“The American Century Is Over.” So claims the July 2022 cover of Harper’s Magazine, adding an all-too-pertinent question: “What’s Next?”
What, indeed? Eighty years after the United States embarked upon the Great Crusade of World War II, a generation after it laid claim to the status of sole superpower following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and two decades after the Global War on Terror was to remove any lingering doubts about who calls the shots on Planet Earth, the question could hardly be more timely.
“Empire Burlesque,” Daniel Bessner’s Harper’s cover story, provides a useful, if preliminary, answer to a question most members of our political class, preoccupied with other matters, would prefer to ignore. Yet the title of the essay contains a touch of genius, capturing as it does in a single concise phrase the essence of the American Century in its waning days.
On the one hand, given Washington’s freewheeling penchant for using force to impose its claimed prerogatives abroad, the imperial nature of the American project has become self-evident. When the United States invades and occupies distant lands or subjects them to punishment, concepts like freedom, democracy, and human rights rarely figure as more than afterthoughts. Submission, not liberation defines the underlying, if rarely acknowledged, motivation behind Washington’s military actions, actual or threatened, direct or through proxies.
On the other hand, the reckless squandering of American power in recent decades suggests that those who preside over the American imperium are either stunningly incompetent or simply mad as hatters. Intent on perpetuating some form of global hegemony, they have accelerated trends toward national decline, while seemingly oblivious to the actual results of their handiwork.
Consider the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. It has rightly prompted a thorough congressional investigation aimed at establishing accountability. All of us should be grateful for the conscientious efforts of the House Select Committee to expose the criminality of the Trump presidency. Meanwhile, however, the trillions of dollars wasted and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost during our post-9/11 wars have been essentially written off as the cost of doing business. Here we glimpse the essence of twenty-first-century bipartisanship, both parties colluding to ignore disasters for which they share joint responsibility, while effectively consigning the vast majority of ordinary citizens to the status of passive accomplices.
Bessner, who teaches at the University of Washington, is appropriately tough on the (mis)managers of the contemporary American empire. And he does a good job of tracing the ideological underpinnings of that empire back to their point of origin. On that score, the key date is not 1776, but 1941. That was the year when the case for American global primacy swept into the marketplace of ideas, making a mark that persists to the present day.
God on Our Side
The marketing began with the February 17, 1941, issue of Life magazine, which contained a simply and elegantly titled essay by Henry Luce, its founder and publisher. With the American public then sharply divided over the question of whether to intervene on behalf of Great Britain in its war against Nazi Germany—this was 10 months before Pearl Harbor—Luce weighed in with a definitive answer: He was all in for war. Through war, he believed, the United States would not only overcome evil but inaugurate a golden age of American global dominion.
Life was then, in the heyday of the print media, the most influential mass-circulation publication in the United States. As the impresario who presided over the rapidly expanding Time-Life publishing empire, Luce himself was perhaps the most influential press baron of his age. Less colorful than his flamboyant contemporary William Randolph Hearst, he was politically more astute. And yet nothing Luce would say or do over the course of a long career promoting causes (mostly conservative) and candidates (mostly Republican) would come close to matching the legacy left by that one perfectly timed editorial in Life’s pages.
When it hit the newsstands, “The American Century” did nothing to resolve public ambivalence about how to deal with Adolf Hitler. Events did that, above all Japan’s December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet once the United States did enter the war, the evocative title of Luce’s essay formed the basis for expectations destined to transcend World War II and become a fixture in American political discourse.
During the war years, government propaganda offered copious instruction on “Why We Fight.” So, too, did a torrent of posters, books, radio programs, hit songs, and Hollywood movies, not to speak of publications produced by Luce’s fellow press moguls. Yet when it came to crispness, durability, and poignancy, none held a candle to “The American Century.” Before the age was fully launched, Luce had named it.
Even today, in attenuated form, expectations Luce articulated in 1941 persist. Peel back the cliched phrases that senior officials in the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon routinely utter in the Biden years—“American global leadership” and “the rules-based international order” are favorites —and you encounter their unspoken purpose: to perpetuate unchallengeable American global primacy until the end of time.
To put it another way, whatever the ”rules” of global life, the United States will devise them. And if ensuring compliance with those rules should entail a resort to violence, justifications articulated in Washington will suffice to legitimize the use of force.
In other words, Luce’s essay marks the point of departure for what was, in remarkably short order, to become an era when American primacy would be a birthright. It stands in relation to the American empire as the Declaration of Independence once did to the American republic. It remains the urtext, even if some of its breathtakingly bombastic passages are now difficult to read with a straight face.
Using that 1941 issue of Life as his bully pulpit, Luce summoned his fellow citizens to “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world” to assert “the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.” (Emphasis added.) For the United States duty, opportunity, and destiny aligned. That American purposes and the means employed to fulfill them were benign, indeed enlightened, was simply self-evident. How could they be otherwise?
Crucially—and this point Bessner overlooks—the duty and opportunity to which Luce alluded expressed God’s will. Born in China where his parents were serving as Protestant missionaries and himself a convert to Roman Catholicism, Luce saw America’s imperial calling as a Judeo-Christian religious obligation. God, he wrote, had summoned the United States to become “the Good Samaritan to the entire world.” Here was the nation’s true vocation: to fulfill the “mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.”
