The American Century Is Over—Good Riddance

Article by Andrew Bacevich.


The American Century Is Over—Good Riddance 1

By Andrew J. Bacevich

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.

Historians should be the first to acknowledge the difficulty of identifying historical turning points. In the spring of 2003, around the time U.S. troops were occupying Saddam Hussein’s various palaces, President George W. Bush felt certain he’d engineered one. More than a few otherwise-sober observers agreed. But “Mission Accomplished” turned out to be “Mission Just Begun.” Those who celebrated the march on Baghdad as a world-altering feat of arms ended up with egg on their faces.

Still, I’m willing to bet that future generations will look back on the period between 2006 and 2008 as the real turning point. Here was the moment when what remained of the American Century ran out of steam and ground to a halt. More specifically, when Bush gave up on victory in Iraq (thereby abandoning expectations of U.S. military power transforming the Greater Middle East) and when the Great Recession brought the U.S. economy to its knees (the consequences of habitual profligacy coming home to roost), Luce’s formulation lost any resemblance to reality.

Politicians insist otherwise, of course. Has the American Century breathed its last? Mitt Romney, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, leaves no room for doubt where he stands on the matter:

I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world. … This is America’s moment. We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert America’s time has passed. That is utter nonsense.

Foremost among those waving that white flag of surrender, according to Romney, is President Barack Obama. Yet Obama’s expressed views align closely with those of his would-be challenger. “America is back,” the president declared during his recent State of the Union address. “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

As with most contemporary political speeches, this qualifies as pure malarkey. Among the conjurers of imperial dreams in Washington, the American Century might live on. In places like Newark or Cleveland or Detroit, where real people live, it’s finished.

As a member of the historical fraternity, count me among those more than content to consign the American Century to the past. After all, what’s past becomes our turf—precisely where the American Century ought to be. Exploration of that myth-enshrouded territory has barely begun. Grasping what this era actually signified and what it yielded promises to be an exciting enterprise, one that may leave the reputations of heroes like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan a bit worse for wear.

From the jaded, not to say cynical, observer of international politics, the passing of the American Century elicits a more ambivalent response. I’d like to believe that the United States will accept the outcome gracefully. Rather than attempting to resurrect Luce’s expansive vision, I’d prefer to see American policy makers attend to the looming challenges of multipolarity. Averting the serial catastrophes that befell the planet starting just about 100 years ago, when the previous multipolar order began to implode, should keep them busy enough.

But I suspect that’s not going to happen. The would-be masters of the universe orbiting around the likes of Romney and Obama won’t be content to play such a modest role. With the likes of Robert Kagan as their guide—”It’s a wonderful world order,” he writes in his new book, The World America Made (Knopf)—they will continue to peddle the fiction that with the right cast of characters running Washington, history will once again march to America’s drumbeat. Evidence to support such expectations is exceedingly scarce—taken a look at Iraq lately?—but no matter. Insiders and would-be insiders will insist that, right in their hip pocket, they’ve got the necessary strategy.

Strategy is a quintessential American Century word, ostensibly connoting knowingness and sophistication. Whether working in the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon, strategists promote the notion that they can anticipate the future and manage its course. Yet the actual events of the American Century belie any such claim. Remember when Afghanistan signified victory over the Soviet empire? Today, the genius of empowering the mujahedin seems less than self-evident.

Strategy is actually a fraud perpetrated by those who covet power and are intent on concealing from the plain folk the fact that the people in charge are flying blind. With only occasional exceptions, the craft of strategy was a blight on the American Century.

What does the passing of the American Century hold? To answer that question, inquisitive students of international relations might turn for instruction to television commercials now being aired by Allstate Insurance. The ads feature a character called Mayhem, who unbeknownst to you, hangs onto the side of your car or perches on your rooftop concocting mischief. The message is clear. Be alert: Mayhem is always lurking in your path.

