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The American Century
The English journalist has spent more than a decade preparing a book on this country’s role in the most eventful hundred years since the race began. He liked what he found enough to become an American himself.
September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
You would consider that to be, then, the greatest accomplishment of the American Century?
Well, the greatest accomplishment was simply holding the country together during a time of absolutely seismic change and holding it together around the idea of freedom. I’m thinking especially of FDR’s keeping the nation together under the Constitution during the Great Depression, but simply to absorb such a vast population, from all around the globe, was an incredible accomplishment.
And then I would say yes, the liberation of the world—not only through a strong military defense but also through the sort of patient resolve exemplified by the Marshall Plan. Not only to help former allies but also to revivify such former enemies as Japan and Germany is unprecedented. Now, that’s been called self-interested, but maybe self-enlightened would be a better term. If you could get other nations to act in this sort of self-interested manner, human history would be a much brighter affair.
If those are the greatest accomplishments, what have been the greatest failures?
Race. Tremendous strides have been made, but the fact that it is still such a contentious issue has been the failure. Then there’s conservation. Teddy Roosevelt would be horrified to see what we’re still doing to our natural resources.
In governing ourselves, I think it’s significant that, as much as Americans like to talk about local control, so many state and local governments are still so corrupt and uninspired. People seem unable to focus on them, and that brings up a basic theme. For America to work, Americans have to participate. If they don’t pay attention, they’re going to get screwed.
You know, in Lawrence Goodwyn’s history The Populist Moment , there’s a great description of these Populist farmers out on the Texas prairie who worked and organized and educated themselves so they could break out of the clutches of the merchants and bankers. And at this one particular harvest sale it worked—at least for a time—and they got five cents more on the dollar, and they were so happy that they were driving their wagons back home, whooping it up and waving these blue flags in celebration. I would like to roll more wagons.
The whole fight of the Populists, of course, was against a government and a party system they felt had been hopelessly corrupted by what they liked to call the money power. We’re still having the same debate today.
Yes, we’re still debating many of the same things, like the role of America as a world power. To take another case, I nearly went blind reading the Senate debates of 1898, almost exactly a hundred years ago, over whether the United States should acquire the Philippines. What was to be the nature of American imperialism? What was America’s role in the world to be? The measure to acquire the only sizable overseas acquisition we’ve ever had passed by only one vote. The arguments bear rereading.
It’s as if these were the permanent questions of democracy—at least of American democracy.
All you have to do is look at Woodrow Wilson, who refused to recognize the Huerta dictatorship in Mexico over moral principles and then agonized over going into World War I. These are still the problems at the heart of our foreign-policy making. How far do you pursue human rights and idealism? How far do you pursue a more narrow self-interest? Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were still trying to resolve that some seventy years later, in El Salvador and Nicaragua. We agonize over it today, when we wonder if we should intervene in Bosnia or Haiti or Rwanda.
“There are great forces . . . but you can’t ignore the importance of individuals throughout.”
Is there ever a fixed set of principles?
Well, we do come to an enduring suspicion that secrecy is almost always the handmaiden of disaster. Deception can very quickly become self-deception. It clearly happened with Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara in Vietnam.
In fairness, I think the questions are always hard, but now they’re harder than ever: Would you let your son go fight to put the emir of Kuwait back on his throne? To keep the peace in Bosnia? I would have to say yes, because I think it’s worth keeping the peace and worth preserving the United Nations. America must be involved in the world. But there is a price to be paid for that. I take very much to heart Colin PowelPs remark that the State Department doesn’t have to count the body bags.
Out of the whole enormous cast, do you have a favorite character from the American Century?
Well, Martin Luther King, Jr., is incandescent. Al Smith, with the courage he had in 1928 to go down to the South and make speeches in the teeth of people who hated him for being a Catholic. Robert Moses, of the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], coming back to his headquarters for registering voters in Mississippi after it had been firebombed and still having the courage to sleep there that night.