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La Deuxième Guerre mondiale

The American Century of Henry R. Luce

Le « Siècle américain » selon Henry R. Luce
Stephen J. Whitfield

Résumé

Stephen J. Whitfield se penche ici sur l’éditorial controversé du magnat de la presse américain Henry R. Luce, “The American Century”, publié dans le magazine Life le 17 février 1941. Paru en temps de crise – la Grande Dépression – et de guerres – celle en Mandchourie mais aussi la Seconde Guerre mondiale – son éditorial proposait une mission nationale commune selon laquelle les Etats-Unis, étant donné leur exceptionnalisme, devaient d’une part mettre un terme à leur politique isolationniste pour embrasser l’interventionnisme et, d’autre part, en tant que puissance mondiale démocratique, montrer aux autres civilisations la voie qui les mènerait simultanément à la liberté et à une société d’affluence. Animé d’une foi presbytérienne et d’une conviction dans le modèle de la libre-entreprise, ce Républicain fut mal compris par certains de ses contemporains qui virent dans cette personnalité passionnée un défenseur absolu de l’Amérique. Il le reste d’ailleurs majoritairement plus d’un demi-siècle plus tard dans la mesure où, ainsi que le souligne Stephen J. Whitfield, si la formule “The American Century” perdure, de façon parfois galvaudée, dans les manuels d’histoire, son nom y est manifestement absent. Le présent article, en ancrant la pensée de ce magnat de la presse dans le contexte contemporain à la publication de son éditorial contribue à réhabiliter Henry R. Luce et à souligner l’importance de ce texte visionnaire dans l’expression d’une identité américaine.

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Entrées d’index

Index thématique et géographique :

culture, États-Unis, media, médias, société, society, United States
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Texte intégral

  • 1 Henry R. Luce, “The American Century,” Life, 10 (February 17, 1941), 61, reprinted in The American (...)

1In the course of the last century, was there a defining moment of patriotic expression and reflection? Give or take a few years, I move the nomination of 1941. The Four Freedoms were enunciated on January 6, and the next month an influential media magnate published “The American Century.” As a characteristic of the American mind, the editorial that Henry R. Luce published in the February 17 issue of Life is the subject of this essay. But in envisioning the hegemony of the United States, Luce was not acting in a vacuum. Insisting on the inevitability of involvement in a war that had begun in Manchuria a decade earlier, he invoked the extension of American influence that was inspired by democratic ideals and that offered the promise of prosperity. Composed and published amid a period of crisis, “The American Century” had to reckon with the shock of economic devastation at home and with military peril poised from abroad; and by formulating a definition of national purpose, the editorial exemplified the wider struggle to celebrate the nation’s virtues and to reclaim its past. Luce offered, in effect, an account of Why We Fight (for he argued that “we are in the war”);1 and therefore the essay was a milestone in the effort to distill the meaning of Americanism.

  • 2 James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1931), 415; Allan Nevins, James Tr (...)
  • 3 Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 236-37; Rob Kroes,If You’ve (...)

2Exactly a decade earlier, the historian James Truslow Adams had advanced a pioneering formulation of “the American Dream,” which he defined as “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able toattain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable.” The title of the book was to be The American Dream. But the publisher doubted that so evanescent a claim would attract readers battered by the Great Depression; and therefore it was as The Epic of America that Adams found himself the author of a best-seller, with a new edition released in the year of Luce’s editorial. The Depression Decade also made “the American Way of Life” a commonplace phrase.2 Perhaps the most famous formal effort to define the “American Creed” came in 1944, when Gunnar Myrdal sought to codify the radiant democratic ideals that collided with the actualities of racism. The popular arts also reinforced the gusts of patriotic feeling. Irving Berlin reached into his trunk and pulled out, for an Armistice Day broadcast in 1938, “God Bless America”; and within two years it was sung to the delegates at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. In November, 1939 the “Ballad for Americans” leaped to the top of the charts, with Paul Robeson singing: “Our Country’s strong, our Country’s young/And her greatest songs are still unsung.” “Ballad for Americans” opened the GOP nominating convention the following summer (though without Robeson). In conveying what Americans could be grateful for, no visual art was more iconic or inspired than Norman Rockwell’s The Four Freedoms (1942). When the oil paintings were exhibited in sixteen cities, well over a million visitors showed up; and nearly $133 million in war bonds were sold.3

  • 4 Carl L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New Yor (...)

3The enlivened appreciation for “Americanism” sprang from the realization that the national experience diverged from the fanatical tyrannies that were devastating the Old World. The Atlantic Charter of August, 1941 had forged ideological links between the US and the former mother country. But American exceptionalism also made headway. The 1922 edition of Carl L. Becker’s The Declaration of Independence was reprinted two decades later; and the new introduction, written in September, 1941, noted that “when political freedom, already lost in many countries, is everywhere threatened,” the Framers’ ideals stood out in relief, as worth fighting to preserve.4 Two years later the Jefferson Memorial was dedicated in Washington. Carl Sandburg completed his adulatory Abraham Lincoln (1939) two years before Aaron Copland composed A Lincoln Portrait. Jefferson and Lincoln joined GeorgeWashington and Theodore Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore by the time Gutzon Borglum died, in 1941, which is when the US Congress declared the work done, on the eve of entry into the war.

  • 5 Mark Lincoln Chadwin, The Hawks of World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North CarolinaPress, 19 (...)

