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Henry R. Luce's essay "The American Century," written in 1941, is one of the most important statements on American political ideology made in this century. I choose my words with some care since I well appreciate Peter F. Drucker's essay "Henry Luce and Time-Life-Fortune" in his Adventures of a Bystander Drucker sharply demarcates Luce's impact on American politics ("nil") from his impact on American perceptions of the world - ("incalculable"). Whatever its ontological status, Luce's "The American Century" stands alongside George F. Kennan's Foreign Affairs article of 1947, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," written toward the close of the same war decade, on the policy of the United States vis a vis Soviet expansionism. Yet, while Kennan's essay has been repeatedly reprinted and remembered, Luce's essay has been buried as some hoary, even embarrassing, enunciation of American adventurism and nascent imperialism.
The period in which Luce's essay appeared explains a great deal. It was at the very height of American isolationism. On the powerful right, national heroes of an earlier period, such as Charles Lindbergh, asserted that the United States should stay clear of European entanglements - a position shared by Henry Luce's wife, Clare Boothe Luce, who was arguably the most powerful political woman of the day. The America First Committee was at the zenith of its power in 1941, enlisting the support of a broad spectrum of American opinion, from followers of Christian crusader Father Charles R. Coughlin to those of the coal mine union organizer John L. Lewis, an authentic working class hero. "Right" opposition to American involvement in European wars was deep and broad based. "Left" opposition, by contrast, was shabby and shallow, based on the tactical considerations of the Communist International (Comintern).
The "left" - and that included a broad spectrum of respectable opinion as well as official Communist Party dogma - prattled the Soviet Stalinist view of the conflict between the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allied Powers (England, France, and assorted European democtacies) as little more than an intemecine struggle among imperial powers how to carve up the world. While there was no formal coalition between the extremes of right and left, they shared a normative commitment to a world in which the United States would remain free of European involvement. March 1941 was the high point of this strange and fragile "coalition." It is not at all certain that there was at that time even a bare majority of Americans who supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt's commitment to keeping European democracy, which had been reduced to Great Britain, alive, if not flourishing.
So Luce's essay must be seen as all the more remarkable - a statement about contemporary politics rather than the articulation of a vision for the post-war period. His very tentativeness on policy matters - "It may or may not be an advantage to continue diplomatic relations with [Nazi] Germany" - suggests that Luce fully understood the perilousness of the foreign policy waters on which he was casting his stones. It took a great deal of hemming and hawing for Luce to come to the core, or rather what he calls the cure of the matter: "To accept …