Welcome Andrew Bacevich (Boston University) and Host Robert Farley (Lawyers, Gun$ and Money)

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

The Short American Century: A Postmortem

In The Short American Century, Andrew Bacevich and a group of distinguished contributors take apart the idea of the American Century. Although Henry Luce was not the first “American Exceptionalist,” his 1941 essay on the role that the United States ought to play in the world provides the contributors with a useful touchstone for modern conceptions of America’s messianic role in the world. Appearing in the February 1941 edition of Life magazine, sandwiched between an advertisement for Havoline motor oil and a profile of Betty Carstair’s private island, Luce’s editorial argued that the path to US hegemony was now open. While the United States had enjoyed the world’s largest economy since the late 1890s and was widely recognized to have the greatest latent military capability of any industrialized country, the US political system had self-consciously rejected a global leadership role after World War I. Luce wanted to make certain that a new generation of US policymakers would not make a similar “mistake” in the wake of the Second World War.

Bacevich and the other contributors to the volume probe the historical, social, intellectual, economic, and political foundations of modern American exceptionalism, investigating how beliefs about a unique American place in the world developed, and how those beliefs affected American foreign policy. While the contributors disagree about the nature and foundations of American exceptionalism, they concur that the American Century, to the extent that it existed, has effectively come to an end. Walter LaFeber contends that the United States never played as dominant a role in global politics as the term “American Century” would suggest. Jeffrey Frieden argues that the United States effectively fell victim to its own “success,” with globalization eventually undermining the foundations of American power.

As with all such projects, The Short American Century runs into definitional issues. What exactly does it mean to say that there was an “American century?” Surely it does not mean that the United States was able to unproblematically achieve every one of its foreign policy goals. Similarly, the “American century” would not seem necessarily to mean that the United States had consistently acted in accordance with all of its professed values, under all situations. Rather, suggesting that an “American century” has a beginning and end would seem to imply that the United States was particularly influential, perhaps overwhelmingly influential, during some specific period of time, with the “Short” meaning that the time has ended. Presumably (the contributors aren’t completely clear), the American dominated system has been replaced with something more closely resembling a concert of powers, with China, India, and the European Union all playing major roles. However, the contributors do not present a clear concept of what has followed the presumed end of the short American Century.

We shouldn’t expect that such a diverse group of contributors would have precisely the same appreciation of the causes and consequences of American exceptionalism, or even the time frame of the Short American Century. The Luce essay plays a very effective role as a device for tying these diverse contributions together. I thought that there was occasionally some sloppiness in linking a diversity of phenomenon to the central thesis; for example, the origins of the United States Army Air Force’s focus on strategic bombing are a good deal more complicated than David Kennedy presents, and Walter Lafeber’s implicit definition of US influence is perhaps a touch too ambiguous. Nevertheless, The Short American Century is a useful history of how the exceptionalist idea has played out since the 1940s, and especially of the linkage between religious, military, economic, and social understandings of exceptionalism.

143 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Andrew Bacevich, The Short American Century: A Postmortem”

BevW March 3rd, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Andrew, Robert, welcome back to the Lake.

Robert, thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Hello all; I think we can open with an opportunity for Dr. Bacevich to respond to the post (if he wishes, or not), and then proceed to the first question:

“Is there anything exceptional about American Exceptionalism? Every country has a set of myths about its place in the world and a narrative of how it got from A to B. Other than the fact that the United States is especially large and powerful, what’s particularly important about the US narrative of exceptionalism?”

Also, if you have your own questions fire away!

dakine01 March 3rd, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Good afternoon Andrew and Robert and welcome back to FDL this afternoon

Andrew, I have not read the book so forgive me if this is addressed but does the apparent telescoping of time these days play any role in the shortness of the “American Century?” By this I mean, the Roman Empire lasted centuries as did the Ottoman Empire while the British Empire lasted about half as long (roughly speaking) and the US “empire” has lasted a much shorter time than most other ‘empires’

(I know there have been other long lasting empires throughout history, I’m just mentioning the ones I have read a little about over the years)

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Thank you, Andrew and Robert, for joining us today.

DW

Tammany Tiger March 3rd, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Dr. Bacevich, if a 22nd century Edward Gibbon were to write The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, what would he or she cite as the number-one reason for its decline and fall?

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 2:05 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 3

“Does the apparent telescoping of time these days play any role in the shortness of the “American Century?”

Good question…

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Robert,

Thanks for moderating this and for the introduction above. Let me take a quick whack at your questions:

1). To my mind what makes the American version of exceptionalism stand out is its religiosity, either explicit or implicit. In the case of Luce’s essay, it’s explicit — he proposes that the United States should become the Good Samaritan to the world. These days religiosity often appears as references to what Providence or History requires.

2). I can’t speak for all the contributors, but as the person who conceived of the book in the first place, I don’t really expect to dispel American Exceptionalism. At best, I’m hoping that readers might come away with a critical awareness of what it has produced during the postwar era — the several decades when “American Century” served as a popular shorthand for the international order.

3). If in 2040, the American Century is alive and kicking, then the premise informing this book will have proven to be false! The assumption underlying the book is that recent events — notably the abandonment of the effort to transform the Greater Middle East by relying on US military power and the onset of the Great Recession — rang down the curtain on the American Century. If events reveal that assumption to be false, then the essays in this collection will prove to be an interim report on the American Century, not a final one.

