The marketing of American global primacy began with a 1941 issue of Life magazine, writes Andrew Bacevich. Now, after the reckless squandering of U.S. power, it’s time to focus on the more modest goal of salvaging a unified republic.
By Andrew J. Bacevich
“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 U.S. 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 Jan. 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 21st-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 Feb. 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 Dec. 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 U.S. 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 former President 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 U.S. 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.
Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book Paths of Dissent: Soldiers Speak Out Against America’s Misguided Wars, co-edited with Danny Sjursen, will be out next month.
This article is from TomDispatch.com.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
Churchill’s plan, The Unthinkable (1945) was to release German POW’s, re-arm a German fascist army, along with Ukrainian and
Polish Nazis, and attack the Soviet Union.
Operation Dropshot, 1949, was the American plan to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Soviet Union.
Now the U.S. is spending $100B for a new improved nuclear missile which can kill hundreds of thousands of people in one shot.
Negotiating a common moral framework should begin with nuclear disarmament.
The American century has to come to an end. There is no way around that. Demographics together with the fact that the collective West no longer has the monopoly on state-of-the-art technology make it inevitable that competitors will arise.
That does not need to be a bad thing. Humanity needs all the human ingenuity it can muster to survive climate change. We cannot fight Russia, China and climate change at the same time. It’s impossible!
The US can extend its influence by cooperating with the BRICS+ to shape a new and fairer world that will benefit all humans. Yet, instead of working for a better future, the US is determined to drive humanity to the abyss.
The collective West is committing suicide for fear of death. The US’ wars are accelerating the West’s decline.
“perhaps it’s time to focus on the more modest goal of salvaging a unified American republic.”
Or perhaps it’s a time to focus on breaking the US into smaller independent states which won’t be able to subscribe to world wide power complexes?
From Bessner’s original article: “the United States confronts a nation whose model—a blend of state capitalism and Communist Party discipline”, I originally thought “whose” referred to the US, and agreed. But no, later we are told that the United States is capitalist. I believe both left and right agree that the United States has been “Corporatist” for some time (the economic system of the unmentioned German party) — the Left bemoans corporate influence on government, and the right points out the heavy interference of business by the State.
Also, I’m calling you on this one: “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.” A whistleblower leaked yesterday that the FBI knew from a plant that there was no conspiracy. You have to check alt-media for the documents, but this will eventually break into the mainstream, where it is currently suppressed. J6 was as fake as Whitmer’s kidnapping plot. And we still have Ray Epps, an FBI plant, on video ordering people into the capital.
As far as the US trying diplomacy over war, that has been the call of anti-war.com libertarians since Bush. Welcome to the party.
Yes, I definitely would prefer that.
I really think this is the essence of moving into into a more civilized nation, or nations, in what I would describe as accepting the realities of modernity and pluralism. That clearly means a weakened and very diminished federal government. We have to accept the idea that unifying a large country under a figurehead president and some phony marketing agenda to make wars, reinforce NATO, enforce the golden calf vaccines, or promote pro-life or freedom of abortion issues is going nowhere. A family of 5 can’t even agree on these issues, and there isn’t enough marketing propaganda and power available to unify the factions. Let’s move on, and start to figure out how to decentralize the political narratives. Maybe it is a return to the Articles of Confederation, or something totally different. But let’s just move on.
This is the only way of overcoming US imperialism and mankind’s self-destruction in an imperial slug fest concluded by nuclear Armageddon or, failing that, climate change.
The Washington establishment reacted violently to the election of Donald Trump. As venal as he came across to the American public he tried to reanimate the principles that the Founding Fathers incorporates into the Republic they tried to create. Self reliance, creativity, ingenuity, acknowledgement of a higher guiding morality to sustain society.
Donald Trump brought peace to the Middle Eastern region. He did not seek military engagements as the one this current administration is trying to engage in with Russia and China.
If there is any hope left for this nation then it must come from its citizenry and a return to those guiding principles set forth by the Founders and more importantly a return to a higher guiding morality must be embraced.
How can anyone who worships Trump like you talk about morality? The man raped women and children. He screwed over workers and creditors. He lies about literally everything.
It always shocks me to find partisanship on this site. The vast majority of the readership here sees through the scam that is the duopoly. Running into True Believers like you is unsettling.
