American life in the 20th century was bursting with activity. Some decades were teeming with progress and innovation, while others were beleaguered by constant war and devastating tragedy. Named “the American Century”, the 20th century was a time of upheaval and revelation for the United States, with globally significant political turmoil, sweeping social movements, and previously unimaginable economic change.
First, only halfway through the 20th century, Henry Luce, editor-in-chief of Life magazine, wrote a ground-breaking piece in February 1941, naming the time “the American Century”. However, the act of naming the century after the country was not necessarily a compliment. Just ten months after this article was published, the U.S. would be embroiled in the Second World War, following the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Addressing an American citizenry fraught with fears of being pulled into this ‘European war’, Luce summarized the recent happenings in the country:
Consider the 20th Century. It is not only in the sense that we happen to live in it but ours also because it is America’s first century as a dominant power in the world. So far, this century of ours has been a profound and tragic disappointment. No other century has been so big with promise for human progress and happiness. And in no one century have so many men and women and children suffered such pain and anguish and bitter death. It is a baffling and difficult and paradoxical century… ours is also a revolutionary century. The paradoxes make it inevitably revolutionary. Revolutionary, of course, in science and in industry. And also revolutionary, as a corollary in politics and the structure of society. (64)
Herein lies the crux of “the American century”: it is both contradictory and controversial, good and evil, awe-inspiring and horrifying, all at once.
The beginning of the 20th century was filled with promise. Although immigrants were flooding the eastern shore, the expansion to the West was always there to woo those with ambition for the untamed wilderness. Cars were being built and driven, manufacturing and industrialism were booming, and the financial giants (Carnegie, Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller) were rising in power and influence. Americans were creating things, revolutionizing things, and buying things. In fact, that was one thing America was a world leader in:
…the American Century radiated into a globalized culture of consumption, in which an alluring variety of consumer products and entertainments served ultimately to undermine American power and influence. Consumerism constituted the hallmark of the American Century and ultimately became its undoing. (Bacevich 47)
Second, the U.S. was also fueled by economic and political power, which was primarily supplied by its control of – and interest in – oil. As Painter reveals:
The United States was the world’s leading oil producer for the first three-quarters of the century, and five of the seven great oil corporations that dominated the international oil industry from the 1920s to the 1970s were American companies. Control of oil bolstered U.S. military and economic might and enabled the United States and its allies to win both world wars and the Cold War. (24)
With all of this change and activity happening simultaneously, the true question remains: what specific events and happenings led Luce to name it “the American Century”?
Third, the significant political events of the time may be a primary indicator of why Luce named it such. When Luce wrote his game-changing article in early 1941, the U.S. had not yet entered into the purportedly ‘European war’, as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would not occur until December. However, there had been plenty of political activity leading up to this time. The ‘war to end all wars’ from 1914 to 1918, later renamed as World War I, finally embroiled American political machinations in foreign affairs, forcing us to stand with our allies against the Kaiser’s attempt at world domination. Then came the ‘Roaring Twenties’: a time of American excess, jazz, flapper dresses, Women’s Suffrage, and the failed attempt at Prohibition. After the successful defeat of Germany’s overzealous attempts to take over the globe, Americans found themselves blissfully and purposely ignorant of what was happening overseas, indulging in a Gatsby-esque fountain of plenty. As Bacevich reveals, “American jazz, Hollywood movies, American slang, American machines and patented products, are in fact the only things that every community in the world, from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common” (38).
But, as with any of the ‘good times’, they came to an end. Sharp on the heels of this free-for-all good time came the Stock Market Crash of 1929, immediately followed by the Great Depression. No longer could America claim to be the land of the plenty; in reality, its land was barren. As evidenced by the Dust Bowl in the world of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, farmers were forced out by drought conditions and foreclosure of land interests. Looking for work, they headed out west, only to find hundreds of thousands in the same predicament, with starvation rampant.
Trying to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover tried desperately to solve the problem. Yet, the task was too great for his administration. Blamed by the American public for the results, he lost re-election to Franklin D. Roosevelt in a landslide. Shortly thereafter, FDR implemented his New Deal, establishing numerous jobs programs to help the average citizen out of their slump and regain pride in themselves – and their country. Yet, just as the programs began to show signs of improvement, the “day that will live in infamy” – December 7, 1941 – slammed reality back home for Americans, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in an unprovoked, vicious, and devastatingly efficient attack.
