Farewell, the American Century

Rewriting the Past by Adding In What's Been Left Out

In a recent column, the Washington Post's Richard Cohen
wrote, "What Henry Luce called 'the American Century' is over." Cohen
is right. All that remains is to drive a stake through the heart of
Luce's pernicious creation, lest it come back to life. This promises to
take some doing.

When the Time-Life publisher coined his famous phrase, his
intent was to prod his fellow citizens into action. Appearing in the
February 7, 1941 issue of Life, his essay, "The American
Century," hit the newsstands at a moment when the world was in the
throes of a vast crisis. A war in Europe had gone disastrously awry. A
second almost equally dangerous conflict was unfolding in the Far East.
Aggressors were on the march.

With the fate of democracy hanging in the balance, Americans diddled.
Luce urged them to get off the dime. More than that, he summoned them
to "accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity 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."

Read today, Luce's essay, with its strange mix of chauvinism,
religiosity, and bombast ("We must now undertake to be the Good
Samaritan to the entire world..."), does not stand up well. Yet the
phrase "American Century" stuck and has enjoyed a remarkable run. It
stands in relation to the contemporary era much as "Victorian Age" does
to the nineteenth century. In one pithy phrase, it captures (or at
least seems to capture) the essence of some defining truth: America as
alpha and omega, source of salvation and sustenance, vanguard of
history, guiding spirit and inspiration for all humankind.

In its classic formulation, the central theme of the American Century
has been one of righteousness overcoming evil. The United States (above
all the U.S. military) made that triumph possible. When, having been
given a final nudge on December 7, 1941, Americans finally accepted
their duty to lead, they saved the world from successive diabolical
totalitarianisms. In doing so, the U.S. not only preserved the
possibility of human freedom but modeled what freedom ought to look

Thank You, Comrades

So goes the preferred narrative of the American Century, as recounted by its celebrants.

The problems with this account are two-fold. First, it claims for the
United States excessive credit. Second, it excludes, ignores, or
trivializes matters at odds with the triumphal story-line.

net effect is to perpetuate an array of illusions that, whatever their
value in prior decades, have long since outlived their usefulness. In
short, the persistence of this self-congratulatory account deprives
Americans of self-awareness, hindering our efforts to navigate the
treacherous waters in which the country finds itself at present.
Bluntly, we are perpetuating a mythic version of the past that never
even approximated reality and today has become downright malignant.
Although Richard Cohen may be right in declaring the American Century
over, the American people -- and especially the American political
class -- still remain in its thrall.

Constructing a past usable to the present requires a willingness to include much that the American Century leaves out.

For example, to the extent that the demolition of totalitarianism
deserves to be seen as a prominent theme of contemporary history (and
it does), the primary credit for that achievement surely belongs to the
Soviet Union. When it came to defeating the Third Reich, the Soviets
bore by far the preponderant burden, sustaining 65% of all Allied
deaths in World War II.

By comparison, the United States suffered 2% of those losses, for which
any American whose father or grandfather served in and survived that
war should be saying: Thank you, Comrade Stalin.

For the United States to claim credit for destroying the Wehrmacht is
the equivalent of Toyota claiming credit for inventing the automobile.
We entered the game late and then shrewdly scooped up more than our
fair share of the winnings. The true "Greatest Generation" is the one
that willingly expended millions of their fellow Russians while killing
millions of German soldiers.

Hard on the heels of World War II came the Cold War, during which
erstwhile allies became rivals. Once again, after a decades-long
struggle, the United States came out on top.

Yet in determining that outcome, the brilliance of American statesmen
was far less important than the ineptitude of those who presided over
the Kremlin. Ham-handed Soviet leaders so mismanaged their empire that
it eventually imploded, permanently discrediting Marxism-Leninism as a
plausible alternative to liberal democratic capitalism. The Soviet
dragon managed to slay itself. So thank you, Comrades Malenkov,
Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev.

Screwing the Pooch

What flag-wavers tend to leave out of their account of the American
Century is not only the contributions of others, but the various
missteps perpetrated by the United States -- missteps, it should be
noted, that spawned many of the problems bedeviling us today.

The instances of folly and criminality bearing the label
"made-in-Washington" may not rank up there with the Armenian genocide,
the Bolshevik Revolution, the appeasement of Adolf Hitler, or the
Holocaust, but they sure don't qualify as small change. To give them
their due is necessarily to render the standard account of the American
Century untenable.

Here are several examples, each one familiar, even if its implications for the problems we face today are studiously ignored:

Cuba. In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain for the
proclaimed purpose of liberating the so-called Pearl of the Antilles.
When that brief war ended, Washington reneged on its promise. If there
actually has been an American Century, it begins here, with the U.S.
government breaking a solemn commitment, while baldly insisting
otherwise. By converting Cuba into a protectorate, the United States
set in motion a long train of events leading eventually to the rise of
Fidel Castro, the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose, the Cuban Missile
Crisis, and even today's Guantanamo Bay prison camp. The line
connecting these various developments may not be a straight one, given
the many twists and turns along the way, but the dots do connect.

The Bomb. Nuclear weapons imperil our existence. Used on a large
scale, they could destroy civilization itself. Even now, the prospect
of a lesser power like North Korea or Iran acquiring nukes sends
jitters around the world. American presidents -- Barack Obama is only
the latest in a long line -- declare the abolition of these weapons to
be an imperative. What they are less inclined to acknowledge is the
role the United States played in afflicting humankind with this

The United States invented the bomb. The United States -- alone among
members of the nuclear club -- actually employed it as a weapon of war.
The U.S. led the way in defining nuclear-strike capacity as the
benchmark of power in the postwar world, leaving other powers like the
Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China scrambling to catch up.
Today, the U.S. still maintains an enormous nuclear arsenal at the
ready and adamantly refuses to commit itself to a no-first-use policy,
even as it professes its horror at the prospect of some other nation
doing as the United States itself has done.

Iran. Extending his hand to Tehran, President Obama has invited
those who govern the Islamic republic to "unclench their fists." Yet to
a considerable degree, those clenched fists are of our own making. For
most Americans, the discovery of Iran dates from the time of the
notorious hostage crisis of 1979-1981 when Iranian students occupied
the U.S. embassy in Tehran, detained several dozen U.S. diplomats and
military officers, and subjected the administration of Jimmy Carter to
a 444-day-long lesson in abject humiliation.

For most Iranians, the story of U.S.-Iranian relations begins somewhat
earlier. It starts in 1953, when CIA agents collaborated with their
British counterparts to overthrow the democratically-elected government
of Mohammed Mossadegh and return the Shah of Iran to his throne. The
plot succeeded. The Shah regained power. The Americans got oil, along
with a lucrative market for exporting arms. The people of Iran pretty
much got screwed. Freedom and democracy did not prosper. The antagonism
that expressed itself in November 1979 with the takeover of the U.S.
embassy in Tehran was not entirely without cause.

Afghanistan. President Obama has wasted little time in making
the Afghanistan War his own. Like his predecessor he vows to defeat the
Taliban. Also like his predecessor he has yet to confront the role
played by the United States in creating the Taliban in the first place.
Washington once took pride in the success it enjoyed funneling arms and
assistance to fundamentalist Afghans waging jihad against
foreign occupiers. During the administrations of Jimmy Carter and
Ronald Reagan, this was considered to represent the very acme of clever
statecraft. U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen caused the
Soviets fits. Yet it also fed a cancer that, in time, exacted a most
grievous toll on Americans themselves -- and has U.S. forces today
bogged down in a seemingly endless war.

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