Sheena McDonald introduces Peter Conrad as the writer of a book full of treasures. How The World Was Won: The Americanisation of Everywhere explores the influence the USA has had on the world over the course of the 20th century. Conrad is originally from Tasmania but has spent most of his life teaching English at Oxford. He fell in love with America on his first road trip there at 20, despite one misadventure after another over the entire journey. He likes the concept of the immigrant ideology, though he recognises that the original inclusive optimism has long since been corrupted.
He explains that when America first owned the world they didn’t simply stamp their feet and demand everyone adopt their version of freedom. Instead they tried to seduce the world with cultural diplomacy, with varying success. Most of the world was happy to lie back and be seduced by burger chains and Hollywood movies but there were also concerted efforts to send examples of American culture abroad. Ella Fitzgerald was sent to perform in West Berlin, where she performed a cover of Mack the Knife, forgetting the original dark cynicism of the song and indeed forgetting the words. A production of Porgi and Bess was sent to Russia, with its Holy Roller tone receiving poor reception.
Some were dismissive of the culture and domestic improvements the USA was trying to sell. The French in particular were furious that Paris’ status as the centre of the modern art world was being undermined. One woman thought vacuum cleaners were an appalling invention as a broom would keep women more connected to the earth and their home, more than a little hypocritical given that she had a maid and so didn’t use a broom herself. Others dismissed cars and indoor plumbing as uncivilised, a point of view that seems bizarre now.
The USA certainly imposed itself commercially and economically but, as Conrad explains, it was indirectly asked to do so. There was an increased appreciation of America after WW2. The gangster Salvatore petitioned President Truman to make Sicily the 49th state. Hubert Humfrey once said that the US was offering itself as the last best hope for improvement. He was suggesting that the US represented optimism and the potential for enlightenment and offering the ideology of perfectibility. The British Empire imposed itself by disseminating Shakespeare and America did the same with Coca Cola and capitalism.
Even America’s current violence is often found oddly fascinating and the obsession with Hollywood films suggests an undercurrent of attraction to violence. However, Conrad believes that the Empire of America is absolutely in decline and it is essentially destroying itself. He speaks of movies and TV dramas giving stories and ideas to terrorists, who used the plots as starting points for their own plans. A recent film featured fighter jets taking out the White House and clips of this were circulated in North Korea as if they were legitimate news. Kim Jong-un hardly needs to put effort into propaganda; Hollywood does half the work for him.
Conrad feels that the US is an inappropriate place for the UN as America is so self-obsessed and so ignorant of the rest of the world. Only a fraction of Americans own a passport. He once had a scholarship to go to America and was stunned by the ignorance of those he met, who had no understanding of anything outside their borders. In 2002 he found that ignorance even extended to other areas inside America. While on holiday in New Mexico he wanted to see a set of paintings by DH Lawrence. He asked the owner of the building how the season had been. She replied that it had been quiet and that she thought it might be to do with ‘that bombing back east’. Given what seems to be a total obsession with 9/11 Conrad was stunned at her ignorance. Then he realised that if someone could be that ignorant of such a major event inside the US then it was no surprise that they were also supremely ignorant of the rest of the world.
Conrad seems to have a love/hate relationship with a country that fascinates him. He has an unusual perspective on some aspects of America and its world but it certainly sounds as if his book really is a treasure trove of interesting facts and anecdotes about the enigma that is the USA.