From American Exceptionalism to Self-Knowledge

From American Exceptionalism to Self-Knowledge

The Short American Century: A Postmortem
Edited by Andrew Bacevich
Harvard University Press, 2012, 287 pp.

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by the superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do. -Samuel P. Huntington

A future historian comparing America in 1945 with America in the second decade of the twenty-first century might well conclude that the intervening epoch—the “American Century,” in period-speak—had been a real bender. From a globe-bestriding colossus; producing 50 percent of world output; fully employed; militarily unrivalled; financially prepotent; culturally vibrant; internationally admired, even beloved; to a banana republic; indebted up to the eyeballs; with an obscenely rich upper class; a corrupt and mediocre political class; an unorganized and insecure work force; one in six adults un- or underemployed; one in six citizens uninsured; one in four children living at or near the poverty line; plummeting rates of scholastic achievement; and, among developed nations, the lowest rate of social mobility, the lowest life expectancy, the highest rates of infant mortality, obesity, and mental illness, the highest homicide rate, and the highest incarceration rate. Among non-Americans, love for the United States—as distinguished from a desperate desire to escape even worse circumstances by emigrating here—is scarce indeed.

How did we blow it? The best explanation I know of is Robert Kuttner’s The Squandering of America (2007), a sure-handed, many-faceted account of the political economy of our decline. Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America (2006) and Why America Failed (2011) set the story in the larger, quasi-Spenglerian context of a narrative about instrumental rationality and possessive individualism. It will soon, no doubt, be a crowded genre. An early and, one may hope, influential entry for this year is The Short American Century, a rich and various collection by eight leading historians and political scientists, assembled and introduced by the prominent analyst and critic Andrew Bacevich.

In February 1941, Henry Luce, the master huckster of mid-century America, published an instantly famous essay in his shiny new magazine, Life, entitled “The American Century.” His immediate purpose was to enlist the United States in the Second World War. More generally, he exhorted his compatriots to stop minding their own business and assume the burdens and glories of world leadership. Because of its surpassing power and virtue, the United States was the indispensable nation, Luce proclaimed, many decades before the hapless Madeleine Albright actually coined that unfortunate phrase. As the “inheritors of all the great principle...

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