Roundtable The American Century: Assessing the Crucial Decade, 1965–74

AHA Session 82
Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations 2
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 102 (Hynes Convention Center)
Marilyn B. Young, New York University
The American Century in Europe Unravels
Mary Nolan, New York University
Jim Crowing the American Century
Carol Anderson, Emory University
Latin America and the Crisis of the American Century
William O. Walker III, independent scholar

Session Abstract

The seventieth anniversary of the appearance in Life magazine of publisher Henry R. Luce's famous essay, "The American Century," comes about one month after the 2011 AHA Conference in Boston. The proposed roundtable, designed for scholars and citizens interested in exploring the wellsprings of the U.S. role in the world, will examine the durability of the American Century in its most difficult years, 1965-74 -- from the escalation of the Vietnam War through the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon -- in order to evaluate what became of Luce's project. Given the unceasing shadow of Luce's ideas over America's international presence, which President Obama has implicitly recognized, the panel is a timely one.   
            Luce wrote of the United States "as the most powerful and vital nation in the world." The American people had the power to advance "the triumphal purpose of freedom." Luce also noted, "[T]here is already an immense American internationalism," one with cultural and industrial components which "every community in the world . . . recognizes." American values were exportable.  "America's vision" depended on "a sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills" and promised "an internationalism of the people, by the people, and for the people."
            The Republican Luce had cast off the shackles of not only isolationism but also the selective internationalism of the interwar years. Henceforth, the United States must accept the role of global leadership. In defense of "Western civilization," Luce argued, the Almighty "has founded America as a global beacon of freedom." Luce, Michael H. Hunt observed in The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance (2007), assumed that his country was up to the task he designed. He did not, however, inquire about the possible costs to American values and institutions -- political, economic, and social -- that might accompany the burdens of leadership.
            The Second World War and the first two decades of the Cold War seemed to prove Luce prophetic. The United States arguably performed its mission with a dexterous combination of vigilance and common sense. Nothing made that point more forcefully, it appeared, than the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis in the autumn of 1962.
            Though American ascendancy may have been undeniable by the mid-1960s, it needs to be asked -- given contemporary developments -- whether it was about to founder in troubled waters. Regarding such a prospect, Bruce Cumings has recently (Dominion from Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power [2009]) declared, "This is nonsense. The American Century began in 1941 (Henry Luce spoke in the future tense in his famous essay) and continues apace."
            Cumings will defend his position. The other panelists will look at economic and racial matters and developments in the United States, Europe, and Latin America and offer generally contrasting assessments about whether by 1974 the United States could still play the role that Luce had fashioned and others had endeavored to carry out.

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