The U.S. among Us: Assessing the Impact of American Military Bases in the Netherlands, 1954-1994

Dr. Dario Fazzi, Researcher

Outposts of empire or ultimate beacons of freedom? Scholars have interpreted the American military bases overseas both ways.In Europe in particular, the American military deployment has been rather exceptional; since the end of WWII, U.S. bases have mushroomed and grown steadily all over the continent. Originally meant to keep Western Europe from totalitarianism, embed it in a system of collective security, and tie it firmly to the free market and capitalism, U.S. bases in Europe have effectively projected American hegemony, substantiated the American empire, and embodied the so-called American century.

This project, by focusing on the persistence of American bases in the Netherlands, complements these analyses through a groundbreaking perspective that uncovers how the American bases overseas have also acted as multifaceted agents of public diplomacy. More specifically, this project aims to provide the first systematic assessment of the impact that the American military presence in the Netherlands has had culturally, economically and environmentally. How have these military outposts affected the local economy? What kind of cross-cultural encounters have they favored and generated? How have they interacted with the surrounding environment? While taking into account both the positive and negative dynamics set in motion by the American military presence in the Netherlands, this project will simultaneously invite further inquiry into the relationship between the center of the American empire and its periphery, putting to the test the historical and historiographical viability of such concepts as Americanization, anti-Americanism, the American century, and creating a viable model for new investigations that may very well transcend the transatlantic exchange.

This project draws on a recent historiographical trend that focuses on the social impact of many “little Americas” spread all over the world. Authors as Donna Alvah, Anni Baker, Cynthia Enloe, and David Vine, have interpreted the American military bases overseas as agents of public diplomacy, implicitly referring to U.S. historian Emily Rosenberg’s “transnational currents.”(1) These scholars have demonstrated that U.S. soldiers serving abroad, along with their families, have actively disseminated typical elements of the American lifestyle, acted as one of the many “unofficial ambassadors” for their government, and challenged the traditional class, gender, racial, and power relationships of their surroundings.(2) My project complements these interpretations not only by adapting them to the Dutch experience, but also by broadening their scope through an analysis of the U.S. bases’ economic and environmental sustainability.

Due to its pronounced cultural dimension, the project aims to become a benchmark in the decade-long debate about the Americanization of European societies. Rob Kroes’ seminal work on the reception of the American cultural model in the Netherlands rightly recognizes that Americanness has been mediated in Holland through “every form of American presence,” but rests mainly on “mythical images” of the United States.(3) The aleatory nature of these images, which have been ingrained in the collective mind through a process of national adaptations –cultural studies and postmodern anthropology refer to this process as creolization or hybridization – has led many scholars to deem the concept of Americanization itself of dubious analytic value. Americanization has been stigmatized as an expedient “created by Europeans…to explain how their societies have changed in ways they don’t like.”(4) The concept has been dismissed as intellectually inadequate, unable to embrace the complexity of a relationship whose nature has been more give-and-take than unidirectional. Yet American bases have indeed allowed for steady cross-cultural hybridization. They have favored contamination and adaptation, but have also given rise to resistance and rejection. They have bridged the divide between the flow of ideas and their spatial and temporal immediacy. By combining the “mythical images” of the U.S. with empirical references, and placing the mutual and complex circum-Atlantic exchange within spatially-defined experiences in the Netherlands, this project will contribute to a new understanding of U.S. influences on European life.(5)

Methodology and Outcomes

This project conjoins traditionally separated subfields such as diplomatic, transnational, social,  cultural, economic, and environmental history, and weave them together in a coherent narrative. It also proposes a long-term investigative strategy spanning four decades. Accordingly, the chronological arch of this study goes from 1954, the year in which the Netherlands and the U.S. signed a bilateral Status of Forces Agreement, until 1994, the year of the official closure of the reportedly largest U.S. air base in the Netherlands. Within this 40-year frame the research traces the continuities and discontinuities fostered by these bases in cross-cultural exchanges, and it gauges their overall economic and environmental sustainability. Such a chronology is meant to broaden classical cold war interpretive frameworks and lends a degree of historical detachment to key questions of U.S. influence in Europe.

The project does not only depend on an extensive study of pertinent, existing literature but it also delves deeply into primary sources. Historical criticism informs the study of the collected primary sources, exploring both their meta-context and their historical cogency. Since the project has a threefold research configuration, simultaneously dealing with economic, cultural/social, and environmental history, it deploys different methods and approaches according to the exigencies of each subfield. With regard to the collection of data on the economic and environmental impact of the American bases in the Netherlands, the research relies on both qualitative and quantitative evidence. There is a prevalence of qualitative research, used to explore cross-cultural exchanges and societal interactions. Text and discourse analysis are crucial to unravel the wider (i.e. national and local) public debate on the permanence of the American bases in the Netherlands, and people’s responses to them. Oral interviews are also part and parcel of this work, and are meant to add the nuance of personal experience to the related primary sources.

In particular, primary sources originate from both American and Dutch archives. U.S. Congressional records, reports, and hearings give insight into the U.S.’ political plans for military installations in the Netherlands. State Department papers, Department of Defense impact studies, along with EPA and CIA special reports bring to the fore the U.S. policymaking process in response to local complaints and demands. Documents of the Dutch Ministry of Defense, the Cabinet, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) provide background for the Dutch context. Local documents held by public and private repositories such as chambers of commerce, municipal archives, church and school records, along with local newspapers and social movement archives are an invaluable source of information to assess the perceptions and misperceptions of the American military presence in the Netherlands. The main aim of the research is to publish a book on the role and impact of the American military bases in the Netherlands along with three peer-reviewed articles, each one focusing on one of the main threads of the project.

References

  1. Cynthia H. Enloe, Bananas, Beaches & Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014, 2nd); Anni P. Baker, American Soldiers Overseas: The Global Military Presence (WestportLondon: Greenwood, 2004); Donna Alvah, Unofficial Ambassadors: American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War, 1946-1965 (New York: New York University Press, 2007), and David Vine, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2015). See also Emily S. Rosenberg, Transnational Currents in a Shrinking World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
  2. Petra Goedde, GIs and Germans: Culture, Gender and Foreign Relations, 1945-1949 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003)
  3. Rob Kroes, “American Empire and Cultural Imperialism: A View from the Receiving End,” Diplomatic History, 23: 463–477. Kroes himself recognizes that America has been treated as a construct of the mind, “a composite image based on the perception of dismal trends which are then linked to America,” see Rob Kroes, “The Great Satan versus the Evil Empire: Anti-Americanism in the Netherlands,” in Rob Kroes and Maarten van Rossem (eds.), Anti-Americanism in Europe (Amsterdam: Free University Press, 1986), 37. See also Mel van Elteren, Americanism and Americanization: A Critical History of Domestic and Global Influence (Jefferson: McFarland, 2006).
  4. Richard Pells, Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, And Transformed American Culture Since World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
  5. On the concept of Circum-Atlantic see David Armitage, “Three Concepts of Atlantic History,” in David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (eds.), The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (New York: Palgrave 2002), 11-27, and Maurizio Vaudagna, “Introduction,” in Maurizio Vaudagna (ed.), Modern European-American Relations in the Transatlantic Space: Recent Trends in History Writings (Turin: Otto, 2015) 8-9.