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American Century[1][2] is a characterization of the 20th century as being largely dominated by the United States in political, economic and cultural terms. Critical to the American Century was US control of the world's oil resources.[3] The United States' influence grew throughout the 20th century, but became especially dominant after the end of World War II, when only two superpowers remained, the United States and the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States remained the world's only superpower,[4] and became the hegemon, or what some have termed a hyperpower.[5]

Origin of the phrase[]

The term was coined by Time magazine publisher Henry Luce to describe what he thought the role of the United States would be and should be during the 20th century.[6] Luce, the son of a missionary, in a February 17, 1941 Life magazine magazine editorial[7] urged the United States to forsake isolationism for a missionary's role, acting as the world's Good Samaritan and spreading democracy. He called upon the US to enter World War II to defend democratic values:

Throughout the 17th century and the 18th century and the 19th century, this continent teemed with manifold projects and magnificent purposes. Above them all and weaving them all together into the most exciting flag of all the world and of all history was the triumphal purpose of freedom.
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.[8]

According to David Harvey, Luce believed "the power conferred was global and universal rather than territorially specific, so Luce preferred to talk of an American century rather than an empire."[9] In the same article he called upon United States "to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit." [10]

Early characteristics[]

Beginning at the end of the 19th Century, with the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the Boxer Rebellion, the United States began to play a more important role in the world beyond the North American continent. The government adopted protectionism after the Spanish-American War to develop its native industry and built up a powerful navy, the "Great White Fleet". When Theodore Roosevelt became President in 1901, he accelerated a foreign policy shift away from isolationism and towards foreign involvement, a process which had begun under his predecessor William McKinley. For instance, the United States fought the Philippine-American War against the First Philippine Republic to solidify its control over the newly acquired Philippines.[11] In 1904, Roosevelt committed the United States to building the Panama Canal, creating the Panama Canal Zone. Interventionism found its formal articulation in the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, proclaiming a right for the United States to intervene anywhere in the Americas, a moment that underlined the emergent US regional hegemony. The United States also played an important role in World War I and World War II.

Pax Americana[]

Pax Americana represents the relative liberal peace in the Western world, resulting from the preponderance of power enjoyed by the United States of America starting around the turn of the 20th century. Although the term finds its primary utility in the late 20th century, it has been used in other times in the 20th century. Its modern connotations concern the peace established after the end of World War II in 1945.

Post-1945 characteristics[]

The American Century existed through the Cold War and demonstrated the status of the United States as one of the world's two superpowers. After the Cold War, the most common belief held that only the United States fulfilled the criteria to be considered a superpower.[4] America's geographic area composed the fourth largest country in the world, with an area of approximately 9.37 million km².[12] America's demographic exhibited a population of 248.7 million in 1990, at that time the fourth largest on Earth.[13]

Regarding the Mid-to-Late-20th Century characteristics, America's political status was a strong capitalist federation/constitutional republic. America had a permanent seat on the UN Security Council plus two allies with permanent seats, France and United Kingdom. America had strong ties with Western Europe, Latin America, British Commonwealth, and several East Asian countries (Korea, Taiwan, Japan). America wielded influence by supporting right-wing dictatorships in undeveloped countries and democracies in developed countries.[14]

The American Century doesn't just include the political influence of the United States. As to the United States' economic influence, many states around the world would over the course of the 20th century adopt the economic policies of the Washington Consensus. America's economic force was powerful at the end of the century due to America being by far the largest economy in the world. America had large resources of minerals, energy resources, metals, and timber, a large and modernized farming industry and large industrial base. US$ was the dominant world reserve currency under Bretton Woods. American systems were rooted in the western economic theory based on supply and demand: production determined by customers' demands. America was allied with G7 major economies. American economic policy prescriptions were the "standard" reform packages promoted for crisis-wracked developing countries by Washington, DC-based institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and the US Treasury Department.[15]

America's military strength was an essentially naval-based advanced military with the highest military expenditure in the world.[16] America had the world's largest navy with largest number of aircraft carriers, bases all over the world, particularly in an incomplete "ring" bordering the Warsaw Pact to the West, South and East. America had the largest nuclear arsenal in the world during the first half of the Cold War. America had one of the largest armies in the world. America had one of the two largest air forces in the world. America's powerful military allies in Western Europe (NATO) had their own nuclear capabilities. America possessed a global Intelligence network (CIA).

America's cultural impact is seen in the influence of music, TV, films, art, and fashion, as well as freedom of speech and other guaranteed rights for residents. American pop stars such as Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Madonna have become global celebrities.[17]


Critics have condemned Luce's "jingoistic missionary zeal."[18] Others have noted the end of the 20th Century and the American Century, most famously the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson who titled his autobiography Kingdom Of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of A Star Crossed Child in the Last Days of the American Century.

With the advent of the new millennium, critics have stated that it is a matter of debate whether America's influence is leading it to be a hegemon or if it is losing its superpower status,[19] especially in relation to China's rise.

See also[]


  1. Lamb, Brian, and Harold Evans. The American Century. West Lafayette, IN: C-SPAN Archives, 1999.
  2. The American Century.
  3. Painter 2012, p. 24: "Understanding how oil fueled the 'American century' is fundamental to understanding the sources, dynamics, and consequences of U.S. global dominance. Essential to both military power and the functioning of modern society, oil fueled American power and prosperity during the twentieth century. . . . Control of oil bolstered U.S. military and economic might and enabled the United States and its allies to win both world wars and the Cold War. The U.S. government worked closely with the oil industry to gain and maintain control of overseas oil reserves, reflecting a symbiosis of national security interests and the interests of the oil companies. Maintaining access to oil became a key priority of U.S. foreign policy and involved the United States in regional and local conflicts in Latin America, the Middle East, and other oil-producing areas in ways that distorted development in many countries. Most of the major doctrines of postwar U.S. foreign policy—the Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Carter Doctrines—related, either directly or indirectly, to the Middle East and its oil."
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Analyzing American Power in the Post-Cold War Era". Archived from the original on 11 March 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-28. 
  5. Definition and Use of the Word Hyperpower
  6. David Harvey, The New Imperialism, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003)
  7. Luce, Henry (1941-02-17) The American Century, Life Magazine
  8. Luce, H. R: "The American Century" reprinted in The Ambiguous Legacy, M. J. Hogan, ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  9. David Harvey, The New Imperialism, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 50.
  10. Michael J. Hogan, The ambiguous legacy: U.S. foreign relations in the "American century", (Cambridge University Press, 1999), page 20.
  11. John M. Gates, “War-Related Deaths in the Philippines”, Pacific Historical Review , v. 53, No. 3 (August, 1984), 367-378.
  12. US geography
  13. US Census
  14. Stephen Kinzer (2007). Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. Times Books. 
  15. Williamson, John: What Washington Means by Policy Reform, in: Williamson, John (ed.): Latin American Readjustment: How Much has Happened, Washington: Institute for International Economics 1989.
  16. Military spending
  17. Biddle, Julian (2001). What Was Hot!: Five Decades of Pop Culture in America. New York: Citadel, p. ix. ISBN 0-8065-2311-5.
  18. Michael, Terry (2011-02-16) The End of the American Century, Reason
  19. Unger J (2008), U.S. no longer superpower, now a besieged global power, scholars say University of Illinois


Further reading[]

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