4Luce’s “American Century” was the distillation of three speeches that he had road-tested in 1940 from Pasadena through Tulsa and then Pittsburgh. He had come to realize the necessity of military involvement, but did not want to provoke a confrontation. An emphatic advocacy of war would have been both lonely and risky. He didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing: the case against isolationism had to be made compelling. So he adopted the argument that the United States was already at war—a datum of which Adolf Hitler was presumably aware, even if Luce’s own compatriots were not.5 In the summer of 1940, he also supplied a foreword to John F. Kennedy’s Why England Slept. Its best-selling status managed to defy the signs posted at the twelve-mile limits of the US: Do Not Disturb. Because Luce’s name was familiar to only 27% of those Americans who were polled, the interventionist pitch he made had to tap into reservoirs of faith in the power and attractiveness of a redemptive mission.

  • 6 Robert E. Herzstein, Henry R. Luce: A Political Portrait of the Man who Created the AmericanCentury (...)

5By early February Life picture editor Daniel Longwell was urging his boss to write “modern Federalist papers for this world A. D. 1941.” Luce needed no further persuasion. His intended title was “We Americans,” which managing editor John Shaw Billings suggested changing to “The American Century.” (A later labor editor of Fortune, Daniel Bell, credits a senior Time editor, John K. Jessup, with having originated the phrase.)6 Whoever provided his boss with it certainly deserved the rest of the afternoon off. The end of isolationism came nearly nine months after the editorial appeared, not because of its persuasiveness, but instead because of Pearl Harbor. Indeed, on the night of December 7, 1941, the Rev. Henry Winters Luce, the publisher’s father, died.

  • 7 William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (New York: Harper& Row, (...)
  • 8 James L. Baughman, Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media (Baltimore: JohnsHopkins U (...)

6In August, 1940, the US Army had conducted the largest peacetime maneuvers in its history. But trucks had to serve as “tanks,” broomsticks as “machine guns,” and beer cans as “ammunition.” The half a million men under arms included the National Guard, and were about as large as the Bulgarian army. Only about one in five Americans expressed themselves in favor of intervention.7 And yet “The American Century” does not propose a “large peacetime army and navy—or even adeclaration of war against the Axis powers,” as historian James L. Baughman has noted. The editorial makes no reference to armaments at all (except to hope that humanitarianism be tithed to it), does not imagine the military-industrial complex that would form so conspicuously after 1945, does not anticipate that the projection of American power might be the correlate of force. There is no textual warrant for the charge of Luce’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer that “the American Century was [...] a militarist century.”8

  • 9 John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II (NewYork: Ha (...)

7But was it to be an imperialist century? Historian John Morton Blum certainly thought so, and claimed that Luce “contemplated a political, economic, and religious imperialism indistinguishable, except by nationality, from the doctrines of Kipling and Churchill.”9 Yet such a reading of the editorial is also unjustified. American internationalists and expansionists typically sought customers, not conquered peoples. American businessmen wanted new markets and investments; Luce’s own father and other missionaries wanted converts. But unless the expansion of influence is equated with an imperium, Luce’s editorial is not a document of domination but rather of exceptionalism. The United States had something to share, not something to impose. He wanted expertise to be put in the service of development—what liberal Democrats would champion in programs like Point Four and in best-selling novels like The Ugly American (1958). When Luce wanted the US to be “the principal guarantor of the freedom of the seas,” he was of course echoing one of the Fourteen Points, which Wilson had invoked so firmly that his administration refused to discourage a tiny number of rich tourists from travelling in a war zone, and thus the Lusitania (a merchant ship which was carrying munitions for Britain as well as 128 American passengers) was sunk, forcing Wilson to the brink of war in 1915.

  • 10 Luce, American Century, 36; Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 131; Bell, “Henry Luce’s Half-Century,” 13; Wi (...)

8“The American Century” also projected “the vision of America as the dynamic leader of world trade,” and Luce could not have fathomed any economic basis for national leadership besides “free enterprise.” More than Time or Life, Fortune was Luce’s singular achievement, and its charter was to report on “American business [...] as the dynamic agency that was tearing up small-town life and catapulting the US into world economic dominance,” according to Daniel Bell; and business “was doing so within the language and the cover of the Protestant Ethic.” In 1938 the US was responsible for 28.7% of world’s manufacturing output; the comparablepercentages for Germany and Japan were 13.2% and 3.8%, respectively.10 Perhaps because the US proportion of the world’s productivity was so large, Luce’s editorial does not allude to the Great Depression at all; he wrote as though the crisis of capitalism that began a dozen years earlier did not have to be considered.

  • 11 Joshua Freeman et al, Who Built America? (New York: Pantheon, 1992), II, 610-11.
  • 12 Quoted in Eric F. Goldman, The Crucial Decade—and After: America, 1945-1960 (New York:Vintage Books (...)

9Harrowing as the Depression was, appalling as the suffering was, Luce was surely right to focus upon the magnitude of what the American economy could promise, and achieve, and exceed. A dozen years after FDR had taken his first oath of office as one in four workers were seeking jobs, “American policy-makers set the terms after 1945 for world capitalism’s operation,” according to the scholarly authors of Who Built America?. A section entitled “The End of the ‘American Century” noted that statesmen in Washington and their business allies were “not only [...] determining the West’s Cold War priorities but [were] also establishing the dollar as the basis for international exchange.”11 (Yet the foremost American figure who crafted the Bretton Woods agreement, which created the International Monetary Fund, was Harry Dexter White, a Soviet espionage operative.) Though Luce did not believe in capitalism in one country, his vision of a redeemer nation was less easily mocked than the pledge that future Senator Kenneth Wherry made in 1940: “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.”12

  • 13 Quoted in Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 146.
  • 14 Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 143-44.
  • 15 “The Peoples of the USSR” and “Lavrentii R. Beria,” in Life, 14 (March 29, 1943), 23, 40.

