Research Seminar: Building the World: Morrison-Knudsen and the Business of Modernization

Jenifer Van Vleck, Yale University

Thursday, April 20, 2017 - 7:00pm

Hagley Museum & Library (Wilmington, DE)

Paraphrasing President John F. Kennedy’s famous proclamation that the 1960s would be a “decade of development,” we might call the first decade of the twenty-first century a “decade of modernization and development” in historiography, due to an efflorescence of scholarship on this subject. Recent histories of modernization have provided rich analyses of polices and ideas: the actions of nation-states, international organizations, and policy institutions, as well as the ideologies of modernization that have shaped such actions. This paper, however, aims to address two absences in the current literature: the absence of corporations from the history of modernization and development (and from the history of U.S. foreign relations more broadly) and the absence of infrastructure—the material “stuff” of modernization projects—from the history of American globalism. As a case study, the paper examines the little-known history of Morrison-Knudsen, the United States’ largest engineering and heavy construction firm during much of the Cold War era. With multimillion dollar contracts from the U.S. and foreign governments, between the 1930s and 1970s Morrison-Knudsen literally built the infrastructure of a global “American Century”: hydroelectric installations, industrial plants, missile silos, the launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, and the docks and highways that allowed the United States to wage its war in Vietnam. The history of such corporations thus suggests new insights into intersections among U.S. foreign policy, corporate strategy, material and technological transformations, and conceptions of modernization and modernity.

The seminar is open to the public and is based on a paper that is circulated in advance. Those planning to attend are encouraged to read the paper before coming to the seminar. Copies may be obtained by emailing Carol Lockman, Reception at 6 p.m., seminar begins promptly at 6:30, and takes place in the Copeland Room of Hagley’s library building