Michael KreponThe American Century

Quote of the week:

“Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.”
—David Fromkin, The Way of the World, with due credit to Heraclitus and Gautama 

In an essay published in Life magazine, media impresario Henry Luce declared the 20th Century to be the American Century. That was before Pearl Harbor, in February 1941. Luce was trying to buck up his fellow citizens to meet the challenges ahead. After all, U.S. troops turned the tide of World War I. Capitalism was creating jobs. The Progressive Movement and the Jazz Age burnished America’s image. Inventions were changing the quality of life and opening new vistas. America was on the make.

Greater accomplishments would follow. The crushing defeat of Nazism and Imperial Japan. Helping Europe rebuild. Bipartisan commitment to a liberal international order and global engagement. The containment of the Soviet Union. The growth of a middle class with cars in the driveway and trips to the shopping center. Home mortgages and downpayments on sofas, TVs and refrigerators. The interstate highway system. The Moon landings. Taking steps to extend America’s promise to those not acknowledged in the country’s founding documents. And, to top it all off, winning the Cold War.

Centuries don’t necessarily follow clockwork and calendars. The American Century might have begun in 1913, when Henry Ford started an assembly line for the Model T. Or in 1917, when Woodrow Wilson sent doughboys to turn the tide in a stalemated European war, or the next year, with victory in World War I.

For convenience sake, let’s start the clock on the American Century in 1917, because we can mark its end exactly 100 years later, with the swearing in of Donald Trump, a needy, shallow President who tweets ephemeral, exclamatory policy pronouncements and spends four hours in the White House palling around with Sarah Palin, Ted Nugent, and Kid Rock. Trump’s America is about American nationalism, which is not to be confused with America’s global leadership.

The precursors to Trump’s election and the demise of the American Century became glaringly obvious only after his surprise, black-swan election. On the domestic front, electronic gadgets have fostered short attention spans. They are not conducive to civics lessons and civility. Patience and learning have declined along with the public schools. Disparities in wealth have grown at the expense of the middle class. The rich outnumber the poor at the ballot box, thanks to the Supreme Court and the Republican Party. Both political parties chase six-figure campaign contributions. Trump garnered seven-figure donations for his inaugural. Republicans became adept at carving out single-party congressional districts in Red States, as did Democrats in Blue States. Moderates retired or lost primaries to higher-decibel candidates. During the Obama Administration, Republicans decided that unyielding opposition offered greater political benefit than helping to govern. Democrats will be similarly inclined unless Trump decides to act as America’s first Independent Party President. What happened to the promise of the American Century? Reality television became political reality.

On the international front, a victorious America reacted to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union by overreaching. All triumphant Great Powers commit this fundamental error. The George W. Bush Administration responded to a preventable and deadly attack on the U.S. homeland by declaring an open-ended war on terrorism, which was followed by crusades to rout evildoers and extend democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq. Team Bush decided to expand NATO to include the Baltic atates as well as every state up to the Russian Federation’s western border. Ukraine and Georgia didn’t make the cut and took the brunt of Vladimir Putin’s cold rage. Extraordinary joint diplomatic accomplishments by Washington and Moscow to reduce nuclear forces and nuclear dangers badly unraveled. And the Republican Party, which was central to these success stories, lost its moorings, slashing instruments of diplomatic engagement and opposing negotiated agreements as being insufficiently one-sided. The American Century ended with the demise of bipartisanship.

America’s hard power continues to compensate for grave errors in political judgment, even when badly overtaxed. U.S. soft power abroad is widely evident, but with all due respect to Joe Nye, it does not compensate for extremely negative perceptions of American leadership. Take a trip abroad, as I just have, and it is very unsettling to encounter popular images of America. Back in the day, when traveling to the Soviet Union, people were readily willing to distinguish between visiting Americans and their government. Now, stunningly, one encounters this phenomenon in friendly and allied states. Worse, there is a pervasive undercurrent of doubt and worry: How could the America we thought we knew elect this President? And what does this mean for the future?


  1. Marcus (History)

    I’m interested in you going into a bit more detail about how you see outside perspectives of the US changing. I’ve traveled quite a bit and always found the locals drawing a distinction between average Americans and our government. I’ve gotten the “What are you Americans thinking?” with Regan, Clinton, and W, no comments that I remember for Bush the elder, and admiration for the election of Obama, if not his policy.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      A fair and tough question.
      My impressionistic answer: For me, the separation between being an American traveling abroad and the USG felt acute during the first term of the Reagan Administration, and disappeared in the second, with Reagan’s success in working with Gorbachev. But even in the first term, friends and adversaries could find comfort in Regan’s experienced advisers (except when he was surrounded by poor choices.) As you say, GHWB and his team were so accomplished in foreign and national security policy that I felt no separation traveling abroad. Clinton didn’t raise separation issues. GWB most assuredly did. People abroad seemed genuinely stunned by how his set of accomplished advisers made such a hash of things. Obama set some nerves on edge in the Middle East by his lack of bellicosity but, by and large, he generated warm feelings. It was never easier for me to travel.
      Reactions to Trump seem to build upon reactions to his two Republican predecessors, but are of a whole new level based on his personal characteristics, policy pronouncements and their sudden variability. I expect badmouthing of American leadership by adversaries, but it shakes me to hear this from friends and allies.
      I know that my travelog can be dismissed as partisanship, but these are my impressions.

  2. Sean (History)

    Mr Fromkin paraphrased from a statement by Boethius – ‘It’s my belief that history is a wheel. ‘Inconstancy is my very essence,’ says the wheel. Rise up on my spokes if you like but don’t complain when you’re cast back down into the depths. Good time pass away, but then so do the bad. Mutability is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of time, like the best, are always passing away.’

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Way better.
      Many thanks.