10And speaking of the USSR, that nation would pose a challenge that Luce’s essay is not prophetic enough to mention. Early 1941 was simply far too soon to have predicted the geopolitical conflict that would utterly rearrange the alliance system of the Second World War. “An editor’s job is to stay ahead of his readers by three weeks, not ten years,” Luce once averred;13 and the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union he did not envision for about three more years.14 “The American Century” is not the playbook for postwar strategy. Meanwhile there was that notorious special issue of Life to be run, in which the NKVD was depicted as “a national police similar to the FBI,” protecting the Russians, who were “one hell of a people,” and therefore much like Americans themselves.15

  • 16 Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), 410.

11Having welcomed Walter Lippmann’s US Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (1943), Luce considered serializing the sequel in Life the following year. But when he read the description in US War Aims of our major ally as a totalitarian power, he refused to exercise the option: “It’s too anti-Russian,” the publisher complained to Lippmann.16 Luce did not expect the tyrannies on the planet to evaporate, nor did he believe that facsimiles of American democracy could easily be established elsewhere. But “The American Century” can be read as complementary to the Four Freedoms. All four of them are addressed in the editorial.

  • 17 Luce, American Century, 6; Lloyd Gardner, Architects of Illusion: Men and Ideas in AmericanForeign (...)
  • 18 Quoted in Herzstein, Henry R. Luce, 177.

12It opens with an acknowledgement that “there is no peace in our hearts”; the anxiety and “gloom” could be dispelled by the decisiveness that would achieve Freedom from Fear. Far from exulting in an uncritical celebration of the American way of life, Luce acknowledged the tremulous state of public opinion and he offered an antidote to irresolution. Freedom from Fear meant not merely from the danger of foreign attack (which Luce erroneously discounted). “Can we avoid a post-armament depression?” was also a question posed to members of the American Economic Association. 80% of those who answered said no, according to a report published four months after the appearance of the Life editorial.17 He saw the American century as the alternative to doom, and argued that “there is no possibility of the survival of American civilization except as it survives as a world power.”18

  • 19 Henry A. Wallace, “The Price of Free World Victory” (1942), in Appendix to The Price of Vision:The (...)

13The rest of the editorial establishes the twin themes of what America could offer the world, by a decision to intervene: Freedom (whether of Speech or Worship) and an end to poverty and misery. Soviet sympathizers often portrayed political freedom and material security as a tradeoff, and defended the denial of the former as essential for the pursuit of the latter. Luce detected no either/or, and did not even envision national sacrifice or heavy civic demands as the price of the Four Freedoms. Unlike Churchill’s offer of “blood, toil, tears and sweat” as the way to national survival, Luce could not get beyond the pleasure principle. And in defining the American dream as liberation from want, as a dream that humanity itself could share, Luce’s editorial deserves to be compared to a speech that did not draw similar animosity from the left. On May 8, 1942, Henry A. Wallace’s address on “The Price of Free World Victory” was seen at the time as a rebuttal to Luce’s editorial. Indeed the Vice-President remarked: “Some have spoken of the ‘American Century.’ I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come out of this war—can be and must be the century of the commonman.” Instead of the hegemony of one nation, Wallace recommended a “people’s revolution.”19

  • 20 Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 132.
  • 21 John Morton Blum. ed., Public Philosopher: Selected Letters of Walter Lippmann (New York:TIcknor & (...)
  • 22 Quoted in Elson, Time Inc., 464.

14Though Lippmann’s article on “The American Destiny,” published in Life a year and a half before the appearance of Luce’s editorial, had helped shape the publisher’s thinking,20 Wallace’s speech elicited greater praise from the pundit. He told the Vice President that “The Price of Free World Victory” was “the most moving and effective thing produced by us during the war. In fact, I thought it perfect, and you need have no qualms about letting it be circulated not only all over the country but all over the world.” Such praise—indirectly at Luce’s expense—and the supposed contrast to “The American Century” irritated the magazine publisher,21 who wrote Wallace: “I should not like to think that anything of substance in the essay [...] is inconsistent with your hopes and promises for the increasing freedom and welfare of ‘the common man.” Wallace conceded the point in a reply to Luce: “I do not happen to remember anything that you have written descriptive of your concepts of ‘The American Century’ of which I disapprove.”22

  • 23 Blum, ed., Price of Vision, 25.
  • 24 Luce, American Century, 37-38; Blum, V Was for Victory, 285; Blum, ed., Price of Victory, 122n.
  • 25 Quoted in Blum, V, 285, and in Brinkley, “To See and Know Everything,” 108.

15In retrospect Wallace looks almost like Luce’s body double, despite John Morton Blum’s claim that Wallace “detested the confident chauvinism” of Luce’s editorial.23 The dividing line was more a matter of tone and nuance than ideological friction. After all the Life editorial demanded that the US “feed all the people of the world” who “are hungry and destitute.” Yet when the Vice-President advocated something similar in May, 1942, he was ridiculed for being so bubble-headed a New Dealer as to favor passing out milk to all the Hottentots (a people presumably too unworthy of the dignity of decent nourishment). Such idealism was precisely what Clare Boothe Luce, the Republican elected to Congress from Connecticut in November, 1942, would famously scorn as “globaloney.”24 Although Luce’s views have often been interpreted as Christian in origin, the language of the editorial betrays no hint of piety, other than one passing reference to the Psalms. There is no mention of God. Wallace would become the darling of the Communists and theirsympathizers in his Presidential campaign on the Progressive ticket in 1948. But six years earlier, he had expressed confidence in the victory of the “people’s revolution” because “the devil and all his angels cannot prevail against it. They cannot prevail for on the side of the people is the Lord.” The Vice-President insisted that “no compromise with Satan is possible [...]. Strong is the strength of the Lord, we who fight in the people’s cause will never stop until the cause is won.”25 For the Marxist mantra of historical inevitability, he had substituted a destiny that was divinely ordained. Yet the missionary’s son is easily patronized as sanctimonious, while some liberal and leftist historians have given a pass to Wallace—who after all became Secretary of Commerce. Either Luce wasn’t as far to the right as he is often depicted, or Wallace wasn’t as far to the left as is sometimes believed.

