Thinly Veiled

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Donna Alvah’s Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War, 1946-1965 is a highly important work of literature in American History. It denotes a crucial epoch in the development of the United States’ foreign policy when the U.S. was attempting to counteract the (allegedly) pervasive influence of Communism. There has been a great deal of literature written about the numerous martial encounters America was involved in—both directly and indirectly—in its efforts to secure a free market enterprise and champion capitalism. However, Alva’s non-fictional accounting is one of the few historical texts that examines a more bureaucratic, yet no less vital, means of achieving the same goal—by cultivating the influence of wives and children of military officers in foreign environments that were most susceptible to the influence of communism as in the case of Czechoslovakia.

In particular, Alvah’s work details the impact of women and children in Japan and Germany during the years immediately following the close of World War II. The author’s principle focus is on the role the U.S. forged for the wives to play in propagating wholesome American virtues and values in informal settings, which were in accordance with the wider propagandist tenets regarding capitalism that these women’s husbands were actively supporting. Alvah’s thesis is that the work of the women and children of military husbands was a valuable tool to assist in the dissemination of the capitalist values that the U.S. stood for. As a historical text, it is important to mention that the author utilizes a plethora of different sources (including those that are both primary and secondary) such as military documents, popular media outlets like newspapers and magazines, and memoirs. As such, she is able to construct a fairly comprehensive overview of what this unofficial diplomacy was like for civilians in key positions to further the U.S. military’s cause. 

One of the most eminent strengths of Alvah’s research in assembling this manuscript is the sources themselves. As an individual who spent part of her childhood in Okinawa during the 1970’s, the author has firsthand knowledge of some of the lingering sentiments from both the Second World War and the Cold War that were still present and perceivable to ‘army brats’. However, the author was able to pool her sources from a varied range of accountings that underscore just how important an objection of unofficial diplomacy was truly at stake. She cites passages from actual pamphlets that were distributed to military personnel in Japan and in Germany, which denoted “that American families should help to advance the missions of the armed forces in those countries” (Alvah, 2007, p. 38). Some of the author’s sources, such as memoirs of President Truman and his stance on war as foreign policy, are better known. Others, including written correspondences between husbands and wives, as well as those between Presidents and their families, portray a degree of intimacy that is hard to find in one volume. The overall effect is that no one can claim Alvah’s work is poorly researched.

At the very heart of this manuscript is a highly important sentiment that the less prudent reader may not discern. The primary reason that the behavior of wives and children was so valuable and well-taught by the army (which included four-hour training sessions for women and children in Germany) (p. 38) is extremely ironic when one considers the aims of the Cold War and that of World War II. Hitler essentially wanted to rule the world with a lethal form of imperialism, in which he gradually overtook other countries. Germany, and its ally Japan, lost that encounter, only to have American soldiers and their wives and children show up on their doorsteps during the postwar years attempting the same imperialism that Hitler was seeking to accomplish. 

Alvah makes note of this subtlety and implies that the message of ambassadorship that the wives and children of military men were disseminating was not entirely innocuous, and not without a degree of both preference and prejudice. The relationship between the wives and the Japanese and that of the wives and the Germans were completely different. The Japanese were oftentimes belittled or treated as though they had good intentions but needed American intervention to better their lives. As the author herself writes based upon the memoir of one of the American soldiers’ wives who was stationed in Okinawa during the Cold War:

Though saddened by the terrible losses suffered by Okinawans, Marian Merritt firmly believed that ultimately the war had enabled Americans to bring material and social progress to the Okinawan people…Convinced that Okinawans desperately needed American assistance and deeply concerned about their welfare, Merritt wanted to use her position as a military wife to help Okinawans recover from the war. (167)

This sort of missionary-type sentiment has been fairly common among European interaction with those from non-Westernized parts of the world. The author is also fairly adamant about the role that religion, and Christianity in particular, played in the attitude displayed by American wives and the Japanese, many of whom believed that by teaching the Japanese about the ‘true God’ that they were doing some intrinsic good.

The relationship between the Americans and Germans, however, was significantly different. This statement is attributed to the fact that both of these people came from Westernized culture, shared the same racial make-up, and also had similar religious ideals (Christianity). Whereas many Americans believed they had an obligation to help the docile and child-like Japanese, there was much greater parity experienced in the relationships between the American and German women during their interactions. Morally, at least, the Americans tended to regard their German counterparts as equals. The principle distinction between the two simply pertained to the ravages of war. The German currency and economy was devastated; food rationing and shortages were commonplace. The primary difference between the American unofficial ambassadors and the Germans was the degree of luxury that America’s imperialism afforded the former, which is alluded to in the following quotation about a particular U.S. family in Germany. “The family resided in a spacious German house, enjoying fresh meat daily…Three domestic employees cooked and cleaned, and cared for the children…the elderly German couple who owned the house made their home in a nearby garage” (Alvah 131).

Thus, the reader is left to infer that the nature of the American imperialist occupancy definitely affected the nature of the role of the women and children selected as ambassadors. There is no doubt that the author chooses to focus the bulk of her attention on the ambassadorship of the wives as opposed to the children. In doing so, however, she is merely concentrating on the group that was assigned more responsibility in carrying out the imperialist desires of the American government funding it. Despite the definite partisanship towards American ideologies and Westernized culture evinced during the World War on the part of American women and children, it is careful to note that this form of diplomacy was critical to the winning over of U.S. culture on a global scale. The military might of the men stationed in both Japan and Germany functioned as the core component of this process, yet the efforts of the women and children operated on a more subtle psychological level—with varying degrees of success. There certainly appeared to be greater acceptance of the Americans’ presence in Germany than in Japanese. Yet Alvah ultimately alludes to the fact that this truth had more to do with the attitudes of the Americans towards the Japanese than towards the Germans. 

Work Cited

Alvah, Donna. Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War. New York: NYU Press. 2007.