The Many Meanings of "Heartland"

What was to be a quick post on my search for the use of “heartland” in the historical Chicago Tribune just goes on and on. One post has become two, and before it becomes three or four I will release my rough thoughts and notes, and move on. This may become an article some day, or at least a working paper.

My last post reported the numeric findings of my investigation of the association of “heartland” and “midwest.” This post is about the meaning, or to be more accurate the several different meanings, of this association. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “heartland” is “a (usually extensive) central region of homogeneous (geographical, political, industrial, etc.) character.” To that generic definition, the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary adds a rather ideological layer: heartland is “the central geographical region of the United States in which mainstream or traditional values predominate.” It is this addition–not just a central region, but a region of “mainstream or traditional values”–that is most interesting to me.

Up to the mid-20th century, the Midwest had been known as the Northwest, the West, the Great West, the Middle West, the Middle Border, and the Midwest. There was also some use of the term Midlands. In my search of the Tribune and NY Times, at least as early as the 1940s, the term heartland was linked with the Midwest once in a while, and without quotation marks that might indicate it was a new usage. But in the 1980s, the association became much more pervasive, perhaps to the point of being a cliche. Why? To answer that question we have to take several steps backward in time, sideways, and across the Atlantic Ocean, then back to the Chicago of the 1940s, and finally to political thinking of 1960s conservatives.

The Geopolitical “Heartland”
About four years ago I gave an informal presentation about this project at the Newberry. Afterwards a British researcher came up and wondered if I was aware of the European background to the term “heartland,” and its Nazi connotations. I admitted that I was only vaguely aware, but I suggested that the American usage had, if not its own provenance, at least its own independent connotations. I’m sticking to that, but there are interesting if vague connections between the “heartland” or European geopolitics and the “heartland” of American politics.

The term “heartland” was coined by British geographer Halford Mackinder in a 1904 address about the geopolitical importance of Eurasia, and elaborated in his 1919 book “Democratic Ideals and Realities: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction.” Mackinder was a British Liberal MP and former director of the London School of Economics, so his ideas were definitely meant to influence policymakers, and his 1919 book was a comment on the challenges facing the new League of Nations.

According to Mackinder’s grand theory, whichever great power controlled the Eurasian land mass (putatively the “heartland” of the globe) would have a decisive advantage over all other world powers. There are several other sweeping generalizations, most importantly that the world’s great civilizations have developed at the margins of the the “heartland” largely in response to the threat of attack across the open plains of the heartland.

Washed of its world-historical incantations, Mackinder’s theory was an analysis of Great Britain’s strategic interests on the European continent, and in particular its strategic conflict with Russia: The battle lines of World War I were a fluke. German militarism was a natural response to the threat of invasion from Eurasia going all the way back to the Atilla the Hun. Britain should naturally be on the side of Germany against the threat of “slavdom” (i.e., Russia). The new Central European states (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary) will act as a buffer between Western Europe and Russia–although they might also turn on western Europe and lead the attack.

The underlying antislavic racism of Mackinder’s theory, naturally appealed to the Nazis. The propaganda of the Third Reich figured Central Europe as a region of natural German hegemony, and German power there as a defense of European civilization. As a result, the term “heartland” got a big boost in the 1930s, although not perhaps as Mackinder would have liked. American war propaganda explained German strategy using Mackinder’s terms (according to the Wikipedia, Frank Capra’s 1943 film “Nazis Strike” quoted Mackinder without attribution to the effect that “He who controls the Heartland controls the world”).

American geographers definitely read and discussed Mackinder’s ideas as early as the 1920s. But geopolitics may not have penetrated much beyond one corner of academia. Where it may have gotten out early is to the map and geography textbook publishers and globe manufacturers. Chicago was a center for map and globe production. So I’ll have to check into this.

After the German surrender in World War II, the geopolitical concept of heartland shifted to the emerging Cold War conflict as the US and its allies feared Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and Asia. The work of Yale political scientist Nicholas Spykman had a role in spreading thinking about geopolitics to American policymakers. I suspect Winston Churchill also pushed this association along with his 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech, delivered in Fulton, Missouri (yes, in the American Heartland). The term “heartland” doesn’t appear in the speech, but Churchill evokes the “shadow” of “tyranny” spreading out from Russia into Central Europe, the Mideast, and China. “Behind that line [the iron curtain] lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere….” Churchill’s point here is that these “famous cities” by history and culture are part of Europe, not Russia. America, too, Churchill argues, is part of this shared civilization (with the emphasis on democracy and rule of law, rather than on imperialism and racism).