  • 26 Stephen J. Whitfield, A Critical American: The Politics of Dwight Macdonald (Hamden, Ct.:Archon Boo (...)
  • 27 Whittaker Chambers to William F. Buckley, Jr., April 28?, 1959, in Chambers, Odyssey of aFriend: Le (...)

16Wallace never quite figured out how the expansionist capitalism that he promoted could be harnessed to the worldwide social revolution with which he sympathized.26 Luce was in fact more coherent—and more prescient—in imagining that the business civilization that he favored would vindicate democratic hopes for human betterment. The imperative of a “people’s revolution” offered a smaller chance of satisfying rising expectations than did Luce’s Americanism. In the following decade two books pivotal to American historiography focused upon the aims that Luce had formulated. For Louis Hartz, what distinguished American politics was a single tradition: the ideology of liberalism. For David Potter, what Americans took for granted was what made them unique: an economy of abundance. These two phenomena that Luce highlighted were also mentioned in 1959 by his most famous former editor, Whittaker Chambers, who realized that “the West, I am more and more convinced, has two main goods to offer mankind: freedom and abundance. They interact, of course.” And they were most conspicuously encountered, if not in America, then at least in the idea of America. In 1990 Eric Foner returned from a gig teaching at Moscow State University to note that the younger academics he met considered the US to be “the land of liberty and prosperity of our own imagination.”27 Thus was Luce vindicated. If the opposite of liberty is submission (for which the Arabic word is “Islam”), and if no part of the planet is more generally cursed by povertythan in Muslim lands, then the lethal hatred animating Al Qaeda also measures what Luce had cherished in his own country.

  • 28 Terry A. Cooney, Balancing Acts: American Thought and Culture in the 1930s (New York:Twayne, 1995), (...)

17In formulating a mission statement for modern America, Luce could not have selected a better forum than the magazine that he happened to own. Founded in 1936, Life was soon achieving a sales record of 2.1 million copies per week, in an era when magazine sales above a million were extremely rare. The response to the publisher’s 1941 editorial was intense. 4,541 letters came in, and nearly all of them were favorable. Time Inc. boosted—or responded to—popular interest by offering copies of “The American Century” free of charge. The Washington Post reprinted it, as did the April edition of the Reader’s Digest. Later in 1941 Farrar & Rinehart stretched the editorial into a tiny book, with critiques by six commentators; and the essay was assigned in many high schools, colleges and universities.28

  • 29 Dorothy Thompson in Luce et al., American Century, 50-51; Herzstein, Henry R. Luce, 180-81,232.

18Much of its impact was due to the democratic nationalism that had been building momentum for a decade. But “The American Century” also advanced a case for internationalism, for placing the republic in a world that was commonly described as shrinking. One commentator who shared billing with Luce in book form was the syndicated columnist and foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson. She endorsed the extension of American influence not only because it would enable foreign peoples to enjoy freedom and prosperity, but also because “to Americanize enough of the world” was necessary to “have a climate and environment favorable to our growth [...]. This will either be an American century or it will be the beginning of the decline and fall of the American dream.” Further confirmation of the Marxist theory that capitalism required expansion came from within the Roosevelt administration itself. Stanley K. Hornbeck, the Department of State political adviser whose jurisdiction was the Far East, cited the editorial in a memorandum sent to the Under Secretary of State, Sumner Welles. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy believed the Life editorial to offer the most astute postwar vision. “We cannot avoid our world responsibilities,” James V. Forrestal, a former Wall Street investment banker, concluded.29

  • 30 Quoted in Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 132-33, 135.

19But so hegemonic an ambition is precisely what troubled Senator Robert A. Taft, the isolationist Republican of Ohio. He doubted that Americans could successfully extended their system to the rest of the world: “Other people simply do not like to be dominated.” The effort to impose ourselves on others, Taft correctly predicted, would require anenormous military establishment in peacetime. Nor could Herbert Hoover envision the US serving as global policeman. Having seen much of the world as a mining engineer and as director of food relief after World War I, the former President warned: “America cannot impose its freedoms and ideals upon the twenty-six races of Europe or the world.”30

  • 31 Freda Kirchwey, “Luce Thinking,” Nation, 152 (March 1, 1941), 229-30; Swanberg, Luce and HisEmpire, (...)
  • 32 Quoted in Justus D. Doenecke, Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention,1939-194 (...)
  • 33 Quoted in Swanberg, Luce and His Empire, 182.
  • 34 Quoted in Elson, Time Inc., 463.

