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Why the American Century?

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Ever since Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life, proclaimed in 1941 that the 20th century is the "American Century," we have been trying to understand our role in it. In a bold reinterpretation of our country's rise to world power, Olivier Zunz shows how Americans appropriated the 20th century; America's ascent was not the result of Europe's self-destruction. By the Second World War, Zunz argues, American policymakers, corporate managers, engineers, and social scientists were managing the country from within a powerful matrix of institutions devoted to festering new knowledge. These men and women promoted a new social contract of abundance which was capable, in theory, of deradicalizing class, and their efforts helped create an American middle class defined by consumer behavior. In the name of democracy, they promoted a controversial ideology that stressed the value of respecting differences among people. The result was a culture that allowed Americans to intervene on the world scene with the justification that they were right in doing so.
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Editorial Reviews

David M. Oshinsky
[The book emphasizes] the role of mass consumption in America's spectactular economic success....His thesis is both imaginative and well grounded in the appropriate sources. What he lacks is the narrative skill to make his thesis come alive. —The New York Times Book Review
Charles Davis
Zunz seeks to demonstrate how America came to arrogate the voice of didactic moralism and push manifest destiny beyond its own borders....[He] takes as his ultimate subject not just the origin, contours, and consequences of capitalism, but, more interestingly, the American desire to propagate it abroad and, finally, the unfeasibility of succeeding in the venture. -- Boston Book Review
David Landes
Zunz is a historian with a novelist's eye; he tells us about small things as well as big, because he wants to see the universe in a grain of sand. -- New Republic
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In February 1941, Henry Luce famously proclaimed that the United States could and should dominate the remainder of the century--the nation deserved no less than to dictate the course of world history. In recent years, such an assertion would raise a storm of protest, yet Zunz's (Making America Corporate) wide-ranging research documents how complicated the case truly is. Zunz starts with Luce, who, he reminds us, was speaking for a liberal internationalism that represented myriad voices and was, at that moment, aimed at bringing the U.S. into WWII. Separating the idea of the "American century" from the "Pax Americana," Zunz argues that Americans started the century with "two large but unfinished projects": the creation of a continent-wide industrial economy and the expansion of democratic institutions within their own population. Zunz follows an impressive number of American paths towards these goals: scientists learned to harmonize science and industry; social scientists channeled their interest in analyses of culture as a whole into government policy; economists encouraged consumerism as a road to social stability; and the population in general was taught to think of itself as a pluralist entity rather than in particular sections. These were the goals that the U.S. then exported (most notably to Japan), but the "enlarged scale of their operations" abroad also furthered both projects at home. While occasionally dry, the book takes sweeping, thought-provoking account of the failures and successes of those who created the century's American model.
Library Journal
The phrase "the American Century" was coined by Henry Luce in the early 1940s to connote the growing importance of America's position of leadership in world affairs. Zunz (history, Univ. of Virginia) has written an intriguing account of "the ways big business, government, and the expanding sector of higher education built a partnership in the late 19th century and early 20th to engineer and manage a new America." This new America, he says, represented a kind of "export model" that promised technological progress, consumer fulfillment, and formal democratic participation for those who adopted entreprenuerial values and accepted American hegemony. "More than other people," argues Zunz, "[Americans] have put on the world agenda their understanding of the relationship among national wealth, individual freedom, and personal well-being." Zunz's own stance toward America's international influence is sympathetic but marked by a degree of ambivalence. His book details how informal institutional relationships developed in the first decades of the century provided a crucial underpinning to America's global role in the second half. -- Kent Worcester, Marymount Manhattan College, New York
David M. Oshinsky
[The book emphasizes] the role of mass consumption in America's spectactular economic success....His thesis is both imaginative and well grounded in the appropriate sources. What he lacks is the narrative skill to make his thesis come alive. -- The New York Times Book Review
Alan Brinkley
It should certainly be the task of historians to explain the nation's triumphs as effectively as they have explained it's failures, and Zunz in this intelligent, learned and ambitious book suggests a valuable model for doing so.
&151#; The Times Literary Supplement
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226994611
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/1998
  • Pages: 254
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface: "The New Colossus"
Pt. 1 Making the Century American
Ch. 1 Producers, Brokers, and Users of Knowledge 3
Ch. 2 Defining Tools of Social Intelligence 25
Ch. 3 Inventing the Average American 47
Pt. 2 The Social Contract of the Market
Ch. 4 Turning out Consumers 73
Ch. 5 Deradicalizing Class 93
Pt. 3 Embattled Identities
Ch. 6 From Voluntarism to Pluralism 115
Ch. 7 Enlarging the Polity 137
Pt. 4 Exporting American Principles
Ch. 8 Individualism and Modernization 159
Ch. 9 The Power of Uncertainty 183
Acknowledgments 189
Notes 193
Index 247
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