The Short American Century: A Postmortem

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Writing in Life magazine in February 1941, Henry Luce memorably announced the arrival of “The American Century.” The phrase caught on, as did the belief that America’s moment was at hand. Yet as Andrew J. Bacevich makes clear, that century has now ended, the victim of strategic miscalculation, military misadventures, and economic decline. To take stock of the short American Century and place it in historical perspective, Bacevich has assembled a richly provocative range of perspectives.

What did this age of reputed American preeminence signify? What caused its premature demise? What legacy remains in its wake? Distinguished historians Jeffry Frieden, Akira Iriye, David Kennedy, Walter LaFeber, Jackson Lears, Eugene McCarraher, Emily Rosenberg, and Nikhil Pal Singh offer illuminating answers to these questions. Achievement and failure, wisdom and folly, calculation and confusion all make their appearance in essays that touch on topics as varied as internationalism and empire, race and religion, consumerism and globalization.

As the United States grapples with protracted wars, daunting economic uncertainty, and pressing questions about exactly what role it should play in a rapidly changing world, understanding where the nation has been and how it got where it is today is critical. What did the forging of the American Century—with its considerable achievements but also its ample disappointments and missed opportunities—ultimately yield? That is the question this important volume answers.

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Editorial Reviews

Commonweal - Nick Baumann
This collection of essays constitutes a how-to manual for people who sense something deeply wrong with the current bipartisan consensus on American power, but can't quite articulate what it is.
Dissent - George Scialabba
Declining empires are dangerous. Popular enlightenment is urgent, and this book...will help...It is a valuable step toward the self-knowledge Americans will need if we and the rest of the world are to survive the long centuries ahead.

This collection of essays constitutes a how-to manual for people who sense something deeply wrong with the current bipartisan consensus on American power, but can't quite articulate what it is.
— Nick Baumann


Declining empires are dangerous. Popular enlightenment is urgent, and this book...will help...It is a valuable step toward the self-knowledge Americans will need if we and the rest of the world are to survive the long centuries ahead.
— George Scialabba

Kirkus Reviews
A set of scholarly responses to Henry Luce's 1941 essay in his Life magazine, "The American Century." Editor Bacevich (International Relations and History/Boston Univ.; Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War, 2010, etc.) provides the beginning and ending chapters in this collection of historical and analytical pieces that, combined, claim: there really wasn't much of an American century; it was always an illusion, anyhow; it has been extraordinarily arrogant and purblind to believe that America was unlike other empires and that its way of life is suitable for the rest of the world. The pieces share a conventional academic structure, which eventually becomes tiresome: introduction, body, conclusion--don't any of these notable contributors know how to frame an essay in a fresher, more engaging way? They also share an anti-imperialist, leftish slant that will allure some readers and alienate others. David M. Kennedy begins with an essay about American military power and our decision to put most of our chips on air power. Several contributors--Emily S. Rosenberg, Jeffrey A. Frieden and Eugene McCarraher--highlight economic aspects of the topic, variously attacking materialism, the arrogance of the business mind and the effects of globalization on the American economy and way of life. Others looks at the effects of immigration and race, historical antecedents (Manifest Destiny, the Truman Doctrine), military misadventures since World War II (Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq) and the influence of some significant players on the stage, among them Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, Randolph Bourne and Charles Beard. Many attack Republican administrations, though McCarraher has some sharp words for President Obama, sharper ones for Thomas J. Friedman. Bracing and provocative, despite the tendentiousness and the uniformity of structure.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674064454
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 3/19/2012
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew J. Bacevich is Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University.

Akira Iriye is Charles Warren Professor of American History and Director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University.

Emily S. Rosenberg is Professor of History at University of California, Irvine.

Nikhil Pal Singh is Visiting Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History Director of the Program in American Studies at New York University.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 10: Not So Different After All

In Henry Luce’s day and in our own, the abiding allure of the American Century (one to which even non-Americans can prove susceptible) stems from the conviction that the United States as a great power differs from every other great power in history. It stands apart: unique, singular, sans pareil.

