On February 17, 1941, Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine published his landmark “American Century” essay in that magazine’s spin-off, Life. As Alan Brinkley wrote in The Publisher, his 2010 biography of Luce:
“What can we say and foresee about an American Century?” [Luce] asked. His answer was bold, ambitious, idealistic—and filled with the missionary zeal that had shaped his life. “It must be a sharing with all peoples of our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, our magnificent industrial products, our technical skills. It must be an internationalism of the people, by the people, and for the people.” America was already the “intellectual, scientific and artistic capital of the world,” he claimed, and Americans were “the least provincial people in the world.” But more important than that the United States now had “that indefinable unmistakable sign of leadership: prestige. And unlike the prestige of Rome or Genghis Khan or 19th Century England, American prestige throughout the world is faith in the good intentions as well as the ultimate intelligence and ultimate strength of the whole of the American people.” The creation of an American century would require great vision. It would mean a commitment to “an economic order compatible with freedom and progress.” It would mean a willingness to “send out through the world [America’s] technical and artistic skills. Engineers, scientists, doctors, movie men, makers of entertainment, developers of airlines, builders of roads, teachers, educators.” It would mean becoming “the Good Samaritan of the entire world,” with a duty “to feed all the people of the world who … are hungry and destitute.”
Most of all, the American Century as Luce envisioned it would require:
a passionate devotion to great American ideals … a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence and also of co-operation….[W]e are the inheritors of all the great principles of Western civilization—above all Justice, the love of Truth, the ideal of Charity…. It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels.
From these elements, he concluded, “surely can be fashioned a vision of the 20th Century to which we can and will devote ourselves in joy and gladness and vigor and enthusiasm…. It is in this spirit that all of us are called, each to his own measure of capacity, and each in the widest horizon of his vision, to create the first great American Century.”
The following year, Warner Brothers would release Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring James Cagney, and the year after, Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart as a disillusioned American expatriate who rediscovers his ideals in the crucible of war.
Needless to say, these days, Time-Warner, the successors to Time-Life and Warner Brothers are nowhere near as comfortable about such ideals as Luce and Jack Warner were. Whereas Luce thought our Constitution was an ideal worth sharing with a world then being yoked under the totalitarian influences of fascism, communism and Japanese imperialism, today, of the American Constitution, Time magazine asks that would have been unthinkable during Luce’s day:
And HBO, a TV network owned by Time-Warner agrees with that sentiment. On the cover of the July HBO program guide in my hotel room today is this image of the Statue of Liberty with the face of Larry David, the producer of Jerry Seinfeld’s long-running “Show About Nothing” Photoshopped in:
At Big Government yesterday, Phillip Dennis asked, “What Has Happened to Liberals In the Past 50 Years?” Here’s one answer: They went from viewing America as a beacon of freedom (or a Shining City upon a Hill, to borrow a phrase popular with both liberal icon JFK and former Roosevelt liberal Ronald Wilson Reagan) worth sharing with a beleaguered world to a Show About Nothing during that time. If only they had Upped Their Game during this period, instead.
Related: “Were the Founders Democrats?” That depends on whether you spell it with a large or small-d.
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