American Classics

Henry Luce, The American Century (1941)

In February 1941, Henry Luce, the editor, publisher, and creator of Time and Life magazines, proclaimed to the readers of Life that America was in the war.  To many of his readers, such a bold assertion probably came off as perplexing.  After all, World War II, at this point ravaging Europe for about a year and half, did not involve American blood.  For at least some Americans, it was unclear that the war would ever involve American blood—arguments in favor of isolation were still strong, and many Americans were unwilling to believe that the problems of Europeans could ever become their own.  So how, then, could Luce make such a claim?  “The American Century,” the title of this editorial, sought to back up this claim and to transform it into an even greater one in the process—the Twentieth Century was America’s Century.  Only through a recognition of that fact could Americans escape the “sickness” Luce diagnosed them with and make the whole world their own.

The Man and His Time

Henry R. Luce was born in 1898 in China, to American Christian missionary parents.  He attended missionary schools in China for most of his childhood, but ended up at the prestigious Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, where he met Briton Hadden.  Both friends attended Yale.  In 1923, Luce and Hadden created Time Magazine, a weekly periodical focused on the news.  The success of Time led Luce to create Fortune and then to purchase the magazine Life, which he turned into a news weekly focused on photojournalism.  Luce’s mass-circulation publications both reflected and shaped the popular culture and political attitudes. Luce himself was a staunch Republican, advocate of free enterprise, and anti-communist.  By the late 1930s he was a convinced internationalist and came to favor strongly American support for Britain and the allies, and eventually U.S. military intervention in the war.

Luce and others of similar persuasion in both parties sought to develop arguments that would bring American public opinion around to embrace a more activist foreign policy and reject what they regarded as the naïve isolationism that had gripped the country after World War I, and particularly during the turbulent 1930s.[1]  For Republican internationalists, this was a particularly difficult proposition.  Not only did they have to overcome the isolationist sentiments then dominant in their own party, they had to find a way to deal with President Franklin Roosevelt, whose domestic New Deal was anathema, but whose approach to the war was increasingly in line with their own position.

FDR, in the view of Luce, had been slow – actually, retrograde – in dealing with the totalitarian threat to date.  The President had wrongly pandered to isolationist sentiment for domestic political purposes, including his reelection campaign in 1940.  FDR’s belated embrace of strategic activism, such as his Lend-Lease proposal, not only needed support, but the President himself must be pushed farther.  Roosevelt had shown a willingness to accommodate the opposition by appointing two distinguished senior Republicans, Henry Stimson and Frank Knox, to key cabinet posts dealing with national defense.  But how could this rapprochement on national security policy be accomplished without surrendering to the President on the domestic front, thereby  entrenching centralized, bureaucratized government and the concomitant restriction of economic and political freedom (as Luce saw things)?  To complicate matters, there was also something of a divide among internationalists, although this division was not always clear-cut, between those of a realist (power, or geography) and idealist (principles) bent.  In the winter of 1940-1941, Luce sought to bridge these partisan and intellectual divides by providing the public with a powerful case for American global leadership.


Sickness in Our Hearts

The editorial “The American Century” appeared in Life in February 1941It begins with a claim about the souls of Americans.  “We Americans are unhappy,” Luce writes.  “As we look out at the rest of the world we are confused; we don’t know what to do … As we look toward the future – our own future and the future of other nations – we are filled with foreboding.  The future doesn’t seem to hold anything for us except conflict, disruption, war.” That confusion and unhappiness are compounded when Americans look to their British cousins and see, despite the Nazi destruction of their nation, a remarkable calmness.  How can this other nation be calm when America, where “at least two-thirds of us are just plain rich compared to all the rest of the human family,” is not?  For Luce, the answer is simple and the solution is simpler: “There is one fundamental issue which faces America as it faces no other nation.  It is an issue peculiar to America and peculiar to America in the 20th Century – now.  It is deeper even than the immediate issue of War.  If America meets it correctly, then, despite hosts of dangers and difficulties, we can look forward and move forward to a future worthy of men, with peace in our hearts.”

That problem was that of taking on responsibility in the world, concurrent with the extent of American power. The nature of the current conflict forced the United States to answer questions about itself that it was never forced to answer before—what should its role in the world be?  Should it be more focused on the protection of principles or geographies?  Should it be worried only about itself or does it have a duty to protect others?

For Luce, the United States was more than capable of mounting a physical defense of its territory.  After all, if it were necessary to do so Washington could organize the defense of the northern part of the Western Hemisphere so that American territory could never be successfully attacked.  But defense for Luce has a deeper meaning than the mere protection of American territory: “We are not in a war to defend American territory.  We are in a war to defend and even to promote, encourage and incite so-called democratic principles throughout the world.”  Defense for America is not only about geography, but also principles—and this is a war that America can win.  It just needs to be willing to take up the mantle of world leadership and to state the aims for which it fights.

