The Myth of the American Century

Illustration by R. Crumb: "I'm an American!": Whiteman, from Zap Comix No. 1 (1967)

As contemplated by average Americans, sitting in their living rooms and leafing through their favorite magazine, the outside world in mid-February 1941 seemed nothing if not troubled. Occupying the center of attention was Great Britain, its people stoic in the face of a widely expected invasion. Although the intensity of German air raids had diminished in recent weeks (a pause that some called the “Lullablitz”), Londoners were still spending their nights in underground shelters. British newspapers buzzed with stories “of gas clouds to be blown across the Channel, of paralyzing gas, of inaudible sound waves that make people sick, of 40,000 troop gliders, of air-troop landings in 500 places at once.” Although small numbers of demonstrators, “alleged to be Communists,” were complaining that food-rationing arrangements favored the well-to-do, the British upper lip remained admirably stiff.

These reports appeared – along with much else – in the February 17, 1941, issue of Life magazine. Life was the latest franchise of Time Inc., the journalistic juggernaut that had propelled the young Henry R. Luce to a position of wealth and power. Raised in China by missionary parents, Luce retained throughout his life a missionary inclination, determined to have a hand in great deeds. This found expression in various enthusiasms, yet, by early 1941, one cause took precedence: supporting Great Britain in its lonely struggle against Nazi Germany. With President Roosevelt proceeding by half steps, Luce sought to force the issue. The result, a lengthy editorial in that same issue of Life, carried the evocative title “The American Century.”

Luce began his essay by assuming the role of national shrink. “We Americans are unhappy,” he wrote. “We are nervous – or gloomy – or apathetic.” For Luce, the contrast between Americans and Britons was striking. Fighting for their very existence, the people of Great Britain “are profoundly calm. There seems to be a complete absence of nervousness.” With the onset of war, “all the neuroses of modern life had vanished from England.” Why were Americans feeling so out of sorts? The role that the United States had come to play in the ongoing European war – involved yet less than fully committed – offered a clue. The times called for action, but Americans persisted in dithering. The “cure” was self-evident. In an immediate sense, duty required the United States to ally itself with Great Britain as a full-fledged belligerent in the European war. Yet this amounted to hardly more than a first step. Duty implied a mission of transforming the entire global order, with the United States assuming unequivocally and permanently the mantle of global leadership. In the course of performing that duty, Luce fully expected the United States to transform – and perfect – itself.

“The American Century” was sandwiched between a feature on women’s fashion (“Shoe Fair Features Casual Styles Inspired by U.S. Navy and Cowboys”) and a profile of Betty Carstairs, oil heiress, adventuress, and speedboat racer. The vision of American global leadership that Luce advanced in his essay and the vision of personal gratification that his magazine extolled had this much in common: each represented an aspiration, not to be confused with an actually existing reality. The tension between these two visions of an American Century first became evident with the Korean War. A decade later, the Vietnam War brought that tension fully into the open, revealing the limits of both Washington’s capacity to police the American Century and the American people’s willingness to underwrite that effort. More or less simultaneously, the foundations of U.S. economic primacy began to erode. The terms of trade tipped from black to red and stayed there. The oil needed to sustain the mobile lifestyle that Americans prized came increasingly from abroad. So, too, did the manufactures – including automobiles – that Americans coveted, acquired, used, and discarded with abandon.

The decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet empire – interpreted in Washington as the vindication and renewal of the American Century – disguised the significance of these developments. As the Cold War wound down, politicians and pundits vied with one another to replicate Luce’s feat, attempting to capture in a single phrase what “victory” over Communism signified. In a nod to Luce, the most ardent proponents of deploying U.S. power “for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit” called their enterprise simply the Project for the New American Century. While PNAC agitated for the more aggressive use of U.S. military muscle, the advocates of globalization unleashed rhetorical flourishes that would have made Luce himself blush. Few observers paid much attention to the fact that when the United States now employed armed force, it rarely achieved decisive results, or that globalization, while making some people very rich indeed, left many ordinary Americans hurting.

After 9/11, President George W. Bush launched an all-out effort to realize the American Century throughout the Islamic world, without mobilizing his country or even adjusting its domestic priorities. Rather than collective sacrifice, the wartime role assigned to the American public was uninhibited consumption, encouraged by reduced taxes. The costs, fiscal as well as human, absorbed by the American people turned out to be vastly greater than anticipated. Instead of transforming the Middle East, simply extricating the United States from Iraq soon became the priority. Then, in the midst of war, the economy went into a tailspin, producing a crisis not seen since the Great Depression. PNAC quietly closed up shop, but politicians and ideologues continued to identify themselves with Luce’s dream.

As a presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama called upon his supporters “to unite in common purpose, to make this century the next American century.” This was akin to promising that world peace or a cure for cancer lies just around the corner: a pleasant thought with little basis in reality. Were there any doubts in that regard, the disappointments associated with Obama’s presidency soon quashed them. By the seventieth anniversary of Luce’s famous essay, the gap between what he had summoned Americans to do back in 1941 and what they were actually willing or able to do had become unbridgeable. Contemplating the implications of President Obama’s decision to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan during the summer of 2011, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen observed that “the American Century just ended.” Although, like most observers in Washington, Cohen lagged considerably behind events, his verdict is likely to stand. To the extent that an American Century ever did exist – a point on which historians are not in unanimous agreement –  that era has now definitively passed.

