Connecting the Americas

Pan-Americanism, Mobility, and Knowledge

Mario Peters

In the late nineteenth century, the idea of constructing the Intercontinental Railway, a railroad from Alaska to Argentina, fascinated government actors, diplomats, businessmen, journalists, and engineers from across the Americas. Although the railway was never built, mobility and transportation played a central role in inter-American relations thereafter. In the 1920s, experts from the United States and Latin America started planning the Pan-American Highway, now the longest road in the world.

Connecting the Americas explores the history of pan-American mobility infrastructure from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Juxtaposing the history of pan-Americanism with Mobility Studies and the History of Knowledge, the project examines the significance of mobility for United States-Latin American relations. Focusing on the United States, Brazil, and the countries of the Southern Cone, it recovers the cooperation, conflicts, and exchange of knowledge between international experts working on the Intercontinental Railway and the Pan-American Highway.

My study is based on the work with documents from international commissions, committees, and congresses, reports, surveys, diaries, maps, railway engineering journals, and automobile magazines. Using multi-sited archival work, Connecting the Americas restores the centrality of mobility and its infrastructure in inter-American relations. By doing so, it shows how these transportation projects were marked by the seemingly opposing forces of unilateral US expansionism and international exchange and negotiation at the same time.

Proponents of better transportation focused on mobility in a broad sense. Goods, people, information, and ideas were supposed to become more mobile and circulate across the Americas. While many considered trade and the faster transportation of goods to be of utmost importance, early writings on the railway also included visions for intercontinental travel and tourism. With the rise of car culture in the 1920s, the Pan-American Highway came to play an important role in the development of early automobile tourism within and across national borders.   

The planning of inter-American transportation infrastructure included various forms of knowledge production, with the importance of expertise, information gathering, and international cooperation increasing over the years. While the earliest publications on the railroad were mostly written by North Americans in North America who hardly identified their sources of information about Latin America, inter-American transportation soon became a subject of transnational scientific study. Planners realized that they needed multiple sets of knowledge and the questions of how, where, and when to acquire information often caused conflicts, not only between US-Americans and Latin Americans but also between and within professional groups.

With its focus on interactions and South American agency, the project challenges interpretations of inter-American transportation as a predominantly US-American idea. Connecting the Americas engages with new dynamic debates that move beyond traditional narratives of US domination, failure, and Latin American resistance and strive to write fuller and more nuanced histories of pan-Americanism and US-Latin American relations.