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Secular Missionaries

Secular Missionaries: Americans and African Development in the 1960s

Larry Grubbs
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Secular Missionaries
    Book Description:

    In 1961, as President John F. Kennedy proclaimed the beginning of a “Decade of Development,” the United States embarked on its first coherent “Africa” policy. Guided by the precepts of modernization theory, American policymakers, diplomats, academics, and Peace Corps volunteers were dispatched to promote economic growth and nationbuilding among the newly independent countries of subSaharan Africa. At the outset, Larry Grubbs shows, many of these“ secular missionaries” were no less sanguine about their prospects for success than were their Christian predecessors a century earlier. But before long their optimism gave way to disillusionment, as rosy forecasts of sustained development collided with African political realities and colonial economies based on singlecommodity exports subject to global price fluctuations. In this book, Grubbs presents a cultural history of this illfated American campaign to modernize Africa during its first decade of independence. Drawing on government documents and contemporary press accounts as well as an extensive body of scholarship on U.S.Africa relations, he exposes the contradictions at the core of a selfserving idealism that promised to “win” the continent of Africa for the West in the context of the Cold War. While many Americans working in Africa considered themselves opponents of ethnocentrism, the modernization goals they served carried an ingrained, if unacknowledged, cultural and ideological sense of superiority and faith in American exceptionalism. Similarly, persistent myths about African backwardness and primitiveness continued to afflict U.S. policy, despite official pronouncements of confidence in the transformative power of Western expertise and cando pragmatism in bringing African societies into the modern world. If the assumptions underlying U.S. policy toward Africa during the 1960s were simply relics of outmoded Cold War orthodoxies, that would be one thing. Unfortunately, Grubbs concludes, many of the same ideas imbue contemporary discussions of the ongoing “crisis” in Africa, from the campaigns to “Save Darfur” and stop the spread of AIDS to efforts to eliminate “blood diamonds” and forgive African debts.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-025-3
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    Describing the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, Time reported, “The African Pavilion is the swingingest—and the noisiest—place at the fair. . . . For $1 you can walk past monkeys, giraffes, and native objects d’art into a gravel clearing surrounded by African huts flying the flags of 24 small nations,” where the visitor could observe “red-robed Royal Burundi drummers, [Babatunde] Olatunji and his passion drums, and gaily garbed Watusi warrior dancers.” Thus, one could “have your eyes opened to a dozen nations you never knew existed, and a year or so ago you were right.”¹ After...

  5. 1 “The Most Innocent of Continents”
    (pp. 19-35)

    During a meeting of the National Security Council in 1959, a perplexed President Eisenhower asked, “Did Somalia consist of wild jungle?” As yet another African colony approached independence, the president felt apprehensive. He wondered “whether the Somalia [sic] people were primitive and aborigines.” Director of the CIA Allen Dulles pointed out the largely arid landscape of the country, but allowed the second of the president’s assumptions to stand. In reply, Eisenhower, “citing his experience with primitive peoples in the Philippines, expressed some wonder as to how the natives of Somalia could expect to run an independent nation and why they...

  6. Two “Poised on the Razor’s Edge”
    (pp. 36-53)

    In 1960 Harold Isaacs, a scholar at the Center for International Studies (CIS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), visited West Africa. Despite his credentials as the author of a major study of American images of Asia, Isaacs, like many other scholars, produced impressionistic writing about the newly awakened Africa. Like others at CIS, Isaacs was interested in modernization as a process that transformed the consciousness of individuals in the Third World. Therefore, he wrote of “the emergent African,” an ideal type or composite of Africans embracing change and self-improvement. “The emergent African,” Isaacs argued, shared with Americans a...

  7. Three “The Gospel of Modernization”
    (pp. 54-73)

    Mennen Williams’s memoir,Africa for the Africans, featured on the cover an image of a black man wearing a Western suit, a brief case in one hand and a spear in the other, adorned in African ear hoops, necklace, and pendant and shod in sandals. Here was the “transitional” African, the “man of two worlds,” as first-generation educated Africans were known.¹ Secular missionaries like Williams earnestly sought the salvation of this transitional African. American expertise, technology, and capital, they believed, could ensure the successful African adaptation to modernity. That the transitional African was an archetype based on sweeping generalizations rather...

