The Short American Century
July 1, 2012        

The Short American Century: A Postmortem, edited by Andrew Bacevich. Harvard University Press, 287 pp. $25.95.





A future historian comparing America in 1945 with America in the second decade of the twenty-first century might well conclude that the intervening epoch - the "American Century," in period-speak - had been a real bender. From globe-bestriding colossus, producing 50 percent of world output, fully employed, militarily unrivalled, financially prepotent, culturally vibrant, internationally admired, even beloved, to a banana republic, indebted up to the eyeballs, with an obscenely rich upper class, a corrupt and mediocre political class, an unorganized and insecure workforce, one in six adults un- or underemployed, one in six citizens uninsured, one in four children living at or near the poverty line, plummeting rates of scholastic achievement, and, among developed nations, the lowest rate of social mobility, the lowest life expectancy, the highest rates of infant mortality, obesity, and mental illness, the highest homicide rate, and the highest incarceration rate. Among non-Americans, love for the United States- as distinguished from a desperate desire to escape even worse circumstances by emigrating here - is scarce indeed

How did we blow it? The best explanation I know of is Robert Kuttner's The Squandering of America (2007), a sure-handed, many-faceted account of the political economy of our decline. Morris Berman's Dark Ages America (2006) and Why America Failed (2011) set the story in the larger, quasi-Spenglerian context of a narrative about instrumental rationality and possessive individualism. It will soon, no doubt, be a crowded genre. An early and, one may hope, influential entry is The Short American Century, a rich and various collection by eight leading historians and political scientists, assembled and introduced by the prominent analyst and critic Andrew Bacevich.

In February 1941 Henry Luce, the master huckster of mid-century America, published an instantly famous essay in his shiny new magazine, Life, entitled "The American Century." His immediate purpose was to enlist the United States in World War II. More generally, he exhorted his countrymen to stop minding their own business and assume the burdens and glories of world leadership. Because of its surpassing power and virtue, the United States was the indispensable nation, Luce proclaimed, many decades before the hapless Madeleine Albright actually coined that unfortunate phrase. As the "inheritors of all the great principles of Western civilization - above all Justice, the love of Truth, the ideal of Charity," Americans had a duty and an obligation to exert our influence "for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit." We must create a "vital international economy" and an "international moral order." There was no need to obtain the consent of the rest of the world, since "what we want will be okay with them."

In retrospect it is easy to mock this compendium of breezy fatuities (faithfully echoed, with far less excuse than one can find for Luce, in the 1997 founding manifesto of the Project for a New American Century). But the contributors to The Short American Century take Luce's essay with proper seriousness, as a template for post-World War II planning and policy. What Luce provided policymakers and pundits was a splendid lesson in how to cloak selfish and partisan goals in moralizing and universalistic rhetoric. Though hypocrisy of this sort was already a specialty of American diplomacy, Luce's background as the child of Protestant missionaries in China lent his exhortations an extra evangelical fervor.  And as impresario-in-chief of the Good Life, bringing Americans monthly bulletins from the brave new worlds of automobiles, home furnishings, movies, cosmetics, and fashion, Luce saw that American consumer culture and mass entertainment could win friends and influence people abroad.

As Emily Rosenberg's essay, "Consuming the American Century," points out, exporting consumerism was an essential part of Cold War strategy. "Export expansion meshed neatly with the new global battle against Communism." The State Department arranged global distribution for "Advertising: A New Weapon in the World Wide Fight for Freedom," helpfully produced by the Advertising Council. It was not merely a matter of competing for prestige against Soviet-style societies or of luring Third World populations with capitalism's kitchen appliances and TV shows away from the less glamorous progress in mass literacy, public health, and heavy industry promised by state-led development. It was even more important to create markets in the developed countries for the vastly expanded productive capacity with which America emerged from World War II. Without such new markets, a return to prewar economic stagnation was widely feared in government and business circles.

