Farewell to the American Century

Americans have perpetuated a mythic version of the past that never even approximated reality and today has become downright malignant.

Topics: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq war, Barack Obama, Nuclear Weapons, Iraq, Middle East, Cuba, World War II

Farewell to the American Century

In a recent column, the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen wrote, “What Henry Luce called ‘the American Century’ is over.” Cohen is right. All that remains is to drive a stake through the heart of Luce’s pernicious creation, lest it come back to life. This promises to take some doing.

When the Time-Life publisher coined his famous phrase, his intent was to prod his fellow citizens into action. Appearing in the Feb. 7, 1941, issue of Life, his essay, “The American Century,” hit the newsstands at a moment when the world was in the throes of a vast crisis. A war in Europe had gone disastrously awry. A second almost equally dangerous conflict was unfolding in the Far East. Aggressors were on the march.

With the fate of democracy hanging in the balance, Americans diddled. Luce urged them to get off the dime. More than that, he summoned them to “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world … 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.”

Read today, Luce’s essay, with its strange mix of chauvinism, religiosity and bombast (“We must now undertake to be the Good Samaritan to the entire world …”), does not stand up well. Yet the phrase “American Century” stuck and has enjoyed a remarkable run. It stands in relation to the contemporary era much as “Victorian Age” does to the 19th century. In one pithy phrase, it captures (or at least seems to capture) the essence of some defining truth: America as alpha and omega, source of salvation and sustenance, vanguard of history, guiding spirit and inspiration for all humankind.

In its classic formulation, the central theme of the American Century has been one of righteousness overcoming evil. The United States (above all the U.S. military) made that triumph possible. When, having been given a final nudge on Dec. 7, 1941, Americans finally accepted their duty to lead, they saved the world from successive diabolical totalitarianisms. In doing so, the U.S. not only preserved the possibility of human freedom but modeled what freedom ought to look like.

Thank you, comrades

So goes the preferred narrative of the American Century, as recounted by its celebrants.

The problems with this account are twofold. First, it claims for the United States excessive credit. Second, it excludes, ignores or trivializes matters at odds with the triumphal story line.



The net effect is to perpetuate an array of illusions that, whatever their value in prior decades, have long since outlived their usefulness. In short, the persistence of this self-congratulatory account deprives Americans of self-awareness, hindering our efforts to navigate the treacherous waters in which the country finds itself at present. Bluntly, we are perpetuating a mythic version of the past that never even approximated reality and today has become downright malignant. Although Richard Cohen may be right in declaring the American Century over, the American people — and especially the American political class — still remain in its thrall.

Constructing a past usable to the present requires a willingness to include much that the American Century leaves out.

For example, to the extent that the demolition of totalitarianism deserves to be seen as a prominent theme of contemporary history (and it does), the primary credit for that achievement surely belongs to the Soviet Union. When it came to defeating the Third Reich, the Soviets bore by far the preponderant burden, sustaining 65 percent  of all Allied deaths in World War II.

By comparison, the United States suffered 2 percent of those losses, for which any American whose father or grandfather served in and survived that war should be saying: Thank you, Comrade Stalin.

For the United States to claim credit for destroying the Wehrmacht is the equivalent of Toyota claiming credit for inventing the automobile. We entered the game late and then shrewdly scooped up more than our fair share of the winnings. The true “Greatest Generation” is the one that willingly expended millions of their fellow Russians while killing millions of German soldiers.

Hard on the heels of World War II came the Cold War, during which erstwhile allies became rivals. Once again, after a decades-long struggle, the United States came out on top.

Yet in determining that outcome, the brilliance of American statesmen was far less important than the ineptitude of those who presided over the Kremlin. Ham-handed Soviet leaders so mismanaged their empire that it eventually imploded, permanently discrediting Marxism-Leninism as a plausible alternative to liberal democratic capitalism. The Soviet dragon managed to slay itself. So thank you, Comrades Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev.

Screwing the pooch

What flag-wavers tend to leave out of their account of the American Century is not only the contributions of others, but the various missteps perpetrated by the United States — missteps, it should be noted, that spawned many of the problems bedeviling us today.

The instances of folly and criminality bearing the label “made in Washington” may not rank up there with the Armenian genocide, the Bolshevik Revolution, the appeasement of Adolf Hitler, or the Holocaust, but they sure don’t qualify as small change. To give them their due is necessarily to render the standard account of the American Century untenable.

