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Empire of the Air

Empire of the Air

Jenifer Van Vleck
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Empire of the Air
    Book Description:

    Jenifer Van Vleck's fascinating history reveals the central role commercial aviation played in the United States' ascent to global preeminence in the twentieth century. As U.S. military and economic influence grew, the federal government partnered with the aviation industry to deliver American power across the globe and to sell the idea of the "American Century" to the public at home and abroad. 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 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-72624-6
    Subjects: History, Transportation Studies, Technology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction: The Logic of the Air
    (pp. 1-17)

    On any given day in the summer of 1939, thousands of Americans at Pan American Airways’ Dinner Key Terminal in Miami, Florida, were watching the world turn. As newspaper headlines and newsreels warned of impending war in Europe, visitors gazed at a gigantic, rotating globe—one of the largest ever built in the United States, weighing 3.25 tons and measuring 10 feet in diameter—and reflected on the state of the world. Perhaps they marveled at how modern communications and transportation technologies had seemed to shrink distance and time. Perhaps, in this context, they worried about the United States’ neutrality...

  4. 1 The Americanization of the Airplane
    (pp. 18-52)

    On December 17, 1903, from atop the windswept dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, accomplished the world’s first sustained, controlled flight in a machine-powered airplane. The flight lasted for twelve seconds and covered a distance of 120 feet. Later that day, Orville and Wilbur Wright made three more flights, including one of fifty-seven seconds. The brothers’ brief telegram to their father—“Success four flights Thursday morning”—scarcely conveyed the magnitude of their achievement. Only five observers witnessed the event: three men from the nearby Kill Devil Hills lifesaving station and two residents of nearby...

  5. 2 Good Neighbors Are Close Neighbors
    (pp. 53-88)

    In the climactic scene of the hit Hollywood musicalFlying Down to Rio,released by RKO Studios in December 1933, a bandleader from the United States (Gene Raymond) marries a Brazilian woman (Dolores del Rio) aboard a Pan American Airways Clipper, the silver-hulled flying boat that made flying synonymous with glamour during the 1930s. That same month, at a diplomatic conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, Secretary of State Cordell Hull pledged U.S. aid for the development of Latin American transportation and communications facilities. His offer followed the “Good Neighbor” policy that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had proclaimed in his March 1933...

  6. 3 Global Visions, National Interests
    (pp. 89-130)

    In his widely influential editorial “The American Century,” originally published in the February 1941 issue ofLife,publisher Henry R. Luce argued that the realities of the so-called air age required the United States to expand its global commitments. Thanks to technologies like aviation, “our world of 2,000,000,000 human beings is for the first time in history one world, fundamentally indivisible.” Americans must therefore reject isolationism, Luce argued, and embrace a “trulyAmericaninternationalism,” based not on narrow interests but on the universal principles signified by “big words like Democracy and Freedom and Justice.” This American internationalism, Luce proposed, should...

  7. 4 “America’s Lifeline to Africa”
    (pp. 131-166)

    On January 11, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt boarded Pan American Airways’Dixie Clipperin Miami. He was flying to meet British prime minister Winston Churchill in Casablanca, Morocco, where the two Allied leaders would famously agree to impose terms of unconditional surrender on the Axis powers. Just as FDR had been the first presidential candidate who flew to accept his nomination, he now became the first sitting U.S. president to leave the United States during a time of war and the first to travel by air on a diplomatic mission. Captain Howard M. Cone, a thirty-four-year-old “Master of Ocean...

  8. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  9. 5 From Open Door to Open Sky
    (pp. 167-198)

    In 1943, a high-level government committee headed by Assistant Secretary of State Adolf A. Berle Jr. painted a grim picture of the future of U.S. international aviation. “Our situation in this hemisphere is relatively good; we hold air entry rights for each of the 20 American Republics to the south except Uruguay,” the report began. But, it continued,

    in 42 countries we have no rights of entry at all for peacetime air commerce; at the airports of those countries we cannot disembark or accept passengers, cargo, or mails. Among those countries are most of the nations of Europe, Africa, and...

  10. 6 Mass Air Travel and the Routes of the Cold War
    (pp. 199-238)

    As the postwar air age began, Wendell Willkie’s vision of “one world” had largely failed to materialize. On the contrary, the world seemed more divided than ever. By early 1946, as the Soviet Union showed no signs of relinquishing its control over Eastern Europe, Winston Churchill famously proclaimed that an “iron curtain” had descended across the continent. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated throughout the late 1940s. In 1948, President Truman’s Air Policy Commission called for an unprecedented buildup of military airpower; the following year, the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb. The bipolar international order and...

  11. 7 The Jet Age and the Limits of American Power
    (pp. 239-280)

    On October 26, 1958, Pan American World Airways Flight 114 departed from New York’s Idlewild Airport en route to Paris, inaugurating daily jet service between the United States and Europe. The Boeing 707 arrived in Paris after seven hours and thirty-four minutes, compared with eleven hours for its piston-engine predecessors. Aboard the flight, 111 “jet-age pioneers” (as a Pan Am press release called the passengers) ranged in age from eight to eighty and came from diverse walks of life. Karl Johanson, a seventeen-year-old high school senior from Valhalla, New York, had saved money for five years to purchase a ticket...

  12. Conclusion: “Empires Rise and Empires Fall”
    (pp. 281-304)

    At 7:00 a.m. on the morning of December 4, 1991, Pan American World AirwaysClipper Goodwilldeparted New York’s JFK Airport on its regularly scheduled flight to Barbados. The five-hour journey was smooth and uneventful, and the Boeing 727-200 touched down under clear, sunny skies and a pleasant temperature of 80°F. To the passengers, all must have seemed well. Little did they know that while they had been enjoying a hot in-flight breakfast, Pan Am had quietly gone out of business. “We ceased operations at 9 o’clock this morning!” shouted the Barbados station manager as he ran across the tarmac...

  13. Sources and Abbreviations
    (pp. 305-306)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 307-356)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 357-360)
  16. Index
    (pp. 361-370)