Bev Wright has now called me twice telling me to respond so I stop now and send this.

bluewombat March 3rd, 2012 at 2:12 pm

What’s ironic about the Bush Regime is that they were the most full-throated advocates of American Exceptionalism. But what they wound up revealing is that Americans can be stampeded into unnecessary wars and trade their Constitutional birthright for a mess of National-Security-State pottage when frightened. In other words, when we’re up against it, we’re not exceptional at all; we’re just as limited, fearful and foolish as anyone else.

P.S.: We’ve swapped a few e-mails, Andrew; welcome to the Lake.

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:13 pm
In response to tammanytiger @ 5

Two big reasons:

An inability to appreciate the limited efficacy of military power.

A refusal to live within our means, assuming an endless line of credit.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Andrew, I have not yet read the book which you have edited, so these questions may well be addressed.

What possible consequences might America face in its decline, might it even face the possibility of experiencing the the organized mayhem, the “warfare”, which it is has been “exporting”, even long before the American Century, or is it very unlikely that such a thing could happen “here”?

As well, do you see American power, in its decline, being increasingly levied against “the people” as the (essentially self-selected) elite seek ever more unrestrained power and unlimited wealth, for themselves?

DW

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 2:15 pm

“An inability to appreciate the limited efficacy of military power.”

Do you think there’s anything specific to airpower that exacerbates this? The Short American Century is very approximately of the same time frame as the United States Air Force…

GlenJo March 3rd, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Andrew and Robert, thanks for being here.

If you had to pick one event as “the end” of ther American century, what would it be?

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Well, our “leaders” do claim to speak with God, on a regular basis, Andrew.

Have you ever encountered the notion that American “fascism”, should it ever arise, would wrap itself in religion?

DW

realitychecker March 3rd, 2012 at 2:17 pm

It seems to me that we are well into a transition period, foreseen long ago by many of the great science fiction writers, when national sovereignty will be completely replaced as a power-organizing principle in favor of transnational corporate power. We already have many fact patterns that would seem to support the idea that such a transition is underway, and that transnational corporate interests are exerting the dominant interest and influence over what would seem to be conflicting national sovereignty interests. Yours thoughts?

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:19 pm
In response to bluewombat @ 8

Well, we are as foolish as anyone. Yet if you take a look at the Henry Luce essay that inspired this book — or at least provides a point of departure for it — you’ll find that it assumes just the opposite. That is, Luce (and other advocates of American dominion since) believe that the United States (in the guise of those who wield power)is in fact wiser. One of the things that the essays in this book do is to demonstrate the difference between what the American Century was supposed to yield and what it actually yield.

blenkinsop March 3rd, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Mr. Bacevich, thank you for dropping in and for the books that you write, in my view future historians will cite you as a voice of sanity during these insane times. What would living within our means require in terms of cutting defense spending?

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 2:22 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 13

The book does have a good chapter on Protestant millenialism and American Exceptionalism, so that’s on point.

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:25 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 10

I should emphasize that this is a history book. Its orientation is toward the past, not the future. The essays attempt to answer this question: now that the American Century has ended, what was it all about? I recruited contributors who represent many different points of view — a diversity of perspective very much reflected in the essays they wrote.

That said, my own sense is that a 21C multipolar global order is emerging. The sooner we begin adjusting to that fact the better for all. That means jettisoning expectations of a unipolar order with a sole superpower exercising benign global hegemony — all the nonsense that was so popular in the immediate wake of the Cold War.

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Slightly off-topic; when did Life stop publishing anything vaguely as interesting as the Luce essay?

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 2:26 pm
In response to Robert Farley @ 11

Isn’t the defining aspect of hegemony, of “control”, which is the essence of “empire”, the possession of “superior” weapons and the ready willingness to use them?

Indeed, doesn’t the American Empire really find its current manifestation in the development and use of nuclear weapons … or the continuing threat of the use of such weapons.

As well, the ability to propagandize the people, is ALWAYS central to empire.

Allowing “leadership” to continually “mislead”, or more bluntly and honestly, to lie a nation into war (Vietnam and Irak … and, likely, Iran, come readily to mind)?

DW

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 2:28 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 20

“Indeed, doesn’t the American Empire really find its current manifestation in the development and use of nuclear weapons … or the continuing threat of the use of such weapons.”

I would think it’s a little bit different than that; nuclear weapons don’t actual make the US exceptional, at least not since 1949. But other military tools (network centric force, 11 aircraft carriers, etc.) maybe…

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:29 pm
In response to blenkinsop @ 16

Thank you.

On defense spending, before getting to budget numbers, there’s a prior debate needed on the question of what we want our military to do. I believe we need to ratchet down our expectations and reexamine global commitments. One example: Tell the Europeans that they need to take responsibility for their own security. Generally speaking, I have no doubt that we could lop off 1/3 of the Pentagon’s budget and still be far and away the strongest military power in the world.

But note: to live within our means will require more than defense cuts; the big elephant in the room is entitlements.

CTuttle March 3rd, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Aloha, Andrew and Robert…!

Do you suppose our undoing is self-inflicted, with our continued unabashed support of Israel, as will be evidenced at the AIPAC confab this week…?

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 2:32 pm
In response to Robert Farley @ 21

As you may know, Robert, there was considerable support, in certain “circles”, for an immediate assault on the Soviet Union, by the US, in the closing months of WWII. Fortunately, saner minds prevailed, however, the lessons of the use of the bombs used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki,clearly, was intended for Soviet “consideration”.