Principled Leadership and an Internationalist Outlook

What would it mean for America to exhibit principled leadership?  And is it capable of doing so?  Luce tells his readers that the United States is more than capable of exhibiting this kind of leadership.  First of all, the United States of February 1941 is in a position to be the most powerful it has been at any time in its entire history.  Moreover, not only is it the most powerful it has ever been but it is among the most powerful of nations to ever exist on this planet—something that Luce does not say directly but certainly alludes to later when he suggests that the 20th century would be the American Century.[2]  Second, America has “that indefinable, unmistakable sign of leadership: prestige.”  It is not a prestige predicated on bald assertions of power, either.  Rather, it manifests itself around the world as “faith in the good intentions as well as in the ultimate intelligence and ultimate strength of the whole American people.”  A certain level of power and a certain kind of prestige, then, cement America’s ability to take upon itself the mantle of leadership.  All the United States need do is assert its prerogative to power.  The responsibility for taking on such a role is Washington’s and Washington’s alone.

But what about war aims?  Could not the United States lead an allied coalition merely to protect itself and the United Kingdom—geographies, rather than principles?  And even in a leadership role, does the United States have an obligation to set the goals for which it and its allies fight—and, moreover, can it do so with absolute authority?  This is the crux of Luce’s argument.  The twentieth century is the American Century precisely because the United States possesses the ability to set the tenor for the world; the power of the United States is so great that its allies and its enemies have no choice but to accept the aims that it sets for the war: “Almost every expert will agree that Britain cannot win complete victory … 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.”  America will succeed only if it takes leadership upon itself and makes its own goals in victory: “If our trouble is that we don’t know what we are fighting for, then it’s up to us to figure it out.  Don’t expect some other country to tell us.  Stop this Nazi propaganda about fighting somebody else’s war.  We fight no wars except our own wars. ‘Arsenal of Democracy?’ We may prove to be that.  But today we must be the arsenal of America and of the friends and allies of America.”

Luce does point out, however, that none of this would be possible if the United States were to remain in an isolationist mindset.  Rather, the United States must, if it wants to truly take the leadership role in the world, become internationalist in outlook.  This is the only way that it can reconcile the two possible pathways of defense—that of geography and that of principles.  It suddenly becomes easier to defend far-off and exotic locations in the world if it is done in the name of principles.  But if the United States remains silent, and continues to claim that the problems of the world are not its own, then it has no one to blame but itself for the poor international environment within which it would find itself.  Isolationism was, for Luce, an acceptable strategy in the infancy of the nation.  But now that the United States finds itself in such a dominant position, its strategy must “grow-up” and become internationalist.  One can ignore the problems of the world when one is weak.  But when one becomes strong, such ignorance is no longer possible.  The United States has a duty to the rest of the world to shed its isolationism.  It has a duty to the world to accept the strength it possesses and all the responsibilities that come with such strength. Americans must “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.”

Having established that a principled leadership is definitively the responsibility of, and within the realm of possibilities for, the United States, what are the principles for which Americans should fight, kill, and die?  While Luce does not specify the exact principles for which the United States should be fighting for under its new leadership role, he does provide a general outline.  He acknowledges that the United States could hardly turn the whole world into a democratic paradise: “emphatically our only alternative to isolationism is not to undertake to police the whole world nor to impose democratic institutions on all mankind … America cannot be responsible for the good behavior of the entire world.”  But at the same time, a world made up of values antithetical to the growth of America would be entirely its own fault: “America is responsible, to herself as well as to history, for the world-environment in which she lives.  Nothing can so vitally affect America’s environment as America’s own influence upon it, and therefore if America’s environment is unfavorable to the growth of American life, then America has nobody to blame so deeply as she must blame herself.”  The United States might not be able to police the entire world, it may not be able to remake the world in its own image, but if it can somehow influence the direction the world takes—for instance, in promoting and developing a free international economy and a specific international moral order, in aiding democracies and supporting the principles that inform American life—then it will create a world increasingly favorable to the success of the United States.

Fighting the Collectivist Threat, at Home as Well as Abroad

We must note, however, that Luce’s idea of an internationalist America was not that of New Deal America.  One of the principle arguments of Republican isolationists was that entry into the war would end constitutional democracy in the United States – as Luce put it, “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.”  That, in fact, was the course that the nation was already on:

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 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.

The solution for Luce, however, was not that of isolationism – refusing American global leadership, thereby repeating the mistakes of 1919 – but rather promoting a certain type of internationalism friendly to democratic constitutionalism.  Instead of the New Deal America, Luce’s idea of an internationalist America is one that was “conceived in adventure and dedicated to the progress of man,” an America that persevered through its early centuries under “the most exciting flag of all the world and of all history,” the “triumphal flag of freedom.”  Luce’s internationalist America is dedicated to the “great American ideals,” those things that 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.”  It is an America dedicated to becoming “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.”

