Henry Luce and The American Century

I have been looking at various conceptions of internationalism and especially world federalism in early postwar Japan and for background research, the history of similar movements worldwide. One article which popped up during the course of my reading was the famous February 1941 Life magazine editorial by publisher Henry Luce entitled “The American Century.” I have heard of it before but didn’t read it until today. I have never found a more explicit expression of American exceptionalism than this article, nor a more direct call for American world domination in the name of “American ideals.”

Interestingly, before launching into its nationalist, if not boldly imperialist arguments, the article makes mention of a book by world federalist Clarence Streit called Union Now which argues for a supernational federalist government. Unlike many other world federalists during this time and after the war, Streit wanted to limit his federalist state to democracies, thus splitting the movement even before it becomes strong for a brief period in the early postwar period. Early in his article Luce says Streit’s approach, “may not be the right approach to our problem. But no thoughtful American has done his duty by the United States of America until he has read and pondered Clarence Streit’s book presenting that proposal.” (164) Luce then begins by invoking the core ideals at stake:

“in postulating the indivisibility of the contemporary world, one does not necessarily imagine that anything like a world state – a parliament of men- must be brought about in this century. Nor need we assume that war can be abolished. All that it is necessary to feel – and to feel deeply – is that terrific forces of magnetic attraction and repulsion will operate as between every large group of human beings on this planet….Tyrannies may require a large amount of living space. But Freedom requires and will require far greater living space than Tyranny. Peace cannot endure unless it prevails over a very large part of the world. Justice will come near to losing all meaning in the minds of men unless Justice can have approximately the same fundamental meanings in many lands and among many peoples.” (168)

In other words, peace and justice must be found at the level of the universal, and cannot be maintained if only a few play along. The question, of course, is how this is to be accomplished. The world federalists had one solution, the founders of the United Nations had a somewhat more limited vision, but Luce clearly has something a little different in mind. He begins by looking at the word “internationalism” He notes that the word doesn’t tell you very much by itself. Indeed Rome, the Vatican, Genghis Khan, the Ottoman Turks, Chinese emperors, 19th century England, Lenin, and Hitler all had their own kind of “internationalism” to offer.

“But what internationalism have we Americans to offer? Ours cannot come out of the vision of any one man. It must be the product of the imaginations of many men. It must be a sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills. It must be an internationalism of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

The contrast to those empires of old, which he is directly comparing America too, cannot be more stark:

“…Unlike the prestige of Rome or Genghis Khan or 19th Century England, American prestige throughout the world is faith in the good intentions as well as in the ultimate intelligence and ultimate strength of the whole American people.” (169)

Throughout the article, the transmission is one way, from America to the world, for it is America who is the wellspring of virtue. No clearer expression of this can be found than here:

“…We have some things in this country which are infinitely precious and especially American – a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence and also of co-operation. In addition to ideals and notions which are especially American, we are inheritors of all the great principles of Western civilization – above all Justice, the love of Truth, the ideal of Charity. The other day Herbert Hoover said that America was fast becoming the sanctuary of the ideals of civilization. For the moment it may be enough to be the sanctuary of these ideals. But not for long. It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.

America as the dynamic center of ever-widening spheres of enterprise, America as the training center of the skillful servants of mankind, America as the Good Samaritan, really believing again that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and America as the powerhouse of the ideals of Freedom and Justice – out of these elements surely can be fashioned a vision of the 20th Century to which we can and will devote ourselves in joy and gladness and vigor and enthusiasm.” (170)

Freedom, equal opportunity, self-reliance and independence are “especially American” while America has also, as by some auspicious royal marriage, come to inherit guardianship over the principles of Justice, Truth, and Charity – the “ideals of civilization.” These She will share with the world.

Does this sound familiar? I was not raised in the United States so these words are perhaps less familiar to me than many. However, more than ever, we hear echoes of such passionate idealism and frightening conceit around us in much that we read and hear. Its supporters today want a new American century and much like Luce, embrace a vision in which a benevolent and virtuous America may, through her own “internationalism” dictate her terms to the world.

Note: I’m citing from a reprint of Luce’s article in Diplomatic History 23, no. 2 (Spring 1999): 159-171

4 thoughts on “Henry Luce and The American Century”

  1. I’m commenting here with some trepadition, because I think your article is fascinating, and I’m no scholar.

    I’ve read thru the articles you posted … and here’s the thing. American ideals did not just spring one day from America. We’re a product of Western civilization and thinking as it’s developed for the past two thousand years.

    I don’t think these ideals in and of themselves are anything to be afraid of, I don’t see the matter with people voting for their own government … or demonstrating without fear if they disagree with something. But, because these ideals are attached to America, and we’re promoting them, it’s somehow scarey and sinister.

    What seems to frighten people overseas, who do not know America well, is the notion of American “imperialism.”

    We’re not the most tactful people in the world, and that’s compounded by the fact that thinkers outside the States tend to project their own country’s shortfallings on the US.

    Also, American own thinkers don’t always, well, think before they engage their moutns, or their pens.

    I know my countrymen — we do not have the attention span to be a “colonial” power in the traditional sense of the word. We barely have the attention span to carry a war through for four years, if we’re not winning decisively. We could have never dealt with the 30 year war, much less the hundred year war in Europe.

    Here’s the problem — right now, there’s an incredibly ugly international geo-political scene developing, and I think that the West would be better served by pulling together, than by backstabbing and bickering.

    Mr. Bush didn’t wake up one morning in summer of 2001, and say “Gee, I want to really screw up the world!”

    I do think he woke up on September 12, thinking “Jeez, what are we going to do about this?”

    His solutions have been ongoing, and less than perfect. I will admit that. But the forces that have been building up to produce things like 9/11, the Madrid and London bombings … the incidents in Bali and Indonesia … have been building up for decades. To not have business as usual with countries that produce the conditions which encourage terrorism would seem appropriate.

    While folks are spending time and energy being terrified of America, I wish they’d also consider some of the other things in the world which are less than ideal.

    You’ve got an interesting perspective; sorry to have run on so long.

  2. Thank you for your comment and I sympathize with your fear of the violence that has plagued us in recent years, terrorism certainly being one important element of this and I am not against everything the United States and other countries have done to confront it. I also agree that American aggression and imperialism are only part of the many problems the world faces.

    For all my disapproval, I am not one who believes that Bush truly has some malicious plot to cause harm to the world and I agree he is acting on the basis of what he considers to be heroic motivations. Unfortunately, this does not get me far in evaluating his performance.

    However, I certainly don’t want to be any part of a “West” that has decided to “pull together,” presumably under the arrogant leadership of the United States, and I think many others in the “West” share my reluctance. Such mutual identification, presumably on the basis of a perceived superior culture or history, is, I believe, not terribly helpful. Instead, “pulling together” with the rest of the world, which I think would far better serve us all, will require abandoning allegience and support for American exceptionalist dreams.

  3. Dear Mr. Lawson,
    I am looking for the complete text of Henry Luce’s 1941 article, which I found via a link in Wikipedia, but have not been able to download, and then found your blog. You obviously have the text. Can you help?

    Richard Moskowitz

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