andrew j. bacevich

“Self-serving mendacities” and the American Century

Andrew J. Bacevich’s The Short American Century: A Postmortem is excerpted in this month’s Harper’s (subscription required, alas).

Bacevich is a West Point alum, retired colonel, self-described Catholic conservative, professor of international relations at Boston University, and the father of Andrew J. Bacevich Jr., a soldier who was killed in Iraq in 2007, aged 27. He cannot be touched by the typical slanders cast  against antiwar voices.  Like Smedley Butler and James Carroll, he offers an insider’s  critique of militarism and American exceptionalism (which of course go together rather well). He also writes astonishingly well.

As such, he’s the perfect puncturer of the myths surrounding what has come to be known as The American Century, a concept still current in some circles, like, for example, whoever wrote this.  (Bacevich reminds us that candidate Obama was wont to  invoke the American Century on the campaign trail).

The phrase “the American Century” is credited to Henry Luce, who, as Bacevich points out, slipped the eponymous February 1941 Life magazine essay between “a feature on women’s fashion … and a profile of Betty Carstairs, oil heiress, adventuress, and speedboat racer.”

I want to share a big chunk of this, without (I hope) violating the spirit of the Harper’s business model.  Here, in a couple hundred words, Bacevich puts the Good War/Greatest Generation claptrap to rest in a rather authoritative manner.

Framed as chapters in a longer narrative of liberation, these two events [WWII and the Cold War] invest the ambitions inherent in the vision of an American Century with a modicum of plausibility. Yet sustaining that narrative requires the careful selection and arrangement of facts, with inconvenient or uncomfortable truths excluded, suppressed, or simply ignored.

With regard to World War II, the many facts that don’t fit include the following: in the destruction of Nazi Germany, U.S. forces played at best a supporting role, with Stalin’s Red Army—the vanguard of a totalitarian police state—doing most of the fighting, killing, and dying;  as a result, the price of liberating Western Europe included delivering Eastern Europe to Stalin and his henchmen. Meanwhile, in its aerial bombing campaign against German and Japanese cities, the United States engaged in the conscious, intentional, wholesale slaughter of noncombatants. In the aftermath of the European war, the Allies collaborated in enforcing a massive involuntary transfer of populations—that is, a policy of ethnic cleansing. When they found it expedient to do so, U.S. officials allowed Nazi war criminals—rocket scientists and intelligence officials, for example—to escape prosecution and to enter the service of the United States. Then there is this: at no time prior to or during the war did the United States make any substantive effort to prevent or even disrupt the Nazi persecution of Jews that culminated in the “final solution.” In Washington the fate of European Jewry never figured as more than an afterthought. As much or more than the promotion of American ideals—that “sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, [and] our Constitution” that Luce dearly hoped to see—these decisions, along with the priorities they reflect, laid the basis for the interval of American primacy that followed.

He then goes on to warn that the “self-serving mendacities” underpinning the American Century are not just wrong, but also dangerous:

The way that Americans choose to remember World War II and the Cold War—evil overthrown thanks chiefly to the United States—invests the American Century with reassuring moral clarity. Fixing December 7, 1941, as the start date of the struggle for Pacific dominion, for example, saddles the Japanese aggressor with responsibility for all that followed. The high-handedness of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in coercing Japan to open itself to the outside world, nearly a century earlier;  systematic American discrimination against Japanese immigrants, codified in insulting state and local laws;  Washington’s refusal to acknowledge a Japanese sphere of influence in East Asia,  while asserting American primacy throughout the Western Hemisphere; and, more immediately, the impact of U.S.-imposed sanctions intended to strangle Japan economically:  for most Americans, Pearl Harbor renders all these irrelevant.

Self-serving mendacities—that the attacks of September 11, 2001, reprising those of December7, 1941,  “came out of nowhere” to strike an innocent nation—don’t enhance the safety and well being of the American people.  To further indulge old illusions of the United States presiding over and directing the course of history will not only impede the ability of Americans to understand the world and themselves but may well pose a positive danger to both. No one opens an old issue of Life today in the expectation of unearthing truths with contemporary relevance. They do so to satisfy their taste for nostalgia, resurrecting memories, real or imagined, of an America that was good and getting better, a land and people overflowing with promise. Something of the same can be said of Luce’s other great creation: his vision of an American Century likewise survives as an artifact, encapsulating an era about which some (although by no means all) Americans might wax nostalgic—a time, real or imagined, of common purpose, common values, and shared sacrifice. Only by jettisoning the American Century and the illusions to which it gives rise will the self-knowledge and self-understanding that Americans urgently require become a possibility. Whether Americans will grasp the opportunity that beckons is another matter.

The book containing this essay is scheduled for publication in March.

Also, here is the most recent video clip I could find featuring Bacevich, from September, on RT, a network that, in spite of occasionally erratic production values, provocative but clumsy captions (“is it time for the US to send the sacred military cow out to pasture?”), and borderline inappropriate fashion sense of their interviewers (who are nevertheless very sharp), is still one of the best places to hear people like Bacevich talk at length. This is a terrific interview.

Scroll to top