The term “American Century” comes from Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune. In 1941, Luce wrote a lengthy editorial to whip up public support for World War II. “Throughout the 17th Century and the 18th Century and the 19th Century,” he wrote, “this continent teemed with manifold projects and magnificent purposes. Above them all and weaving them all together into the most exciting flag of all the world and of all history was the triumphal purpose of freedom. It is in this spirit that all of us are called to create the first great American Century.” In essence, Luce was declaring the divine right of “America” to rule the world.
Luce owned the largest magazine enterprise in U.S. history from the early 1920s to his death in 1967. He was perfectly placed to transmit to U.S. readers a slick, popularized version of capitalist ideology. He was a fervent anti-communist and proud war hawk.
Luce wrote his “American Century” editorial 73 years ago. Obama, in his speech at MacDill Air Force Base on Sept. 17, 2014, pulled out similar myths to defend war in the 21st century. Like every president before him, he applauded the USA as dedicated to freedom, human dignity, democracy, equality, integrity, generosity, economic security for all, justice, civil liberties, etc. Most people believe in these heroic qualities. But they are far from being the real values of the U.S. ruling class, even though they are the mythic smokescreen behind which it operates.
The power of ideology. The idea of the divine right of the United States to rule the world originated with the concept of “manifest destiny” in the early 1800s. According to manifest destiny, god plays a direct role in U.S. history, and the innately superior Anglo-Saxon race is destined to expand its democracy, prosperity and Christianity to the whole world. It meant expansion: of private property, profit, power, productivity, consumers — in other words, the economy of capitalism.
This set of beliefs justified the extension of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans and theft of their vast lands, and the abuse of semi-slave immigrant workers who built the cross-continental railroads. It was the basis for the Mexican American War (1846-1848), which resulted in the U.S. helping itself to one-half of Mexico.
The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 enlarged the scope of manifest destiny beyond the seas. It was supposedly to help the independence of Latin American colonies from Europe. But its real purpose was to economically colonize them without European interference.
In short, manifest destiny was the ideological foundation for the largest acquisitions of territory in U.S. history. It continues on as the foundation for the intensified racism, sexism, poverty, and abuse of immigrants and workers that the U.S. is responsible for today at home and internationally.
From the ashes of war. The slaughters of World War I allowed the American Empire to replace the British Empire as top dog on a global scale. Since the U.S. was directly involved for only a year and a half of that four-year debacle, U.S. big business was poised to benefit greatly, and did.
President Wilson sold World War I as “the war to end all wars.” In fact, it killed more than 16 million human beings and wounded 20 million, while setting up the conditions for a new global conflict.
For two decades after World War I, wartime profiteering scandals by U.S. industrialists headlined the news. But the next war was even more lucrative.
Franklin D. Roosevelt promised that this conflict would have no “War Millionaires.” In fact, World War II nearly doubled the $28.5 billion in net profits of its predecessor, enriching the monopolists by $56 billion.
The U.S. ruling-class mythology about World War II was that it was a noble undertaking to smash fascism. In reality, the U.S. entered the war to cement and extend its global dominance. As an example of its callousness toward the victims of fascism, the U.S. in 1939 refused to let over 900 German refugees, most of them Jewish, disembark from the St. Louis. The “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were sent back to Nazi-occupied Europe, many to their certain deaths.
During the rest of the 20th century, the U.S. military invaded, occupied and fought abroad at least 12 times. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson justified the Vietnam War by preaching the need to combat communism. Bush the First said the Gulf War in 1991 was to “protect freedom, protect our future, and protect the innocent.” Bush the Second lied about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s role in the 9/11 attacks to win support for his own assault on Iraq. The liberation of women from the Taliban was used to defend invading Afghanistan.
Today, 14 years into the 21st century, the U.S. leads wars “against terrorism” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Additionally, special ops forces carry out secret wars in between 70 and 120 countries at any one time. For the new war on Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon recently signed a $251-million deal to buy more Tomahawk missiles from Raytheon Co.
Devastating wars were essential to creating the first “American Century,” and they are just as integral to what the U.S. world jefes hope will be the second.
Persuasive reality. The ideology of the American Century — deceitfully marketed by the ruling class as good and decent — is meant primarily for domestic consumption, as a rationale at home for the wars abroad and exploitation everywhere. It aims to bind people together on the basis of nationalist patriotism, rather than class allegiance.
But the economy of capitalism is a miserable failure — for the world’s majority, and increasingly for the system overlords themselves. The U.S. empire is terrified of dissent, because its survival depends, in the final analysis, on the consent of the governed. That consent, which is disappearing fast, can only be obtained by peddling a thoroughly false mythology about the virtues of capitalism and of the U.S. role in the world.
The job of radicals and social justice advocates is to continue to expose this core falseness while taking up the struggles of working and afflicted peoples everywhere. Because the people who do the work of this world will never stop struggling against the exploitation, the lies, and the bombs. They are incorrigible, as Clara Fraser wrote in a 1991 op ed piece against the first Gulf War. And in that lies the hope for the future.
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Also see: The ISIS crisis, made by imperialism
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