20But the left turned the editorial into a piñata. While acknowledging that Luce’s vision was “magnanimous and benevolent, it is large and awe-inspiring,” Freda Kirchwey, the editor and publisher of The Nation also called it “smug, self-righteous, superior, and fatuously lacking in a decent regard for the susceptibilities of the rest of mankind. These particular qualities are the typical stigmata of the Anglo-Saxon in his role as imperialist.” Indeed she discovered analogies in the Neue Ordnung and in Lebensraum, and damned “The American Century” as “so toxic” that the Federal Trade Commission should be alerted to protect the public.31 A former editor of The Nation, Oswald Garrison Villard, did not demur, asserting that “The American Century” was a dangerous mixture of imperialism and aggression, roughly the counterpart to Mein Kampf in announcing a pursuit of “world domination,” making his country as ominous a threat to humanity as the Third Reich, or Soviet Russia, or Japan. (His biographer finds Villard’s anti-war writings in this period “more and more intemperate.”)32 Socialist tribune Norman Thomas also denounced Luce’s “nakedness of imperial ambition” and the proposal to have “the English-speaking nations [...] police in God’s name such places as we think necessary for our advantage.”33 Yet Luce thought of himself as a foe of British colonial rule, and especially resented the imputation of an imperialist agenda: “You can’t extract imperialism from ‘The American Century.’”34 Indeed The Nation had done so, not by reading a text but by reading into a text what was not there.

  • 35 Max Lerner, Ideas for the Ice Age (New York: Viking Press, 1941), 53-57.
  • 36 Quoted in Elson, Time Inc., 464; Laura Z. Hobson, Gentleman’s Agreement (New York: Simon& Schuster, (...)

21Unlike Villard and Thomas, columnist Max Lerner was an interventionist, and offered the lib-lab alternative to Luce’s vision. A “People’s Century” would mean that “we are leaders among equals, with their consent,” rather than an “American-dominated world capitalism.” Peoples under the boot of fascism could fight for “their own freedom and equality in an international community, or the privilege of sharing in anAmerican Century” that smacked too much of narrow power politics.35 There was something insufficiently humble in the language and spirit of Luce’s editorial that discomfited progressives like Vice-President Wallace, who wrote Luce: “The phrase ‘American Century’ did rub citizens of a number of our sister United Nations the wrong way.” Yet Luce saw no contradiction between asserting American leadership and extending, say, the Four Freedoms. Indeed he believed the two aims to be inextricable. But they had to be uncoupled, his liberal critics believed, though the effect was a bit mushy. An example is Laura Z. Hobson’s best-selling Gentleman’s Agreement, published in 1947, when the Cold War was already evident. Hobson was a universalist whose protagonist ruminates that, if injustice could be defeated, then “it might not be the American Century after all, or the Russian Century [...] Perhaps it would be the century that broadened and implemented the idea of freedom, all the freedoms. Of all men.”36

  • 37 Quoted in John K. Jessup, ed., Introduction to The Ideas of Henry Luce (New York: Atheneum,1969), 1 (...)
  • 38 Warren I. Susman, ed., Culture and Commitment, 1929-1945 (New York: George Braziller,1973), 318-19.

22A major event in the formation of the American role in world affairs, a source of heated public debate in 1941, “The American Century” has endured as a phrase (which to Reinhold Niebuhr smacked— predictably—of “egoistic corruption”). 37 But as a document, “The American Century” has barely remained worthy of attention. Indeed the editorial is not even easily accessible. In 1969, two years after Luce died, it was reprinted in The Ideas of Henry Luce, edited by John K. Jessup. It is, like the tiny 1941 volume, out of print. “The American Century” is absent from the widely-used anthologies of primary sources that two Columbia University historians compiled: Henry Steele Commager’s Living Ideas in America (1951) and Richard Hofstadter’s Great Issues in American History (1958). Excerpted in Warren I. Susman’s Culture and Commitment, 1929-1945 (1973), the editorial is praised as “a cultural statement of profound meaning as Americans sought to define their culture and define their commitments.”38 Yet Susman’s volume is also out of print; and Luce’s editorial is no longer a document to be reckoned with, nor is it secure from oblivion.

  • 39 Walter LaFeber, “American Exceptionalism Abroad: A Brief History,” Foreign Service Journal,77 (Marc (...)

23The recent work of historians confirms such an impression. Olivier Zunz’s book, Why the American Century?, makes only passing reference to the editorial that inspired his title; and the medievalist Norman F. Cantor’s overview of the culture of the twentieth century, The AmericanCentury (1997), is even more indifferent. Ditto Joyce Antler’s The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century (1997). A final nail in the coffin was hit by a distinguished diplomatic historian. Writing on “American Exceptionalism Abroad,” Walter LaFeber claimed that the term “American Century” was coined “in mid-1941” (though “early” would be a better description of the second month of the year), and that Luce “rightly assumed” that the US was “already deeply involved on the side of the British and the Russians.” Luce—for all his prescience—could hardly have envisaged involvement on the side of the Russians, who were then of course allied not with the British but with Nazi Germany. No direct mention is made of the Soviet Union in what LaFeber called Luce’s “editorials” (of which there was only one).39

  • 40 Steel, Walter Lippmann, xiii, 404; Walter Lippmann, “The American Destiny,” Life, 6 (June 5,1939), (...)
  • 41 Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 132.

