In 1898, America embarked on its imperial project as it engaged a struggling colonial Spain in Cuba and the Philippines. As one government official opined, “It was a splendid little war.” Of course, the brutal war waged by the U.S. in the Philippines and the occupation of the archipelago by U.S. forces required some justification, as did nearly all other foreign policy adventures of the twentieth century. The tragedy of World War II only magnified America’s international presence. If a world power in 1898, by the 1950s America stood as one of two superpowers.
People commonly think of foreign policy resting on the strength of military exploits, yet few would deny the importance of diplomacy in expanding U.S. interests. Though Chairman Mao’s adage that power flows from the barrel of gun retains significant salience, so too does the saying that “one catches more bees with honey than vinegar.” Frequently, observers imbue a nation’s military prowess with a masculine orientation. Under this rubric some have suggested that the more nuanced approaches of diplomats provide the other leg upon which foreign policy rests. However, the protection of a nation’s perceived interests depends on more than the strength of military or the silver tongues of elites. In the Cold War epoch, U.S. diplomacy featured a gendered notion of expansion that utilized American women and children in the justification of American occupation. More to the point, in Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War, 1946-1965, Alvah addresses both the gendering of aspects of foreign policy while also emphasizing the role of women and children in advancing U.S. interests.
The Power of Domesticity and Consumerism Abroad
During the Cold War, the U.S. armed forces expanded their presence abroad which brought new realities to military life. The need for a standing army required the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops overseas from Turkey to Okinawa to West Germany. Complaints regarding separated families and low morale led officials to allow many families tied to military personnel to live abroad. Beginning in 1946, following Dwight Eisenhower’s appeal to military leaders that wives and dependents be allowed to join husbands and fathers, the U.S. military began the process of implementing the new policy. However, ideas about military families were not simply about the families themselves. Instead, the decision to send families abroad stemmed from fears over immorality, race, and the role of domesticity in fighting communism. (26) Assertions that the presence of families could help deal with difficulties caused by rapid demobilization, low morale, poor discipline, and liaisons with local women bolstered arguments for sending families abroad. Such arguments would have resonated with Americans who believed that stable family life would help cure the ills – dislocation, low spirits, crime, and the disruption of overseas communities – caused by war.” (26)
Alvah focuses on the role that military domesticities played in spreading American ideals and ideology. Earlier writers such as Charlotte Wolf (Garrison Community: A Study of an Overseas Military Colony, 1969), Maria Höhn (G.I.'s and Frauleins: The German American Encounter in 1950s West Germany), Petra Goedde (G.I.'s and Germans: Culture, Gender, and Foreign Relations, 1945 - 1949), and American military wife Martha Gravois provide the foundation upon which Alvah builds. Hohn and Goedde, who explored informal social relations between American service personnel and Germans, notably women and children, relate most directly to Alvah’s research. In Cold War military families, Alvah sees a force for securing American interests. Both military officials and many families envisioned an ambassadorial role for wives and dependents. Alvah notes, “Military family members – wives, children, and servicemen as husbands and fathers – were expected to contribute to the ideological rivalry with communism by representing what Americans considered the best aspects of their way of life.” (Alvah, 7) Moreover, the need for a standing army and the demand for familial accompaniment coincided with the belief in the nuclear family as a source of stability, order, and opposition to communist influence. Referencing Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound, Alvah suggests the nuclear family now served as bulwark against Soviet advance.
Unlike Wolf, a sociologist who examined military communities in Turkey, Alvah’s attention rests squarely on the experience of military families in Okinawa and West Germany. Though the relations between service personnel, their families, and the local communities differed between Asia and Europe, both sites experienced serious housing shortages. While some enjoyed larger accommodations than they had known stateside, the housing many families did secure lacked the amenities of the suburban image promoted by American culture at the time. For example into the late 1940s, families in Okinawa “resided in poorly constructed and unattractive housing,” Alvah notes. Of course, even these wives and dependents lived in housing better than their counterparts in occupied nations.