In his seminal 1941 essay, “The American Century,” Henry Luce enjoined his country to reject isolationism and assume its rightful place as “the intellectual, scientific and artistic capital of the world.” The 20th century, he proclaimed, was to be America’s century: “Blindly, unintentionally, accidentally and really in spite of ourselves,” Luce wrote, “we are already a world power in all the trivial ways.”
How the World was Won: The Americanization of Everywhere is an exhaustive reckoning of America’s stature in the seven decades since it emerged empowered, wealthy, and irrepressibly optimistic from a war that devastated much of the world. Author Peter Conrad’s book-length essay examines how America has dictated a political will and exported a way of life — in the form of Hollywood movies, Coca-Cola, pop music, magazines, and jazz — to every corner of the globe; how the world has responded with exasperation, envy, disgust, obsession, and admiration; and ultimately, how it engineered its own decline.
Throughout, Conrad is rather affectionate about America and not without sympathy when, as in the passage below, he traces its slow exit from the world stage and asks how it got there.
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Occasionally it looks as if our Americanized world has no room for other countries or cultures. The cover of The Whole Earth Catalog, launched in 1968, did not show the whole earth, only the continent partially occupied by the United States. At the cinema, Universal brands the globe by letting it revolve until the so-called western hemisphere basks in the sun: now it can rest, ensuring that America is never on the dark side. Every October, baseball teams compete in a championship that is called the World Series even though it is confined to North America. Near the end of his life, Steve Jobs took his family on holiday to Turkey. In Istanbul he hired a local historian as a guide, but soon became irritated by lectures about the rites of the Turkish bath and the preparation of Turkish coffee. To himself, he said ‘So fucking what?’ Out loud, he commented that kids in Turkey apparently drank what every other kid in the world drinks, wore clothes that might have been bought at the Gap, and of course used cell phones. ‘They were like kids everywhere,’ he concluded, meaning that they were like kids in California. Is globalism actually become the universalization of the United States?
Proclaiming the advent of the American century in 1941, Henry Luce noted the country’s jazz, slang and patented products were ‘the only things that every community … from Zanzibar to Hamburg, recognizes in common’. Inevitably, the entire world became America’s market. But some Americans were keen for this era of omnipotence to end. Arthur Miller thought he had slowed its progress in 1949 with his play Death of a Salesman, which blasphemed against Luce’s cult of success by examining a single case of failure, the career of a shabby, deluded commercial traveller. In the 1960s the student agitator Todd Gitlin expressed the hope that ‘an anti-American century’ had begun, instigated by protests against the war in Vietnam, and in 1968 Normal Mailer heard Nixon deliver a speech about a friendlier foreign policy that ‘seemed to be calling for an end to Henry Luce’s American Century’. By 1980, after the bungled rescue of the hostages in Iran, Hunter S. Thompson warned that the Arabs, unafraid of the United States and aware of the advantages their oil gave them, were ‘looking beyond “the American century” ’. During the course of his confession in 1998 about his sexual peccadilloes, Bill Clinton said that he would prefer to spend his time preparing for ‘the next American century’: the phrase now sounded as hollow as his quibbling self-defense. The American century began shortly before I was born, and it seems likely to last about as long as an average human being does.
Politicians keep boasting, though their assertions are increasingly windy. In 1998 Madeleine Albright, the American ambassador to the United Nations, justified an attack on Iraq by claiming a fortune-teller’s uncanny powers. ‘We are the indispensable nation,’ she said. ‘We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.’ In July 2011, during the squabble about the debt ceiling, the Speaker of the House of Representatives spelled it out. ‘We are the greatest country that ever existed in the history of the world,’ declared Nancy Pelosi. Maybe so, but the assessment seemed retrospective, and it had undertones of disgruntlement and regret, since with greatness come onerous responsibilities and tragic perils. Early in 2014 President Obama edged around the usual superlative when he carefully referred to the United States as ‘the largest organization on earth’ and added that the country still had the power to do good, whether or not – he added, with a telling proviso – anyone was paying attention.
Today even Superman has been stripped of his role as the superpower’s muscular embodiment. In 2011 Action Comics decided that in an interconnected world he could no longer go on defending ‘Truth, justice and the American way’, a motto first heard on the radio in August 1942; to prove his change of heart, he undertook an exploratory flight to Tehran. An improvident nation currently casts nervous glances at the rivals who underwrite its excesses. The skyline of Shanghai makes Manhattan look stumpy, Bollywood is in ruder health than Hollywood, and in the autumn of 2012 the latest dance craze originated in Korea. Although the Universal logo still allows the United States to enjoy the warming sun, the company was sold in 1990 to Matsushita Electric/Panasonic, then to the Canadian liquor firm Seagram, and finally to the French water utility and media conglomerate Vivendi. In the luminous gulch of Times Square, a glaring totem pole continues to advertise Coca-Cola, but American brands are jostled by Hyundai and Samsung. Climbing towards the top of the pole is the billboard of the Chinese state news agency Xinhua, which in October 2013, days before a possible financial default by the United States government, called for the construction of a ‘de-Americanized world’. I shivered when I heard that on the CBS television news in New York: the adjective was new to me, but I expect to be hearing it again.
The philosophical farmer Hector St John de Crèvecoeur, the first European to recognize Americans as human beings of a new kind, said in the 1780s that they were ‘Western pilgrims’, whose mission was to follow the sun and carry on a culture that ‘began long since in the East’. In due course, he expected them to ‘finish the great circle’ by returning the impetus to the East, where it originated; we are now living through the start of that closing phase. It is time to look not towards America but back at it, retraversing three-quarters of a century that began with its promise to raise up bruised, battle-sore humanity and renovate our world.
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Excerpted from How the World was Won: The Americanization of Everywhere, by Peter Conrad. ©2014 Peter Conrad. Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc., www.ThamesAndHudsonUSA.com
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