The heartland abroad: The Rotary Club's mission of civic internationalism
The expansion of Rotary International (RI) from 1912 to World War II expressed the going abroad of U.S. businessmen in a period of U.S. global ascendance. Service to the community—both local and international—was the touchstone of their ideology and participation in international circuits of trade the source of institutional growth. In this capacity, the service club defined itself as an international non-governmental organization (INGO) operating between states and markets. Though originally from and concentrated in the United States, RI managed to position itself during the interwar period as a middle ground between the business and professional classes throughout the world, between the American heartland and the abroad.
This dissertation identifies RI's vision of international cooperation among businessmen in the name of community service as its “civic internationalism”—a businessman's version of a civilizing mission to the world. In effect, RI operated as a private-sector application of Wilsonianism during the interwar period. RI's civic internationalism, therefore, marked an important transition in the nature of U.S. international relations in the first half of the twentieth century. By positing a transnational solidarity of businessmen, RI opened up a space for recruitment and participation of tens of thousands of non-U.S. businessmen through their own clubs outside the United States. These non-U.S. Rotarians joined with RI on the promise of full participation in a globalizing economy gravitating more and more around the United States. Through case studies of Rotary clubs in Wichita, Tokyo, and Havana, this dissertation examines how the promises of RI's civic internationalism played out between the wars. Overall, the dissertation argues that RI's civic internationalism contributed to U.S. economic and cultural imperialism thanks to its non-state, non-profit status.
As a transnational network of businessmen, RI represented just one stream in a rising flood of INGOs over the same period. Many historians now recognize the important roles played by such non-state actors in a global civil society and thus call for a more transnational approach to U.S. history. Investigating RI's international expansion into scores of countries worldwide by 1940 represents a step in that direction.