Scan through recent headlines, and it will quickly become clear how much modern societies and international politics revolve around the airplane. During the ongoing Ebola crisis, national health authorities–even those for countries whose flag carriers didn’t run direct flights to West Africa–have panicked over the possibility of a rogue infected passenger contemning whole countries during a fluke layover. Meanwhile, the American military continues to conduct its counter-terrorism policy in Central Asia and the Middle East in large part through strikes from drones. Try boarding an airplane bound to the United States with stamps from countries in those regions in your passport, and it’s likely that your ticket will be stamped with a mysterious “SSSS”–a sign that you’ve been singled out as a security risk, a putative airborne threat that has to be scanned before even boarding a flight from, say, Frankfurt to the United States. Whether governments today think about protecting the nation at home (as with Ebola) or abroad (air strikes as foreign policy), it’s clear that our notions of security have become linked with a logic of the air that goes beyond the boundaries of the nation-state.
It all seems like a far cry from the supposed heyday of air travel–glamorous flight attendants, supersonic travel, and the possibility of a seamlessly connected world that a look at the departures board from a major airport today can still awaken. But even if the structures of airspace in the early 21st century invoke more pessimism than inspiration, it bears asking how things got so bad in the first place. It demands, in short, history. Visions of what how travel through the skies could be–and the relationship of states and empires to the air–have a deep history that demands scrutinizing. Indeed, with airline alliances touting themselves as “One World,” it’s especially worthwhile for scholars interested in global history to do that kind of work.
Fortunately, our latest interviewee for the Global History Forum, Jenifer Van Vleck, explains much of this back story in her recent Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy, published recently by Harvard University Press. Van Vleck, an Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, devoted years to scouring through the archives of Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) and numerous government and Presidential Archives to tell the story of a corporation–and an industry–that reveals much about the shape of American corporate globalism and American empire. The Global History Forum was delighted to sit down with her this summer to discuss her intellectual journey, Empire of the Air, and her upcoming work in the history of technology and American foreign relations.