Guest Commentary: Requiem for the American Century

Guest Commentary: Requiem for the American Century

By KRISTIN HOGANSON

There are so many tremors emanating from the White House these days that it can be hard to grasp the magnitude of the tectonic shifts underway, especially in U.S. foreign policy. We are witnessing more than a change of administration or a rightward pendulum shift, we are witnessing the end of an era. Historians will debate the role of the United States in the century that bears its name, but the label was apt in one respect: the American Century lasted for 100 years.

The publishing magnate Henry R. Luce coined the phrase American Century in 1941, hoping to rally the United States against fascist aggression, but the dawn of the American Century can be traced back to 1917, the year the United States entered World War I. Then-President Woodrow Wilson anticipated Luce's missionary aspirations for remaking the world along more open, cooperative and democratic lines. Although his vision was marred by the conviction that self-determination was the province of white men, it provided a compelling counterpoint to autocratic rule. Although formulated in opposition to Bolshevik promises to the working class, the Fourteen Points and League of Nations Covenant provided a compelling alternative to rat-filled trenches and poison gas. Economic openness, collective security and self-government would lead to a better world. Though the war that had brought American doughboys to Europe was shot through with terror of every kind, the next one, warned Wilson, would be worse.

Wilson lost his struggles over the League of Nations and with them, the prospect of a lasting peace. But the United States, which had emerged from the war as the world's greatest economic power, remained a pivotal player on the world stage. Its recommitment to global leadership during World War II breathed new life into the Wilsonian vision. Realizing that the Second World War had indeed been worse than the first and that the next to come was unimaginable, U.S. leaders shaped the postwar world according to Wilson's three core principles.

To advance the free enterprise understood as conducive to peace and prosperity, the United States put its weight behind the mother of all multilateral trade agreements, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. To advance collective security, it signed on to the United Nations and a series of mutual defense pacts, NATO chief among them.

To advance democracy, it stood fast against authoritarian communist regimes, rolled back its own white supremacist policies, and proclaimed its commitment to decolonization.

The American Century was not always the century that downtrodden people desired. The Cold War burned too hot, especially on Third World battlefields, such as those in Korea and Vietnam. The United States worked shamelessly with right-wing dictators, from Guatemala to Indonesia and Iran. The pax Americana was a pox Americana for many on the opposing side and for those with an eye on the environmental consequences of unbridled American consumption.

Yet in singing its requiem, we must acknowledge that the American Century saw an astonishing reduction in poverty, especially in Asia, the Pacific and the Western Hemisphere. Its guiding structures prevented an all-out superpower conflagration, giving rise to the concept of limited war. Many people and corporations in the United States did quite well financially, as seen in the pool of billionaires now available for Cabinet duty. Democracy, in its messy glory, pressed forward around the world. Iron curtains, concrete walls and razor wire fences came down. The American Century saw the enshrinement of human rights in the laws of liberal nations. Voting rights, women's rights, gay rights, labor rights, the right to not be tortured: All are monuments of this era.

If there was a key word for the American Century, it was freedom: freedom of conscience and of speech, freedom from want and from fear. Freedom of movement. The free world. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States quickly declared itself the winner of the Cold War — perhaps too quickly from our current perspective — but the real winner at the time was the democratic, capitalist coalition forged by the United States. Continuing on as the leader of that coalition, the United States stuck to its stated commitments to freedom, but with more emphasis on free enterprise and freedom from taxes than on freedom from want.

In setting forth his vision for U.S. foreign policy, President Donald Trump hearkened back to the sentiment that Luce strove to counter: America first. Trump's version of America first is not the Wilsonian version that placed the United States at the forefront of a collaborative world. Rejecting the core conviction that U.S. fortunes have been intertwined with those of our allies, Trump has offered a different take on America first: Only America first.

This is not the open, win-win world of collective action that Wilson envisioned. It is a world of wobbly defense pacts and ruptures in good neighbor relations nurtured over decades. The Trans-Pacific Hail Mary pass, aimed at checking China's ascent, has gone down; NAFTA is also on the block, to the chagrin of Illinois farmers who have benefitted from its terms. After cozying up to Vladimir Putin during the campaign, President Trump spoke of human freedom just once in his inaugural address, referring to it not as an animating principle, but as an old wisdom, remembered by soldiers. He promised anxious Americans that they would be protected by their military, police and God in this unilateralist new era, but he offered little reassurance to democratic allies, much less Muslim refugees, among them the military translators who have risked their lives for our troops. With his pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, President Trump seems determined to provoke a firestorm.

No wall, no matter how high, can make us safer than the world order that our president is ripping up. For all its shortcomings, the American Century was a far better deal than the one in the making. Students of history should remember these dates: 1917-2017. They will be useful in future tests.

Kristin Hoganson is a professor of history at the University of Illinois.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
David Green wrote on February 19, 2017 at 11:02 am

Hoganson offers an arrogant, ignorant, and twisted version of our destructive historical role in world affairs. She glosses over our killing of millions in SE Asia and elsewhere as if these were just mild effects. What an appallingly stupid and delusional article.