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A look back at 'The American Century'

A look back at 'The American Century'
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“We Americans are unhappy. We are not happy with America. We are not happy about ourselves in relation to America.”

Could those be the words of an observer summing up today’s national mood? They might, but in reality, they were the opening passage of an editorial in “Life” magazine, published 80 years ago on February 17, 1941 and reprinted and circulated around the world.

Written by Time-Life founder and publisher Henry Luce, the 4,500-word column was entitled “The American Century.” Compelling in its own right, the phrase has resonated through the decades by virtue of Luce’s rallying cry near the end of his essay: “The 20th Century is the American Century. 

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His text was animated by a belief: As war raged overseas, America must prepare itself, “spiritually and practically” for the opportunity of global leadership. Accepting that role would restore the nation’s path to greatness sidetracked by the Great Depression, a rehabilitation heretofore stymied by the “narrow, materialistic and nationalistic basis” of the New Deal. 

Luce’s words were framed by the national debate over intervention in World War II. In a December 1940 fireside chat, President Franklin Roosevelt had proclaimed that national re-armament and the provision of arms to Britain and its empire were vital to the defeat of the Axis powers. 

But the subtext of FDR’s words leaned isolationist. He argued that keeping Britain in the war was essential to keeping the U.S. out, and that Americans could “nail any talk about sending armies to Europe as deliberate untruth.”

Luce believed Roosevelt was not leveling with the American people. “The American Century” countered that “In this whole matter of war and peace … we have been false to ourselves, false to each other, false to the facts of history, and false to the future.” 

Luce was an East Coast, internationalist Republican. He despised Roosevelt, the New Deal and its “all manner of socialist doctrines and collectivist trends.” But he was no reactionary, conceding that in FDR’s first two terms “great social reforms were necessary in order to bring democracy up to date in the greatest of democracies.”

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His favored candidate, GOP internationalist Wendell Willkie, had just been defeated in November 1940. But Luce now believed that all Americans must “ensure that Franklin Roosevelt shall be justly hailed as America’s greatest President” by helping him “make isolationism as dead an issue as slavery.”

Sounding like a therapist, Luce urged America to cease denying its destiny and “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world.” He did not advocate immediate military intervention. He was looking beyond the inevitable U.S. entry in the war, commanding the nation “to bring forth a vision of America as world power which is authentically American.”  

His vision leveraged four elements. The first three were “free economic enterprise,” “technical and artistic skills” and serving as the “Good Samaritan” to impoverished nations. But none of this would succeed unless accompanied by “a passionate devotion to great American ideals.”

Those ideals – freedom, equality of opportunity, self-reliance and cooperation – “must be spread throughout the world and do their 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.” A child of China missionaries, Luce was echoing two decades later the themes of another minister’s son and failed internationalist, Woodrow Wilson.

The controversial corollary included in the column was an obligation to “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit.” Critics as varied as Republican Robert Taft on the right and Socialist Norman Thomas on the left would object to this imperialist tone. Luce denied that charge, responding that the United States must assume a responsibility in world affairs corresponding to its strength.

Today, many would judge Luce’s language hopelessly ethnocentric and self-satisfied, or even a primer in white supremacy. And ideas like his did provide cover for a multitude of subsequent Cold War policy excesses. But in the context of 1941, the commitments he was asking America to make carried considerable risk, and would demand a bona fide element of national altruism. His program was not about narrow self-interest. 

“The American Century” radiates a self confidence in America scarcely to be found in media commentary today. That alone makes it worth remembering. Equally impressive is Luce’s suggestion that accepting the added responsibilities of global involvement, in a world dramatically less integrated than today’s, would be a source of social and political renewal for American civic life.  

Notwithstanding that a media company CEO might today be a Democrat, what 2021 cure might Luce offer his fellow citizens who are “unhappy with America”? 

Luce would avoid blaming politicians alone. He’d suggest that we examine “where we have been false to ourselves” and confront “our own moral and intellectual confusion.” As he did in 1941, he might cite “our educators and churchmen and scientists,” along with journalists, as culpable parties in a national failure to confront the issues that matter.

And how would this passionate advocate of Chiang Kai-Shek and Nationalist China respond to those who believe the American Century ended in 1989 and that the 21st will belong to the People’s Republic of China?

America had, in Luce’s view, “that undefinable, unmistakable sign of leadership: prestige.” That prestige came from “faith in the good intentions as well as the ultimate intelligence and ultimate strength of the whole American people.” In a passage that rings true today, he noted that “We have lost some of that prestige in the last few years. But most of it is still there.”

In the decades ahead, he might ask, will China be capable of accruing to itself a mantle of prestige founded on faith in its good intentions? And can it do so while remaining stubbornly aloof from the values of freedom, equality and individualism that, however imperfectly, gave legitimacy to the American Century? 

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at The Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.