From the flights of the Wright brothers through the mass journeys of the jet age, airplanes inspired Americans to reimagine their nation’s place within the world. Now, Jenifer Van Vleck reveals the central role commercial aviation played in the United States’ rise to global preeminence in the twentieth century. As U.S. military and economic influence grew, the federal government partnered with the aviation industry to carry and deliver American power across the globe and to sell the very idea of the “American Century” to the public at home and abroad.
Invented on American soil and widely viewed as a symbol of national greatness, the airplane promised to extend the frontiers of the United States “to infinity,” as Pan American World Airways president Juan Trippe said. As it accelerated the global circulation of U.S. capital, consumer goods, technologies, weapons, popular culture, and expertise, few places remained distant from the influence of Wall Street and Washington. Aviation promised to secure a new type of empire—an empire of the air instead of the land, which emphasized access to markets rather than the conquest of territory and made the entire world America’s sphere of influence.
By the late 1960s, however, foreign airlines and governments were challenging America’s control of global airways, and the domestic aviation industry hit turbulent times. Just as the history of commercial aviation helps to explain the ascendance of American power, its subsequent challenges reflect the limits and contradictions of the American Century.
[A] superb account of the role of civil aviation in the forging of the ‘American Century’… As much a meditation on the nature of power as a narrow story of aviation, the book anatomizes a potent brand of American ideology.
This is required reading on U.S. aviation.
Deeply researched and artfully written, Empire of the Air sweeps through the twentieth-century history of U.S. aviation, showing how America’s growing dominance over the technologies of flight defied territoriality and joined national ambition and global betterment, state power and commercial profit, consumerist travel and popular enlightenment. Van Vleck’s analysis of the rise of America’s airborne ‘empire’ should appeal to a broad audience of readers.
Van Vleck makes a convincing argument that the history of air travel should be understood as a synecdoche for U.S. economic, ideological, and cultural expansion and then decline over the course of the American Century. This engrossing study is a model of foreign relations history viewed from a transnational and global perspective.
Coupling penetrating research with a writer’s flair, Van Vleck’s Empire of the Air stands out among the long list of books on America’s love affair with aviation. It is a history of planes and of flying, but also a history of why flight mattered to American policymakers eager to put their mark on the modern world.
Centered on the remarkable career of Juan Trippe, visionary and entrepreneur, Van Vleck’s engaging account of the rise and rapid demise of Pan Am Airlines illuminates corporate influence on American foreign policy, the emergence of civilian aviation and its military ramifications, and the underlying dynamics of globalization in the latter half of the twentieth century.
- 400 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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