Tracing American Exceptionalism During the Cold War: American Military Communities in West Germany, 1946-1990

John Lemza

Advisor: Meredith H. Lair, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Marion Deshmukh, Sam Lebovic

Research Hall, #161
November 12, 2014, 12:30 PM to 09:30 AM


On April 28, 1946, a small group of American wives and children disembarked from the U.S. Army transport ship Thomas H. Barry onto Columbus Quay at the port of Bremerhaven, West Germany. The following months and years witnessed thousands more family members making the same trans-Atlantic journey. Their presence served as the basis for a network of military communities (Milcoms), often referred to as “Little Americas,” that would spread across the postwar West German landscape. American authorities intended the establishment of the Milcom system to be a palliative to calm the ill-disciplined urges of the U.S. occupation troops. The presence of families successfully reduced the high rates of crime and black market activities, widespread venereal disease, and fraternization. More important, political and military leaders quickly realized the benefit of these Milcoms as conduits of "soft power." The presence of the "Little Americas" would serve as a grass-roots vehicle, both through example and people-to-people interaction, to win the hearts and minds of the German people by conveying to them the tenets of democracy and the American way of life. These ideals came wrapped in the triumphal postwar consensus known as American exceptionalism.


This project investigates changes to that American exceptionalist consensus during the Cold War, 1946-1990, through the lens of overseas military communities. Focusing on Germany, it examines how those traditional traits of Americanism that included anti-socialism, anti-communism, anti-statism, class mobility, meritocracy, individualism, access to education, and the importance of religion were integral to post-1945 propaganda in the ideological battle with the Soviets. Central to this work is an understanding that the consensus transformed over time reflecting inherent flaws and the influence of contemporary social, political, cultural, and economic dynamics in the United States as well as around the globe. In that context this project considers how America’s relationship with the Federal Republic evolved during that period and addresses cross-boundary interactions between members of the Milcoms and their German neighbors that at once influenced and reflected those changes and shaped the identities of both sets of communities.


In addition to tracing the trajectory of the exceptionalist consensus in the Milcoms this project contributes to the field of Cold War era studies by widening the scope of investigation of race relations, gender and economic issues, the consumerist imperative, the transmission of democratic ideals, and modes of protest during the postwar decades. In that context it complements existing works that encourage the examination of trans-nationalism, particularly the evolution of German-American political and economic histories. Consequently, this project has value among contemporary borderland studies in terms of exchanges at a grassroots level across cultural and social bridges that developed between the Milcoms and the host communities.


As this project argues, the tenets of American exceptionalism were not immutable but changed with the times causing members of the military communities to reinterpret their meaning and renegotiate their interactions with one another and the host nation. Throughout that four and a half decade process the German nation rebuilt its economy and sculpted a new national identity just as the Milcom members experienced a reframing of American ideals that included greater inclusion, equality and opportunity. The result is a new understanding of Americanism and exceptionalism that redefines the earlier postwar consensus.