24If further proof were needed that the phrase has been more bandied about than the editorial itself has been read or studied, consider the special case of Walter Lippmann, whose most authoritative biographer inserted “the American Century” in his title. Ronald Steel makes only one direct, brief reference to the editorial, quoting Luce’s argument for assuming “the leadership of the world”; thus was “inaugurate[d] what he modestly labeled ‘the American Century.” Steel categorizes the twentieth century as when “the American empire was born, matured, and began to founder, a time some have called, first boastfully, then wistfully, the American Century.” The reluctance in this passage to credit Luce even for so indispensable a coinage is especially striking because Lippmann’s own enunciation of “The American Destiny” was a source of Luce’s editorial. One of Lippmann’s main functions as a pundit was to stuff ideas into other people’s heads. During the Second World War, Lippmann opposed the messianic streak in the legacy of Wilsonian diplomacy, suspected the bona fides of the crusades in behalf of democracy and capitalism, and underscored the constraints upon the application of American power.40 Such positions were antithetical to Luce’s. But the two journalists shared an opposition to pacifism and to isolationism, and Lippmann’s claim in “The American Destiny” that national anxiety stemmed from the popular “refusal to accept the large responsibilities” of a new hegemon was transferred into Luce’s account of malaise that opens “The American Century.”41

25As a plea for international involvement, “The American Century” was spurred by immediate circumstances. As a formulation of national purpose, the editorial exemplified an idea that could be traced to the Puritan origins of the nation and had shown a certain historical resilience. But the two features of Luce’s essay were inseparable, and bore a very personal imprint.

  • 42 Brinkley, “To See and to Know Everything,” Time, 52.
  • 43 Luce, American Century, 37.
  • 44 Quoted in Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 22.

26Born in Tengchow in 1898, he spent his childhood almost entirely in China, within the walled compound where missionary families lived. There he grew up with an “unquestioned belief in the moral superiority of Christianity and the cultural superiority of America,” according to Alan Brinkley. “The image of America that Luce had as a child was an idealized one his father and other missionaries created to justify their work. It was an image Luce never wholly abandoned. Luce emerged from his youth with a deep sense of moral certainty.”42 Baughman has traced the national confidence that permeates “The American Century” to the Presbyterian missionary family into which Luce was born, which is why he took such offense at accusations of imperialism. He did not want his countrymen to be conquerors or occupiers or exploiters but rather to be the “Good Samaritan of the entire world.”43 Delivering the senior class oration at Yale in 1920, Luce had expected “American interests” and “American business ideals” to animate a foreign policy that should make the US “the comrade of all nations that struggle to rise to higher planes of social and political organization.”44 Two decades later, such nationalism was ready for resurrection; and he could confidently advocate an American vocation to benefit a humanity afflicted with despotism and destitution.

  • 45 Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (New York: Pantheon, 2002), 404,410.

27Such a plea was not merely a delusion. Without referring to Luce’s editorial, the British historian Eric Hobsbawm was not even remotely grudging in his claim that, “internationally speaking, the USA was by any standards the success story among 20th-century states.” He explained: “Its economy became the world’s largest, both pace- and pattern-setting; its capacity for technological achievement was unique; its research in both natural and social sciences, even its philosophers, became increasingly dominant; and its hegemony in global consumer civilization seemed beyond challenge. It ended the century as the only surviving global power and empire. What is more, as I have written elsewhere, ‘in some ways the United States represents the best of the 20th century.’ If opinion is measured not by pollsters but by migrants, almost certainly America would be the preferred destination of most human beings who must, ordecide to, move to a country other than their own, certainly of those who know some English.” Coming from an historian long committed to Communism in politics and to cosmopolitanism in perspective, such a summation suggests that “The American Century” was not even an exaggeration (much less a delusion), and cannot any more be put down as a gesture of national amour-propre. Yet Hobsbawm struck a discordant note in adding that “America is less of a coherent and therefore exportable social and political model of a capitalist liberal democracy, based on the universal principles of individual freedom, than its patriotic ideology and Constitution suggest. So, far from being a clear example that the rest of the world can imitate, the USA, however powerful and influential, remains an unending process, distorted by big money and public emotion [...] It simply does not lend itself to copying.”45

  • 46 Richard Pells, Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culturesince (...)
  • 47 Louis Uchitelle, “When the Chinese Consumer is King,” New York Times, December 14, 2003,IV, 5.

28That relentless process has no foreseeable end, but neither can the beginnings be specified. In 1902, the English journalist William T. Stead took note of The Americanisation of the World, by which he meant not only the triumph of the machine but also the extension of mass culture. A year later, as though on cue, a motor-car company was founded that became an eponym for mass-production efficiency, technical sophistication and the deft satisfaction of a mass market of consumers. Writing in a Fascist prison in 1934, the maverick Marxist Antonio Gramsci explicitly linked “Americanism and Fordism,” and would put the flair for industrial advancement within a cultural context that encouraged the cultivation of talent—in contrast to Europe, where the prevalence of “parasites” retarded such development. Gramsci’s insight was eerily consistent with the definition of the American Dream that James Truslow Adams had proposed three years earlier—“opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement.” Exactly a century after the birth of the Ford Motor Company, it was surpassed as the second biggest automobile manufacturer on the planet by Toyota; and though blue jeans remain the pre-eminent sartorial symbol of the US, it has ceased to be the home of any more Levi Strauss factories.46 No wonder that MIT’s Robert M. Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics, has discounted “the notion that God intended for Americans to be permanently wealthier than the rest of the world. That gets less and less likely as time goes on.”47

  • 48 Matt Forney, “Tug-of-War Over Trade,” Time, 162 (December 22, 2003), 44.
  • 49 Uchitelle, “Chinese Consumer,” 5.

