On February 17, 1941, less than 10 months before the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor and the U.S. found itself in a global war, Henry Luce, in an editorial in Life magazine (which he founded along with Time and Fortune), declared the years to come “the American Century.” He then urged this country’s leaders to “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit.”
And he wasn’t wrong, was he? Eight decades later, who would deny that we’ve lived through something like an American century? After all, in 1945, the U.S. emerged triumphant from World War II, a rare nation remarkably unravaged by that war (despite the 400,000 casualties it had suffered). With Great Britain heading for the imperial sub-basement, Washington found itself instantly the military and economic powerhouse on the planet.
As it turned out, however, to “exert upon the world the full impact of our influence,” one other thing was necessary and, fortunately, at hand: an enemy. From then on, America’s global stature and power would, in fact, be eternally based on facing down enemies. Fortunately, in 1945, there was that other potential, if war-ravaged, powerhouse, the Soviet Union. That future “superpower” had been an ally in World War II, but no longer. It would thereafter be the necessary enemy in a “cold war” that sometimes threatened to turn all too hot. And it would, of course, ensure that what later came to be known as the military-industrial complex (and a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying many planets like this one) would be funded in a way once historically inconceivable in what might still have passed for peacetime.
In 1991, however, after a disastrous war in Afghanistan, the Soviet empire finally collapsed in economic ruin. As it went down, hosannas of triumph rang out in a surprised Washington. Henry Luce, by then dead almost a quarter of a century, would undoubtedly have been thrilled.
The Indispensable Superpower
In the meantime, in those cold-verging-on-hot-war years, the U.S. ruled the roost in what came to be known as “the free world,” while its corporations came to economically dominate much of the planet. Though it would be a true global imperial power with hundreds of military bases scattered across every continent but Antarctica, there would prove to be significant limits to that power — and I’m not just thinking of the Soviet Union or its communist ally (later opponent), Mao Zedong’s China.
At the edges of what was then called “the Third World” — whether in Southeast Asia during and after the disastrous Vietnam War or in Iran after 1979 — American power often enough came a cropper in memorable ways. Still, in those years, on a planet some 25,000 miles in circumference, Washington certainly had a remarkable reach and, in 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared, it seemed as if Luce had been a prophet of the first order. After all, the United States as the ultimate imperial power had — or so, at least, it appeared at that moment — been left without even a major power, no less another superpower, as an enemy on a planet that looked, at least to those in Washington, like it was ours for the taking. And indeed, take it we soon enough would try to do.
No wonder, in those years, American politicians and key officials filled the airwaves with self-congratulation and self-praise for what they liked to think of as the most “exceptional,” “indispensable,” “greatest” power on the planet and sure to remain so forever and a day.
In another sense, however, problems loomed instantly. Things were so desperate for the military-industrial complex in a country promised a cut in “defense” spending, then known as a “peace dividend,” thanks to the triumph over the Soviets, that enemies had to be created out of whole cloth. They were, it turned out, fundamental to the organization of American global power. A world without them was essentially inconceivable or, at least, inconvenient beyond imagining. Hence, the usefulness of Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein who would be not-quite-taken-down in the first Gulf War of 1991.
Perhaps the classic example of the desperate need to create enemies, however, would occur early in the next century. Remember the “Axis of Evil” announced (and denounced) by President George W. Bush in his January 2002 State of the Union address? He called out three states — Iran, Iraq, and North Korea — that then had not the slightest way of injuring the U.S. (“States like these, and their terrorist allies,” insisted the president, “constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”) Of course, this was, in part, based on the claim that Iraq might have just such weapons of mass destruction (it didn’t!) and that it would, in turn, be willing to give them to terror groups to attack the U.S. That lie would become part of the basis for the invasion of that country the next year.
Think of all this as the strangest kind of imperial desperation from a superpower that seemed to have it all. And the result, of course, after Osama bin Laden launched his air force and those 19 mostly Saudi hijackers against New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, was the Global War on Terror, which would soon prove a self-imposed, self-created disaster.
Or think of it another way, when considering the imperial fate of America and this planet: the crew who ran Washington (and the U.S. military) then proved — as would be true throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century — incapable of learning even the most basic lessons history had to offer. After all, only a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed, thanks in significant part to what its leader called its “bleeding wound,” a disastrous war in Afghanistan in which the Red Army became endlessly mired, the Bush administration would launch its own disastrous war in Afghanistan in which it would become — yep, endlessly mired. It was as if this country, in its moment of triumph, couldn’t help but take the Soviet path into the future, the one heading for the exits.
Cold Wars and Hot Wars
In November 2021, just three decades after the implosion of the Soviet Union, no one could imagine any longer that such a vision of victory and success-to-come caught the underlying realities of this country or this century. The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House five years earlier had been the most visible proof of that.
