A new history of Rotary International shows how the organization reinforced capitalist values and cultural practices at home and tried to remake the world in the idealized image of Main Street America.
Rotary International was born in Chicago in 1905. By the time World War II was over, the organization had made good on its promise to “girdle the globe.” Rotary International and the Selling of American Capitalism explores the meteoric rise of a local service club that brought missionary zeal to the spread of American-style economics and civic ideals.
Brendan Goff traces Rotary’s ideological roots to the business progressivism and cultural internationalism of the United States in the early twentieth century. The key idea was that community service was intrinsic to a capitalist way of life. The tone of “service above self” was often religious, but, as Rotary looked abroad, it embraced Woodrow Wilson’s secular message of collective security and international cooperation: civic internationalism was the businessman’s version of the Christian imperial civilizing mission, performed outside the state apparatus. The target of this mission was both domestic and global. The Rotarian, the organization’s publication, encouraged Americans to see the world as friendly to Main Street values, and Rotary worked with US corporations to export those values. Case studies of Rotary activities in Tokyo and Havana show the group paving the way for encroachments of US power—economic, political, and cultural—during the interwar years.
Rotary’s evangelism on behalf of market-friendly philanthropy and volunteerism reflected a genuine belief in peacemaking through the world’s “parliament of businessmen.” But, as Goff makes clear, Rotary also reinforced American power and interests, demonstrating the tension at the core of US-led internationalism.
The book is luminous—beautifully written and smartly constructed—showcasing Goff’s thorough research and his skillful analysis of the evolving racial, gender, class, and religious norms that came into play as RI chapters spread throughout, and then out from, the United States.
Goff convincingly shows how Rotary drew on and contributed to imperial networks, even as Rotary’s ethos of apolitical service blinded Rotarians (both in the United States and abroad) to the imperial nature of U.S. power. This book deserves a wide audience.
This far-ranging account of transnational networking reveals the Main Street, middle-class making of modern global capitalism. Goff is as attuned to the paradoxes of Rotary internationalism as he is to its place in the American Century.
In this innovative book, Goff uses the international history of the Rotary Club to chart the origins of the ‘American Century.’ Tracing Rotary’s remarkable, worldwide expansion in the first half of the twentieth century, he offers fresh insights on American global power and transnational civic engagement, cultural diplomacy and corporate capitalism. Filled with fascinating stories of Rotarians and their activities on Main Streets far and wide, this book deserves a broad readership.
Imaginatively conceived and highly readable, this book tells the remarkable story of Rotary International’s campaign to expand from Chicago to the world at large. Goff makes an important contribution both to our understanding of Main Street America’s thinking about international trade and foreign policy, and of the business culture and voluntarism that Rotary promoted around the world.
In Goff’s hands, we see the Rotarian as an advance agent of US power, a missionary for international capitalism, and an advocate of a business culture that shaped the twentieth-century world. Based on rich, diverse sources and told in a clear, compelling narrative, this remarkable book about how Rotarians crafted a ‘civic internationalism’ will be widely read.
You may not think you are interested in the Rotary International. But if you are interested in informal empire, globalism, or the overlap between internationalism and cultural diversity, you need to read this book. It turns out the Rotarians were not the small-minded, parochial Babbitts of Sinclair Lewis’s imagination. They were in fact internationalists whose language of cooperation, nonpartisan business professionalism, and human fellowship helped pave the way for American-style global capitalism…As the world today reembraces nationalism and stokes polarization, and as we face climate catastrophe and a pandemic, the thorny problems discussed in this book are at the heart of any attempt to renew an internationalist ethos of cooperation, service, and nonpartisanship.
- 456 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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