Throughout the American Century, Mayhem mocked U.S. strategic pretensions. His agents infiltrated the National Security Council, sowing falsehoods. Mayhem whispered in the ear of whoever happened to occupy the Oval Office. When the Joint Chiefs of Staff met in the “Tank,” he had a seat at the table. Mayhem freely roamed the halls of the Capitol (although Congressional dysfunction of our own day may have rendered such efforts redundant).

Having learned nothing from the American Century, present-day strategists—the ones keen to bomb Iran, confront China, and seize control of outer space as the “ultimate high ground”—will continue the practice of doing Mayhem’s bidding. As usual, the rest of us will be left to cope with the havoc that results, albeit this time without the vast reserves of wealth and power that once made an American Century appear plausible. Brace yourself.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is editor of The Short American Century: A Postmortem, just published by Harvard University Press.

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7 replies »

  1. ” Not that I support the American Empire or anything, but would you rather have a Chinese or Russian Century?”

    Seeing as how the 20th century was the biggest catastrophe ever visited on the British people (save maybe the Black Death back in 1348) and that the continued hegemony of the USA and the values it represents absolutely guarantees this one is going to be worse and terminal; I’d be willing to see what the Chinese or Russians, or North fucking Koreans for that matter, can do. How could it be any worse?

  2. “Seeing as how the 20th century was the biggest catastrophe ever visited on the British people (save maybe the Black Death back in 1348) and that the continued hegemony of the USA and the values it represents absolutely guarantees this one is going to be worse and terminal; I’d be willing to see what the Chinese or Russians, or North fucking Koreans for that matter, can do. How could it be any worse?”

    I love reading the blatherings of American patriotards and then contrasting them with those outside the country. As an American, I’ve always found the vision of America presented by our elites and those who vote for them, as a sort of global utopia defined by and obligated to “share” liberal democratic virtues, to be irritatingly pompous and phillistine. Appeals to the “vision of the Founders” only exacerbate this. Meanwhile, those of us on the margins who present an alternative vision, that of an isolationist, protectionist republic, are dismissed as “unAmerican” by those whose policies are destroying the country in the name of advancing it.

  3. Historians should be the first to acknowledge the difficulty of identifying historical turning points.

    If you’re looking for the turning point between American, and even Western, ascendency and decline then one date stands out as the obvious candidate; 1973. The Golden Age of post war American consumer society begins to manifest its consequences. Western cities start to fall apart, the rust belt begins its advance, the “hippie” generation representing naive idiocy loses its faith and its worst aspects are incorporated by the establishment, consumption stops making your life easier and starts making you fat, sick and broke, America is defeated in Vietnam. And right in the middle, the harbinger of the future in the “oil shock” stands as the totemic event (American peak oil production occurred a few years earlier). As far as I know there is no starker or clearer turning point in history.

  4. Exactly. The problem is that “conservatives” view said consumer society as the peak of civilization and are entirely oblivious to the impact the hippie generation has had on their own thinking.

  5. Michael,

    To be fair it’s not like it was the USA which did this to my nation, it was us. The American Century was after all a mere epilogue to the three century reign of piratical terror inflicted on the planet by the British “bourgeoisie” elite. (Whose rise was exactly mirrored in the increasing aggression and imperialism of the British state.)

    Still, seems to me that 20 plus years after the collapse of the USSR the continued massive presence of the USAF in this country can be seen as nothing other than an occupation. I just wished someone in this nation cared.

  6. ‘The American Century was after all a mere epilogue to the three century reign of piratical terror inflicted on the planet by the British “bourgeoisie” elite.’

    I disagree. The British elites certainly had their faults (crushing Boer independence comes to mind) in various eras, but over all the British era was one where a great deal of freedom existed for large numbers of people (though certainly not everyone). The British Classical Liberal era was a far more healthy era than the current mess and as far as imperialism goes, it was a fairly benign imperialism if you contrast it with Japanese rule in Korea and China or the horrific rule of the Aztecs over their subject peoples or many other awful imperial eras. The British ran a far more civilised empire in my opinion and spread civilisation to many areas where there had previously been none. This is not meant as an apology for British imperialism, but I don’t think their rule was as awful as you make it out to be.

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