The strategy worked all too well. The "globalized culture of consumption" took root above all in the United States. "From being the world's principal producers, Americans became its central consumers. An open-trading world and global advertising expertise that had once provided American producers with an antidote to fears about inadequate markets now presented American consumers with access to cheap, attractively promoted goods made beyond their shores." The once-mighty American "empire of production," hungry for export markets, became an "empire of consumption," hungry for inexpensive goods produced abroad, frequently by American manufacturers using low-wage Third World labor. The result was a catastrophic growth in Americans' indebtedness, along with robust profits for American multinational corporations. As Bacevich observes, it is long past time for a national debate about "whether the hedonistic, consumer-oriented definition of freedom" that America has preached and practiced is "sustainable or even desirable."

The ambitions and illusions that motivated the American Century had deep roots in American history, and Eugene McCarraher's witty essay, "The Heavenly City of Business," sets out to excavate them. The "eschatology of corporate business," he writes, has "long been central to American identity." From the Puritans to the early-19th-century "prophets of prosperity" to the Social Darwinists and their Christian counterparts to the Progressive imperialists from Theodore Roosevelt to Walter Lippmann, Henry Luce's predecessors in every generation had urged Americans to make use of their "pecuniary and moral power to evangelize the world." Tocqueville's Democracy in America is full of astonished remarks about Americans' distinctive combination of cupidity and self-righteousness; Melville's The Confidence-Man was a Heart of Darkness of America's merciless expansion. A brief, savage reprise of the writings and doings of Thomas Friedman, Newt Gingrich, Alvin Toffler, and others brings McCarraher's "imperial trajectory of techno-eschatology" full circle. The short American Century was, it seems, at least three centuries in the making.

There are other essays in this collection with a primarily domestic focus: Nikhil Pal Singh on the "unfinished dialectic of color and democracy" that "continues to distort and undermine the development of an ethical relationship to the wider world" and Akira Iriye on "transnationalism," or the evolution of "non-state, non-national" identities, communities, and organizations in the US and other developed nations. But the main purpose of The Short American Century is to revise common - largely triumphal - understandings of the Cold War and American hegemony.

Walter LaFeber has done a great deal to challenge this received wisdom, and his "Illusions of an American Century" is a blisteringly alternative reading of postwar history. The American Century was born in anxiety rather than overweening confidence, LaFeber claims. "Fear, not Henry Luce's optimism, forged the ... Cold War consensus": fear of renewed economic collapse; fear of Communist political victories in Europe; fear of ideological pollution at home. And especially at first, disaster followed disaster: the Communist victory in China, the unpopular war in Korea, the French defeat in Indochina, and unrest in Latin America, culminating in the Cuban Revolution. The disasters continued in the sixties and seventies, though they were easier to ignore in the blaze of American prosperity. By now, however, on the other side of prosperity, they have become more difficult to ignore.

Andrew Bacevich's eloquent concluding essay takes aim squarely at American exceptionalism, 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. ... Seeking neither dominion nor empire, the United States uses its power to advance the cause of all humanity. ... Its purposes are by definition beyond reproach." That this belief is alive and well is obvious from the storm of partisan criticism that greeted President Obama's avowal that of course he was an American exceptionalist, just as "Brits are British exceptionalists, and Greeks are Greek exceptionalists" - a deplorable lack of patriotism, his critics charged. More subtle (or equally crude) expressions of the true faith may be found every day, on every op/ed page and talk show.

What this assumption of America's exceptional nobility ignores, Bacevich points out, are the many ignoble exceptions: the savage suppression of popular uprisings in the Philippines, Haiti, and elsewhere; the blatant hypocrisy of enforcing an Open Door policy in one hemisphere and a Monroe Doctrine in the other; the unleashing of the CIA on Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, and any number of other unfortunate countries; the long history of "assassination plots, dirty tricks gone awry [or worse, successful], cozy relations with corrupt dictators"; and more recently, torture, rendition, and domestic surveillance. America has neither the ability nor the right to stamp its image on any century's history. Instead Bacevich issues a ringing call to humility, based on a chastening catalogue of our current incapacities and a sage reminder of the inescapable limits of any nation's wisdom and power.