From my cursory search of the Tribune and the Times, I found several early articles using “heartland” in its geopolitical sense. Speaking in support of post-war aid to Germany in 1947, South Dakota’s Senator noted that “Europe and its heartland, Germany, have been the cradle of western civilization, and unless we help them to regain it, our own civilization, our standard of living, cannot survive.” (No doubt this went over well with the large number of South Dakotans of German descent). Suggesting the prevalence and novelty of the term, a two-paragraph review in 1949 of Hans Weigert’s “New Compass of the World” noted that the book “dwells upon that mysterious entity, the heartland.”

A paper delivered at the Association of American Geographers 1947 meeting by a US naval officer noted “Whether we like it or not we find ourselves on a World Island containing a heartland of industrial and economic resources not matched even by the old Asiatic World Island of Haushofer” [the German geographer whose ideas influenced Nazi strategies]. The danger of invasion would come over the North Pole, via the Arctic Ocean, and therefore the Navy should explore the arctic, and “impose our national policy within its environs.”

In the 1950s, there were a number of articles about the Russian “industrial heartland,” including one about the “Soviet’s Pittsburgh,” a newly developed coal and steel producing city in Central Asia. At the same time, the idea of heartland as a geographically, culturally, or strategically central region became generalized to other continents. One article in the Times, for instance, expressed concern that Communists were undermining the government of Bolivia, in the “heartland of South America.” The advent of long-range bombers and ICBMs with atomic warheads stimulated a number of articles worrying that the “heartland” (i.e., the interior) was no longer safe from foreign attack.

The Midwestern “Heartland” and the Cultural Politics of Region
Although talk of the “heartland” as a strategic geopolitical concept was widespread in the US by the end of World War II, mention of the “American Heartland” was not necessarily, or even primarily, linked to geopolitics. Instead, it was part of a vaguer discourse on regional culture that emerged just as the Middle West was reaching the apex of its national influence. It may also have been stimulated by a number of institutional centennials.

The earliest direct reference in the Tribune is in a 1944 review of Harlan Hatcher’s book “The Great Lakes” (“But he has sketched vividly a score of towns and the varied shores and the epic migration of European peoples to the heartland of America.”) The next year there was an advertisement for an anthology of midwestern writing headlined “From out of America’s Heartland comes a glorious anthology of the best in American writing.” It’s useful to note that most of the writers anthologized were not “conservatives” of their day–Edgar Lee Masters, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg–but were then becoming canonical as “real” American literature.

Other early uses of “heartland” for the Midwest were associated with business boosterism. An advertisement for American National Bank and Trust Co. (Tribune, 1946) with the headline “The World is Coming to the Midwest.” The key image is of a globe with North America facing out. Airplanes circle the globe trailing flight lines in a way that seems to evoke the image of an atom. “More and more, the entire world needs the products of America’s industrial and agricultural heartland. Direct air transportation now links the Midwest with the great countries of the world–Chicago has transformed from the hub of the nation to one of the major crossroads of the world.” A full page add spread for Successful Farming Magazine (1948) speaks of the “heart states” as well as the “United States Heartland,” and features an outline map of the US with a heart shape circling the Midwest.

At least two centennials in the 1949s provoked use of “heartland,” suggesting that the term was part of a regional nostalgia. The book Granger Country, a history of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad, prompted a reviewer to mention the “great American heartland serviced by the Burlington railroad from the time of the first pioneers entered the region to the present.” (This book was produced out of the Newberry Library at a time that the library was positioning itself as a center for the study of regional culture and history). And striking a somewhat more conservative tone, a full page advertisement for centennial of the Des Moines Register (1949) closed with the sentence: “Into this second century the editors of the Register march with an abiding faith in the stability of the heartland and the promise of the long Iowa future.”

Significantly, the heartland could be shorthand for a long-standing and very popular discourse about how the frontier allegedly forged a unified and truly “American” culture. The “West” that Frederick Jackson Turner wrote about was, after all, not so much the far West as the vast basin between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. By the 1930s, generations of Americans, including the children of immigrants, had been raised on the notion that the encounter between nature and culture on the frontier had molded a new culture that was “native” to America. So a 1951 review of the book “The Architecture of the Old Northwest Territory” is one of the earliest articles in J-Stor to use both “heartland” and “midwest.” The viewer suggests an apt subtitle for the book would be “The Architecture of the America’s Heartland.” It was in the Midwest, that a “unified ‘American’ style” developed, and in the Midwest “that the various racial and nationality differences, regional variations due to climate and available material, and the variety of social and economic functions which the architecture served, were brought together into … the ‘abiding continuum’ of a genuine and indigenous style.”

