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America’s True Power
At a time when many are concerned by the nation’s loss of the unassailable economic position it occupied just after World War II, one historian argues that our real strength—and our real peril—lie elsewhere
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
In sum, what exists and what happens are inseparable from what people think exists and what they think happens. These two things are not identical, but they are inseparably combined, and they remain so for a very long time—though not forever.
The American century, too, has been the result not merely of American power but of American prestige. The idea of America had inspired European radicals and liberals since 1776, yet for various reasons the emulation of the American example was limited. Except for the short-lived constitution of the Second French Republic in 1848 (which Tocqueville helped draft), American political institutions were not adopted in Europe during the nineteenth century. In Japan and China the adaptation of certain American institutions began only toward the end of the nineteenth century, while in England and Europe the upper classes, although increasingly respectful of American money and power, were disdainful of American habits and manners. All this changed toward the end of the First World War, when America suddenly became chic. The full flowering of the American century began at the latest in 1918—and not only because of the then unique (though quickly evanescent) reputation of Wilson, not only because of the victorious end of World War I, and not only because of the golden coronation of the dollar, king of the moneys of the world. The Americanization of the world had begun. American inventions, products, manners, habits, and art spread across Europe. American worries and American popular music inundated the globe. American literature had come into its own. All this happened in a decade which was one of American “isolationism,” but that, like Prohibition, gangsters, and the Ku Klux Klan, did little to diminish American prestige among the masses of the world.
The American Depression hurt the image of America abroad not at all. The Americanization of the world went on in the thirties as it had in the twenties. Then it continued without cease through and after the Second World War, after which the economic and social structures of entire nations became Americanized; their governments adopted American practices of giving easy credit to the masses, of pay-as-you-earn income tax, of universal education. It may be said that while before 1945 the imitation and the adoption of American things and habits and enjoyments were practiced mostly by the middle and upper classes, during the last forty years this has happened among the masses. The Americanization of the world has become visible and palpable everywhere—even (and sometimes especially) among nations that, at least until recently, have proclaimed themselves to be enemies of the United States. On a mundane level it is evident in T-shirts as well as in airplane language, in fast-food outlets as well as in American management jargon. When, in the 1970s, the division between communist Russia and China deepened, the Russian government, after profound deliberations, chose the franchise to produce and to distribute Pepsi-Cola to their thirsty millions, whereas the Chinese had chosen Coca-Cola. It is true that this kind of American exporting has developed at a time when the quantity and the quality of more substantial American articles of export (automobiles, for example) have declined. But we must also remember that until the Second World War the dependence of American industry on exporting American products was minimal.
The American defeat in Vietnam neither halted nor even slowed this kind of popular Americanization. Nor has the recent deficit or the decline of the dollar affected the respect for American power. Moreover, in the late 1980s the United States seems to have won the Cold War, or at least that perception of the Cold War that sees it as a contest between American capitalism and Russian communism. In sum, the erosion of American economic power has not affected the prevalence of American prestige. Until now.
Among many other related phenomena, I find it significant that now, when the entire globe has become tied together through a personally dialable system of international telephony, the code number of the United States is 1.
But I also find it significant (and ominous) that not many years ago a President of the United States (Richard Nixon) felt compelled to declare, repeatedly, that the United States was still number one. For apart from the cheap and puerile vulgarity of the phrase, it is not difficult to detect an uneasiness of self-confidence in the compulsion for such an assertion.