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Henry Luce and the American Century (Empire)


Have you ever heard of Henry Luce? Maybe or maybe not, but I’m sure you’re familiar with Time, LifeFortune, and Sports Illustrated magazines. Well, Luce founded these establishments of modern journalism and created the world’s first private multimedia corporation. Through these mediums, Luce was able to spread his conviction to politicians and the public alike that the U.S. must use its power to shape and lead world affairs.

According Robert Herzstein, “Luce has been called the most influential private citizen in the America of his day”

Luce’s efforts to rally popular and government support for U.S. global leadership peaked with his editorial “The American Century”. This document had two main objectives: on one hand it called upon the United States to directly engage in the conflict in Europe by joining Britain in its battle against Germany; on the other, and more importantly, it said that the United States must replace Britain as the world leader and completely transform the system of international relations through the global application of “American principles.”

Luce’s vision of the American Century had important implications for U.S. foreign policy in both the short and long term. He used his magazines as high-profile venues to promote U.S. involvement overseas and had an enduring influence during the Cold War and beyond.

I pulled out my favorite parts from this article for your reading enjoyment.

The American Century, by Henry R. Luce, first published in LIFE magazine 17 February 1941:

We Americans are unhappy. We are not happy about America. We are not happy about ourselves in relation to America. We are nervous – or gloomy – or apathetic.

With us it is different. We do not have to face any attack tomorrow or the next day. Yet we are faced with something almost as difficult. We are faced with great decisions.

We know how lucky we are compared to all the rest of mankind. At least two-thirds of us are just plain rich compared to all the rest of the human family – rich in food, rich in clothes, rich in entertainment and amusement, rich in leisure, rich.

We are all acquainted with the fearful forecast – that some form of dictatorship is required to fight a modern war, that we will certainly go bankrupt, that in the process of war and its aftermath our economy will be largely socialized, that the politicians now in office will seize complete power and never yield it up, and that what with the whole trend toward collectivism, we shall end up in such a total national socialism that any faint semblances of our constitutional American democracy will be totally unrecognizable. We start into this war with huge Government debt, a vast bureaucracy and a whole generation of young people trained to look to the Government as the source of all life. The Party in power is the one which for long years has been most sympathetic to all manner of socialist doctrines and collectivist trends.

The President of the United States has continually reached for more and more power, and he owes his continuation in office today largely to the coming of the war. Thus, the fear that the United States will be driven to a national socialism, as a result of cataclysmic circumstances and contrary to the free will of the American people, is an entirely justifiable fear.

Stated most simply, and in general terms, that issue is: What are we fighting for?

Furthermore – and this is an extraordinary and profoundly historical fact which deserves to be examined in detail – America and only America can effectively state the war aims of this war. Almost every expert will agree that Britain cannot win complete victory – cannot even, in the common saying, “stop Hitler” – without American help. Therefore, even if Britain should from time to time announce war aims, the American people are continually in the position of effectively approving or not approving those aims. On the contrary, if America were to announce war aims, Great Britain would almost certainly accept them. And the entire world including Adolf Hitler would accept them as the gauge of this battle.

Consider this recent statement of the London Economist : ‘If any permanent closer association of Britain and the United States is achieved, an island people of less than 50 millions cannot expect to be the senior partner. . . . The center of gravity and the ultimate decision must increasingly lie in America. We cannot resent this historical development. We may rather feel proud that the cycle of dependence, enmity and independence is coming full circle into a new interdependence.’

In the field of national policy, the fundamental trouble with America has been, and is, that whereas their nation became in the 20th Century the most powerful and the most vital nation in the world, nevertheless Americans were unable to accommodate themselves spiritually and practically to that fact. Hence they have failed to play their part as a world power – a failure which has had disastrous consequences for themselves and for all mankind. And the cure is this: to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.

