I found the approach that Jenifer Van Vleck took to Empire of Air very interesting, because while it seemed that there was a lot going on (national and global history, a history of a specific technology, economic and military history, corporate history) at its heart this text is first and foremost a history of the airplane in the United States, framed in a discussion of Pan Am. That discussion worked well, though, because her discussion maintained its grounding in the United States, tracking specifically Pan Am as we move into later chapters in the text, while at the same time Van Vleck is able to make her argument, a reframing of the American Century (twentieth century) through the context of US aviation, global, or possibly more accurately, transnational, in scope. Van Vleck’s discussion of US aviation in relationship to the rest of the world, particularly her discussion of South America in relation to the United States, works much better as a transnational history (in my opinion) than The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal. This may be because the connections which aviation made in the twentieth century were much more palatable to this sort of argument, though I believe it is Van Vleck’s work in her discussion of the figure of Charles Lindbergh which really cemented a more global scope to her argument.
While it is a mapping of the American Century, it is really a tracing of the ways which U.S. aviation developed in relationship to the rest of the world, and the uniquely American spirit of competition which drove commercial air travel in the post-war era. However, with flight, comes quicker transnational connections which the United States was not previously able to make due to their distance both from other nations as well as the great distance within its borders. This is what makes Charles Lindbergh such an interesting and important character in this transnational discussion, because he is more than just a national hero, he is a transnational hero, as is evidenced by the feelings of American pride which all of the Americas felt after his flight and subsequent career. The idea of the New World versus the Old World in competition for technological and military innovation, that the Americas were outstripping Europe for world domination in the twentieth century was a strong connector of North and South America in the 1920s and 1930s.
Like so many of the other texts which we have been reading so far, Van Vleck is working to make the argument that there is something inherently unique about the United States and the American identity. As she states at the beginning of chapter three, by the beginning of the 1940s, technologies such as radio and aviation suggested that the United States was in a place to be a global power in exporting its culture and values. This only increased moving forward. American heros, such as Lindbergh and the Wright brothers were being admired the world over, American radio dominated the airwaves, and the idea of “American Internationalism” was beginning to dominate (the idea that the United States’ culture and technology had a world-wide appeal). What I found the most interesting is the way that the “most American” of American values (the idea of freedom itself) was directly at odds with another great American value (ownership) when it came to aviation. Who owned the air was a pressing issue, which had appeared before aviation in the form of ownership of airspace above buildings, but reappeared when countries began to take flight. This led the United States to continue to push for an open sky policy (both to benefit itself as well as corporations such as Pan Am) and sought a ratification of the “freedoms of the air.” While many of these events happened during World War II and in the immediate post-war period, it is interesting, the way which identity formation in the United States carried such heavy international ramifications. It is in that way that I think that Van Vleck does a fairly good job of making this much more than a national history, or a history of this century dominated by the United States.
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