This is, in effect, an American version of “indigenismo,” that racial ideology of the Mexican Revolution that figured the Mestizo as the “Cosmic Race” because it blended European and American into something new. Conveniently, these national ideologies marginalized actual living Indian peoples. But they were (or could be) broadly pluralist, and were deployed by radicals as well as liberals, if not by “conservatives” of the era who remained overtly white supremacist.

Red States: The Strategic Myopia of the G.O.P. “Heartland”
Jump forward to the late 1960s, and the more proximate roots of the ascendancy of “heartland” talk in the 1980s. In 1969 the Tribune published an excerpt of Kevin Philip’s book The Emerging Republican Majority. Featuring a mug-shot of Richard Nixon, the thrust of this article (titled “The Power of the Heartland”) is a now-familiar analysis of the rise of conservatism. When the Democrats sided with Black Civil Rights, they broke the electoral legacy of the Civil War. No longer would the middle of the country be divided north and south. Now the “heartland” would vote together for Conservative (Republican) politicians–“the vast American interior is drawing together as the seat of a conservative majority.”

Sound familiar? It’s the Red-State, Blue-State argument so popular in the last few elections. It is a logic that makes sense only when we view the region via a map of the winner-take-all electoral college returns of presidential elections. These maps propound a strategic myopia that somehow misses places like Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland–not to mention the majority Black counties of Mississippi and Alabama–and literally white-washes the region as a small-town and racially white.

“Broken Heartland”: Sentimentality and Decline
The “Leave It To Beaver” (or maybe “Happy Days” is more to the point) vision of the midwestern life–a sanitized and suburbanized 1950s with the long echo of TV syndication–helped to pave the way for the 1980s emergence of “heartland.” Midwesterners have long been said to be–and described themselves as–sincere, honest, and without guile. For proof that this thinking is alive an well, check into the recent eulogies for Michigan’s only president Gerald Ford.

Signs that the “heartland” would be back in style soon were apparent in the late 1970s as Americans wearied of “issues” and longed for “simpler times.” A 1979 a Tribune film and stage review and comment was titled “America rediscovers its enduring heartland,” and on the flip page, “Values reappear, America rediscovers its heartland.” It reported that a spate of popular films and stage plays “have in common a small-town setting, a crisis in a family unit, and an intimate involvement with people living their lives and working out their problems outside of or divorced from current political upheavals.” Among these was “Breaking Away,” an Academy Award-winning coming-of-age comedy/drama about a working class kid in Bloomington, Indiana, who so longs to race with the Italian cycling team that he speaks Italian all the time–much to the good natured annoyance of his parents. As I recall, a major subplot of this film relates to the specter of life-long factory work and the class conflict with frat boys at the university. The review concludes that “after all these years of being offered counterfeit emotions,” audiences are “coming back to the heartland, hoping and believing that the heart is still true.” Just chokes you up, doesn’t it?

Interestingly, it seems like the New York Times was ahead of the curve in using “heartland” extensively during the 1960s and 70s. The term must have struck a special cord with New Yorkers–gathering up in one word all the useful generalizations they could make about folks beyond the Hudson. When the heartland reporting was not stereotypical it was usually along the lines of: the Midwest is not as (choose one) agricultural/conservative/insulated as you might expect. Or they were playing off the idea of the region as the “balance wheel of the Republic.” By the late 1970s, there were also interesting signals of the imminent political shift.

One article I find absolutely fascinating details the writing of the screenplay for the1978 film “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” based on the Beatles song. The screenplay author Henry Edwards writes that “Old-fashioned sentiment and melody were in, and it seemed to me that a contemporary pop movie should reflect this return to romance. So I decided to cast “Sgt. Pepper” in the tradition of those American films that presented a vision of an unspoiled small town whose innocence was threatened by villainy from the slick mean city.” What would he call this town? Of course, “Heartland, whose motto is ‘Kindness above all else.” Now this is a movie I recall seeing in the theater as a teenager, but I had forgotten the plot–that is if you can call this a plot. I did remember that Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees were the good guys and Aerosmith the bad. Appropriately, this packaged heartland was filmed on a refurbished Andy Hardy set in the MGM studio lot.