In 1919 we had a golden opportunity, an opportunity unprecedented in all history, to assume the leadership of the world – a golden opportunity handed to us on the proverbial silver platter. We did not understand that opportunity. Wilson mishandled it. We rejected it. The opportunity persisted. We bungled it in the 1920’s and in the confusions of the 1930’s we killed it. To lead the world would never have been an easy task. To revive the hope of that lost opportunity makes the task now infinitely harder than it would have been before. Nevertheless, with the help of all of us, Roosevelt must succeed where Wilson failed.

Peace cannot endure unless it prevails over a very large part of the world. Justice will come near to losing all meaning in the minds of men unless Justice can have approximately the same fundamental meanings in many lands and among many peoples. As to the third point – the promise of adequate production for all mankind, the “more abundant life” – be it noted that this is characteristically an American promise. It is a promise easily made, here and elsewhere, by demagogues and proponents of all manner of slick schemes and “planned economies.” What we must insist on is that the abundant life is predicated on Freedom – on the Freedom which has created its possibility – on a vision of Freedom under Law. Without Freedom, there will be no abundant life. With Freedom, there can be. And finally there is the belief – shared let us remember by most men living -that the 20th Century must be to a significant degree an American Century. This knowledge calls us to action now.

What can we say and foresee about an American Century?

As America enters dynamically upon the world scene, we need most of all to seek and to bring forth a vision of America as a world power which is authentically American and which can inspire us to live and work and fight with vigor and enthusiasm. And as we come now to the great test, it may yet turn out that in all our trials and tribulations of spirit during the first part of this century we as a people have been painfully apprehending the meaning of our time and now in this moment of testing there may come clear at last the vision which will guide us to the authentic creation of the 20th Century – our Century.

Consider four areas of life and thought in which we may seek to realize such a vision:

First, the economic. It is for America and for America alone to determine whether a system of free economic enterprise – an economic order compatible with freedom and progress – shall or shall not prevail in this century.

Some few decisions are quite simple. For example: we have to decide whether or not we shall have for ourselves and our friends freedom of the seas – the right to go with our ships and our ocean-going airplanes where we wish, when we wish and as we wish. The vision of America as the principal guarantor of the freedom of the seas, the vision of Americas [sic] as the dynamic leader of world trade, has within it the possibilities of such enormous human progress as to stagger the imagination.

We must undertake now to be the Good Samaritan of the entire world. It is the manifest duty of this country to undertake to feed all the people of the world who as a result of this worldwide collapse of civilization are hungry and destitute – all of them, that is, whom we can from time to time reach consistently with a very tough attitude toward all hostile governments.

For every dollar we spend on armaments, we should spend at least a dime in a gigantic effort to feed the world – and all the world should know that we have dedicated ourselves to this task. Every farmer in America should be encouraged to produce all the crops he can, and all that we cannot eat – and perhaps some of us could eat less – should forthwith be dispatched to the four quarters of the globe as a free gift, administered by a humanitarian army of Americans, to every man, woman and child on this earth who is really hungry.

But all this is not enough. All this will fail and none of it will happen unless our vision of America as a world power includes a passionate devotion to great American ideals. We have some things in this country which are infinitely precious and especially American – a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence and also of co-operation. In addition to ideals and notions which are especially American, we are the inheritors of all the great principles of Western civilization – above all Justice, the love of Truth, the ideal of Charity. The other day Herbert Hoover said that America was fast becoming the sanctuary of the ideals of civilization.

For the moment it may be enough to be the sanctuary of these ideals. But not for long. It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.

It is in this spirit that all of us are called, each to his own measure of capacity, and each in the widest horizon of his vision, to create the first great American Century.

I’ll make it for you, simply replace “century” with “empire” and the truth reveals itself.

Also, notice the disdain for “collectivism” and “socialism”. You can easily see how Luce’s convictions became official U.S. policy in the years to come.

Any questions?

Thanks for reading,


U.S. State Department, Office of the Historian:

Full article on Wiley:

Full article on Information Clearinghouse:

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