DW

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:33 pm
In response to Robert Farley @ 19

Others may well disagree, but there’s a lot in the early Life — from the late 30s to the early 50s — that retains interest. By and large, the editorials tend to be predictable — proclaiming the superiority of the American way of life and the need for American leadership. But many of the photographic essays are revealing. What they show is not who and what we actually were but who and what we imagined ourselves to be or aspired to become.

Dearie March 3rd, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Oh, ouch……”entitlements”?

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:36 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 23

For myself, I see much in the US-Israeli relationship that is perverse, serving the interests of neither country. That said, Israel does not constitute the root of our problems.

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 2:38 pm
In response to Dearie @ 26

Good, worth clarifying.

eCAHNomics March 3rd, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Is the U.S. the worst empire ever or the very worst empire ever? (Rhetorical Q, but would welcome any comments, pro or con, you might wish to make in response.)

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 2:40 pm

No doubt, Andrew, you speak of the “entitlements” of “the people”, the social contract, and not entitlements to the Military, Industrial, Congressional Complex, to give it the name Eisenhower first used, until “political expediency” tempered this honest assessment.

Do you include corporate “entitlements”, possibly, within that elephantine “grayness”?

Considering that our “defense” spending equals roughly that of all other nations combined, then 2/3 of the current “slice of the pie” ought well be “sufficient”, one would imagine.

Would you consider closing some of our many foreign bases, and possibly pulling back from drone warfare, or do you see that “form” of “engagement” increasing in future?

DW

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 2:41 pm

On the entitlement point, to my recollection not many of the essays in the volume focused on this point; there was some consideration of the collapse of embedded liberalism after the Cold War, and a lot of concern about corporate capitalism, but not a ton about the size of the US welfare state.

blenkinsop March 3rd, 2012 at 2:41 pm

On the question of what we want our military to do, it seems at present it is to garrison the planet. How long do you think it will be before candidates for national office will call for closing bases around the world and say, reducing the number of aircraft carriers?

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:42 pm
In response to realitychecker @ 14

Geez, Big Business has wielded out-sized influence in this country since the beginning. (See the essay by Eugene McCarraher in this book). But I’m not signing up to the notion that multinational corporations are about to replace the nation state. True, the prerogatives of national sovereignty aren’t what they used to be. But don’t be too quick to declare the Westphalian order over. Among other things, rising powers like China and India seem unlikely to surrender the clout they are just now acquiring.

HelenaHandbasket March 3rd, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Could the end of “American Exceptionalism” be when, as Kissinger observed,

“America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests?”

If you can’t lead by example, then use force.

CTuttle March 3rd, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Presumably (the contributors aren’t completely clear), the American dominated system has been replaced with something more closely resembling a concert of powers, with China, India, and the European Union all playing major roles.

How much credence do you put in the current shift in the Petrodollar, to say the Ruble, Renimbi, Lira or other currencies, in the demise of our American Century…?

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 2:46 pm

Superb comment, HelenaHendbasket!

;~DW

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:47 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 30

The current federal deficit is $1 trillion per year. Pentagon spending is (roughly) $800B. So even if you zero out the military — something I would not favor — we’re still not living within our means.

What exactly “entitlement reform” ought to entail falls way outside my limited area of expertise. But it needs to happen.

tjbs March 3rd, 2012 at 2:48 pm

l require more than defense cuts; the big elephant in the room is entitlements.

Did we squander our “entitlements’ on chasing ghosts with our ‘exceptional ” military ?

eCAHNomics March 3rd, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I read Manifest Destiny by Albert Weinberg last year. It was published in 1935. I kept a list of references to “chosen people” or “god” or like minded phrases that he quotes U.S. pols (prez, senators, ambassadors, secy of states, etc.) making for every excuse for U.S. expansionism. Over 100 in a 500 page book, sometimes 2/page. It’s all about the OT, and Weinberg attributes the trend to the Puritans. Though I just started a book on the U.S. revolution, and apparently the merchant settlers of Virginia also thought they were pretty special. Is this unique to just a few countries, or does every country/people feel that way about themselves, but only a few get to be empires? If the latter, what distinguishes those that make empire & those that don’t?

Phrase Manifest Destiny first used in 1845, according to my notes.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 2:49 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 35

Ah, “economics” is simply another form of warfare?

Excellent question, CTut.

DW

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Apparently, the foundation for that quote is Lord Palmerston. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Temple,_3rd_Viscount_Palmerston

I’ve also seen it attributed to Talleyrand, Metternich, E.H. Carr, and Hans Morgenthau.

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:51 pm

I don’t believe Kissinger said that. The quote belongs to a Brit whose name escapes me at the moment and dates from well over a century ago.

But the thought actually has merit. It suggests the need for sober assessment as opposed to ideological fancy as the basis of policy. It neither forecloses the idea of serving as exemplar nor does it mandate a reliance on coercion.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 2:53 pm

A trillion is a 1000 billion, if memory serves, Andrew

Or is my math or memory off?

Frankly, it seems our military “adventures” of late have seen a lot of money go “missing” … coupling that to Wall Street greed … I would guess that we might agree that “something” has got to “give”?

DW

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:54 pm
In response to tjbs @ 38

Not exactly, but we’ve made the problem all the more difficult to address. Ill-advised military adventures have both driven us deeper into debt and allowed us to postpone the inevitable day of reckoning.

