Volume VIII, Number 2, Fall 2012


"Has There Ever Been an “American Century”? A Review of The Short American Century. A Postmortem, edited by Andrew J. Bacevich" by Zoltán Peterecz

Zoltán Peterecz is Assistant Professor at the Eszterházy Károly College Eger, Hungary. E-mail:

The Short American Century. A Postmortem
Bacevich, Andrew J. ed.
2012
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
287 pages
ISBN-10: 0674064453
ISBN-13: 978-0674064454

 

Few articles or studies left such an indelible mark on the American psyche as Henry R. Luce’s “The American Century,” which appeared in the author’s celebrated Life magazine in February 1941. In what was still peacetime for the U.S, at least on the surface, the writing of Luce set out to convince its considerable readership that the United States had a responsibility and a mission in the world: the American worldview and the power its people wield should have a unique role in shaping the world at large. Naturally, the goal was to spread the elevated status of the country and its mission was to become “the Good Samaritan” of the postwar world, “really believing again that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and America as the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice” (Jessup 120). Luce spelled out what Americans were to do: “to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence 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” (Jessup 113). The well-chosen title, which captured most Americans’ fantasy and rightly anticipated the power relations of the various states after the conclusion of World War II, made Luce’s piece a highly prophetic one in retrospect. Languishing in the Great Depression only a few years earlier, the United States found itself in the position of the most powerful nation in the world and, owing largely to the frustrations of peace after World War I, the question arose as to what it could do with it. The path the United States started on has earned the epithet of “the American Century” from historians and common citizens alike.

The Short American Century takes Luce’s prophecy as its starting point. The basic tone of this collection of essays, featuring many a renowned historian, is easy to derive from the telling second half of the title: A Postmortem. Clearly, the authors by and large share the opinion that the idealistic attitude described by Luce more than seventy years ago may have exerted influence in the past few decades, but it is now a thing of the past. The editor of the book, Andrew J. Bacevich, who a few years earlier wrote a book on the end of American exceptionalism (The Limits of Power), arrives at an important conclusion in the introductory essay. He writes, “the utility of Luce’s formulation as a description of the contemporary international order or as a guide to future U.S. policy has been exhausted” (14).

Naturally, tackling such a sacred cow is not an easy undertaking. The concept of an “American Century,” that is, the worldview that the United States is in a domineering geopolitical position and it can lead, if not dictate, is an almost sacrosanct idea to many Americans, and thus all the more important to analyze the concept in a balanced, scientific manner. Contributors to the volume, including Emily S. Rosenberg, Akire Iriye, or Walter LaFeber amongst others, try to shed light on the questions and problems of the “American Century” from various vantage points, investigating it in political, historical, or economic-financial terms, and the answers and conclusions of their essays are often convincing.

The studies imply that the “American Century,” if it ever existed, may have lasted until the end of the twentieth century at best. The events of September 11, 2001, and the following resuscitation of the unilateral streak and the old thought of preventive war as a justifiable means to fight evil perhaps caused the end of the successful era. In his piece, for instance, David M. Kennedy states that the “American Century that made the world safer, healthier, and happier” (37), and the system the United States created after World War II were steps taken in the right direction. The Bush-era, however, turned its back on those presidents who worked for a more cooperative world order, even if America had a large influence, and the impact of this “willful trashing” of their legacy “remains incalculable” (36).

Emily Rosenberg on her part puts the concept of the American Century into a wider perspective. She traces the post-World War II era of consumer society and globalization back to the beginning of its course, which she asserts to be rooted in the nineteenth century. The large-scale consumption so typical of the American society originates from that period, with the accompanying advertising techniques and the often mindless exhaustion of seemingly unlimited natural resources. But consumerism, made global by the United States, simply undermined the hoped-for order, “as the American Century gave way to the Consumer Century” toward the 1990s (56). In this interpretation, the unique leadership of the United States eroded throughout the second half of the twentieth century, too.

