The American Century indeed! Reading Henry R. Luce's 1941 ethnocentric and hubris-filled article today, some people - like 5.3 billion non-Americans and no doubt many Americans, too - are likely to be offended, if not outraged. Luce manages, apparently with all good intentions, to portray the United States as a uniquely benevolent, all wise, very superior, and smug country, the most "vital nation in the world," that must fulfill its manifest destiny of giving to the benighted rest of the world its economic system, its technical and artistic skills, its food, and its ideals. Well, the twentieth century was not the American Century and the twenty-first century will not - and certainly ought not - be either.
For one thing, other peoples in the world have much of worth to contribute to creating the future and have a legitimate right to do so. For another, the United States, the nation with "the most exciting flag of all the world and of all history," appears to be less than triumphant in carrying out its foreign interventions and in dealing with many of its own problems at home, such as poverty, inferior schools, functional illiteracy, simpleminded and sleazy journalism, urban decay, racism, pollution, illegal drug use, official dishonesty, corporate greed and theft, and brazen street crime and violence that herald a breakdown in the public order. Thank you very much, but no thanks, the rest of the world has every reason to say. Keep your flag at home. We have our own "exciting" flags.
Yet there is also much of worth in Luce's statement, relevant even today as we approach a new millennium, especially if we discount the hyperbole and translate some of his time-bound language into contemporary idiom. First, as a professional futurist, I was pleasantly surprised to note that Luce's ideas were more sophisticated about futures thinking than are those of most contemporary non-futurists. For example, Luce was not interested primarily in prediction. Rather, he rightly defined the question before his generation - as it is before ours - as one of "choice and calculation." We are faced with great decisions about what future we want. What do we prefer? For what reasons do we prefer it? Then, he gives his own answers for his time in a scenario calling on his contemporaries "to create the first great American Century."
Just as does a futurist, Luce aimed to shape the future, not merely forecast it. Certainly, futurists do use prediction in their work, because for intelligent and effective decision making there is a need to know the probable consequences of alternative actions before action is taken. But the predictions futurists make are contingent, corrigible, uncertain, multiple, and sometimes self-altering. Moreover, the chief tasks of futurists include discovering the real possibilities for alternative futures and evaluating these possibilities according to some scale of stated values as more or less desirable or undesirable. Thus, futurists not only examine possible and probable futures under different assumptions about opportunities and choices, they also propose and evaluate preferable futures and study "how to get there from here." When Luce urged Americans to act on a vision to create the American Century, he showed that he understood a modern futurist principle very well: The kind of future we get depends importantly on what we do in the present, and what we do in the present depends on our image of the future.
Luce was also right, or nearly right, on a number of points in his scenario. He was right certainly about the trend toward "one world, fundamentally indivisible." The networks of communication, influence, and exchange that reveal an emergent global society are becoming increasingly visible. Supra-national regional associations may be seen as important steps in this direction. He was on the right track, too, when he recognized the need for …