Bruce H. Vail March 3rd, 2012 at 2:54 pm

I think Life Magazine was actually a ‘force’ right up till the end of Vietnam War.

There was something in the end of the Vietnam War that put an end to Life’s exuberant expression of the American empire.

And Life even had a role in ending the war. Who can forget the week when they published photos of all the American boys killed that week (1968, I think).

Any thoughts?

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 2:55 pm

It neither forecloses the idea of serving as exemplar nor does it mandate a reliance on coercion.

This gets to the fourth question I asked; is some aspirational form of American Exceptionalism worth fighting for, or simply too dangerous?

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 2:56 pm
In response to Robert Farley @ 41

Machiavelli would approve, one suspects, Robert … whoever said it.

DW

CTuttle March 3rd, 2012 at 2:57 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 43

I seem to recall Rumsfeld b*tching on Sept. 10th, ’01 that the Pentagon couldn’t account for Billions and Billions…! Funny, eh…?

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:58 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 35

The dawning of the day when the US dollar is no longer the reserve currency will be the day when the end of the American Century becomes official. Period. Full stop.

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 2:59 pm
In response to Bruce H. Vail @ 45

All I can say is that lo these many years later I still have a vivid memory of that particular issue — all the little black and white photos of one week’s dead. It made an impression on me at least.

eCAHNomics March 3rd, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Read a day or two ago that Iran is accepting gold in payment for oil.

CTuttle March 3rd, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Do you suppose the Iranian Oil Bourse on Kish Island is the real Iranian threat, and not the purported Nuke program…?

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:01 pm
In response to Robert Farley @ 46

Were we, first” to unleash those “better angels”, the Rule of Law among them, here at home then, Robert, we might, reasonably and properly, consider exporting such “ideas”.

In fact. were we to “export” better ideas, useful and humane ideas, then we might not need to “control” everything.

How long has it been, do you suppose, since those better thoughts and aspirations have been manifest in substance, in reality, and not merely in high-sounding rhetoric?

DW

tjbs March 3rd, 2012 at 3:02 pm

. Ill-advised military adventures have both driven us deeper into debt and allowed us to postpone the inevitable day of reckoning.

I think the postponing of the day of reckoning transfers that to the non military citizens so the military gets their’s first . Now we have Hiring the Heroes here to bump up in line .

I’ve come to the conclusion all war is a waste of the country’s bounty for the egos of the few..

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:03 pm
In response to Robert Farley @ 46

My own view is that we should use force only as a last resort and only for the most important of interests. A democracy should entertain a very lively debate about how to define those interests.

Recall, however, the once robust tradition that wished to express American Exceptionalism not by forcing our values down the throats of others but by demonstrating the merit of those values in the way that we conduct our affairs — to be all that we profess to be. That tradition contains considerable value today.

HelenaHandbasket March 3rd, 2012 at 3:04 pm

In Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart he describes how the divergence of the top and bottom of ‘white’ America increasingly live in different cultures, threatening the country’s success. Comment?

PS Thanks all for the previous correction.

Tammany Tiger March 3rd, 2012 at 3:04 pm

And by refusing to take steps to move away from fossil fuels, we commit ourselves to maintaining a military presence in places far from home where the locals don’t like us. It’s a vicious circle.

dakine01 March 3rd, 2012 at 3:06 pm

I always felt that a big difference between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan was Carter tried to force us to live up to our professed ideals while Reagan made people feel good about their hate.

Living up to the ideal was/is hard work and does not lend to the easy bumper sticker slogan solution

My 2¢

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:08 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 52

There is no “real Iranian threat.” A friend of mine once remarked that he never imagined that he’d see the day when Iran would represent the Big Enemy. When you think about it, Iranian power shouldn’t strike fear into the hearts of a people who managed to survive the challenges posed by Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union.

I don’t mean that Iran wishes us well. I just mean Iran should not keep us awake at night. I worry more about the erosion of order and the weakness of institutions in Mexico.

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 3:09 pm
In response to tammanytiger @ 57

This is interesting; to what extent would a significant state-driven effort to find fossil fuel alternatives make sense in the context of the end of the American Century?

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:09 pm
In response to tammanytiger @ 57

Bingo.

Tammany Tiger March 3rd, 2012 at 3:09 pm

On the same subject, I just finished Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus. He, too, makes the point that poor, working-class whites live in a world apart from wealthier whites. Bageant, however, places the blame at the doorstep of large corporations and land developers who keep working-class whites underpaid and permanently in debt.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Yes, a democracy SHOULD entertain such debates … I recall, the civility and reasonableness of those debates in the sex-up, I mean run-up, to the wars in Irak and in Vietnam.

Andrew, the actual evidence does not support your proper and hopeful view.

Do you actually consider that this nation will mature enough to reach the level which both of us would, clearly, like to see, any time soon?

Do you imagine such a “debate” before a war begins with Iran, for example?

DW

CTuttle March 3rd, 2012 at 3:11 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 58

Our Panderer in Chief hard at work…

…”The other side traditionally seems to feel that the Democrats are somehow weak on defense. They’re having a little trouble making that argument this year,” Obama told supporters at a $35,800-a-person dinner.

