal to the Cold War objectives of the United States, which in its zone of occupation had organized an Information Services Branch to fulfill an ambitious cultural mission. How agents of influence realized the mandate of the ISB is the subject of the closest examination—and of sometimes grudging admiration—in Wagnleitner’s book. The newspaper that the ISB financed, the Wiener Kurier, exceeded the circulation of all the Republic’s other newspapers, which American bureaucrats carefully monitored (and sometimes licensed). The agency’s radio station, Rot-Weiss-Rot, was the most popular in Austria; and proximity to the East permitted broadcasts in languages like Slovak, Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian and Czech as well as German. Indeed so effective was this Cold War-inflected voice of America that Rot-Weiss-Rot, Wagnleitner quips, might have been called Red-White-Blue instead. The U.S. Information Agency established libraries and distributed a cornucopia of books and articles, and the U.S.Education Division affected pedagogy not only by disseminating textbooks but also by promoting the study of English. The slogan that “books follow the jeep” was sometimes honored so faithfully that the U.S.Army controlled—and censored—the “private” Salzburg Seminars in American Studies.

But the ISB could not satisfactorily reconcile the conflicting demands of propaganda. If it was too overtly one-sided in presenting American policies and society, such efforts would be too clumsy to be effective; if too comprehensive and balanced, depictions of the United States would have to include revelations of injustices and hypocrisies, undercutting the mission itself. Such dilemmas were compounded by the primitive suspicions of right-wingers (who also had the power of the purse). They considered such cultural activities superfluous (at least in contrast to NATO) and had doubts about artists themselves, who might be liberals eager to infect propaganda with their own subversive tendencies. Nor did it help the ISB’s cause that so much of the vernacular culture that intrigued and excited foreigners was African-American in its derivation. Despite such impediments, U. S. purposes in Austria were plain enough. The editor of a serious magazine like Das Forum, co-financed by the CIA and targeted mainly at Viennese intellectuals, defined his job as follows: “We want to sell them politics under the pretext of culture, and I don’t have to tell you what sort of politics it will be.”

The two longest chapters in Wagnleitner’s book trace the impact of American popular music, radio programs, plays, and movies in Austria; and here he begs to differ with his fellow citizens, who tended to harbor snobbish prejudices and assumptions about the aesthetic subordination of the United States to Europe in general and to his own country in particular. Popular culture, he insists, is what the United States does best, which does not mean that operas and symphonies have been too much of a stretch but that the arts in America should not be judged by critical standards that elites in the Old World had formulated in different historical circumstances. Thus Coca-Colonization and the Cold War makes room for the respect accorded Thornton Wilder and Yehudi Menuhin, but also mentions Willis Conover, whom the New York Times (in its 1996 obituary) called “the most famous American that virtually no American had ever heard of,” since his jazz programs for the Voice of America could not be broadcast in the United States. But Conover’s picture could be found in Polish homes in the 1960’s about as often (and with as much pride of place) as portraits of President Kennedy, and the disk jockey’s cool music was of inestimable Cold War value in winning over hearts and minds.

Wagnleitner himself was born in 1949, and under the occupation had “secretly suspected that an army advancing to the rhythm of swing music deserved to win the war.” That is why, for all the truly impressive erudition that he musters in Coca-Colonization and the Cold War, it is also a very personal book.”To us pseudo-Americans,” he recalls, “the United States signified an amalgam of freedom, fun, modernity, wealth, mobility, and youthful rebellion. . . . We sang in English not only because most of our folk music seemed tainted by the Nazis. . . . [but also] as an act of protest against the older generation.” From his perch in a nation that rubbed against the Iron Curtain (Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia), he can issue the verdict that the Cold War was decided not only by the acceptance of the ideals of the ACLU but because the ideology of individualism was vindicated too. The popular music that Americans played helped the author to break from the parochialism of tiny Mauerkirchen; rock ‘n’ roll served as his own declaration of independence, a lifting of the dead weight of the past. Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Johann Strauss the news.”For most of my teenage friends,” Wagnleitner remembers, “American pop culture became the major vehicle of protest against their parents.” For adolescents like himself, an immersion in the vibrant popular culture from overseas had become a Status symbol. That is why Coca-Colonization and the Cold War is a gesture of gratitude, because the United States made villagers like himself into modern cosmopolitans. In reciprocation Austria has given America not only Arnold Schwarzenegger but also this charming and thoughtful book, which conveys its learning lightly, yet is so idiosyncratic that only one author’s name could be on it.

But it is certainly not an uncritical work. Providence may have bestowed upon the United States the status of most favored nation; but secular reasons can account, for example, for the uncontested global influence of Hollywood. The triumph of its style has been due not only to technological superiority, or to a particular narrative flair, or to the bravura of its stars, or to the inherent allure of the American dream. Wagnleitner also argues that staggering production costs benefitted the American film industry, which alone could marshal the economic resources to compete internationally, and that Hollywood’s increasing reliance upon foreign profit margins entwined its postwar interests with Washington’s foreign policy. Some war-torn countries made themselves eligible for foreign aid by eliminating their quotas on imported movies. The author remarks that in 1912, when 90 percent of the world’s film exports were French, American studios insisted on import quotas. But in the 1920’s, when most exported films became American, the same studios were outraged that other countries tried to protect their own production companies. So overwhelming was the combined clout of Hollywood and Washington during the Cold War that, in its first and iciest phase, half the movies shown in Austria had been made in Los Angeles, accelerating the decline of film industries not only in Austria but throughout Europe. Faced with a competitor that enjoyed inherent (and unfair) advantages, such industries were like the residents buried in the cemetery of Tombstone, Arizona and memorialized as “Too Slow on the Draw.”

Perhaps this virtually irresistible force should be called “Americanization,” though Wagnleitner dislikes the term, since the United States pioneered in but has no franchise on the commodification of desire. Moreover the expectation that comfort and convenience could be extended to the masses was forced on no nation. That is why, though the New World was “discovered” by the Spanish-surnamed explorer Colon, the author denies that Americanization is merely a synonym for colonization, even if his book shows how cultural hegemony has operated upon Austrians and others. Yet Wagnleitner hints how receptive they were to the fantasies of freedom that American political and corporate power implemented. Modernization is not a force that can be exclusively associated with the commercial interests of the United States, but has gone furthest there in treating people less as citizens and more as customers, privileging the choices made in shopping malls rather than in city halls. But trends consolidated in the United States are now global, as multinational corporations compete in a multicultural market that consists of “a universal tribe of consumers defined by needs and wants that are ubiquitous, if not by nature than by the cunning of advertising,” according to Benjamin R.Barber of Rutgers University. Wagnleitner’s engrossing book demonstrates how aptly his own country can serve as an example and an emulation, even if Americanization does not prove to be the right term to denote how anticipations of general prosperity have circumnavigated the planet. “In the beginning,” John Locke had proclaimed, “all the world was America”; and if its mass culture and its ethos of consumerism continue their ineluctable course, in the end all the world will be America too.


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