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The End of the American Century

Andrew Bacevich has a great new article in Salon about the end of the “American Century.”

The net effect [of the myth of the American Century] is to perpetuate an array of illusions that, whatever their value in prior decades, have long since outlived their usefulness. In short, the persistence of this self-congratulatory account deprives Americans of self-awareness, hindering our efforts to navigate the treacherous waters in which the country finds itself at present. Bluntly, we are perpetuating a mythic version of the past that never even approximated reality and today has become downright malignant. Although Richard Cohen may be right in declaring the American Century over, the American people — and especially the American political class — still remain in its thrall.

Constructing a past usable to the present requires a willingness to include much that the American Century leaves out.

For example, to the extent that the demolition of totalitarianism deserves to be seen as a prominent theme of contemporary history (and it does), the primary credit for that achievement surely belongs to the Soviet Union. When it came to defeating the Third Reich, the Soviets bore by far the preponderant burden, sustaining 65 percent  of all Allied deaths in World War II.

By comparison, the United States suffered 2 percent of those losses, for which any American whose father or grandfather served in and survived that war should be saying: Thank you, Comrade Stalin.

For the United States to claim credit for destroying the Wehrmacht is the equivalent of Toyota claiming credit for inventing the automobile. We entered the game late and then shrewdly scooped up more than our fair share of the winnings. The true “Greatest Generation” is the one that willingly expended millions of their fellow Russians while killing millions of German soldiers.


  1. Marty wrote:

    I have not read the whole article, but counting casualties as Bacevich does in that excerpt hardly demonstrates the point that he’s out to prove. …Especially when it comes to the issue of “the demolition of totalitarianism.” …Especially given the nature of Stalin’s own regime. I’m not trying to say that America is the answer to the world’s ills, but I’m not so sure that a proper reaction is to make a hero out of a regime which also probably doesn’t deserve the title.

    Friday, May 1, 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    I think his point is that it is almost exclusively the result of a kind of moral luck (and I’m really avoiding cynicism by using that term instead of something more sinister) that America found (finds) herself where she does.

    Friday, May 1, 2009 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  3. maufman wrote:

    In Eastern Europe, George W. Bush apologized for the compromises that FDR made at Yalta. Whether FDR was right or not, Bush seemed completely unaware that hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Americans are alive today, or died in recent years at a ripe age, because FDR made those compromises.

    If Bush, McCain and others had reflected more on FDR’s unholy alliance with Stalin, they might have realized that their refusal to meet with tin-pot dictators was not principled, but cowardly. World politics is hardball; those who wish to associate only with their friends should stick to playing bridge.

    Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  4. Theophilus wrote:

    Actually, GWB’s admission of fault in the Yalta negotiations might be a step forward in acknowledging that not everything is black and white. Recognizing that both Stalin and Hitler were both evil and oppressive figures, and that we in the West empowered one evil man to stop another who was more immediately troublesome to our particular interests, is a very good sign in my view. Recognizing the evil of our allies prepares the way for recognizing our own evil. Of course, I’m sensitive to the issue; I owe my life to Adolf Hitler’s racial policies which saved my Soviet-born, ethnically German grandparents from elimination at the hands of Stalin’s Red Army by allowing them to flee to Germany in the dying years of the war. It’s sobering to realize that I am quite literally the product of great evil.

    Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 11:57 am | Permalink

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