From ending the war in Iraq to ordering the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the president said his approach to foreign policy was based on the belief that “there’s no contradiction between being tough and strong and protecting the American people, but also abiding by those values that make America great.”

juliania March 3rd, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Thank you for being here, Mr. Bacevich. The subject of your book is exceedingly interesting to me, dealing as it does with American ‘exceptionalism’ anchored by Luce’s 1941 essay. Sorry that I haven’t read that, as I was only a year old at the time, but perhaps I can contribute my own idea of American exceptionalism, part of my reason for becoming an American citizen.

First of all, it is very much tied up in the founding of the country and the worthy attempt (I think) to create a new kind of government that isn’t royally/corporately run. I read founding documents in college and was impressed.

Secondly, and more personally, it came about very close to Mr. Luce’s writing, in my very early childhood, when American soldiers came and camped around my grandmother’s home in New Zealand and quite literally saved us from impending invasion at great cost. I remember the faces of some of them who went out from our home and never came back. They were beautiful young men making huge sacrifices.

I suppose that gives me a huge emotional burden of love for this country, since almost at birth my life was changed by this experience. Things were simpler then, but I would like to believe that this kind of exceptionalism still exists in hearts and minds – that people in general really do want to be that kind of Americans still. And I really don’t think attacking entitlements, which are the support of the needy, will restore it.

But I’m probably travelling way off course, and I apologize for that.

Kevin Gosztola March 3rd, 2012 at 3:11 pm

In the opening, you quote then-Senator Barack Obama, who called upon his followers to “make this century the next American century.” There is this idea, as you allude to and know, that our presidents seem to promote, which is that we all must unite behind the grand idea of America leading the way as a dominant power in the world.

You begin to get into it a bit in the book when you get into the content of the Life issue. Briefly, how do you see culture—consumerism, sports and entertainment—reinforcing this delusion that America can continue to be the “Good Samaritan”?

I’ll add a little bit to the question: There is a film out right now, Act of Valor, that the US military produced, which recently opened. Audiences have really enjoyed the film, however, critics mostly didn’t like it. They found, “It’s undeniably reverent of the real-life heroes in its cast, but Act of Valor lets them down with a clichéd script, stilted acting, and a jingoistic attitude that ignores the complexities of war.”

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:12 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 58

Bingo again. That’s why Carter’s so-called Malaise Speech is such an important document — important for what he said and important for how the nation responded.

Of course, now that I’ve tipped my hat to Carter, let me also note that he’s the guy who promulgated the Carter Doctrine, which provided the rationale for what has become a never-ending set of wars and skirmishes, all intended in one way or the other to impose our will on the Greater Middle East.

Bruce H. Vail March 3rd, 2012 at 3:12 pm

It’s notable that Luce’s ideas about global leadership for the US seemed to focus obsessively on China.

So was the American Century really over before it began, when China was “lost”to the Communists in 1949?

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:14 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 63

That’s why I wrote “should.” It doesn’t and won’t. You misread me entirely if you think I’m hopeful.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Andrew, I could not agree more with both “sides” of your comment, excellently well put, by the way, and much appreciated.

DW

CTuttle March 3rd, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I’d blame Z Big more than Carter, and Carter has long since repented his actions…!

Edit: “What’s a few stirred-up Moslems(sic)…?”

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:17 pm
In response to juliania @ 65

I don’t think you’re off course. WWII was a just war. It was a necessary war. It was also a war that enhanced the security and well-being of Americans (and New Zealanders). The same cannot be said about our more recent wars.

Tammany Tiger March 3rd, 2012 at 3:17 pm

A previous Book Salon author, Morris (Why America Failed) Berman, wrote that Carter’s “malaise” speech was the only time in recent history that an American president spoke out against our culture of consumption. Don’t count on this president or some future president to go there.

BeachPopulist March 3rd, 2012 at 3:18 pm
In response to juliania @ 65

I remember the faces of some of them who went out from our home and never came back. They were beautiful young men making huge sacrifices.

Eloquently said. And very much like the Life issue with the faces of the dead. I was draft-age and in college at the time and remember it very vividly.

AitchD March 3rd, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Factoid from R. Buckminster Fuller in 1970: 250 million people living in India never heard of the United States.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Well, I’m not hopeful either, Andrew, however, the issue is that a genuine democracy WOULD engage such discussion … therefore …

That is why I am particularly vexed with the “condition” of the Rule of Law, both domestically and internationally, for, if “leadership” in this nation continues on its present course, not only shall this nation face defeat abroad, but terrible consequence at home … even if the rest of the world, in defense of itself, does NOT decide that “we”, all of “us” must, simply, be stopped … by whatever means …

If we cannot or will not change, then we WILL face a very difficult future, indeed and in fact.

DW

Bruce H. Vail March 3rd, 2012 at 3:22 pm

I hope you mean that US participation in WWII was justified because this country was attacked by the Axis powers,not that the war itself was just.

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:23 pm
In response to Kevin Gosztola @ 66

The book contains two essays — one by Emily Rosenberg and one by Akira Iriye — that touch on the question of consumerism. Professor Iriye situates it as part of a larger phenomenon of transnationalism. In his eyes, what the American Century produced was a massive increase in interaction of all types — economic, cultural, intellectual, etc — in which the US played an important role, both changing the world and being changed as a consequence.

Professor Rosenberg traces the expansion and export of the American consumer lifestyle, noting that in our own day it has become a nearly universal phenomenon, yet is increasingly unaffordable for most Americans and visiting dire consequences on the planet.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:24 pm
In response to juliania @ 65

A most superb, and wonderfully human comment, juliania, as is very typical of all of your serious and much appreciated contributions to this site.