Here are several examples, each one familiar, even if its implications for the problems we face today are studiously ignored:

Cuba. In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain for the proclaimed purpose of liberating the so-called Pearl of the Antilles. When that brief war ended, Washington reneged on its promise. If there actually has been an American Century, it begins here, with the U.S. government breaking a solemn commitment, while baldly insisting otherwise. By converting Cuba into a protectorate, the United States set in motion a long train of events leading eventually to the rise of Fidel Castro, the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even today’s Guantánamo Bay prison camp. The line connecting these various developments may not be a straight one, given the many twists and turns along the way, but the dots do connect.

The Bomb. Nuclear weapons imperil our existence. Used on a large scale, they could destroy civilization itself. Even now, the prospect of a lesser power like North Korea or Iran acquiring nukes sends jitters around the world. American presidents — Barack Obama is only the latest in a long line — declare the abolition of these weapons to be an imperative. What they are less inclined to acknowledge is the role the United States played in afflicting humankind with this scourge.

The United States invented the bomb. The United States — alone among members of the nuclear club — actually employed it as a weapon of war. The U.S. led the way in defining nuclear-strike capacity as the benchmark of power in the postwar world, leaving other powers like the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China scrambling to catch up. Today, the U.S. still maintains an enormous nuclear arsenal at the ready and adamantly refuses to commit itself to a no-first-use policy, even as it professes its horror at the prospect of some other nation doing as the United States itself has done.

Iran. Extending his hand to Tehran, President Obama has invited those who govern the Islamic republic to “unclench their fists.” Yet to a considerable degree, those clenched fists are of our own making. For most Americans, the discovery of Iran dates from the time of the notorious hostage crisis of 1979-1981 when Iranian students occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran, detained several dozen U.S. diplomats and military officers and subjected the administration of Jimmy Carter to a 444-day-long lesson in abject humiliation.

For most Iranians, the story of U.S.-Iranian relations begins somewhat earlier. It starts in 1953, when CIA agents collaborated with their British counterparts to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh and return the Shah of Iran to his throne. The plot succeeded. The Shah regained power. The Americans got oil, along with a lucrative market for exporting arms. The people of Iran pretty much got screwed. Freedom and democracy did not prosper. The antagonism that expressed itself in November 1979 with the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran was not entirely without cause.

Afghanistan. President Obama has wasted little time in making the Afghanistan War his own. Like his predecessor he vows to defeat the Taliban. Also like his predecessor he has yet to confront the role played by the United States in creating the Taliban in the first place. Washington once took pride in the success it enjoyed funneling arms and assistance to fundamentalist Afghans waging jihad against foreign occupiers. During the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, this was considered to represent the very acme of clever statecraft. U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen caused the Soviets fits. Yet it also fed a cancer that, in time, exacted a most grievous toll on Americans themselves — and has U.S. forces today bogged down in a seemingly endless war.

Act of contrition

Had the United States acted otherwise, would Cuba have evolved into a stable and prosperous democracy, a beacon of hope for the rest of Latin America? Would the world have avoided the blight of nuclear weapons? Would Iran today be an ally of the United States, a beacon of liberalism in the Islamic world, rather than a charter member of the “axis of evil?” Would Afghanistan be a quiet, pastoral land at peace with its neighbors? No one, of course, can say what might have been. All we know for sure is that policies concocted in Washington by reputedly savvy statesmen now look exceedingly ill-advised.

What are we to make of these blunders? The temptation may be to avert our gaze, thereby preserving the reassuring tale of the American Century. We should avoid that temptation and take the opposite course, acknowledging openly, freely and unabashedly where we have gone wrong. We should carve such acknowledgments into the face of a new monument smack in the middle of the Mall in Washington: We blew it. We screwed the pooch. We caught a case of the stupids. We got it ass-backwards.

Only through the exercise of candor might we avoid replicating such mistakes.

Indeed, we ought to apologize. When it comes to avoiding the repetition of sin, nothing works like abject contrition. We should, therefore, tell the people of Cuba that we are sorry for having made such a hash of U.S.-Cuban relations for so long. President Obama should speak on our behalf in asking the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for forgiveness. He should express our deep collective regret to Iranians and Afghans for what past U.S. interventionism has wrought.

The United States should do these things without any expectations of reciprocity. Regardless of what U.S. officials may say or do, Castro won’t fess up to having made his own share of mistakes. The Japanese won’t liken Hiroshima to Pearl Harbor and call it a wash. Iran’s mullahs and Afghanistan’s jihadists won’t be offering to a chastened Washington to let bygones be bygones.

No, we apologize to them, but for our own good — to free ourselves from the accumulated conceits of the American Century and to acknowledge that the United States participated fully in the barbarism, folly and tragedy that defines our time. For those sins, we must hold ourselves accountable.

To solve our problems requires that we see ourselves as we really are. And that requires shedding, once and for all, the illusions embodied in the American Century.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His latest book is "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War".

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>