In early 1941, just as the world was heading into the horror that was to become the worst armed conflict ever, publisher Henry Luce proclaimed the 1900s to to be the "American Century." It was a time when "American experience ... is the key to the future," he wrote in Life magazine, a period when "America must be the elder brother of nations in the brotherhood of man."
Mr. Luce's pronouncement, coming as it did less than halfway through the century, was as much prophecy as history, reflecting the optimism and muscular outlook that had marked much of this country's emergence from the 19th century.
Today, as the 1900s end, there are predictions that the American experience once again holds the key to the future. But questions persist: How long will US dominance last and how does it compare with past civilizations?
Certainly at the time of Luce's pronouncement, there was reason for American bravado. United States industrial strength and military might had been the key to ending fascism in Europe and Asia. The US provided the bulwark against the communist Iron Curtain that Winston Churchill had warned was falling across Europe. Its economy would grow and thrive as never before as it helped repair the damage that had been done to wartime enemies Japan and Germany.
Intellectual endeavors, as well as the world of commerce and diplomacy, would be affected also, as American culture - good and bad - spread globally.
"Not only did the United States make major original contributions to philosophy, science, art, and literature, but the important facets of Western European culture were absorbed into the American intellectual world and achieved their ultimate form and highest significance in the American context," observed Norman Cantor, professor of history and literature at New York University.
Above all, the United States became first among superpowers in the nuclear age, creating strategic outposts and alliances in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia - usually with a combination of military muscle and diplomacy.
"It was not long before the words 'Pax Americana' were a commonplace," writes Yale University historian Paul Kennedy in a recent issue of World Policy Journal. "And, in fact, American power vis-a-vis the other nations of the globe was possibly more pronounced than at any time since that of Imperial Rome vis-a-vis its neighbors."
As the Berlin Wall was being toppled 10 years ago, there was even a sense that the "end of history" had arrived, that all the world was headed toward becoming liberal democracies with market-based economies of the type represented by the United States.
The 'end of history'
In a 1989 essay that generated considerable discussion around the world, US State Department policy planner Francis Fukuyama asserted, "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the cold war, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
Depending on one's point of view, this is either cause for rejoicing or for concern. Historians such as Howard Zinn at Boston University pointed out that Pax Americana could be seen as the new face of colonialism, leading to a Vietnam quagmire and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in Southeast Asia. Years of "constructive engagement" in South Africa meant prolonging apartheid, critics complained. Some episodes - the secret sale of arms to Iran to finance the contras in Nicaragua comes to mind - may be seen as antidemocratic, if not illegal.
Still, there was something about how the United States conducted itself, particularly during the post-war period, that many found inspiring and ennobling.
"For all its faults, the United States has sustained Western civilization by acts of courage, generosity, and vision unparalleled in the history of man," remarked Harold Evans, a British-born New York publisher and author of "The American Century," a collection of essays and photographs.
While the US provided large amounts of military aid to countries deemed strategically important, others noted that the US ranked low among developed nations in the amount of humanitarian aid it provided poorer countries. "We are the stingiest nation of all," former President Jimmy Carter said recently in an address at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.
As the world nears a new century and a new millennium, what are the prospects for continued American dominance?
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US remains the lone superpower. Yet, as has been seen in the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, central Africa, Indonesia, and elsewhere in recent years, the ability to move aircraft carriers about the oceans or to hurl nuclear-tipped missiles across continents does not guarantee peace, "Americana" or otherwise. And with "globalization" the new buzzword in international relations - especially in commercial trade conducted by massive corporations lacking national borders or loyalties - one-nation dominance may no longer be relevant.
How long US dominance?
Some observers remain optimistic that the 21st century could be "American" as well, particularly if the development of markets is seen as more important than armaments in a nation's future arsenal.
"On the brink of the 21st century, the United States is at a point reminiscent of its entry into the 20th," publisher Mortimer Zuckerman wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1998. "Frederick Jackson Turner pronounced the end of the American frontier in 1893.... Today, of course, the new frontier is the global economy. Evidence is growing that the United States is as well placed to exploit that as it was the new continental marketplace of a century ago."
"The achievements of business in America grew out of a culture that has long valued individualism, entrepreneurialism, pragmatism, and novelty," Mr. Zuckerman observed.
Others argue that having the most billionaires does not necessarily indicate a nation's true stature - or the certainty of its future. Zuckerman says that "America's economic successes may sound tinny to those who feel their lives buffeted by forces over which they have virtually no control." "People are working harder than ever before," he says. "The gap between the well-to-do and the poor has been growing."
This growing gap - here and abroad - is no doubt one important factor behind the recent protests against the World Trade Organization. And it is a key element in the rapidly growing number of nongovernmental organizations now assuming a greater role in international issues such as the environment and human rights.
A decade after his "end of history" essay, Mr. Fukuyama wrote: "Nothing that has happened in world politics or the global economy in the past 10 years challenges the conclusion that liberal democracy and a market-oriented economic order are the only viable alternatives for modern societies."
Still, Dr. Fukuyama (now at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.) acknowledges that the "end of history" thesis was a mistake.
"The key defect ... lies in the fact that there can be no end of science, since it is science that drives the historical process," he wrote recently in The National Interest magazine, "and we are on the cusp of a new explosion in technological innovation in the life sciences and biotechnology."
In other words, there are important unknowns out there that could affect America's role and ranking in the world. The most obvious one these days may be the international fight over genetically modified foods. So, too, is the opposition to some elements of what critics abroad see as cultural colonialism - the trashing of McDonald's restaurants in France is one example.
America at the end of the 20th century often has been compared to Great Britain at the end of the 19th. But does that mean a nation that had long ruled much of the globe - or one that would soon lose its colonial stature?
"Undoubtedly, the United States of America has had more influence upon our world over the past 100 years than any other country, and to that extent this century may be termed, in shorthand, 'America's,' even more than the 16th century seemed to be Spain's, the 18th France's, and the 19th Britain's," says Mr. Kennedy, the Yale scholar.
"There is equally little doubt that the United States will enter the 21st century as the world's No. 1 power," says Kennedy. "But whether it will continue to be so into and through the next century is open to question."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society