Conrad Hilton’s international aspirations came at just the right time, when American planners saw international travel as ways of connecting with allies overseas and allies overseas were eager to have those connections. Though the design and placement of the London Hilton proved controversial, in general the early international Hiltons were popular. It was, after all, the era of “empire by invitation.”
(It wouldn’t last. 1958, the year the Berlin Hilton opened, was also the year that William Lederer and Eugene Burdick published The Ugly American and gave the rest of the world the ultimate epithet for for any kind of crass, unthinking, American presence.)
The opportunity was greater, and more challenging, because Western Europe was moving from an austerity economy into a more affluent, consumer era. In 1953, consumer spending in Western Europe had grown sharply, and Europeans looked like eager consumers of American-style lifestyles.
That shift in consumption patterns, as Victoria di Grazia explains in her book Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe, came in fits and starts. Take, for example, the supermarket chain Italiani, a subsidiary of the Rockefeller-owned International Basic Economy Corporation (IBEC). While introducing American-style self-serve food shopping in Italy, IBEC’s managers discovered a multitude of little problems. No bakery in Milan could supply the quantities of bread the company needed for its supermarkets in that city – so the chain consolidated bakery operations in Florence under the former chief baker of the US forces in Europe. Shoppers were suspicious of pre-labeled weights and wanted to weigh things themselves. Pre-packaged foods came in quantities too large and expensive for the average shopper. Even the shopping carts, imported from the US, were too large: managing direct Richard W. Boogart said “we asked the Italians to push a Cadillac when they are unable to even buy a Fiat.” Only with a million-dollar loan from the US Export-Import Bank did Italiani survive for long enough to thrive.
Despite those very real challenges, America’s image could hardly have been better in the 1950s. And exporting that image, along with a suitable leavening of Americans, was considered worth spending government money. This was also the decade when the State Department commissioned a series of innovative, visually striking, modern embassies and consulates from renowned architects including Gordon Bunshaft, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen, and Edward Durrell Stone. That program, its successes, and its failures is a story of its own, ably told by Jane Loeffler in her book The Architecture of Diplomacy (an early, briefer version appeared in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, and can be seen here.)
American international air travel’s ability to pump money into allied economies was desirable, and Pan Am Airlines operated as the State Department’s “chosen instrument” in this area. When Pan Am expanded into the hotel business by creating InterContinental Hotels in 1946, it did so at the behest of the State Department. Like Hilton International, InterContinental managed hotels overseas. In keeping with PanAm’s focus, it began by building them in Latin America.
This phase of America’s tourism offensive drew to a close at the start of the 1960s, with the stereotype of the Ugly American well entrenched and a growing US trade deficit leading the government to encourage American tourists to stay home. Eisenhower declared 1960 to be “Visit U.S.A. Year,” and Kennedy created the US Travel Service to encourage foreign and domestic visitors to see American luxury in America, not in Istanbul or Berlin.
But what about the Soviets?