In that sense, the American Century is American Exceptionalism manifested on a global scale. It represents potential realized, promise fulfilled, and responsibility finally and willingly accepted. With America’s arrival at the summit of world power, humankind’s journey toward freedom, destined to culminate in the universal embrace of American values, reaches its decisive phase. If history, as George W. Bush proclaimed in 2005, “has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty,” then the American Century defines the moment in which Liberty’s Author has chosen to complete His work, thereby accomplishing “the mission that created our Nation.”

As Bush’s choice of language suggests, that mission has sacred overtones. Speaking in 1919, Woodrow Wilson, another war president, emphasized this point. The doughboys who had left American shores to fight on the Western Front, he declared, “were crusaders.”

They were not going forth to prove the might of the United States. They were going forth to prove the might of justice and right, and all the world accepted them as crusaders, and their transcendent achievement has made all the world believe in America as it believes in no other nation... [T]he moral obligation that rests upon us ... [is] to see the thing through ... and make good their redemption of the world.

Seeking neither dominion nor empire, the United States uses its power to advance the cause of all humanity. Wilson emphatically believed this; since U.S. entry into World War II, those following him to the White House have routinely endorsed that view. Even—perhaps especially—when the United States employs armed force, its purposes are by definition beyond reproach. To the extent that the pursuit of interests shapes U.S. policy, satisfying those interests points to the building of a better and more peaceful world. Speaking in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson put it this way: “we fight for values and we fight for principles, rather than territory or colonies. [Therefore], no nation need ever fear that we desire their land, or to impose our will, or to dictate their institutions.” Although referring specifically to Vietnam, Johnson was expressing sentiments shared by the presidents who preceded him and those who followed him in the American Century. Greed, hubris, and ambition might motivate others to wield the sword, but Americans fight for a Just Cause to Restore Hope in pursuit of Enduring Freedom. More than simply compatible, U.S. interests, American ideals, and the well-being of humankind all converge at a single point. To paraphrase Eisenhower-era defense secretary Charles E. Wilson, what’s good for the United States is good for the world as a whole and vice versa.

To many Americans, even to question this proposition is intolerable. Note the furor unleashed in 2009 when Barack Obama offered a less than categorical endorsement of his nation’s special standing. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” the president remarked in response to a reporter’s question, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” To critics, such cultural equivalence was cause for outrage. “President Obama may be the first American president to lack faith in our special history, our special spirit and our special mission in the world,” a commentator for Forbes complained. A National Review cover story accused Obama of proposing “to abandon our traditional sense of ourselves as an exceptional nation,” while throwing overboard America’s “unique role and mission in the world.” Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and presumed presidential hopeful, concurred. Obama’s “world view is dramatically different from any president, Republican or Democrat, we’ve had,” he charged. “To deny American exceptionalism is, in essence, to deny the heart and soul of this nation.” Sarah Palin likewise took Obama to task. “Sad to say,” wrote the former governor of Alaska, “many of our national leaders no longer believe in American exceptionalism.

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Table of Contents

1 Life at the Dawn of the American Century Andrew J. Bacevich 1

2 The Origins and Uses of American Hyperpower David M. Kennedy 15

3 Consuming the American Century Emily S. Rosenberg 38

4 The Problem of Color and Democracy Nikhil Pal Singh 58

5 Pragmatic Realism versus the American Century T. J. Jackson Lears 82

6 Toward Transnationalism Akira Iriye 121

7 From the American Century to Globalization Jeffry A. Frieden 142

8 Illusions of an American Century Walter LaFeber 158

9 The Heavenly City of Business Eugene McCarraher 187

10 Not So Different After All Andrew J. Bacevich 231

Notes 241

Acknowledgments 269

Contributors 271

Index 273

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  • Posted April 25, 2012

    Historians continually keep clarifying history, and the essays i

    Historians continually keep clarifying history, and the essays in this book do a remarkable job of just that. Most interesting are the various perceptions/approaches the historians have taken to make make sense of the short lived "American Century." This is an important book.

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