29But if not the American Century, then whose? The twenty-first century may be the Chinese Century. 1.2 billion people constitutes a far more enormous market than the United States can offer salesmen and investors. Indeed by 2002 China already surpassed the USA as the favorite recipient of foreign investment in the world.48 Since 1991, the Chinese share of the world’s output of goods and services has nearly doubled, to 12.7%. The European Union is still ahead (at 15.7%), but barely. The proportion enjoyed by India, with its population of north of a billion, is 4.8%. The US share of 21% has remained steady since 1980.49 The prospect of a Chinese Century might well have pleased the anti-isolationist whose birthplace had rendered him Constitutionally ineligible to be President, the academically impressive but socially insecure outsider whom his fellow Yalies had nicknamed “Chink,” the publisher who had put Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek on the cover of Time, together or separately, a whopping eleven times; in 1938 they were “Man and Wife of the Year.” (Soong Mei-Ling, who had married the Generalissimo in 1927, died in her Manhattan apartment in 2003 at the age of 105. She had lived in three different centuries—and not only during the American Century.)

  • 50 Quoted in Jessup, ed., Introduction to Ideas of Henry Luce, 7.
  • 51 Herzstein, Henry R. Luce, 420; O’Neill, Democracy at War, 7; Pico Iyer, “A Flower Made of Steel:Mad (...)

30Of course Luce could not have been expected to predict how long an American Century would last, whether it would stretch into a longue durée. His editorial is frustratingly oblivious to such challenges as bracketing the dates of the American Century. Perhaps understandably, his editorial downplays the most conspicuous failures of the society that he asked to accept the responsibilities of world leadership. “I am biased in favor of God, the Republican party, and free enterprise,” Luce once announced;50 and such a credo could not be expected to stimulate an adversarial relation to his country. Though he was a liberal on civil rights (and his magazines would be increasingly critical of white supremacy), his editorial ignores the various forms of bigotry that were then mostly taken for granted, including nativism. When “The American Century” was published, the immigration quota from Asia was a nice round number: zero. Not until 1943 was the Chinese Exclusion Act scrapped (and the annual quota was set at 105). The bitter labor conflict that marked the Depression Decade is also unmentioned in the editorial. (To be fair to Luce, though his politics were Republican, he was more decent than his overseas favorites. In 1943, when FDR casually asked the elegant Madame Chiang how she would deal with the pesky president of the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis, “she drew her hand across herthroat,” a reporter noted.)51 Nor is any idea in “The American Century” original; so high a test the editorial could not be expected to pass. Luce invented neither democratic nationalism nor liberal internationalism, and did not bother to fine-tune the distinction. Because his argument lacked internal tension, or any sense of goods that are in conflict but probably cannot be reconciled, his essay is not intellectually stimulating.

  • 52 Alan Brinkley, “The Concept of an American Century,” in The American Century in Europe, eds.R. Laur (...)

31But because it lacks snap doesn’t mean that it is wrong. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, the exercise of American power is too evident even to generate the animus that Luce’s domestic critics registered over six decades ago. That such dominance has been misused is hardly disputed, but what vexed many of Luce’s readers is that he favored using it at all. That debate is long over. Luce’s faith has become a fact. No one had proclaimed more effectively how the succeeding decades would play out within the framework of unprecedented American impact, facilitated by astounding affluence and economic growth and justified by the redemptive ideal of a distinctively democratic mission. His editorial managed the feat, as historian Alan Brinkley has observed, of combining a vigorous nationalism with reassuringly moralistic affirmations. Luce anticipated his compatriots’ yearning to “spread the American model to other nations, at times through relatively benign encouragement, at other times through pressure and coercion, but almost always with a fervent and active intent.”52 Rarely has so compact an editorial statement therefore exerted so consequential an import. Indeed Luce’s vision was so compelling that “The American Century” should be classified with the most important essays in the nation’s history—below, say, “Common Sense” or “Civil Disobedience” or “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” or the “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” but perhaps of the same stature as the “Report on Manufactures” or “The American Scholar” or "The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements.”

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Notes

1 Henry R. Luce, “The American Century,” Life, 10 (February 17, 1941), 61, reprinted in The American Century, with Comments by Dorothy Thompson et al. (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941), 8.

2 James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1931), 415; Allan Nevins, James Truslow Adams: Historian of the American Dream (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,1968), 68n; Warren I. Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in theTwentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 154, 157-58.

3 Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 236-37; Rob Kroes,If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen the Mall: Europeans and American Mass Culture (Urbana:University of Illinois Press, 1996), 113-14.

4 Carl L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New York:Alfred A. Knopf, 1942), xvi.

5 Mark Lincoln Chadwin, The Hawks of World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North CarolinaPress, 1968), 63, 76; Robert T. Elson, Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise,1923-1941 (New York: Atheneum, 1968), 460-61.

6 Robert E. Herzstein, Henry R. Luce: A Political Portrait of the Man who Created the AmericanCentury (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1994), 179; Daniel Bell, “Henry Luce’s Half-Century,” New Leader, 55 (December 11, 1972), 14.

7 William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-1940 (New York: Harper& Row, 1963), 306-7.

8 James L. Baughman, Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media (Baltimore: JohnsHopkins University Press, 2001), 131; W. A. Swanberg, Luce and His Empire (New York:Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 182.

9 John Morton Blum, V Was for Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II (NewYork: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 284-85.

10 Luce, American Century, 36; Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 131; Bell, “Henry Luce’s Half-Century,” 13; William L. O’Neill, A Democracy at War: America’s Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II (New York: Free Press, 1993), 9.

11 Joshua Freeman et al, Who Built America? (New York: Pantheon, 1992), II, 610-11.

12 Quoted in Eric F. Goldman, The Crucial Decade—and After: America, 1945-1960 (New York:Vintage Books, 1960), 116.

13 Quoted in Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 146.

14 Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 143-44.

15 “The Peoples of the USSR” and “Lavrentii R. Beria,” in Life, 14 (March 29, 1943), 23, 40.

16 Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980), 410.