It’s hard to imagine today that he wasn’t the truest of all products of that very American Century, a genuine message from it to us and the rest of the world. He was, after all, the man who, in his key slogan in 2016 as this country’s first declinist candidate for president — “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) — suggested that it had been all over for a while when it came to this country being the first player in history. He had, in fact, been coughed up by an authoritarian system already in formation. He vaulted into office not just claiming that the American system was a fraud, but that it had lost its firstness and its greatness. In response to that message, so many Americans who felt that they, too, had lost their way, that they were, in fact, being crushed by history, voted for him. In a mere four years in the Oval Office, he would bring a true sense of enemy-ness home in a new and shattering way, creating a world in which the enemy was distinctly American and needed to be overthrown.
The topsy-turvy nature of the Trumpian version of the American century is something this country — and certainly the Biden administration — still hasn’t fully come to grips with. For decades, we had indeed led the rest of the world and this is what we had led them into: the conspiracy theory of history (almost any conspiracy theory you want to mention), the “fraudulent” election now being eternally denounced by Donald Trump, the coup attempt of January 6th, a Republican Party that’s become the opposition from hell, a planet on which fossil-fuel companies (often American) knew decades ago just what was happening with the climate and invested their extra funds in making sure that other Americans didn’t, and… but why go on? If you don’t sense the depth and truth of this tale of the American Century, just ask Joe Manchin.
Its final decades seem to be a time when this country’s politicians can hardly agree on a thing, including how to keep Americans safe in a pandemic moment. Check out the New York Times Covid-19 “global hotspots” map and, in these last months, it’s looked like a replay of the Cold War, since the U.S. and Russia are the two largest “hotspots” of death and destruction on the planet, each colored a wild red. Think of it as a new kind of hot war.
And little wonder at the confusion of it all. I mean, talk about a superpower that proved incapable of learning from history! In response to the slaughter of 3,000 Americans on 9/11 — and mind you, something like 3,000 Americans were being slaughtered every two days most of this year thanks, in part, to the murderous leadership of various Trumpian figures in this pandemic moment — the greatest power ever decided that the only response imaginable to 9/11 was to launch its own war in Afghanistan. Thank you, Soviet Union, for your example (not to speak of our own example in Vietnam back when)! And yes, 20 years later, on a planet far more filled with Islamist terror groups than might have seemed even faintly imaginable on September 11, 2001, failure is just another word for a “new cold war.”
Oh, yes, in 2021, there is indeed another power rising on this planet, one it’s necessary to organize against with all due haste — or so the Biden administration and the U.S. military would like us to believe. And no, I’m not thinking about the power of a fast-heating climate, which threatens to take down anyone’s century. I’m thinking, of course, about China.
An Upside-Down Version of 1991
As we head into the final two decades of the all-American era that Luce predicted, think about this: the American Century has been a disaster of the first order. In the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union, the U.S. decided to remake the world and did so — at least in the sense of allowing climate change to run riot on Planet Earth — while, in the process, unmaking itself.
So, 80 years after Henry Luce proclaimed its existence, welcome indeed to the American Century, or rather to the increasingly nightmarish planet it’s left us on. Welcome to an age of billionaires (that could even one day see its first trillionaire); to levels of desperate inequality that would once have been unimaginable here; to large-scale death due to a pandemic from hell mismanaged by men who were functionally murderers; and to a literally hellish future that, without the kind of war-style mobilization Joe Manchin among others is ensuring will never happen, will sooner rather than later envelop this country and the planet it meant to rule in a climate disaster.
Honestly, could the Chinese century — not that it’s likely, given how the world is trending — be worse? You don’t even have to leave this country and go to Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, or Yemen to judge that question anymore.
And sadly, the one thing the triumphalists of 1991 agreed on — and American politicians have never changed their minds about, no matter the course of our wars — was funding the military-industrial complex in a way that they never would have funded either the bolstering of human health or the halting of climate change. That urge to dump taxpayer dollars into the American war machine, despite failure after failure in war after war, has never been stanched. It remains more or less the only thing congressional Democrats and Republicans can still agree on — that and the need for an enemy to endlessly prepare to fight.
And now, of course, the imperial power that simply couldn’t exist without such enemies and has left Afghanistan and much of the rest of its War on Terror (despite the odd drone strike) largely in the lurch, is in the process of creating its newest enemy for a new age: China. Think of the new cold war that the Biden administration (like the Trump administration before it) has been promoting as 1991 turned upside down when it comes to enemy-ness. The ultimate moment of American triumph and then of despair both needed their distant enemies, an ever-more well financed military-industrial-congressional complex, and an ever more “modernized” nuclear arsenal.
Oh, the hubris of it all. We were the country that would remake the world in our image. We would bring “liberation” and “democracy” to the Afghans and the Iraqis, among others, and glory to this land. In the end, of course, we brought them little but pain, displacement, and death, while bringing American democracy itself, with all its failings, to the autocratic edge of hell in a world of “fraudulent” elections and coupsters galore.
Now, it seems, we are truly living out the end of the American Century in the world it created. Who woulda thunk it?
Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt
Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com, where this article first appeared. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.
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