The Global Interior: Imagining and Extracting Minerals in the Postwar Expansion of American Capitalism

Megan A. Black
American Studies, The George Washington University
June, 2016


This dissertation examines a convergence of the American state, corporations, and cultural narratives in the global race for minerals. In a postwar era marked by global commitments to sovereignty, the United States pursued minerals beyond its borders--in Native American reservations, the global South, the oceans, and the moon. Uniting this disparate constellation of investments was the U.S. Department of the Interior, an unlikely contributor to U.S. global domination. Using the Interior Department as a lens, I illuminate the political, economic, and cultural foundations of an American Cold War project to fashion the world in the image of extractive capitalism. With this institutional center, "The Global Interior" makes three arguments and interventions. First, I argue that the Interior Department drew upon its history expropriating resources in settler colonialism to become a consummate instrument of mineral expropriation in extra-sovereign contexts. Where scholars have long shown symbolic connections between foreign and domestic expansion, I insist upon institutional and material ones. Second, Interior Department personnel performed crucial spadework for the postwar globalization of American capitalism, transforming landscapes across and beyond the globe into a template for capitalist extraction. While historians have shown public-private partnerships in globalization, they overwhelmingly privilege the abstract arena of markets and finance. However, in order for capitalism to spread, landscapes also had to be materially reordered. This dissertation thus stands as another compelling bridge between environmental history and the history of U.S. international relations. Third and finally, Interior's expansive program built upon cultural foundations in order to bolster its contradictory actions beyond borders. In these battles for legitimacy, minerals functioned as key and contested sites of meaning-making. Minerals therefore have a cultural life, an existence within discursive networks, values and belief, and objects of mass culture that is not reducible to materiality or totally separate from it. Although historians overwhelmingly treat minerals as straightforward and static objects of rational interest, I show that they were also important ideological building blocks that could help promote or contest extractive expansion. Ultimately, that the Interior Department undertook an expansionist project is significant: so long as the Interior Department, the innermost appendage of state power, was at large, the borders of home dissipated or, rather, never settled. What remained in place of home was a global interior.