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Farewell, the American Century | The Nation

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Farewell, the American Century

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This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

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Andrew J. Bacevich
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, is the editor of the...

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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 US 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 US not only preserved the possibility of human freedom but modeled what freedom ought to look like.

Thank You, Comrades

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

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

The 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 percent of all Allied deaths in World War II.

By comparison, the United States suffered 2 percent 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.

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