Not long ago, an influential American declared:
We Americans are unhappy. We are not happy about America. We are not happy about ourselves in relation to America. We are nervous—or gloomy—or apathetic. As we look out at the rest of the world we are confused; we don’t know what to do.
That influential American was not one of many recent presidential candidates; nor was he President Jimmy Carter, and it was not a line from his famous malaise speech. Nor is he one of the vast number of contemporary pundits who are now commenting on the recent riot in the Capitol. That influential American was Henry Luce, founder of the Time–Life Empire. These were the opening words of an essay, published in Life Magazine—not Time—now famous for its title, “The American Century.”
The date was February 17, 1941. He contrasted the confusion of Americans to the clarity of the British in the midst of war across the sea. He noted the English complaint that America had failed to rise to the challenge of world leadership. He argued that Americans were unhappy and confused not just because they could not decide whether to take part in the war. They were unhappy and confused because they were not being honest with themselves. They were already in the war.
The purpose of this article is to state that issue, and its solution, as candidly and as completely as possible. But first of all let us be completely candid about where we are and how we got there… All this talk about whether this or that might or might not get us into the war is wasted effort. We are, for a fact, in the war.
In no uncertain terms, Luce gave Americans a prescription:
Accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence 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.
In other words: Wake up and lead; fight to win and make the twentieth century the American Century. Lead, not because Americans were perfect or deserved to be leaders, but because they were leaders.
The winter of 1941 was one of the most eventful in American history, yielding some of the nation’s most important documents and decisions. Just one week earlier, on February 10, another influential American had published the first issue of Christianity and Crisis, an interventionist journal, to join battle with the isolationist Christian Century and isolationist public opinion in general. The founding editor and lead writer was Reinhold Niebuhr, professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, who was already well known to Henry Luce and the nation for his many books, especially Moral Man and Immoral Society, and his many articles in a variety of journals and magazines.
He had a deeper explanation for how Americans had become so unhappy and confused:
The modern man is involved in social chaos and political anarchy. The Marxist escape from this chaos has developed in Russia into a political tyranny of unparalleled proportions. Contemporary history is filled with man’s hysterias and furies; with evidences of his demonic capacity and inclination to break the harmonies of nature and defy the prudent canons of rational restraint. Yet no cumulation of contradictory evidence seems to disturb modern man’s good opinion of himself. He considers himself the victim of corrupting institutions which he is about to destroy or reconstruct, or the confusions of ignorance which an adequate education is about to overcome. Yet he continues to regard himself as essentially harmless and virtuous. The question therefore arises how modern man arrived at, and by what means he maintains, an estimate of his virtue in such pathetic contradiction with the obvious facts of his history.The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 1, p.94
Americans were so confused in 1941, Niebuhr argued, not just because they were in denial, but because they were so pathetically naive. Whether moderately or radically progressive, moderately or radically conservative, they expected to be able to fix things. They could not understand how their enemies could be so stupid and so awful, given that stupidity and awfulness should have been so easily cured. This was a terrible case of naivety, the opposite of realism.
Both essays, by the progressive conservative Luce and the conservative progressive Niebuhr, urged the United States to undertake a very difficult cure, namely an active role in the war against the totalitarian powers of the day, especially Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
A month earlier, on January 6, 1941, an even more influential American, President Franklin Roosevelt, in his annual address to Congress—not yet called the State of the Union Address—had announced four freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear) that would be the primary goals for his administration not just domestically but internationally. The Four Freedoms became fundamental building blocks for the Atlantic Charter that he and Winston Churchill signed on board a ship off the coast of Canada the following August. In March he gave an even more forthrightly interventionist speech following the passage of the Lend-Lease Act as he performed a difficult dance to prepare the nation for war without actually provoking or declaring it.
Luce coined the term, and Niebuhr provided the theology for the American Century. But it was Roosevelt (along with Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and millions of soldiers) who destroyed the armed forces of Hitler, who had rather different ideas about whose century it was. Two Canadian historians wrote about Roosevelt’s extraordinary accomplishment in the conclusion to their book about Churchill and Roosevelt’s meeting in Washington over the Christmas holidays of 1941:
He launched the American Century. He cast overboard the American “garrison-state” mentality and replaced it with American globalism. He defined the term “national security” to include the Atlantic and the Pacific.One Christmas in Washington, by Bercuson, David J. and Herwig, Holder H.The Overlook Press. New York: 2005.
The idea of the American Century bound the internationalist Hamiltonian Republican Luce, the internationalist Wilsonian Democratic Roosevelt, and the Augustinian theologian Niebuhr together with the vast majority of American foreign policy experts for the rest of World War II, the Cold War, and on into the next century.
Whither the American Century now? Is there anything left of it, or of the initial impulse to proclaim and support it? There is certainly plenty of support left in the foreign policy community and among Americans whose way of living depends on free trade, but there is rising support for an American garrison state as well as plenty of competition from abroad for world leadership.
