In 1941 the magazine publishing titan Henry R. Luce urged the nation’s leaders to create an American Century. But in the post-World-War-II era proponents of the American Century faced a daunting task. Even so, Luce had articulated an animating idea that, as William O. Walker III skillfully shows in The Rise and Decline of the American Century, would guide United States foreign policy through the years of hot and cold war.
The American Century was, Walker argues, the counter-balance to defensive war during World War II and the containment of communism during the Cold War. American policymakers pursued an aggressive agenda to extend U.S. influence around the globe through control of economic markets, reliance on nation-building, and, where necessary, provision of arms to allied forces. This positive program for the expansion of American power, Walker deftly demonstrates, came in for widespread criticism by the late 1950s. A changing world, epitomized by the nonaligned movement, challenged U.S. leadership and denigrated the market democracy at the heart of the ideal of the American Century.
Walker analyzes the international crises and monetary troubles that further curtailed the reach of the American Century in the early 1960s and brought it to a halt by the end of that decade. By 1968, it seemed that all the United States had to offer to allies and non-hostile nations was convenient military might, nuclear deterrence, and the uncertainty of détente. Once the dust had fallen on Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and Richard M. Nixon had taken office, what remained was, The Rise and Decline of the American Century shows, an adulterated, strategically-based version of Luce’s American Century.