DW

Phoenix Woman March 3rd, 2012 at 3:24 pm

RE: Entitlements – many if not most European and other nations had no problem with them because they, unlike the US, make their rich people actually pay taxes on a level comparable to what average Americans pay. I suggest that the efforts of conservative billionaires like Pete “Concord Coalition” Peterson, the Bircher- and Tea-Party-funding Kochs, and Sheldon Adelson to undermine the social contract are why the US is in decline. (See also: The Ayn Rand fetish, where greed is good and empathy bad.)

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:24 pm
In response to Bruce H. Vail @ 77

Great to “see” you here, this evening, Bruce.

DW

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:25 pm
In response to Bruce H. Vail @ 77

No, I mean what I said. The war was a just cause. It does not follow that every action taken by the US was ethically or morally justifiable.

Dearie March 3rd, 2012 at 3:26 pm

And, Beach Polulist@75, revealing that throughout our 10+ years of misadventures in the MidEast that the body bags have been invisible and the soldiers so poorly treated. (Condolences to Mr. Bacevich, surely.) These misadventures in continuing empire have been not in keeping with the “transparency” that our current throne-holder spoke of promoting. We should all be in the streets……and I suspect that eventually we will be. It will, of course, be way too late.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Ah yes, Andrew, such as the internment of Japanese/Americans, which subject my twelve-year-old daughter has been discussing with me of late, and certain “decisions” about proper “targets” of bombing … a topic of continuing and raging disagreement, I might add.

DW

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:29 pm
In response to Dearie @ 83

That would be a big BINGO!!!, Dearie, on all “counts” …

DW

CTuttle March 3rd, 2012 at 3:29 pm
In response to Dearie @ 83

*heh* I’m already in the Streets, M’dear…! ;-)

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:30 pm
In response to Bruce H. Vail @ 68

I’m a blame-it-on-the-60s kind of guy. I’m being only half-facetious. The Vietnam War coincided with and spurred several changes that in retrospect suggest that the American Century was even then living on borrowed time. Among those indicators: the trade balance going from black to red and the growing reliance on imported oil.

Dearie March 3rd, 2012 at 3:30 pm

PW@79 —– AMEN!

eCAHNomics March 3rd, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Iran/Shia/Iraq (heh) are threats to U.S. BFFs, Israeli & Saudi, hegemony in ME.

bluedot12 March 3rd, 2012 at 3:32 pm
In response to Kevin Gosztola @ 66

I’ll second your queston but add that I,personally, never thought of the US as a good samaratan, at least not since that thing called Viet Nam. So I wonder if there ever was an american century?

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:33 pm
In response to Dearie @ 83

The best way to make wars “visible” is to fight them with citizen-soldiers. We have opted instead for a professional army, detached from American society — another part of my blame-it-on-the-60s hypothesis.

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 3:33 pm

At the risk of getting too technical, do you have any thoughts on the Cooperative Maritime Strategy? Liberal internationalist Exceptionalism run wild, or modern multilateral burden-sharing?

Bruce H. Vail March 3rd, 2012 at 3:34 pm

“No, I mean what I said. The war was a just cause.”

That’s a rather startling statement. It was a “just cause” for the German and Japanese governments too, by their own lights.

I’d say rather that for the US the war an unavoidable bloodbath that was relatively well managed by our government of the day. There wasn’t anything just about it.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:35 pm

Right, about the time when actual “wealth” was being no longer seriously “produced” in this nation, Andrew, when “greed is good” was being initially “formulated” and “markets” were seen as “the global economy”. I always have held the war in Vietnam to have been “started” by the Gulf of Tonkin lie, as a means to deflect the “conversation’ away from civil rights and the issue of economic “equality” or “justice”, which concern likely cost MLK his life …

DW

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:37 pm
In response to bluedot12 @ 90

That’s argument that Walter LaFeber makes in his contribution to the book. His argument comes down to this: people like Luce and presidents from FDR all the way to Obama have been proclaiming that they foresee the future and that American power will bring that future into existence. Yet (LaFeber continues) the reality is that the US is continually caught by surprise by what actually comes down the pike. Just in our own time: 9/11, the aftermath of invading Iraq, the Great Recession, the Arab Spring. So his argument is that the American Century trope has always been bogus.

Peterr March 3rd, 2012 at 3:37 pm

So you consider Eisenhower a prophet?

From his Farewell Addresss:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States cooperations — corporations.

Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.

Alas, I fear the guards have either been asleep or deserted their posts.

CTuttle March 3rd, 2012 at 3:38 pm

I totally agree with that premise, once we did away with the Draft after Nam, it lead to our Mercenary Army…!

DonS March 3rd, 2012 at 3:38 pm

“The best way to make wars “visible” is to fight them with citizen-soldiers”

By this do you mean that the revolt of the citizens to Vietnam led precisely to the professional army, not so much to appease the citizens, but to hide military intentions and possibilities from the citizenry?

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Yes, ending the military draft was the most diabolically clever move the “elite establishment” in this country ever made, Andrew … that, and appending the media to the political class … the two “birds”, in hand, the “invisible” hand, to be precise.

DW

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:38 pm
In response to Bruce H. Vail @ 93

A bit too much moral equivalency there for my taste. We’ll just have to disagree.