Love Trump or hate him, Biden, Clinton and Obama got us into the this $100 billion war, with horrific potential for escalation, wrecked economy with a 100,000 dead Ukrainian men and another destroyed country, not Trump.
Donald Trump fleeced the American taxpayers at every turn, and he has done so for his whole adult life. He refused to accept defeat at the polls, even though all the evidence was against him. From what I have read and observed, he might well have marched into war but for the military brass around him holding him back. I am no fan of Joe Biden (though I voted for him) but I do not endorse D. Trump, or any of his MAGA toadies, as Joe’s replacement.
If the mob that invaded the Capitol on January 6th, 2021 is any example of the “citizenry” you have in mind, then NO THANKS!
In this speech to a group of ministers, President William McKinley outlined his rationale for annexing the Philippines in a treaty of 1898, paying the Spanish (under
duress) $20 million for the privilege. It was a difficult decision, and it foreshadowed the path of U.S. foreign policy for much of the next century.
“When next I realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps, I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides – Democrats as well as Republican – but got little help. I thought first we would take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands, perhaps, also.
I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way – I don’t know how it was, but it came:
(1) That we could not give them back to Spain – that would be cowardly and
(2) That we could not turn them over to France or Germany, our commercial rivals in
the Orient – that would be bad business and discreditable;
(3) The we could not leave them to themselves – they were unfit for self-government, and they would soon have anarchy and misrule worse then Spain’s was; and
(4) That there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educated the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.
And the I went to bed and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States [pointing to a large map on the wall of his office], and there they are and there they will stay while I am President!
So, Mr. Bacevitch, I agree with your sentiments but you start them at least a half century too late. Furthermore, the evil Puritans are still with us. As Barry Goldwater said:
“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”
It’s going to take a major disaster to break the power of the pulpit even as fewer and fewer people identify with religion than ever before.
Well said! “It’s the economy, stupid.” It’s got nothing to do with religion. Religion has been used to justify imperial expansion for thousands of years. It’s just a pretext for war. Today, the secular West has had to substitute religion by so-called Western values to fight its wars.
Before the US annexed the Philippines in 1898, Commodore Matthew C. Perry sounded the guns of his black ships in the bay of Tokyo (Edo) in 1853 to open the Japanese market for American commerce. That followed on the heels of the Barbary Wars from 1801 in the Mediterranean, in which the US had demonstrated its naval capabilities to defend its commercial interests far from home.
From the very beginning, it was about the US’ commercial interests abroad, not about religion. Today, the US needs to maintain a global military presence to protect the global assets of corporate America.
“All of us should be grateful for the conscientious efforts of the House Select Committee to expose the criminality of the Trump presidency.”
Um, no, not really. How much are we spending on this farce? What will be the ultimate result? Why does 1/6 warrant more of an investigation than the entirety of the Bush years? The Obama years? How many people died in the Iraq War that was based on false pretenses? How many died during the Recession of 2008 while banks were bailed out and homeowners and renters were kicked out? How many died in Libya, Syria, Honduras, Haiti, etc.? Answers: countless. And, on the other hand, how many died as a result of 1/6? Answer: 5, 4 of them “insurrectionists”.
So, no I’m not “grateful” and I highly dispute that these “hearings” are “conscientious”. We are sending billions to Ukraine and threatening hot (even nuclear) war with Russia. There is still a raging pandemic that we are pretending doesn’t exist (and a second one that no one knows anything about). There are looming global food shortages. Our planet is heating beyond our ability to stop it. Hundreds of thousands of Americans sleep on the streets every night and we can’t even feed our babies. These “conscientious” hearings are nothing more than theater to distract from those other nightmares and con the people into believing that the government (i.e., Democrats) is doing something.
And in the end, Trump, like Bush, will never spend one minute inside a correctional facility. So I’d tell you what you could do with that “gratitude”, but I don’t want to be rude.
Well put Dienne; thank you.
This was an otherwise good essay, but the thoughtful retrospective analysis covering the road to America’s decline veered into an anti-MAGA ditch.
Trump is a bad man, and he was a bad POTUS, but his criminality, immorality and service to power was more vulgar but no greater than many of his predecessors’ or his current successor’s. The theatre of mainstream fixation on Trump and the Jan 6th riot diverts us from examining and resolving the continuing corruption that began before Trump entered the White House . The distraction evidently works.