17 Luce, American Century, 6; Lloyd Gardner, Architects of Illusion: Men and Ideas in AmericanForeign Policy, 1941-1949 (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1970), 22.

18 Quoted in Herzstein, Henry R. Luce, 177.

19 Henry A. Wallace, “The Price of Free World Victory” (1942), in Appendix to The Price of Vision:The Diary of Henry A. Wallace, 1942-1946, ed. John Morton Blum (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1973), 638.

20 Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 132.

21 John Morton Blum. ed., Public Philosopher: Selected Letters of Walter Lippmann (New York:TIcknor & Fields, 1985), 431n; Steel, Walter Lippmann, 404; Walter Lippmann to Henry A.Wallace, November 26, 1942, in Blum, ed., Public Philosopher, 431; Elson, Time Inc., 463.

22 Quoted in Elson, Time Inc., 464.

23 Blum, ed., Price of Vision, 25.

24 Luce, American Century, 37-38; Blum, V Was for Victory, 285; Blum, ed., Price of Victory, 122n.

25 Quoted in Blum, V, 285, and in Brinkley, “To See and Know Everything,” 108.

26 Stephen J. Whitfield, A Critical American: The Politics of Dwight Macdonald (Hamden, Ct.:Archon Books, 1984), 38-39; Dwight Macdonald, “The (American) People’s Century,” PartisanReview, 9 (July-August, 1942), 297-98, 304-5, 308.

27 Whittaker Chambers to William F. Buckley, Jr., April 28?, 1959, in Chambers, Odyssey of aFriend: Letters to William F. Buckley, Jr., 1954-1961 (New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 1969), 244;Eric Foner, Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York: Hill &Wang, 2002), 80.

28 Terry A. Cooney, Balancing Acts: American Thought and Culture in the 1930s (New York:Twayne, 1995), 174; Alan Brinkley, “To See and to Know Everything,” Time, 151 (March 9,1998), 52-53; Elson, Time Inc., 463; Herzstein, Henry R. Luce, 180-81.

29 Dorothy Thompson in Luce et al., American Century, 50-51; Herzstein, Henry R. Luce, 180-81,232.

30 Quoted in Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 132-33, 135.

31 Freda Kirchwey, “Luce Thinking,” Nation, 152 (March 1, 1941), 229-30; Swanberg, Luce and HisEmpire, 182.

32 Quoted in Justus D. Doenecke, Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention,1939-1941 (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 42-43; Michael Wreszin, OswaldGarrison Villard: Pacifist at War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965), 264.

33 Quoted in Swanberg, Luce and His Empire, 182.

34 Quoted in Elson, Time Inc., 463.

35 Max Lerner, Ideas for the Ice Age (New York: Viking Press, 1941), 53-57.

36 Quoted in Elson, Time Inc., 464; Laura Z. Hobson, Gentleman’s Agreement (New York: Simon& Schuster, 1947), 205-6.

37 Quoted in John K. Jessup, ed., Introduction to The Ideas of Henry Luce (New York: Atheneum,1969), 16.

38 Warren I. Susman, ed., Culture and Commitment, 1929-1945 (New York: George Braziller,1973), 318-19.

39 Walter LaFeber, “American Exceptionalism Abroad: A Brief History,” Foreign Service Journal,77 (March 2000), 26, 27.

40 Steel, Walter Lippmann, xiii, 404; Walter Lippmann, “The American Destiny,” Life, 6 (June 5,1939), 47, 72-73; Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 132; Barton J. Bernstein, “Walter Lippmann and theEarly Cold War,” in Cold War Critics: Alternatives to American Foreign Policy in the Truman Years,ed. Thomas G. Paterson (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1971), 19.

41 Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 132.

42 Brinkley, “To See and to Know Everything,” Time, 52.

43 Luce, American Century, 37.

44 Quoted in Baughman, Henry R. Luce, 22.

45 Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (New York: Pantheon, 2002), 404,410.

46 Richard Pells, Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culturesince World War II (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), 7; David Forgacs, ed., The Gramsci Reader:Selected Writings, 1916-1935 (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 277-80; Adams,Epic of America, 415; John Cassidy, “Happy Days,” New Yorker, 79 (December 15, 2003), 41.

47 Louis Uchitelle, “When the Chinese Consumer is King,” New York Times, December 14, 2003,IV, 5.

48 Matt Forney, “Tug-of-War Over Trade,” Time, 162 (December 22, 2003), 44.

49 Uchitelle, “Chinese Consumer,” 5.

50 Quoted in Jessup, ed., Introduction to Ideas of Henry Luce, 7.

51 Herzstein, Henry R. Luce, 420; O’Neill, Democracy at War, 7; Pico Iyer, “A Flower Made of Steel:Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, 1898-2003,” Time, 162 (November 3, 2003), 47.

52 Alan Brinkley, “The Concept of an American Century,” in The American Century in Europe, eds.R. Laurence Moore and Maurizio Vaudagna (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003), 7-10, 19.

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Stephen J. Whitfield, « The American Century of Henry R. Luce », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Media, culture, histoire, La Deuxième Guerre mondiale, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2004, consulté le 27 mai 2017. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/917

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Stephen J. Whitfield

Professor (Brandeis, Boston, USA)
Stephen Whitfield is Professor of American Studies at Brandeis University and is, most recently, the editor of A Companion to 20th-Century America (2004). In the spring and summer of 2004, he served as visiting professor at the Ludwig-Maximilians Universität of Munich.A different version of this essay will be appearing in Americanism: Essays on the History of an Ambiguous Ideal, eds. Michael Kazin and Joseph McCartin, to be published by the University of North Carolina Press.

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