Luce’s internationalist America would go out into the world rooted in its own history and principles, not the principles of the New Deal.  The threat to constitutional democracy at home by liberal-left policies might be overcome if America exercised global leadership animated by the original principles of freedom that girded it.

But how to bring President Roosevelt, and those who supported him, on board with Luce’s project?   He concedes that the President’s first two terms might be justified on the grounds that “great social reforms were necessary in order to bring democracy up-to-date in the greatest of democracies.”  The fact, however, was that Roosevelt failed to make American democracy work successfully on a narrow, materialistic and nationalistic basis.

Our only chance now to make it work is in terms of a vital international economy and in terms of an international moral order. This objective is Franklin Roosevelt’s great opportunity to justify his first two terms and to go down in history as the greatest rather than the last of American Presidents. Our job is to help in every way we can, for our sakes and our children’s sakes, to ensure that Franklin Roosevelt shall be justly hailed as America’s greatest President. Without our help he cannot be our greatest President. With our help he can and will be. Under him and with his leadership we can make isolationism as dead an issue as slavery, and we can make a truly American internationalism something as natural to us in our time as the airplane or the radio. 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. . . . with the help of all of us, Roosevelt must succeed where Wilson failed.

The American Century and a Vision for the Future

Luce proclaims to his readers that the twentieth century will be the “American Century,” so long as the United States goes out and makes it its own. All of the elements necessary to do so are there.  But why an American Century?  And why was the twentieth century ripe to be exclusively the domain of the United States?  After all, Luce writes, the twentieth century is “baffling, difficult, paradoxical, revolutionary.”  But, Luce does not shirk from answering this question—and he goes further than merely saying that America’s power gives it the capability to claim it.  He provides three reasons why the twentieth century was endowed with the ability to be claimed by Americans.  First of all, presumably because of technology, “our world of 2,000,000,000 human beings is for the first time in history one world, fundamentally indivisible.”  Second, modern man “hates war and feels intuitively that, in its present scale and frequency, it may even be fatal to his species.”[3] And third, the world of the twentieth century is capable, for the first time in history, of producing all the needs of every human being in existence. Each of these aspects reflects America’s unique national experience and capabilities.

That third reason in particular seems to be the most important to Luce.  Meeting all human needs is an American promise, Luce writes, because of the principles of freedom: “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.”   It’s not that the United States needs to physically meet the material needs of every human in existence forever, but, rather, that through America’s influence, the rest of the world can reach for the “American Dream.”  It is a dream that rests on the principles of freedom.  Through its own example and leadership, the United States can influence the other nations of the world to embrace those principles of freedom.

What specific steps can the United States take, however, to reach Luce’s goal?  We have already mentioned one of the steps – it must embrace internationalism over isolationism.  But Luce provides us with other steps to follow.  First of all, the United States must share its Bill of Rights, its Declaration of Independence, and its Constitution with the world—America’s principles of freedom largely rest on reverence to these documents, and although they may not be applicable to all peoples, other nations could learn quite a bit from them.  Sharing them, however, is not enough; Americans must have a passionate devotion to the great American ideals embodied in those works for them to be effective – they must be devoted to freedom, the equality of opportunity, and a tradition of self-reliance, independence, and cooperation.  By showing the citizens of the world that they are dedicated to the same ideals expressed in their documents, Americans will set an example that other peoples can follow.

Second, the United States must be willing to provide its industrial products and technical know-how to the world.  In many ways, Luce writes, the United States is already doing this.  After all, it sells its industrial products abroad and other peoples are consumers of the products of American scientific, artistic, and intellectual life.  But the United States must be willing to do more than just export the products it creates.  It also must be willing to provide the skills and training for others to create successful artistic, intellectual, and scientific products of their own.  Luce guarantees his readers that such training will be needed and welcomed around the world, but only if Americans have the imagination to see it and “the sincerity and good will to create the world of the 20th century.”

Third, and related to the last, the United States must ensure that its vision of the international economic order is the dominant one—without that economic order, American prosperity could stagnate, and the idea of the “American Century” would fall flat.  Pursuant to ensuring that its ideas of economy become (and remain!) dominant, the United States must be willing to defend a principle that Americans have long held dear: the freedom of the seas.  Only by guaranteeing free trade among the nations of the world can this vision be fulfilled.