  8. Four “The Moral Equivalent of Anti-Colonialism”
    (pp. 74-99)

    In 1961 Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson made his only trip to Africa, a memorable one. Crude yet flamboyant, the consummate American politician visited Senegal on the first anniversary of its independence. Intending to signal the newfound interest in Africa of the United States, Johnson’s trip took him beyond the capital, Dakar, to a “fishing village some 25 miles NE of Dakar” called Kayar, site of a proposed Peace Corps project. Johnson “promised to send the Village Chief of Kayar a Johnson outboard motor upon his return to the U.S.” The U.S. Embassy in Dakar reported that, while “some of...

  9. Five “A Significant Historical Demonstration”
    (pp. 100-122)

    Though admitting “my knowledge of the history of West Africa is quite inadequate,” American economist Wolfgang Stolper enthusiastically embraced the task of drafting independent Nigeria’s first national development plan. In 1960, the forty-eight-year-old University of Michigan professor, formerly a colleague of Arnold Rivkin’s at CIS, made his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous nation. Desperately needing expatriate experts and civil servants, Nigeria had asked the Ford Foundation to help staff the Federal Ministry of Economic Development. Stolper, a Harvard Ph.D., friend and disciple of Joseph Schumpeter, and an authority on the economy of Communist East Germany, had joined Rivkin’s...

  10. Six “Decade of Disillusionment”
    (pp. 123-142)

    Mennen Williams, as if in conscious reaction toUgly Americanstereotypes, applied to his African travels the folksy informality that had won Chester Bowles respect in India. His tours of the continent, though somewhat less frenetic than Lyndon Johnson’s, proved theatric, and they generated an evanescent goodwill. His three-day visit to Guinea in 1962, at a key moment in the rapprochement between the United States and Sékou Touré, seemed a major success to the embassy, which credited Williams’s “warmth, sincerity, and command of French.” The Guineans “seemed react with pleasure to Williams’s informality with crowds at markets spontaneously singing and...

  11. Seven “Just Not a Rational Being”
    (pp. 143-158)

    In 1966 the U.S. Ambassador to the Ivory Coast took the unusual step of recommending a new point of emphasis for U.S. policy throughout Africa by writing directly to the White House. He suggested to National Security Advisor Walt Rostow that the Johnson administration publicly defend its foreign aid program against conservative critics by emphasizing that its “real aim should be to inject the American ingredient that is qualitatively essential to the particular country’s best development.” That American ingredient: “our practical faith that what must be done can be done.” He added, “We have demonstrated that we are a ‘can...

  12. Eight “Fetish Nation”
    (pp. 159-180)

    When Eric Sevareid published a profile of Nigeria on the eve of independence entitled, “Nigeria: Black Monolith . . . or Triptych?” the CBS news analyst included photos depicting “the ancient and the modern in Nigeria.” Photos juxtaposed “barbarically” attired Hausa “tribesmen” and Nigerians working in a college laboratory to illustrate the contrasts in a transitional new nation. Yet greater weight went to the “ancient” Africa, highlighted by a photo of a traditional dancing ceremony. Its caption read: “Like most of Africa, Nigeria is attempting to leap a millennium in a generation. But even as the new encroaches, the old...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 181-194)

    Long before presidential tours of Africa became de rigueur, Lyndon Johnson planned to make the first such pilgrimage. Five years after LBJ’s Senegalese expedition, presidential aide and confidant Bill Moyers reported that “the President feels that of all the places he would like to visit abroad, perhaps an African visit would pose the least problems and get the greatest return,” though Moyers admitted the idea “was still very much in the ‘thinking stage.’”¹ By the final year of his presidency, Johnson hoped, much like George W. Bush forty years later, to polish the badly tarnished image of his war-scarred presidency...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 195-232)
  15. Index
    (pp. 233-243)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 244-246)