This an exciting and particularly noteworthy article by Bacevich.
Nowhere does Bacevich refer to the so-called “cold war” as a determinant of US foreign policy. It is
rather an expression of America’s desire to push eastward with only its own interests as justification
( as Joyce and Gabriel Kolko eloquently described in their book “The Limits of Power”, 1972, p. 31, and Chapter 12).
We all owe many thanks to Bacevich for this work.
Back in its heyday, Luce’s photograph-saturated Life was referred to as “the magazine for people who can’t read”, whereas his Time was referred to as “the magazine for people who can’t think”. Unfortunately, it appears that MSM in all forms have followed the latter mag’s template.
“salvaging a unified republic”
In times of threat, the wish to return to a time and place that never was becomes quite popular, and such immersion increases opportunities for opponents to increase the threat.
It’s interesting to also think of the ‘Project for a New American Century’ (PNAC) and its run up to the Iraq War and some other ventures. PNAC talked about finding “moral clarity” and the purpose for military aggression in the world. One only has to look at the ‘Signatories to Statement of Principle’ to see every prominent neocon at that time. Did they borrow from the same Life Magazines’ nomenclature?
I do wonder if PNAC used the articles’ concept of the American Century to create their own version of a military venture and therefore a new American Century. There are many ways to bait a hook, and I do wish the people in the US would not be so easily manipulated in the future. But these last 20+ years would indicate it is all wishful thinking to have the American People cognizant of the manipulations and propaganda of the current legacy press and our vacuous, and venal administration and previous administrations. To try and use outdated phrases and imagery to conjure up a harmonious and common response in the population seems downright quaint.
As if the Trump years (past and ongoing) weren’t reason enough, the COVID pandemic has been proof for me that this republic is anything but unified.
The notion of a peaceable return to a constitutional republic is a dream very unlikely to become reality. The problem is that, as in many republics that became empire such as Rome, the return to localism is typically not by choice but rather through destruction. This is because the masters of empire, those whose bread is well buttered by empire, are unwilling to let go their privileges and will double down on the same course until bankruptcy or catastrophic war end things.
“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.”
They are neither incompetent nor mad … they are merely opportunistic and venal. They have amassed VAST fortunes and fame during our national decline and one does not need to look further for the why. It has been a great racket and we have been the marks. Our only hope is that the masters tire of the increasing effort of squeezing blood out of the American turnip and choose newer and riper pastures like China and India for their continued work.
If only the religious frame of the Good Samaritan, common to all the world’s great religions and secular humanism to boot, had indeed been nationally embodied during the American Century. What would the world look like today if America had striven mightily to bind up the wounds of humanity, to rescue and provide for the teeming millions of the injured, abused, and abandoned along the 20th Century’s so-called road to progress?
Why salvage a united American republic? We have seen the damage it does It would be better for the whole world if we just let it go.
There’s no ‘united american republic’; The essay includes 10m for and 10m against a twice-indicted sociopathique bully.
The author does not write of salvage as much as global restructuring.
The words come from 1940 and H.Luce, though the hubris began the corporate nineteenth century.
Economic equality is necessary to unite the divided and sinking usa.
Agreed. There is an a-priori assumption that is not justified in the article. The empire should be salvaged and returned to the more benign republican stage. But why ? If this a tall order, Americans may benefit from comparing options and justifying this assumption before proceeding. Example: perhaps an easier route goes through splitting the country to 2 or more independent countries or some kind of a confederacy with limited power ? If I was American I would have loved if the more leftist states formed their own union. All or most of the limitations arising from the need to constantly appease the Right will vanish. The opposite is also true, so it may appeal to the Right. Even if they first agree on maintaing foreign policy together, there will come a point where they will split on these issues as well
I couldn’t agree more.
The United States can never be “united” again. In fact, we never were. People of color, women, native people, the poor and the working class has never been included as part of the “we the people.” The US needs a new and relevant constitution, one not written and ratified by rich merchants, landowners, and slave owners. A nation divided 50/50 will never agree to write and ratify a new constitution, and the ruling class wouldn’t have it any other way. This union must divide, there is no other way.