Somewhat in tandem with Rosenberg, T. J. Jackson Lears also devotes half of his essay to the time before Luce coined his famous phrase. The publisher simply made a good work of “repackaging sentiments already in wide circulation” (82). The idea of a strong America that should be active in the foreign arena has held sway for a long time now and, Lears argues, the “vision of an American Century persists, even as its economic basis crumbles” (116).

Walter LaFeber sets out to undo the vainglorious American Century. In his usual critical voice, LaFeber announces that since Luce’s time, the United States foreign policy has defaulted. Although America has done everything in its power, both military and economic, to make Luce’s vision a reality, it only bred anti-Americanism and did not marshal in an era of safety for the world. To make things worse, in the effort, the domestic resources have come close to being depleted. His harsh words are worth quoting in full: the American Century “had never existed except as an illusion, but an illusion to which Americans, in their repeated willingness to ignore history, fell prey” (159).

In the longest essay of the volume, Eugene McCarraher examines how the American “empire” expanded, to a great extent, owing to continued financial and economic growth. He shows that from the early days of the Puritans to Barack Obama, and probably beyond, Americans (or, at least, the decision-making elite) held their chosenness and the American way of life as core beliefs. The basic elements of this ideology were: a society based on capitalist economic mechanisms, crushing opponents or enemies standing the nation’s way, and as a triumphant alloy of the two, reforming the rest of the world. Needless to say, this was always done for the sake of humanity, since the world has simply always been in need for American leadership. Those who doubted or resisted were made to accept the American financial-economic model. From this perspective, Luce’s American Century was just another step along the centuries-old American journey. John Winthrop, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert J. Beveridge, Woodrow Wilson, Walter Lippmann, and many other notable Americans all subscribed to and championed American uniqueness and the economic model that made it possible. Luce’s piece was important because it has proved to be “one of the boldest eschatological visions in American history, a scripture of revelation that announces the advent of a business kingdom on earth” (210). The United States, according to McCarraher, should retreat from its hegemonic role and concentrate on its domestic affairs a great deal more.

In the closing short essay, summarizing the preceding thoughts of his colleagues, Bacevich states that the United States has a lot to lose if it clings to the obsession of living in the American Century. The problem, however, as he points out, is in the collective American mind and memory. While the former holds that “celebrating the American Century becomes something akin to a civic duty,” the latter is only willing to remember the pleasant and glorious chapters of history since 1941 (234). Although the successful conclusion of World War II or winning the Cold War were really almost unparalleled highs, the seven decades after Pearl Harbor were interrupted by serious American blunders and shameful actions. On the final page, he arrives at the somewhat troubling conclusion that the American Century and the persistent belief that it is still alive is “a collective flight from reality” (239).

The Short American Century is an important and useful book. On the one hand, it sheds light on the various forms of American exceptionalism, which is not always clearly tangible. Also, it provides a multi-dimensional criticism for American chosenness and the belief in the American Century, all done in a convincing way. Naturally, there are many conservative readers who will find this book disturbing, but they should listen. Even so, as some of the authors of the book admit, despite their best effort to outline a possible alternative to current American foreign policy, their compatriots are unwilling to pay attention. It is not surprising, since even Barack Obama, who tries to differentiate himself from many of his predecessors, but especially from George W. Bush, often plays on the theme of American exceptionalism. That is not to say that he has not made steps toward trying to come clean on certain issues. But this double standard is the most one can expect. In all likelihood, the end of the American Century, if it has not ended already, will be brought to a close by the new power relations and the harsh realities of the world. In fifteen to twenty years time, the United States will become “only” another significant country, diminished but still influential. On our ever-globalizing planet, heightened interrelation and interdependence characterize the nations of Earth today, where economic and financial trends shift—slowly but recognizably. If the collective American psyche can accept and adapt to this change, perhaps an even longer American success story can begin.

Works Cited

  • Bacevich, Andrew J. The Limits of Power. The End of American Exceptionalism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008.
  • Jessup, John K. ed. The Ideas of Henry Luce. New York: Atheneum, 1969.