Skip to main content

Review by Michael H. Hunt

Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era
By Michael E. Latham. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xiv, 288. $45 cloth; $18.95 paper.)

In the writing of U.S. foreign relations history, ideas are in. Prompted first by anthropologists interested in cultural systems and more recently by a post-modern preoccupation with language, historians have paid increasing attention to the underlying concerns shaping the outlook of policymakers. This focus on ideas has helped to demonstrate that policy develops within a constructed frame of reference. It has also helped to throw into the question the previously dominant realist paradigm. That paradigm asserts or at least assumes the existence of an objectively knowable international configuration of power and insists on judging policymakers by their success at grasping that international reality and responding with appropriately formulated definitions of the “national interest.” Realist have not surprisingly resisted the notion that policy derives from intellectual constructs with deep domestic cultural roots.

Michael E. Latham’s treatment of modernization theory in its heyday attempts to dispel any remaining realist resistance. In five tight, carefully constructed chapters Latham makes the case for modernization as a potent policy ideology. He begins by defining ideology as “a conceptual framework that articulated a common set of assumptions about the nature of American society and its ability to transform a world perceived as both materially and culturally deficient”. Specifically, modernization thinking posited a sharp distinction between traditional (read third world) and modern societies, with the United States standing as the epitome of the latter. It took for granted that development from traditional to modern proceeded along a single straight line. It confidently held that economic, social, and political change was interdependent within a society undergoing development. Finally, modernization advocates expected contact with vital modern societies to accelerate progress in stagnant traditional societies.

With this conceptual foundation laid, Latham goes on to show how modernization theory became orthodoxy within the social science community in the course of the 1950s as the third world emerged as a Cold War battleground. His chapter on the rise of what has been called the Charles River school of development (for the leading role of MIT and Harvard academics) was for this reader the most engaging in the volume. He then demonstrates through three cases studies the influence of both the theory and the theorists within the Kennedy administration during what proved the golden age of modernization thinking. The three test cases are familiar and well chosen—The Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps, and the strategic hamlet program in Vietnam. The characters promoting these policy initiatives turn out to be prominent academic proponents of modernization, notably Walt Rostow, Lucian Pye, Eugene Staley, and Lincoln Gordon. Under Kennedy, these and like-minded professors got not just to speak to power but also to put their hands on the levers.

Latham’s careful development of his argument, building especially in the case studies on a well developed literature, should leave little doubt about the importance of ideas that were taken as self-evident at the time but that in retrospect seem debatable if not wrong headed. It is hard to imagine a realist, however skeptical, not having to concede the importance of a peculiarly U.S. model of development in shaping Kennedy programs.

Like any valuable contribution, this book may help to settle one interpretive issue only to prompt fresh questions. First, does modernization deserve designation as an ideology in its own right? Or should it more properly be seen as an academic fad inspired by some more deeply rooted, widely held, and enduring set of ideas—what Latham calls not ideologies but “perceptual frameworks” such as manifest destiny and a missionary/imperial outlook important in earlier U.S. foreign relations? What in other words is the threshold test for ideology? Latham’s use of ideology interchangeably with “conceptual framework” within which other, deeper, more persistent ideas operate accentuates the question. Are ideologies and conceptual frameworks really the same? A landscaping plan or a course syllabus is also a conceptual framework, but are they thus ideologies? That virtually all endeavors are in some sense shaped by ideology does not mean that they all qualify.

Second, how important is ideology relative to other forces that commonly influence policy decisions such as domestic politics and the personality of leaders. Latham prudently makes no sweeping claims for the preeminence of the ideas that he examines. Indeed, he is quick to concede that modernization was but one influence at work shaping Kennedy’s policy. The problem is that this interpretive pluralism yields an somewhat mushy interpretation. To test the importance of modernization ideas, Latham could have asked if policy would have been substantially different without them. Did modernization merely reinforce trends in Kennedy’s policies, or did it in some sense alter those trends? Absent modernization thinking, would Washington still have thrown money at a Latin America seemingly imperiled by the Castro revolution and currents of anti-Americanism? Would relocation of Vietnamese peasants have gone ahead under U.S. auspices just as they had under the French and Ngo Dinh Diem, even if there had been no modernizers around to offer a rationale for isolating insurgent fish from their popular sea?

Finally, were the modernizers entirely misguided in their preoccupation with gauging the global influence of the U.S. model? Latham’s treatment suggests that these Cold War intellectuals were lost in a fog of ethnocentrism and nationalism. To be sure, the author makes a convincing case for a good deal of both. But there may be something more at work in the modernization idea—that in fact the United States had by the 1950s and 1960s established itself in a rare if not unprecedented position of global significance. The United States was certainly an active, unrivaled cultural as well as economic and political force throughout much of the world. It was also taken by other peoples as the first modern nation whose path of development had something to teach whether taken for good or ill. The current preoccupation with globalism may be, like the modernization concerns of an earlier day, a fad whose simplistic response to a changing world will seem several decades hence charmingly naïve. But proponents of modernization theory may have been wrestling, perhaps not altogether successfully, with a phenomenon that continues to fascinate and baffle—a multifaceted hegemony that the United States has managed to establish around the world.

Latham, an assistant professor at Fordham University, will perhaps in future work return to some of these questions. In the meantime, he deserves congratulations on a fine first book that makes a clear and compelling argument on a topic of considerable importance.End.

Comments are closed.