Date of Award

Spring 2017

Document Type

Open Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts in History (MAH)

Department

History

First Advisor

Christopher Jespersen

Second Advisor

Richard Byers

Third Advisor

Jeff Marker

Abstract

A common theme that pervades America’s view of its past is the idea that the American nation is exceptional. The term “American Exceptionalism” encompasses this notion or belief and sees common usage in both popular and scholarly contexts. This work deals with the essential themes of American Exceptionalism as they appear and evolve through the American film industry. Specifically, it follows the film industry through the momentous conflicts of the middle 20th century. Within this context, it examines the role played by the film industry in perpetuating and shaping exceptionalist ideology in the public sphere. Though a relatively new form of media by the middle 20th century, cinema played an integral role in shaping and affecting the opinions of the American public. The control of narrative and information was a crucial factor in fostering and maintaining public support for American engagement in foreign conflicts.

Exceptionalism is a broad and somewhat abstract concept that requires specific definition for any useful analysis. To put it succinctly, American Exceptionalism refers to the idea of American superiority, specifically moral superiority as evidenced through a conception of the world in terms of racial hierarchy, as well as the superiority of American political ideology. Moral superiority encompasses Christian religious ideology and associated virtues such as duty, strength of character, and ethical integrity. Additionally, it involves an understanding of the world in terms of racial hierarchy and America’s place as a racially superior agent of paternal guidance for inferior peoples and nations. Political superiority entails ideas of democratic liberty and laissez-faire capitalism, as well as the notion of America’s democratizing mission.

This narrative of America’s superiority and exceptionalism extends back beyond the nation’s origins and despite the many evolutions experienced in America since, the narrative of exceptionalism persists. This persistent trend continued into the middle 20th century and manifested itself in new and dynamic forms. Exceptionalist ideas were a powerful force that heavily impacted Americans' attitudes and actions during the Second World War. The American film industry of this era provides a very clear example of this. Many works exist on the subject of American Exceptionalism, as well as on the role of ideology in shaping US foreign policy. However, far less scholarship exists on American Exceptionalism in popular culture and media forms, specifically in the film industry. This work traces the presence of exceptionalist ideology as it appears on screen and examines the continuities in the exceptionalist narrative through this era. The ideological narrative varied slightly depending on the group or nationality held in comparison to America. The Hollywood portrayals of Russian, German, and Japanese characters provide the most poignant examples of this.

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