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:39 pm
In response to Peterr @ 96

Bingo yet again!

Dearie March 3rd, 2012 at 3:40 pm

Andrew@90: Yes, indeed. The Powers That Be recognized that the dirty f**kin’ hippies were messing with their grand plans and took care of deleting the draft. I knew many young men who died in VietNam (one on his first day there; one whose remains were only found a couple of years ago.) Those things stay in memory. I don’t know anyone (except a former client who was truly misused by the current military leaders) who has anything to do with our current misadventures. The Powers That Be simply took war offline. How dreadfully clever of them.

Tammany Tiger March 3rd, 2012 at 3:40 pm

The military draft was ended during the Nixon administration. A good part of the impetus for replacing conscription with an all-volunteer force was Milton Friedman. He argued that the military draft was a tax in kind, and that soldiers ought to be paid whatever the market dictated was the value of their services.

(Edited to add that Friedman might not have foreseen our putting war tabs on the national credit card. He figured that if Americans saw the tax bill for our military, they would be selective as to what wars were appropriate.)

eCAHNomics March 3rd, 2012 at 3:40 pm
In response to DonS @ 98

Drones are even better way to hide warz.

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:41 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 99

Nixon may have been a diabolical figure, but in ending the draft he was giving us what we wanted. It doesn’t do to blame everything on faraway elites. The American people are deeply complicit.

HelenaHandbasket March 3rd, 2012 at 3:43 pm

The same cannot be said about our more recent wars.

Because they were based on lies?
And, therefore, can not be popularly supported, in the absence of propaganda.

With combat becoming increasingly invisible to the public, with the use of drones, JSOC & CIA actions and mercenaries, isn’t this frittering away our ‘exceptionalism’ capital?

CTuttle March 3rd, 2012 at 3:44 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 104

How very true…! 8-(

bluedot12 March 3rd, 2012 at 3:46 pm

You mentioned oil, that on top of Viet Nam ended whatever we had following FDR and WW2. We now have endless ME war to maintain our supply over Oil. There’s no good samaratan involved here. And still today, we refuse to do anything about it. Drill, baby drill and bomb bomb bomb is all we can do. Sorry just ranting. Maybe if there were a draft so the children of our elites had to go in a hole with a rifle things would change….But Viet Nam put an end to that myth. think cheney.

DonS March 3rd, 2012 at 3:46 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 107

I note, by the end, many/most (?) Americans hated the draft, yes. But they hated the
Vietnam war equally.

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:46 pm
In response to Dearie @ 102

Well, if the elites have been clever then the non-elites have made themselves morally culpable. I do not detect any large-scale grassroots movement in favor of reviving the citizen-soldier tradition as a way to impose democratic restraint on those in Washington that have a hankering for war.

Bruce H. Vail March 3rd, 2012 at 3:47 pm

I fear that some of the commenters here on the draft are too young to remember the actual draft.

There was nothing democratic about it, and it did contribute to a more sensible public debate on the use of military power.

Re-introducing involuntary servitude is not an answer to any of our problems.

bluedot12 March 3rd, 2012 at 3:47 pm
In response to tammanytiger @ 103

He was wrong about so many things. Now you want me to remember this one too?

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:48 pm
In response to DonS @ 109

I’d don’t know that many/most hate war today. I’d argue that many/most don’t have strong opinions on the matter since they don’t have a skin in the game.

Dearie March 3rd, 2012 at 3:49 pm

I don’t think people hated the draft more than they hated useless hypocritical wars of no purpose based on lies. But, hey, that’s just me. I don’t think the people got what they wanted at all……what they wanted was no more wasteful/stupid/purposeless butchery of American citizens for someone else’s ideology.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:49 pm

That complicity is not an informed complicity, however, like the complicity of the two other branches, the judiciary, and the Congressional, with the unitary executive, it was a response to governmental coercion and to the mistaken “belief” that this was, in fact, a democracy.

A people, lied to, manipulated, and abused, is hardly in a position to discern the truth of things, even today, we are told that seventy percent of “the people” “believe” that Iran ALREADY has nuclear weapons. that “belief” has NOT come about accidentally.

The “trouble” with Kansas, Andrew, is quite ubiquitous throughout the land. It is deliberately inculcated, nurtured, and encouraged by all of the political class, which, as I said, includes the media.

DW

Bruce H. Vail March 3rd, 2012 at 3:49 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 81

Thank you, DW, I am coming to enjoy these book chats more and more.

bluedot12 March 3rd, 2012 at 3:50 pm
In response to Bruce H. Vail @ 111

Oh but I certainly remember the draft. It did nothing to hold back the Viet Nam thingy.

DonS March 3rd, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Yes. The real dilemma. By now our democratic “debate” seems so manipulated and out of reach that I wonder if even a draft would provide sufficient “skin.

bluedot12 March 3rd, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Perhaps b/c it won’t work.

Dearie March 3rd, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Andrew@110: I donb’t want to be crass, but I do think that most of the ‘volunteers’ are country kids with no prospects and probably religious backgrounds that encourage them to ‘serve with honor’…..blah, blah, blah.
I wouldn’t presume to go out to Iowa and try to talk an 18 year old with no prospects to just eat cheetoes rather than ‘do his duty to God and country.” YMMV

Andrew J. Bacevich March 3rd, 2012 at 3:52 pm

I am being summoned to dinner so I have to run.

