At our monthly book discussion group we discussed Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Short American Century: A Postmortem [Harvard 2012]. Bacevich and eight other essayists reflect on a central theme of American history—the belief that we are an exceptional people brought across the Atlantic since the 1630s to establish a “city on a hill” whose lights would serve as a beacon for the Puritans in America. That phrase was offered in a sermon in 1630 by John Winthrop (1587-1649) a founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His writings with that phrase were not published until the 1800s, but his phrase resonated among the colonists and was absorbed by numerous American Presidents after the Civil War. The chapters of this book reveal how a combination of religious piety, laissez faire Capitalism, sanctioned genocide and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans, a defense of slavery, and a passion for Empire-building led to the growth of the United States first from Ocean to Ocean and then through purchase and conquest, to lands taken from Mexico, the Spanish, the Central American Republics, the establishment of military bases around the world, and the use of military intervention in wars of choice to maintain our self-image of spreading the American dream around the world.
Henry Luce, in 1940 in Time Magazine used the phrase “The American Century” to represent an American dominance of the world through its military strength, its belief in exporting democracy (as long it was pro-American), world trade (as long as it was dominated by American economic interests), and world culture (as long as our publications, popular music, mass produced foods, sports, and Hollywood films were favored and admired). Instead of a century (with thirty more years to go to reach it), the authors of these essays show that the American Century was a myth for us to believe as self-gratifying. It was betrayed by our foreign policy, by our military disasters in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. It was betrayed by our destruction of the labor union movement and corporate greed leading to the death of American manufacturing in the United States (replaced by using cheap labor overseas and unregulated factories in developing countries). It was betrayed by plunging into wars around the world when we were not being under military threat except in the imaginations of political advisors and candidates. It was betrayed by creation of secret agencies that carried out killings of leaders who opposed US foreign policy. These actions, the authors claim, have made America less secure, more divided, less respected (except through fear), and in a state of economic contraction. Instead of recognizing that there is no one country that can dominate 7 billion people with different cultures and Americanize all 7 billion of them, we have kept propping up “the city on the hill” as our vision of America. Both Democrats (Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama) and Republicans (Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes) have embraced “American exceptionalism” and it is taught in our public schools as an American ideal we should favor. That other people have a right to self-determination, different religions, different cultures, and different needs is often repressed in favor of the self-deception that we have a God-given right to do as we want whether we call it Manifest Destiny, God’s grace, the American character, or the political equivalent to Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that guides our laissez faire capitalism. Bacevich pleads that we should abandon the American exceptionalism mandate from our public policy.the short American century: a postmortem