PostHeaderIcon A Too Short “American Century”

At a time when the media, opinion leaders and the public are bemoaning America’s decline, it is appropriate that a book, “The Short American Century,” (Harvard University Press) should appear. Subtitled “A Postmortem,” it is a series of well-argued, provocative essays (or autopsies) by academic experts, edited by historian Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University.

The nine contributors’ analyses explain why the term, coined by Time and Life founder, Henry Luce, in February, 1941, meant to provoke America’s entry into World War II, had, by the end of the 1990s, run its abbreviated course.

To Luce’s way of thinking, as the son of missionaries raised in China, power implied obligation. And, Bacevich writes, “by 1941, one cause took precedence over all others: supporting Great Britain in its lonely struggle against Nazi Germany.” While many Americans favored assisting Britain, a large segment of Americans wanted no part of going to war in Europe again.

Luce’s essay, titled “The American Century” argued that it was time for America to assume the mantle of global leadership. While an implicit argument for the worldwide expansion of American business, Luce said that he hoped the United States might become “the Good Samaritan of the entire world.”

Luce’s phrase is an updated version of the earlier doctrine of “Manifest Destiny.”  Luce’s vision is captured by the current expression, “American exceptionalism”.  All three terms carry the connotation of a God-given mission to carry our way of life out to the entire world.

The United States, at the end of the so-called Good War, dominated the world’s landscape economically and politically. Europe and the Soviet Union lay in economic ruin, having sustained huge losses of life, while American had escaped any damage to its homeland. Yet, the fruits of American political, economic and military supremacy had run their course a short 60 years later.

The essays take stock of American achievements and failures over six crucial decades. They are more critical than celebratory in their assessment, making readers aware of our political myopia and missed opportunities. Bacevich calls it “a sort of dissenter’s guide to the American Century.” As a guide for future American policy, Luce’s vision is irrelevant for a new century.  Just don’t tell that to Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin or the Tea Party.

Beginning with the Korean War, America was soon engaged in a protracted, all-out struggle with the Soviet Union known as the Cold War. As a result of that competition, we became the world’s policeman and found ourselves engaged–mostly unilaterally–in the Vietnam War along with CIA- assisted coups and military adventures in Iran, Cuba, Chile, Granada.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, we were the world’s only superpower once again. But, rather than enjoying the fruits of a “peace dividend,” we came under attack from new enemies with the 9/11 attacks.  For the past decade, we have expended precious economic resources and human treasure fighting terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those two unfunded wars added $5 trillion to our national debt while the depression of 2008 erased $14 trillion of Americans’ wealth.  Our nation’s appetite for foreign interventions is spent. On the economic front, the advantage we enjoyed for 40 years following the war has vanished. At the end of World War II, we had the world as a huge market for our goods. The Marshall Plan and creation of the World Bank helped Europe and Japan’s devastated economies recover. By the 1980s, those vanquished nations had become our suppliers. With the advent of outsourcing for much of our manufacturing and service supply, our long-time trade surplus has become a troubling deficit.

The authors convincingly present post-war 20th Century events and historical trends in a different light. Rather than the emotional, jingoistic slogans that normally sway public debate, they put defining postwar forces under a critical microscope and reveal why Luce’s “American Century” has run its course well short of the mark.

One contributor, historian Walter LaFeber of Cornell University, goes so far as to argue that the American Century was “stillborn.” It neither united Europe under its democratic banner nor prevented China (and its Southeast Asia neighbors) from falling under communism.

Andrew J. Bacevich

Andrew J. Bacevich

Readers should pick up this highly readable, contrarian analysis of recent history. Bacevich says its intent has not been to cast blame on America for the world’s wars and persecutions but rather to fight against “old illusions of the United States presiding over and directing the course of history.”

No longer does it make sense to “pretend that the United States is promoting a special message in support of a special mission….the United States is merely attempting to cope. Prudence and common sense should oblige Americans to admit as much.” One closes this book tempted to utter a loud “Amen”.

To learn more about this and other Harvard University Press books, go to www.hup.harvard.edu

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