The American Century is over — good riddance

Andrew Bacevich writes: As someone who teaches both history and international relations, I have one foot in each camp. I’m interested in what has already happened. And I’m interested in what will happen next. In my teaching and my writing, I try to locate connecting tissue that links past to present. Among the devices I’ve employed to do that is the concept of an “American Century.”

That evocative phrase entered the American lexicon back in February 1941, the title of an essay appearing in Life magazine under the byline of the publishing mogul Henry Luce. In advancing the case for U.S. entry into World War II, the essay made quite a splash, as Luce intended. Yet the rush of events soon transformed “American Century” into much more than a bit of journalistic ephemera. It became a summons, an aspiration, a claim, a calling, and ultimately the shorthand identifier attached to an entire era. By the time World War II ended in 1945, the United States had indeed ascended — as Luce had forecast and perhaps as fate had intended all along—to a position of global primacy. Here was the American Century made manifest.

I love Luce’s essay. I love its preposterous grandiosity. I delight in Luce’s utter certainty that what we have is what they want, need, and, by gum, are going to get. “What can we say and foresee about an American Century?” he asks. “It must be a sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills.” I love, too, the way Luce guilelessly conjoins politics and religion, the son of Protestant missionaries depicting the United States as the Redeemer Nation. “We must undertake now to be the Good Samaritan of the entire world.” How to do that? To Luce it was quite simple. He pronounced it America’s duty “as the most powerful and vital nation in the world … to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” Would God or Providence have it any other way?

Luce’s essay manages to be utterly ludicrous and yet deeply moving. Above all, this canonical assertion of singularity — identifying God’s new Chosen People — is profoundly American. (Of course, I love Life in general. Everyone has a vice. Mine is collecting old copies of Luce’s most imaginative and influential creation—and, yes, my collection includes the issue of February 17, 1941.)

Alas, the bracing future that Luce confidently foresaw back in 1941 has in our own day slipped into the past. If an American Century ever did exist, it’s now ended. History is moving on—although thus far most Americans appear loath to concede that fact. [Continue reading…]

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3 thoughts on “The American Century is over — good riddance

  1. Christopher Hoare

    Bacevich is saying no more than observers in the non US-centric world have been saying since about 1970. Not that the Americans and their touching desire to do good was never welcome in a world that needs a lot of good done, but the counterpoint to “American Century” was always “Yankee Go Home”. About time that actually happened.

  2. DE Teodoru

    Perhaps the real issue was that as a moral compromise between those Americans who wanted to do right BY the world and those who wanted to do right FROM the world, has brought us to the exsanguinated state in which we find ourselves. For every drop we bled for a “good earth,” we beld another for corporate domination. As corporate America came to need more customers in America in order to unload the goods it was manufacturing using slave labor in the 3rd and Red Worlds, it created phony economic schemes turning “homes” into credit cards. Now we lost it all. And all the generals that struggled to keep us safe while awaiting their corporate board slots upon retirement are now facing a future of pink slips, looking like Napoleon om Alba. Who more than Petraeus looks the part sitting in the DCI seat?

    We had such a long run of corruption that half of half of half of half of half….has come to be very little return on our advancement by compromise. Zeno’s hypothesis that we’ll never get there may have been proven with our compromised social morality. WE have nothing left. The Devil is due soon to pick up our collective soul. Thanks neocons for being such able devils on Satan’s behalf. Since its moment of moral arousal in 1960s, America has closed its eyes and given in to myopic greed. Who would have thought the Emperor such a mental midget that scum like Romney, Santorum and Gingrich get to fight to be our leader. And we who stupidly thought the Constitution a firewall are left to apologize to our kids for being such blind fools. Who would have thought that we’d end up with China lending us the money to buy the trinkets its slaves make based on American know-how?

  3. delia ruhe

    Excellent take, DE. Bacevich isn’t telling us something we don’t already know, but the fact that it’s Bacevich, a war hero and registered Republican, doing the telling is important. There are others like him — both liberal and conservative — who know that what Washington should be doing is preparing itself for the future-inevitable instead of fighting to recover a problematic past.

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