In the 1980s, a less happy line of heartland reporting followed the economic woes of the region’s industry and agriculture (the phrase “nation’s breadbasket” was often used along with “industrial heartland”). The Tribune ran an occasional series called “America’s troubled heartland,” and many articles on plant closures and farm foreclosures invoked the region as a heartland in order to heighten the drama and pathos of the situation. One in this series quoted a UI agriculture professor to the effect that the farm crisis was brining “a lot of the same emotional stresses [to] the country that traditionally are thought to belong to the city,” and “The bucolic way of life has disappeared.”

I could go on, and I may in a different venue. Amazing how much time you can waste digging into a simple question: when did the Midwest become the Heartland? I’m satisfied that my rough-and-ready hypothesis is more-or-less correct. Although the association of heartland with the Midwest existed as far back as the 1940s (and maybe before, I’ll keep looking), it became much more popular as the region went into economic decline during the most recent period of globalization. There are many meanings and usages of “heartland,” but I do believe that in most, if not all, cases it is a trope that obscures a complex history and present reality in favor of a sentimental myth of small town racial, political, and cultural homogeneity.


Correction: I watched “Breaking Away.” No one works in a factory. Instead the issue is the shut down of quarry work, and the generational conflict between fathers who were “cutters” and sons who get called “cutters” by frat boys at IU, but can’t even claim that identity. It’s a postindustrial landscape in which class division remains salient, but lacks the easy referents of mass and elite.

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3 Responses to The Many Meanings of "Heartland"

  1. Tim says:

    TH: Thought provoking piece. Here are some my immediate questions and thinking:1. What of the Nazi’s use of “motherland” over heartland? How does that fit into your genealogy?2. Lary May used the idea of “mestizo” culture in association with Will Rogers in May’s 2000 book, The Big Tomorrow. May’s use butresses some of your points, so I wonder how often ‘heartland’ was used in the discourse of the book or in the context of Rogers’s beliefs?3. I wonder how Nixon’s “southern strategy” fit into the 1960s uses of heartland? Was the South the ‘heartland’ to Nixon?4. With your thesis, are you suggesting that the overall, general motivation for the use of the term ‘heartland’ purposely devious? As a lifelong Midwesterner, I simply ~like~ ‘heartland’ better than Rustbelt or Midwest. I like the association of ‘heart’ with charity and empathy, not for its subliminal or unconscious imposition of racial, political, religious, and cultural homogeneity.Despite my questions and points, I really like your entry. How many more are left on the subject? – TL

  2. Tim says:

    TH: I also meant to mention in yesterday’s post the work of Immanuel Wallerstein and his version of a central place theory (core, periphery, etc. – aside: I think the phrase ‘central place theory’ might be derived from work by Walter Christaller). Anyway, isn’t the notion of a ‘heartland’ just a code, or synonym, for that? And would your work then feed into Cronon’s work, Nature’s Metropolis. Cronon used Wallerstein, if I’m remembering Cronon’s footnotes correctly. Could it be that ‘heartland’ with regard to the Midwest just refers to the decentering of the East Coast as America’s “central place?” – TL

  3. Toby Higbie says:

    Thanks for the comments and suggestions, Tim. I tried to post a comment yesterday but the system crashed! So much for the stability of the new Google/Blogger.To respond to a few things: Nixon’s Southern Strategy is exactly what Kevin Philip’s book was all about. And as I’m sure you know, Wallace in 1968 did surprisingly well with working class whites in the North. So, yes the “heartland” of the “new conservative majority” as he called it was the Midwest plus the deep South (the pre-Civil War “West”).Excellent suggestion to look into central place theory and core-periphery world systems theory of Wallerstein, et al. This post really wasn’t meant to be exhaustive–in fact was really just based on a few sources in an effort to get at the timing of the term. However, I think Wallerstein uses “core” exclusively rather than “heartland”. And I don’t remember if Cronon used heartland in his book. Will have to check it out. Nevertheless, these are important angles that I left out.Are all uses of heartland conservative, or racist? No. But on balance it is used by conservatives, and in many cases carries what I believe is a racist connotation–that the best places in the US are those without people of color. That is a very destructive idea, I’m sure you will agree. But one that gets a lot of play in this country.So my choice of “global heartland” is intended to decenter the orthodox uses of “heartland” and to point to the ways that the region called the heartland has always been connected to the world, has always had a diverse population, and has not always been (and isn’t now) homogeneous culturally.

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