Yet I argue that it is the American Century still.
China may be powerful economically and militarily but has no allies. Russia is powerful militarily, but not economically and likewise has no allies. Thanks to natural resources it has some leverage with the European Union. Otherwise, it has little to offer. China and Russia are more partners in crime than allies. To the extent that they are allied at all, their tactics and what they fear—democracy—unite them more than shared values or goals, other than self-preservation. A few client states are their only allies.
They are surrounded by peoples who fear them more than admire them, and these groups are more aligned with the United States and Europe. Together with Europe and South America, the United States still has what the world wants, namely prosperity, democracy, and allies bound together by shared values and goals. Thus, the rest of the world still looks to the United States for leadership.
If the United States does not now resume world leadership after a four-year hiatus, it will be because—as in 1941—of our own internal divisions and confusion. As is often the case in politics, it is our friends, our own people, who can harm the American Century more than our enemies. The greatest threat to America’s leadership, health, and prosperity is the seething rage and resentment of so many Americans, conservatives and progressives alike. Only the American people, by withdrawing their support, can put an end to American leadership.
In order to be world leaders, we need to be honest with ourselves—especially on how divided we are.
Neither party of our bitterly divided country is poised to win any kind of convincing national election—winning the presidency with 52 percent of the popular vote, say, and both chambers of Congress with a comfortable majority. This has not happened since 1964, and it is not likely to happen anytime in the foreseeable future.
Now as in 1941, there are isolationists on both the right and left. Isolationism of the right has been around since 1941 and earlier: the Lodge-Taft-Lindberg isolationists mostly faded away after World War II, made a brief comeback with the far angrier Pat Buchanan, and morphed into supporters of Trump. It was Luce and his powerful friends who championed Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, and others to thwart this isolationist Republican tradition time and again. Just where the Republican Party’s foreign policy is going now after being thrown in the air by the Trump whirlwind is not at all clear. But based on his famous essay, it is unmistakably clear where Henry Luce would stand:
America cannot be responsible for the good behavior of the entire world. But America is responsible, to herself as well as to history, for the world environment in which she lives. Nothing can so vitally affect America’s environment as America’s own influence upon it, and therefore if America’s environment is unfavorable to the growth of American life, then America has nobody to blame so deeply as she must blame herself. In its failure to grasp this relationship between America and America’s environment lies the moral and practical bankruptcy of any and all forms of isolationism. It is most unfortunate that this virus of isolationist sterility has so deeply infected an influential section of the Republican Party. For until the Republican Party can develop a vital philosophy and program for America’s initiative and activity as a world power, it will continue to cut itself off from any useful participation in this hour of history. And its participation is deeply needed for the shaping of the future of America and of the world.
How history repeats.
As for the Democrats, the internationalist economic policies of the Clinton and Obama administrations have made many in their own party uncomfortable. Remember that two populists ran for president in 2016 and were skeptical about free trade: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Both parties desperately need an economic policy that balances free trade and automation with protections for American working people and does something about the alarming and growing gap between the super-rich and everyone else. This economic challenge will be harder to solve than the actual threat of anything that Russia, China, Iran, or terrorists may do. We have been the victims of our own free-trade fundamentalism. We looked at the money saved by shifting resources abroad and replacing people with machines, but did not adequately calculate the damage to the income and pride of millions of Americans. Americans traditionally have been proud to make stuff and export more than they import.
Again, Luce’s words ring eerily contemporary:
Nowhere in the world have man’s failures been so little excusable as in the United States of America. Nowhere has the contrast been so great between the reasonable hopes of our age and the actual facts of failure and frustration. And so now all our failures and mistakes hover like birds of ill omen over the White House, over the Capitol dome and over this printed page.
It was only 20 years later and 60 years ago when John F. Kennedy summoned a new generation of Americans to rise to another challenge. Then the challenge was leading our allies in the Cold War against communism. Now the challenge is healing our own society from self-inflicted wounds.
Yet, I repeat, it is the American Century still. No amount of nay-saying or bewailing or bemoaning the nation’s sins will change this fact. The Vietnam War did not end it; nor did the almost 20 years of very costly combat in the Middle East and Afghanistan; nor did the norm-breaking presidency of Donald Trump and his pathetic attempts to contest the election results. The world still looks to the United States for leadership.
The contemporary resurgence of isolationism is just as maladaptive, just as much a matter of foolish denial as it was in 1940. It behooves Democrats as well as Republicans, and all Americans of goodwill to achieve their goals in an American-led world. By this I do not mean a ringing endorsement of the costly military interventions that have plagued us since the invasion of Iraq, but we need to be involved.
The alternatives are far worse, not just for us, but for all of mankind.
America remains the world leader. This fact is naïve to reject and realistic to accept. It is the American Century still.