With all its considerable merits, The Short American Century also displays a mildly troubling defect. I mean euphemism. Several of the essays employ language that betrays a residual belief in good intentions somewhere behind American foreign policy, an unwillingness to judge American actions and motives as harshly as those of other nation-states, a reluctance to reckon with the fact that America is - like every other nation in modern history - a class society.

The worst offender is David Kennedy, whose "The Origins and Uses of American Hyperpower" in truth sits a little uneasily in this collection. Kennedy believes that until the second Bush administration spoiled everything, the American Century was "on the whole, a laudably successful affair," which "made the world safer, healthier, and happier." After World War II,


a notable cohort of American leaders now at last gave its answer to a pointed question that Woodrow Wilson had posed some three decades earlier. "What are we going to do with the influence and power of this great nation? ... Are we going to play the old role of using that power to our aggrandizement and material benefit only?" In the wake of World War II, American leaders set out to use US power in ways that finally set in motion the transformation Wilson had sought in vain.  ...On the occasion of the first gathering of the UN ... President Harry Truman used words that could have been Wilson's - or Thomas Jefferson's or Tom Paine's: "The responsibility of great states is to serve, and not dominate the peoples of the world." And while it is undeniable that the United States continued to pursue what Wilson hade scorned as its own "aggrandizement and material benefit" (considerations never absent from American foreign policy, nor should they be), what is most remarkable is the way that Washington exerted itself to build what [one] Norwegian scholar has called an "empire by invitation."



Though Henry Luce would probably nod in approval, this is a seriously flawed picture. Much post-World War II policy planning documentation is available from the State Department, the Council on Foreign Relations, and other elite groups. It is perfectly clear that the overriding goal of American policy was to integrate the postwar world economy under US leadership, severely restricting, if necessary, the ability of foreign governments to control US business activities within their borders or to set economic objectives incompatible with US priorities. The US needed export markets in Europe, and the US, Europe, and Japan needed raw materials from the less developed world. And we needed docile, business-friendly governments everywhere. These, overwhelmingly, were the preoccupations of postwar American planners, not "to serve ... the peoples of the world."

Kennedy rebukes the Bush administration for trying to spread democracy forcibly, reminding us magisterially that Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman "asked only that the world be made safe for democracy." That is nonsense. A democratic façade was always welcome, but what US policymakers asked - demanded - was that the world be made safe for foreign direct investment.

Jeffry Frieden's "From the American Century to Globalization," a brisk survey of the international economy from Bretton Woods until today, is similarly plagued by euphemism. For example, explaining the success of postwar economic integration, he writes: "World War II and the Cold War had effectively lopped off the political extremes: the Far Right discredited by its fascist connections, the Far Left tainted by its association with the Soviet Union. As a consequence, neither the extreme right-wing nationalism of interwar business and agricultural groups nor the extreme left-wing redistributionism of interwar labor could get a hearing." I suppose that's one way of describing the situation in postwar Europe. A less reflexively conventional formulation might have emphasized that the left (including the Communists, who were frequently prominent in the anti-fascist resistance) was quite popular in France, Italy, Japan, and Korea. There was a very real prospect in these countries of left-wing governments with trade-union and Communist participation or even leadership. The US mobilized all its resources - including the newly-created CIA - to thwart this possibility and barely managed, with bribes - both legal (the Marshall Plan) and illegal (CIA payments to politicians and journalists) - threats, and repression, to beat it back and install pro-business governments (often including fascist collaborators) in power. There was no "discrediting," and the only "consensus" was among US policymakers and their foreign clients.

