How the Pacific Gave the Breath of Life to the American Century

Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM
Room 102 (Hynes Convention Center)
Bruce Cumings , University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Henry Luce spoke of the future in 1941,  an "American Century" unfolding well into the middle of the twenty-first century, rather than an American Century coterminous with the twentieth century. The American Pacific, and Pacific involvements, were central to why the American Century did not end in 2000: California had pioneered mass production and mass consumption in the first thirty years of the twentieth century, and that was the substance of Luce's "American vision": an abundance of material goods for every home--ranging from washing machines to automobiles and beyond--not only at home but also abroad in due course.
            Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 assured that the United States would finally become the Pacific power that many Americans had wanted it to be for a century; military force locked in American advantages and soon the Pacific was dominated by one power to an extent unparalleled in world history. Even the trauma of the Vietnam War at its height in the mid-1960s through its denouement in 1975, did not alter this situation. Moreover at that same time, the cataclysm in China that was the Cultural Revolution showed the limits of an alternative, revolutionary vision for social and economic organization.
            Today a hailstorm of "rise of China" alarms and diversions suggests that China will somehow displace a United States in deep decline, but in fact China is right in the middle of implementing Luce's critical vision of mass consumption, as if he were directing China's affairs, instead of a Communist party that truly is in decline. Communist China, for example, has become the largest automobile market in the world. Somewhere, Henry Luce is smiling. The American Century endures.
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