Was the “American Century” ever more than a figment of a publisher’s fevered imagination? Incorporating the events of the era into Luce’s narrative poses a challenge. Exertions undertaken to benefit ourselves and all humanity have so often produced unforeseen, unintended, and even perverse consequences. Defenders of the American Century insist that repeated failures to export democracy (with sundry other errors and disappointments along the way) reveal nothing essential about the United States or its ability to direct the course of events. To rebut the claim that trying to remake the world in America’s image is a fool’s errand, they cite the results of World War II and the outcome of the Cold War. Framed as chapters in a longer narrative of liberation, these two events invest the ambitions inherent in the vision of an American Century with a modicum of plausibility. Yet sustaining that narrative requires the careful selection and arrangement of facts, with inconvenient or uncomfortable truths excluded, suppressed, or simply ignored.

With regard to World War II, the many facts that don’t fit include the following: in the destruction of Nazi Germany, U.S. forces played at best a supporting role, with Stalin’s Red Army – the vanguard of a totalitarian police state – doing most of the fighting, killing, and dying; as a result, the price of liberating Western Europe included delivering Eastern Europe to Stalin and his henchmen. Meanwhile, in its aerial bombing campaign against German and Japanese cities, the United States engaged in the conscious, intentional, wholesale slaughter of noncombatants. In the aftermath of the European war, the Allies collaborated in enforcing a massive involuntary transfer of populations – that is, a policy of ethnic cleansing. When they found it expedient to do so, U.S. officials allowed Nazi war criminals – rocket scientists and intelligence officials, for example – to escape prosecution and to enter the service of the United States. Then there is this: at no time prior to or during the war did the United States make any substantive effort to prevent or even disrupt the Nazi persecution of Jews that culminated in the “final solution.” In Washington the fate of European Jewry never figured as more than an afterthought. As much or more than the promotion of American ideals – that “sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, [and] our Constitution” that Luce dearly hoped to see – these decisions, along with the priorities they reflect, laid the basis for the interval of American primacy that followed.

The “Disneyfication” of World War II, to use Paul Fussell’s term, finds its counterpart in the Disneyfication of the Cold War, reduced in popular imagination and the halls of Congress to Ronald Reagan’s demanding “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The Soviet leader meekly complied, and freedom erupted across Europe. Facts that complicate this story – assassination plots, dirty tricks gone awry, cozy relations with corrupt dictators – provide endless fodder for scholarly articles and books but ultimately get filed under the heading of Things That Don’t Really Matter. The Ike Americans like even today is the one who kept the Soviets at bay while presiding over eight years of peace and prosperity. The other Ike –  the one who unleashed the CIA on Iran and Guatemala, refused to let the Vietnamese exercise their right to self-determination in 1956, and ignored the plight of Hungarians who, taking seriously Washington’s rhetoric of liberation, rose up to throw off the yoke of Soviet power – remains far less well known. Similarly, Americans today continue to cherish John F. Kennedy’s charisma, wit, and eloquence. When it comes to the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose, and the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem, they generously give the martyred president a pass.

The way that Americans choose to remember World War II and the Cold War – evil overthrown thanks chiefly to the United States – invests the American Century with reassuring moral clarity. Fixing December 7, 1941, as the start date of the struggle for Pacific dominion, for example, saddles the Japanese aggressor with responsibility for all that followed. The high-handedness of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in coercing Japan to open itself to the outside world, nearly a century earlier; systematic American discrimination against Japanese immigrants, codified in insulting state and local laws; Washington’s refusal to acknowledge a Japanese sphere of influence in East Asia, while asserting American primacy throughout the Western Hemisphere; and, more immediately, the impact of U.S.-imposed sanctions intended to strangle Japan economically: for most Americans, Pearl Harbor renders all these irrelevant.

Self-serving mendacities – that the attacks of September 11, 2001, reprising those of December 7, 1941, “came out of nowhere” to strike an innocent nation – don’t enhance the safety and wellbeing of the American people. To further indulge old illusions of the United States presiding over and directing the course of history will not only impede the ability of Americans to understand the world and themselves but may well pose a positive danger to both. No one opens an old issue of Life today in the expectation of unearthing truths with contemporary relevance. They do so to satisfy their taste for nostalgia, resurrecting memories, real or imagined, of an America that was good and getting better, a land and people overflowing with promise. Something of the same can be said of Luce’s other great creation: his vision of an American Century likewise survives as an artifact, encapsulating an era about which some (although by no means all) Americans might wax nostalgic – a time, real or imagined, of common purpose, common values, and shared sacrifice. Only by jettisoning the American Century and the illusions to which it gives rise will the self-knowledge and self-understanding that Americans urgently require become a possibility. Whether Americans will grasp the opportunity that beckons is another matter.

Andrew J. Bacevich
The Short American Century: A Postmortem (2012)

Illustration by R. CrumbWhiteman, from Zap Comix No. 1 (1967)

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