Likewise, Frieden characterizes Reaganism/Thatcherism with fine academic blandness: "The Bretton Woods order gave way to a more unqualified belief in the desirability of removing barriers to international economic exchange and to a generalized skepticism about heavy-handed government intervention in national economies." What the Bretton Woods order actually gave way to was unbridled rapacity on the part of the international investor class, riding roughshod, with the help of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and multilateral free trade agreements, over the policymaking autonomy of developing nations with respect to labor markets, resource ownership, capital flows, taxes, social welfare, and the environment, and at home launching an ideologically-driven assault on labor unions, regulation, and progressive taxation. Surely Frieden knows all this; couldn't he hint at even a fraction of it?

Even the sterling essay by Jackson Lears, perhaps the best in the collection, is at fault in this regard. Lears's "Pragmatic Realism and the American Century" expertly traces an undervalued tradition of American thought: the tough-minded, pragmatic anti-interventionism of William James, Randolph Bourne, and, in their later phases, Walter Lippmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, George Kennan, and William Fulbright. In opposition to the first phase of American imperialism - McKinley's, Theodore Roosevelt's, and Wilson's - which chronically conflated manliness and militarism, James and Bourne rejected the "mindless cult of national vitality" and wisely countered that "heroism might come in many forms - some of them having nothing to do with military adventure." While others - TR, the young Lippmann, Dewey, and the New Republic - were losing their heads, James and Bourne, and their successors in similar circumstances, stubbornly insisted that "war is the least predictable of human enterprises and the least subject to management and control." Pragmatic realists "counseled war only as a last resort - the least desirable alternative in the policymaker's arsenal." Lears's skillful rehabilitation of pragmatic realism, and of the misunderstood isolationist tradition of Charles Beard and Robert Taft, is just what is needed to help drive a stake through the heart of contemporary neoconservative (and liberal) interventionism.

Still, I wish Lears were a little less prone to see in American foreign policy a history of "intrusive moralism" or "virtue unleashed" or "messianic dreams" or (quoting William Fulbright) "the crusades of high-minded men bent on the regeneration of the human race." Likewise, I wish he had not written that the United States was "mistakenly fighting indigenous nationalism" in Vietnam. America's shameful history of military intervention in the Third World has not been based on hubris or moralism, nor was there any mistake about what we were fighting in Vietnam or elsewhere. Business-friendly states in societies thoroughly integrated into a US-dominated global economic system - this has been the consistent goal of US foreign policy. It has regularly entailed subverting democracy, popular sovereignty, and indigenous nationalism. US policymakers - certainly including Kennan, who was a wise and decent man only when compared with monsters like Kissinger - knew exactly what they were doing. Whatever they may have said (usually for public consumption) about their depredations, they were not high-minded men bent on the regeneration of the human race.

Bacevich himself, in his very fine concluding essay, pulls a punch. About the last decade's interventions in the Middle East he writes: "The prospects of the United States 'ending tyranny' anytime soon, as George Bush promised, appear less than promising. ... Whatever democracy's prospects in the Islamic world, they depend not on what Washington prescribes and attempts to enforce but on what Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, and Pakistanis demand and struggle for." Does Bacevich actually believe that the Bush/Cheney administration sincerely desired to end tyranny or enforce democracy in the Middle East, rather than merely to impose dependable clients, if possible with a democratic façade, though without genuinely empowering Middle Eastern populations, with their unpredictable priorities? I hope not.

Declining empires are dangerous. Popular enlightenment is urgent, and this book, whatever its flaws, will help. That the United States is a rogue state, recklessly militaristic, grossly hypocritical and self-serving in its professions of devotion to democracy and human rights, and the chief promoter and beneficiary of investor-friendly and worker-unfriendly forms of economic development - this is the lesson of the American Century. It is well understood in the rest of the world, even among America's allies. Only in the United States is it unmentionable, indeed unthinkable, at least in the academic mainstream and the major media. This, alas, is the true American exceptionalism. Because The Short American Century takes exception, even if less forcefully than one might wish, to this exceptionalism, 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.