In historical parlance, the term “century” denotes less a block of time than a zeitgeist, that roughly corresponds to the contours of a particular century.
Thus, Europe’s “long nineteenth century” spans the 125-year period from 1789 and 1914–a time when the (most of the) continent’s societies transitioned from semi-feudal monarchies to industrial democracies. The Storming of the Bastille and World War I provide meaningful start and end points, the former birthing Europe’s first bourgeois democracy and the latter marking the climax of Europe’s industrial militarization.
The COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent uprising against police brutality, seem to bring about a major rupture in American history. With our federal government failing to provide its citizens with the most basic safeguards against the pandemic, yet capable of inflicting gratuitous violence on them, it seems clear that America’s 122-year reign as a military and economic superpower and, as a so-called “leader of the free world,” has concluded. It is time to start talking about the end of America’s Long Twentieth Century.
The Long Twentieth Century began in Havana, then part of the Spanish colony of Cuba, on the night of February 15, 1898.
The US had just come of age, economically (having surpassed Britain in manufacturing output in 1885). Militarily, the US was still in infancy-with a navy and army smaller than Italy’s. Despite having catapulted to the apex of the world’s economy, the US neither pursued colonial expansion nor exerted cultural cachet.
At 9:40 P.M., the U.S.S. Maine, a Navy ship berthed in Havana harbor mysteriously exploded. 251 of the 290 sailors on board perished.
By morning, the Hearst newspapers were clamoring for revenge on Spain. Two months later, President McKinley declared war. By the end of the year, America had seized control of the Phillippines, Cuba and Guam. Spain surrendered in September. The US now had an empire, and a military, to reckon with.
Over the next half-century, America’s global military and economic influence grew in tandem. America won two World Wars, hosted historical peace conferences and laid the foundations for a new international order.
Domestically, presidents like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt established anti-trust and social welfare legislation that allowed all of America’s citizens to share in its riches. The impressive economic expansion during World War II-the closest thing to a “people’s war” in Howard Zinn’s reckoning-yielded economic prosperity at home while furthering democracy overseas.
And in a corner of the country called “Hollywood”, motion pictures created an alluring image of this country that won hearts and minds across the globe. Jazz (and later, Rock) music, sports, and even modernist architecture came to convey a similar type of “soft power.”
It wasn’t all a big band show, however.
The President who issued the “Fourteen Points“, demanding the right to self-determination in Central and Eastern Europe, entrenched (anti-black) racial hiring practices in the federal post office and Treasury Departments. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, Americans of color in most states lived under an apartheid regime, with restrictions on everything from where they could buy a home to whom they could marry.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s sought to vanquish institutional racism. Martin Luther King famously declared that freedom for people of color would constitute the ultimate fulfillment of the American Dream.
However, even King’s lauded non-violent protest marches received tepid public support from white Americans. While civil rights legislation outlawed overt segregation, neighborhood- and school-level segregation remain pervasive in American cities. Police brutality and mass incarceration of persons of color have replaced Jim Crow as a means to repress and control the black and brown underclass.
The last paragraph may seem like a tangent from my previous thread.
But the white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement proved to be the ultimate undoing of America’s 20th-century growth trajectory.
Starting with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, Republican Party politicians capitalized on white grievance to drastically roll back the post-New Deal welfare programs.
Meanwhile, the military arm of the American state grew more powerful and more removed from civilian oversight. In the 75 years following World War II, the US military engaged in more than 220 foreign interventions-all by bypassing Congress’ War Powers’ authority. This does not count the numerous covert operations carried out be US intelligence agencies,-who tampered with elections and assassinated politicians from Italy to Iran.
Throughout the Cold War, America’s martial imperialism left its white herrenvolk unscathed, even while the COINTELPRO program surveilled and harassed Civil Rights.
Following September 11th, however, Congress–in a moment of patriotic zeal–passed the Patriot Act, which gave federal agencies the power to requisition citizens’ business records and wiretap phones with little to no due process. Edward Snowden found that the government had obtained records of every single Verizon customer.
A government that could extensively spy on citizens and militarize its police force could only cobble together a patchwork “universal” health insurance system under a progressive president Obama.
But Tony Stark was a hit in China. Brooklyn’s culinary and creative ferment maintained the Big Apple’s status as the global capital of cool. And Silicon Valley drew the best and brightest from East and South Asia.
Now, even Marvel has stopped filming. The Momofukus and Robertas are shuttered. And with the American economy shut down (and the Trump administration sending hostile signals to immigrants) the talented masses are staying away.
Our time is finally up.