Fourth, and finally, Americans must become the good Samaritans of the world, sending out an “army of humanitarians” to feed the world wherever it is needed.  And why not?  This kind of action would, Luce seems to argue, foster good will among the nations of the world that need it most, and it is certainly possible in light of the United States’ overwhelming prosperity.  Feeding the world is not simply something the United States should think about doing, either.  Rather, it is the “manifest duty” of America “to undertake to feed all the people of the world who as a result of this worldwide collapse of civilization are hungry and destitute.”  If the United States can spend millions of dollars on weapons of war, it can surely spend some money on food for the people displaced by weapons: for “every dollar we spend on armaments we should spend at least a dime in a gigantic effort to feed the world.”


The public reaction to Luce’s editorial, at least as measured in letters to Life, mirrored the divisions in the country as a whole. They focused on what was widely interpreted as his call for military intervention (something that Luce had not explicitly done in the editorial).  He was condemned as warmonger and praised for his moral courage.  For those journalists, public thinkers, and politicians who had given much thought to the question, it was Luce’s vision of the post-war world, and America’s role in it, that was most intriguing.  Walter Lippmann, whose own writings had deeply influenced Luce, was full of praise, as were some prominent friends of the Roosevelt administration, including former speechwriter Robert Sherwood.  Critics on both the right (such as Republican Senator Robert Taft) and left (Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas) objected to what they regarded as its imperialist tone.  In May 1942, Vice President Henry Wallace delivered a speech, “The Price of Free World Victory,” which came to be known as “The Century of the Common Man,” later regarded as rebuttal to Luce’s supposed imperialism, although their differences were not so apparent at the time.

Luce denied that charge; he said that he was merely arguing that the United States assume a responsibility in world affairs corresponding to its strength.   The term “American Century” eventually became the equivalent of a bumper sticker (like containment) that inspired or infuriated, long after Luce’s particular arguments were forgotten.  But the basic thrust of his argument – the imperative of American global leadership (that of an “indispensable nation”) resonated strongly, especially once the United States entered the war, and it has continued to resonate since.


Americans are unhappy, Luce tells us, because they know within their hearts that the United States can do something more for the world and it is not.  They are unhappy because their vision of the future is clouded with scenes of destruction, war, and calamity.  But this does not have to be the case.  Luce deftly argues to his readers that the future of the United States, and indeed the whole world, is a clay that Americans, and Americans only, possess the ability to mold.  The twentieth century can be the American Century—but only if Americans are willing to recognize the truth of the situation within which they find themselves, but only if Americans are willing to take upon themselves the mantle of a principled world leadership, but only if Americans become internationalist in outlook.  No other nation in history has had the opportunity placed in front of it that America has.  Luce wants his readers to recognize that—and cement into history the idea that the twentieth century is the American Century.


[1] The terms “isolationism” and “internationalism” are fraught with controversy, as to whether they actually describe the positions of those holding them.  They are used here, with caution, in the sense that Luce employed them. Those commonly characterized as “isolationist” often objected to that term, preferring instead to be called “noninterventionist.”  They took the position that while they favored American engagement in the world, they opposed U.S. military intervention in overseas wars, and to actions that could lead to U.S. involvement in those wars. Return to text.

[2] Furthermore, one can argue that Luce also points to this conclusion when he compares Americans to the rest of the world: “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.” Return to text.

[3] Although men of all ages have hated war, modern man hates war because he recognizes that modern military technology expands the scale of war such that man wields the power to utterly destroy himself.  Seeing the destruction of World War I, modern man recognized that in war no longer would men kill each other one at a time—rather, the technology of the day allowed one man to kill hundreds, even thousands.  And death was not reserved only for soldiers, but also civilians.  The situation of modern man in war, then, is distinct from that of ancient or even medieval man. Return to text.



For the text of Henry Luce’s “The American Century”, see: Luce, Henry. “The American Century.” Diplomatic History 23, no. 2 (1999): 159-171.


Further Reading

Brinkley, Alan. The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century. New York, Knopf, 2010.

Cumings, Bruce.  “Still the American Century.” Review of International Studies 25 (1999): 271-299.

Herztein, Robert E. Henry R. Luce, Time, and the American Crusade in Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

LaFeber, Walter.  “The Tension between Democracy and Capitalism during the American Century.” Diplomatic History 23, no. 2 (1999): 263-284.

Meltzer, Allan H. “End of the ‘American Century.’” World Economics 9, no.4 (2008): 1-11.

Porter, Patrick. “Beyond the American Century: Walter Lippmann and American Grand Strategy, 1943-1950.” Diplomacy and Statecraft 22 (2011): 557-577.

Smith, Tony. “Making the World Safe for Democracy in the American Century.” Diplomatic History 23, no. 2 (1999): 173-188.

Vials, Chris. “The Popular Front in the American Century: Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White, and Consumer Realism, 1936-1941.” American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 16, no. 1 (2006): 74-102.