America’s True Power

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We know more about sickness than about health. This is as true of medicine as it is of history, and as true of the condition of a nation as it is of a person. Moreover, the diagnosis must proceed not only from symptoms but from retrospect. For the diagnosis of a patient, some kind of knowledge of his medical history is fundamental.

 

We know more about sickness than about health. This is as true of medicine as it is of history, and as true of the condition of a nation as it is of a person. Moreover, the diagnosis must proceed not only from symptoms but from retrospect. For the diagnosis of a patient, some kind of knowledge of his medical history is fundamental.

The present interest in Professor Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which was the subject of an interview with Kennedy in the September/October issue of American Heritage, is a symptom of concern with the health of the United States. (The tendency to take the temperature of this nation is a not infrequent American inclination.) Kennedy’s interest was directed to a comparison with previous great empires: What happened when the conditions of their power in the world had changed? There is nothing wrong with this. Yet there is, I believe, room for the presentation of a different perspective. Paul Kennedy has proceeded from a perspective that is defined principally by conditions of American economic power and from a consideration that concentrates heavily on the decline of that power at present. His comparisons with the declines of other great empires depend on his illustrations of such generally economic conditions.

We are now approaching the end of the twentieth century, which has been the American century in the history of the world, as the nineteenth century was largely the British, much of the seventeenth century the French, and at least half of the sixteenth century the Spanish.

But the actual causes of this pre-eminence were much more than “economic power.” There was a definite shift in American sentiment even before 1898, when the Spanish-American War made the United States a true world power, dominating the greatest oceans. During the nineteenth century Americans were convinced that their national destiny lay in the fact that the New World was different from the Old. Sometime around 1890 this conviction was transforming itself into something else, into a view of the world that is still widespread, though there are signs of its fading: that the United States was the advanced model of the Old World. This idea was in the minds of the learned American imperialists of the Theodore Roosevelt kind, but it already appears in our rhetoric well before 1898. Here is but one example: In 1876 the great Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia was dedicated to machinery, celebrating the unique American achievement of mechanical progress. By 1893 the celebration encompassed history itself; the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was opened by Chauncey M. Depew with the words “This day belongs not to America, but to the world. … We celebrate the emancipation of man.”

This change in the perspective of American destiny corresponded to the actual historical relationship of the Old World and the New. In the nineteenth century the main events of European and American history were different. In Europe these were the revolutions of 1820, 1830, and 1848, the unification of Italy and of Germany, the Franco-Prussian War; in the United States they were the westward movement and the Civil War. There is some relationship between these events, but not much. It is in the twentieth century that the greatest events in the history of Europe and of the United States coincide.

 

The two greatest events of the twentieth century were the world wars—for Europe as well as for the United States. They are the two enormous mountain ranges that even now dominate the historical landscape. They formed the main configuration of the world in which we still live. The communist revolution in Russia, the atom bomb, the end of the European colonial empires—all these developments were consequences, not causes, of the two world wars, and none of them compare in magnitude.

In the United States there was an entire generation whose most traumatic experience was the Depression, but with all respect for their tribulations we must recognize that the Depression and the consequent reforms of the New Deal (which —again, all respect for Franklin Roosevelt’s verve notwithstanding—were well-nigh unavoidable in the long run) do not compare to the consequences of the two world wars. In any event, that generation, and its memories, are now largely gone. What is not gone is a world situation, largely unchanged since 1945, in which the two superpowers of the globe are the United States and the Soviet Union. That has been the consequence of the Second World War, affecting not only the course of the American ship of state but the entire governmental and industrial and military structure of the nation—even though fewer Americans lost their lives in that war than people of any other major country of the world; even though the United States, alone among the major participants, was physically untouched by war; and even though the United States emerged as the only prosperous nation among all the warring powers.