American Decline

This Is the End of the American Century

By Tom Engelhardt, The Nation

It sure has been a disaster.

On February 17, 1941, less than 10 months before the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor and the United States found itself in a global war, Henry Luce, in an editorial in Life magazine (which he founded along with Time and Fortune), declared the years to come “the American Century.” He then urged this country’s leaders to “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit.”

And he wasn’t wrong, was he? Eight decades later, who would deny that we’ve lived through something like an American century? After all, in 1945, the United States emerged triumphant from World War II, a rare nation remarkably unravaged by that war (despite the 400,000 casualties it had suffered). With Great Britain heading for the imperial sub-basement, Washington found itself instantly the military and economic powerhouse on the planet.

As it turned out, however, to “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence,” one other thing was necessary and, fortunately, at hand: an enemy. From then on, America’s global stature and power would, in fact, be eternally based on facing down enemies. Fortunately, in 1945, there was that other potential, if war-ravaged, powerhouse, the Soviet Union. That future “superpower” had been an ally in World War II, but no longer. It would thereafter be the necessary enemy in a “cold war” that sometimes threatened to turn all too hot. And it would, of course, ensure that what later came to be known as the military-industrial complex (and a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying many planets like this one) would be funded in a way once historically inconceivable in what might still have passed for peacetime.

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