In the present day, such towering ambition, drenched in religious imagery, invites mockery. Yet it actually offers a reasonably accurate (if overripe) depiction of how American elites have conceived of the nation’s purpose in the decades since.
Today, the explicitly religious frame has largely faded from view. Even so, the insistence on American singularity persists. Indeed, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary—did someone mention China?—it may be stronger than ever.
In no way should my reference to a moral consensus imply moral superiority. Indeed, the list of sins to which Americans were susceptible, even at the outset of the American Century, was long. With the passage of time, it has only evolved, even as our awareness of our nation’s historical flaws, particularly in the realm of race, gender, and ethnicity, has grown more acute. Still, the religiosity inherent in Luce’s initial call to arms resonated then and survives today, even if in subdued form.
While anything but an original thinker, Luce possessed a notable gift for packaging and promotion. Life’s unspoken purpose was to sell a way of life based on values that he believed his fellow citizens should embrace, even if his own personal adherence to those values was, at best, spotty.
The American Century was the ultimate expression of that ambitious undertaking. So even as growing numbers of citizens in subsequent decades concluded that God might be otherwise occupied, something of a killjoy, or simply dead, the conviction that US global primacy grew out of a divinely inspired covenant took deep root. Our presence at the top of the heap testified to some cosmic purpose. It was meant to be. In that regard, imbuing the American Century with a sacred veneer was a stroke of pure genius.
In God We Trust?
By the time Life ended its run as a weekly magazine in 1972, the American Century, as a phrase and as an expectation, had etched itself into the nation’s collective consciousness. Yet today, Luce’s America—the America that once cast itself as the protagonist in a Christian parable—has ceased to exist. And it’s not likely to return anytime soon.
At the outset of that American Century, Luce could confidently expound on the nation’s role in furthering God’s purposes, taking for granted a generic religious sensibility to which the vast majority of Americans subscribed. Back then, especially during the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, most of those not personally endorsing that consensus at least found it expedient to play along. After all, except among hipsters, beatniks, dropouts, and other renegades, doing so was a precondition for getting by or getting ahead.
As Eisenhower famously declared shortly after being elected president, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Today, however, Ike’s ecumenical 11th Commandment no longer garners anything like universal assent, whether authentic or feigned. As defining elements of the American way of life, consumption, lifestyle, and expectations of unhindered mobility persist, much as they did when he occupied the White House. But a deeply felt religious faith melded with a similarly deep faith in an open-ended American Century has become, at best, optional. Those nursing the hope that the American Century may yet make a comeback are more likely to put their trust in AI than in God.
Occurring in tandem with this country’s global decline has been a fracturing of the contemporary moral landscape. For evidence, look no further than the furies unleashed by recent Supreme Court decisions related to guns and abortion. Or contemplate Donald Trump’s place in the American political landscape—twice impeached, yet adored by tens of millions, even while held in utter contempt by tens of millions more. That Trump or another similarly divisive figure could succeed Joe Biden in the White House looms as a real, if baffling, possibility.
More broadly still, take stock of the prevailing American conception of personal freedom, big on privileges, disdainful of obligations, awash with self-indulgence, and tinged with nihilism. If you think our collective culture is healthy, you haven’t been paying attention.
For “a nation with the soul of a church,” to cite British writer G.K. Chesterton’s famed description of the United States, Luce’s proposal of a marriage between a generic Judeo-Christianity and national purpose seemed eminently plausible. But plausible is not inevitable, nor irreversible. A union rocked by recurring quarrels and trial separations has today ended in divorce. The full implications of that divorce for American policy abroad remain to be seen, but at a minimum suggest that anyone proposing to unveil a “New American Century” is living in a dreamworld.
Bessner concludes his essay by suggesting that the American Century should give way to a “Global Century…in which US power is not only restrained but reduced, and in which every nation is dedicated to solving the problems that threaten us all.” Such a proposal strikes me as broadly appealing, assuming that the world’s other 190-plus nations, especially the richer, more powerful ones, sign on. That, of course, is a very large assumption, indeed. Negotiating the terms that will define such a Global Century, including reapportioning wealth and privileges between haves and have-nots, promises to be a daunting proposition.
Meanwhile, what fate awaits the American Century itself? Some in the upper reaches of the establishment will, of course, exert themselves to avert its passing by advocating more bouts of military muscle-flexing, as if a repetition of Afghanistan and Iraq or deepening involvement in Ukraine will impart to our threadbare empire a new lease on life. That Americans in significant numbers will more willingly die for Kyiv than they did for Kabul seems improbable.
Better in my estimation to give up entirely the pretensions Henry Luce articulated back in 1941. Rather than attempting to resurrect the American Century, perhaps it’s time to focus on the more modest goal of salvaging a unified American republic. One glance at the contemporary political landscape suggests that such a goal alone is a tall order. On that score, however, reconstituting a common moral framework would surely be the place to begin.