Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance Through 20th-Century Europe. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.

Kelly J. Shannon
Ph.D. Student, Department of History


According to Victoria de Grazia, the United States is the “Market Empire,” whose informal global influence and control comes mainly from the extension of the institutions of its market economy to the rest of the world, especially Europe. De Grazia argues that “America’s hegemony was built on European territory.” While other areas of the world, especially Latin America and Asia, experienced the more violent effects of U.S. hegemony through American “hard power,” de Grazia is interested in how the U.S. came to exercise considerable and mainly peaceable “soft power” in Europe. This Market Empire arose, de Grazia asserts, from the combination of economic forces pushing out of the United States and the Europeans’ rival visions of market culture and “old regime” consumption. The result was a transatlantic “clash of civilizations,” for the Europeans both contested and co-opted American soft power to fit their own visions of proper market society. The end result of this colossal struggle, however, was the triumph of the American style of market capitalism. The Europeans’ eventual acceptance of, and participation in, this Market Empire helped to create what de Grazia calls the “White Atlantic,” unified in its wealthy sense of superiority versus the other poverty-stricken 80 percent of the world.

In order to illustrate this dialectical struggle between the Old World and the New, de Grazia sets about to examine nine American “social inventions,” one per chapter, and their extensions to Europe. Therefore, her innovative history of twentieth century U.S.-European relations focuses on Rotary clubs, the American Standard of Living, chain variety stores, name brands, corporate advertising, Hollywood, the “Consumer-Citizen,” supermarkets, and, finally, “Mrs. Consumer.” Rather than giving center stage to the usual list of suspects of politicians and diplomats, de Grazia’s protagonists are men like Edward Filene, founder of the Filene’s Basement chain of discount stores, the novelists Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Mann, both players in the rise of Rotary International, and movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

De Grazia demonstrates clearly that the extension of these nine market institutions generated profits but also exported American culture abroad. In fact, de Grazia argues strongly that one of the defining characteristics of the Market Empire is its disregard for the sovereignty of other cultures and its conviction of the universality of its own culture. Beginning with Woodrow Wilson, who exhorted American businessmen in 1916 to “go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and happier, and convert them to the principles of America,” American businessmen and policymakers alike recognized that “salesmanship and statesmanship were interrelated.” By promoting equality in the marketplace, where access to goods was only based upon the amount of money one had rather than on social distinction, and consumer’s rights to choice in the marketplace, American businesses were laying the groundwork for democracy. Choosing among political candidates with one’s vote was much like voting with one’s dollars in the market. The slippage between economics and politics here was purposeful, according to de Grazia. Although some Europeans, especially fascists, Communists, and the Catholic Church, mounted spirited resistance to the new American way of life, the Nazi New Order, Soviet-style planned consumption, and papal exhortations about morality simply could not compete with the delights of the American “democracy of business.”

Since American-style market practices were able to displace older practices in Europe, cultural and economic hegemony in Europe strengthened America’s position of military and political hegemony. This, in turn, accounts for the position of global leadership that the United States now occupies. Its main ally, of course, is a largely integrated and Americanized European Union. Indeed, the "rise of a great imperium with the outlook of a great emporium" seems to be here to stay.

De Grazia’s book is imaginative and ambitious. It does, however, have some major flaws, many of which stem from the fact that de Grazia is a European social historian rather than a specialist in foreign relations. Thus while her exclusive focus on nine market inventions is innovative and refreshing, it also leaves the reader with the impression that many of the events described by de Grazia occurred in a vacuum. Does the spread of Rotary International, for example, really account for the growth of U.S. influence in Europe? Was Nazism really a reaction of the German Mittelstand against American-style chain stores and Jewish entrepreneurs, as de Grazia seems to imply? What else was going on in U.S.-European relations at the time? How did American policymakers, for example, harness this “soft power” in their dealings with Europe? While other historians have argued successfully that other considerations, from ideology to national interest, have played a role in the development of U.S. policy toward Europe, for de Grazia commercial culture was the only reason for American interest in Europe. What this study demonstrates very clearly is the danger of examining social and cultural history without providing a political and economic context.

As a comparative history, too, Irresistible Empire falls short in many respects. For example, de Grazia often focuses on European “old regime” models of marketing and consumption and European resistance to American-style practices while giving the impression that there was a unified consensus about these practices back in the United States. Such a consensus did not, in fact, exist, and a discussion of Americans’ anxieties about and resistance to the same institutions would do much to strengthen her argument. Additionally, de Grazia’s treatment of Europe as a monolithic unit, although she asserts that American businessmen often saw “Europe” as one market, forces her to oversimplify and to make sweeping generalizations.

Finally de Grazia’s treatment of the debate over whether or not the United States is an empire is extremely problematic. She argues that previous historians have only described U.S. hegemony in Europe, if they have dealt with it at all, as an “empire by invitation” (a concept made popular by John Lewis Gaddis) or an “empire of fun.” De Grazia’s claim to originality in describing an American Market Empire is extremely dubious in light of the fact that William Appleman Williams and his intellectual descendants have been arguing since the late 1950’s that there is, in fact, an American economic empire and that it arose largely by design. De Grazia’s arguments would be stronger if she had engaged with more of the literature dealing with American empire than just recent post-revisionists. Despite its major shortcomings, however, Irresistible Empire offers an innovative narrative of 20th century U.S.-European relations.