[Working backward from the year 2000 toward America’s beginnings.]
At the end of the 20th century, the United States of America was being described as the world’s sole remaining superpower, even hyper-power, with no equal and few rivals. There was good reason why publisher Henry Luce had dubbed it “the American century.” Militarily, economically, culturally, scientifically, technologically, America was something unprecedented in the known history of the world.
Before we trace the journey, first a snapshot of the American state and culture at the pinnacle.
Militarily, America, for better or worse, spent more money on arms than the next several powers combined. Leadership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which it had founded, multiplied its potential military power further, and entangled past and potential rivals in a cooperative web of “defense” relationships that discouraged or prevented them from embarking on any independent enterprises that the NATO command structure – in other words, American decision-makers – might consider potentially disruptive. America maintained a network of overseas military bases which, counting all sizes from tiny to huge, numbered more than a thousand. Its nuclear navy and its air fleets were capable of projecting America’s arms to any point on the globe, although – as several so-called “brush-fire wars” had demonstrated – this was not quite the same thing as saying that America’s military reach assured that it could have whatever it was resolved to have. Small countries determined not to submit to force could and did maintain independence, though at the cost of horrific casualties.
This military supremacy came at a cost. Overseas, it naturally generated resentment. Domestically, its drain on economic and other resources led some to question how long the nation could afford the strain, and led some to speculate that America’s reach had already exceeded its grasp. But what the 21st century would bring was for time to show. In the year 2000, America’s military power was not only unmatched, but unmatchable, for no other country or group of countries outside of politically contained Europe had anything like the resources that would be required.
Economically, America had rivals, but not yet any equal. It had technological infrastructure, an established industrial base, research and development facilities, raw materials, and a large domestic consumer market. The world knew only one comparable wealth-creation machine, the relatively recent European Community. In the year 2000, the EC’s new currency, the Euro, was not yet a decade old, and there were doubts as to its long-term practicality. Europe, even if we confine ourselves to Western and Central Europe, was unlike the United States in that political control was divided among many independent states speaking different languages, nurturing different cultural values, and having separate (if slowly integrating) economies. To ask the Euro to bridge all those differences was asking a lot. The United States had no such problem. Beyond Europe economically was Japan, still struggling from its economic implosion of the 1980s, and beyond Japan were Brazil, Russia, India, and China, the so-called BRIC countries, each with a large domestic market, but all struggling to overcome centuries of economic underdevelopment. They were coming up fast, but in 2000 their challenge was still mostly in potential. As to the rest of the world, it too had the potential for rapid development, depending on each country’s decisions, but in the year 2000 they were very much also-rans.
Culturally, American images were everywhere. American movies, TV shows, books and magazines were available everywhere. The resulting distorted-image description of American life actively inspired both emulation and rejection worldwide. Love America or hate it, you couldn’t ignore it. Of what other country could this be said? Again, The American Century.
Scientifically and technologically, the United States was still the single largest employer of brainpower in the world. Beginning perhaps with the flight westward in the 1930s of Jewish scientists fleeing Nazi Germany and conquered countries, continuing and accelerating after World War Two, the “brain drain” had lured the most talented and highly skilled individuals from every country that did not actively restrict their immigration. (If it has not already been done, someone should tally Nobel Prizes won by the United States, separating them into two groups, those won by native-born Americans and those won by immigrants. I suspect that the result would be very enlightening.)
So that is the high seat upon which the United States perched as the 20th century came to an end. Now, how did it get there? We can’t tell the story in any detail, but we can trace a few of the more important trends and turning points.