This was a massive turning point in American history. A country that had spent the last decade reeling from stark economic events could now ‘pull itself up by the boot straps’ and reestablish itself as a political and military leader. Almost like a downtrodden and bullied child, the U.S. could now redeem itself in the face of formerly superior opposition. As Bacevich notes:
For the Americans themselves, the war marked a great historical cadence. It conclusively banished the Great Depression and ushered in what the novelist Philip Roth has called “the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history,” characterized by “an explosion of self- assertion,” a contagious “upsurge of energy,” with “the clock of history reset and a whole people’s aims limited no longer by the past.” (16)
Finally, because World War II was such a defining moment in our nation’s history, it served as a desperately necessary means to pull the country out of its bleakest depths, and back into the light. An examination of the economic status of the country’s citizens gives a glaringly depressive view of the financial plight they faced:
Unemployment had averaged 17 percent throughout the 1930s, and still stood at 14.6 percent as the decade of the 1940s opened. More than 40 percent of all white households and 95 percent of all African American households lived in poverty in 1940. (Bacevich 17).
Fortunately for FDR, and the American public in general, ushering in the era of recovery – stimulated by a war we had hoped to avoid – brought a much-needed healing power for America’s political and economic woes.
Of course, social movements were never far behind the political and economic events of the 20th century. As soon as women got the right to vote with the passing of the 19th amendment (in 1920), the next movement was Prohibition, which had been used as a type of political ‘bargaining chip’ for suffrage, but continued far beyond passage of the Volstead Act through 1933. During this economically and politically-driven era, a new crop of entrepreneurs sprung up: American gangsters. With bootlegging rampant throughout much of the country, there were suddenly hotspots of illegal activity leading to what would have been unthinkable just a few years previous: car theft, gambling, prostitution, drugs, and an underworld of crime organizations. With frequent bloody shootouts of “tommy guns” rattling through the night air in places like Chicago and New York, the American gangster issue went from being a curious irritation to a years-long gang rivalry. In fact, the problem became so colossal, it led to Elliot Ness and his team failing to control the problem (leading to the tragic deaths of numerous innocent civilians) and the development of civil punishment to thwart gang leaders such as Al Capone. Despite the FBI’s first director (J. Edgar Hoover) claiming there was ‘no mob’ and refusing to become involved, the evidence was abundantly clear. Fortunately, after the incarceration of Capone, and the repeal of the Volstead Act (in 1933) things eventually calmed down, and the country was able to resume some semblance of normalcy.
Yet, the quiet normalcy didn’t last long. Just after the end of the American gangster era, there was also a burgeoning movement, which began quietly in the south and soon became a raging inferno of revolution, turmoil, and violent response: the Civil Rights movement. Primarily led by two differing factions – the “by any means necessary” violence of Malcolm X, opposite the non-violent movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. – the movement quickly established itself as the final chapter of the bloody battle that had begun in the Civil War. President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy, were both proponents for civil rights change, and both met tragic ends of assassination. Entering into the fray without invitation or necessity, J. Edgar Hoover began conducting his own covert surveillance operation on Martin Luther King, Jr. with no apparent motive other than sheer malice. After months of surveillance, J. Edgar attempted to coerce the mainstream media to report about the purported recordings he had, proving once and for all that King was a philanderer. However, the media wisely refused and Hoover went down in history as one of the most controversial and misguided government leaders of American history.
As the Civil Rights movement exploded, American political and military powers found themselves entering an unpopular, seemingly-unrelated Asian skirmish: the Vietnam War. Following decades of refusing to assist the French in recolonizing, or the Vietnamese in its quest for independence (led by Ho Chi Minh), the U.S. was finally forced with the results of patently neglectful behavior: all-out war on communism. Sadly, this war became the first that brought our country to shame (the second is still ongoing), with civil unrest roaming the streets, and American civilians shot at Kent State for peaceful protests.
In conclusion, although Luce was correct in his assessment of the 20th century being “the American century” it might have been an unfair characterization of the country at large. Yes, America was figuratively ‘all over the place’ with its blatant consumerism, questionable political agenda, economic domination, and consistent social unrest. But it was still a fairly young country – only around for just under 200 years at that point – and well on its way to maturity. With so much inspiring and controversial material to examine, it’s difficult to settle on just a few instances of social, political, and economic factors that led Luce to name an entire century after his beloved country. Yet, in hindsight – and despite his motivations – the name is fitting, as America was (and still is) a dominant world leader, with very big plans for the future.
- Bacevich, Andrew J. The Short American Century: A Postmortem. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2012. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 6 Aug. 2013.
- Luce, Henry. “The American Century.” Life 10.7 (1941): 61-65. Print.
- Painter, David S. “Oil and the American Century.” Journal of American History 99.1 (2012): 24. MasterFILE Complete. Web. 6 Aug. 2013.