This has been most lively — thank you very much. Please take a look at the book — I think you’ll be pleased with the quality and the diversity of the views expressed.

Andrew Bacevich

Tammany Tiger March 3rd, 2012 at 3:52 pm

If memory serves me right, opinion polls taken during the 1960s found that a significant percentage of World War II veterans, higher than most other age cohorts, were opposed to the Vietnam War.

tjbs March 3rd, 2012 at 3:52 pm
In response to CTuttle @ 97

Divide and conquer , so first came the lottery which divided the country.

Then the “professional” army of volunteers totally detached to the point of pissing on the enemy.

The drafted army would never turn their guns domestically , these guys have no compunction to do the sam.

Robert Farley March 3rd, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Thank you very much!

BevW March 3rd, 2012 at 3:53 pm

As we come to the end of this great Book Salon discussion,

Andrew, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book, The Short American Century.

Robert, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Andrew’s website and book

Robert’s website (Lawyers, Gun$ and Money)

Thanks all, Have a great weekend.

If you want to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Odd, I find a stronger anti-war attitude, today, across the political “spectrum”, than I encountered in the sixties, Andrew … the difference is that “skin” which you mention … and people are more afraid, now, to put theirs on the “line”, owing, in part, to the repression of the civil discourse which is now ever more apparent and even, obvious, as we have seen with the response of “authority” to Occupy.

DW

juliania March 3rd, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Thank you, Mr. Bacevich, and I see you made my point a little further on.

I think the rest of the world is crying out for America to come to its senses, step back from using 9/11 as an excuse and stop rattling our rusty sabres. I do wish the goal was peace, (crazy oldfashioned idea, huh?) rather than economic ‘security.’ Once we purposed the former, the latter would come. Sure it’s risky, but Kennedy stepped back from the brink with the Soviets and that was his shining hour as far as I am concerned.

Thank you very much for being here.

econobuzz March 3rd, 2012 at 3:54 pm

… the big elephant in the room is entitlements.

Wow. Just wow. Just sayin’

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:54 pm
In response to Bruce H. Vail @ 116

Good on ya, Bruce. I quite agree, especially when we’ve quests of the “caliber” of Andrew and Robert.

DW

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:56 pm

Thank you, Andrew and Robert, a great discussion.

Thank you, Bev, as always.

And, thanks to all who participated, making this an especially fine Book Salon, one of the great ones, in my opinion.

DW

Dearie March 3rd, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Thank you, Mr. Bacevich, for coming back to FDL.
.. and I hope that my, how shall we say?, enthusiasm did not come off as rude or insulting.
I hope you will come back again when your next book comes out.

Tammany Tiger March 3rd, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Many thanks, Andrew and Robert.

AitchD March 3rd, 2012 at 3:58 pm
In response to Peterr @ 96

Ike more or less invented the MIC and its power. Those were his I-Want-To-Get-To-Heaven disclaimer last words.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 3:59 pm
In response to Dearie @ 131

I second this request, Dearie, most happily.

In fact, if Andrew might wish to come back sooner, so very much the better.

DW

Teddy Partridge March 3rd, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Great book salon, many thanks to all.

AitchD March 3rd, 2012 at 4:02 pm
In response to econobuzz @ 128

With the same syntax as ‘The wages of sin is death’…

DaveMoore March 3rd, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Andrew, glad to see you here; sorry you could not make it to the Library of Congress’ Veterans Forum when I invited you (I since retired). In response regarding Friedman and others, read the book Republics: Ancient and Modern. In a true republic citizens had to serve to gain the rewards. In other words, only those with skin in the game got benefits. In previous republics, if you did not serve, you could not serve in politics, get tax breaks, etc. And to you Andrew, I don’t know if you agree, but I feel this country went down thanks to Vietnam. I was a volunteer, paratrooper, and served in Vietnam. Every male (and some females) served in the Revolution and every war as volunteers. This is missing. Look at Bush and nearly his entire cabinet. Rumsfeld served, but deferred until after the Korean War. I feel this sense of refusal to serve leads to bravado and “war president.” And regarding “entitlements,” Thomas Paine as well as Eisenhower actually put a dollar amount and compared to retirement, schools, etc., to military spending.

DWBartoo March 3rd, 2012 at 4:15 pm
In response to DaveMoore @ 137

I wish that you had been able to join us earlier, Dave, as I suspect your comments would have elicited more and further spirited debate. I don’t think that I’ve seen you here before, but suspect you might enjoy the thoughtful fray and deeper considerations often occurring at FDL, in general, but, very often, here at Book Salon. Definitely some “heavy hitters”, as in, formidably well-informed participants.

DW

wendydavis March 3rd, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Thank you for that comment, DW; with it I find I can breathe again. Whoosh.

wendydavis March 3rd, 2012 at 4:25 pm
In response to wendydavis @ 139

That was for #116; dunno why it didn’t show up that way.

realitychecker March 3rd, 2012 at 5:26 pm
In response to Dearie @ 114

Thank you for saving me the trouble of having to type that.

Ludwig March 4th, 2012 at 6:53 am
In response to Dearie @ 114

Well said, Dearie. Methinks we see here a bias which is not democratic.

Ludwig March 4th, 2012 at 7:33 am
In response to DWBartoo @ 115

Thanks, DW, for framing what “we” know that just can’t be said.

Sorry but the comments are closed on this post