The Century: A Nation's-Eye View
by Eric Foner
The Nation magazine, Jan. 10/17, 2000
The turn of the century has become the occasion for all-too-predictable
retrospectives and prophecies. In the hope of offering a somewhat
different perspective, this special issue of The Nation presents
a listing of 100 of the century's crucial events. Drawing on the
magazine's rich archives from 1900 on, we have also assembled
a running commentary on the century-a Nation's-eye view, as it
were-in the form of excerpts from editorials, articles and reviews
in the magazine.
This list focuses on two central developments. The first is
the triumphant growth of American corporate capitalism (overcoming
disasters like the Great Depression and the challenge posed by
socialism and communism) and the concomitant emergence of the
United States as the world's pre-eminent power, striving, sometimes
with calamitous results for the rest of mankind, to remake the
globe in the American image. The second is the unfinished struggle
between the powerful and the disempowered, the free and the less
free, the haves and the want-to-haves, over what kind of country
this hegemonic power is and ought to be.
When the twentieth century opened, the United States had stridden
onto the world scene as an aspiring economic empire with dominion
over far-flung colonial peoples, thanks to the acquisition of
overseas possessions in the Spanish-American War. But American
power rests on far more than territorial sovereignty. At the last
fin de siecle, the British writer W.T. Stead published a short
volume with the arresting title, The Americanisation of the World,
or the Trend of the Twentieth Century. Stead observed that the
United States was emerging as "the greatest of world-powers,"
and he identified the inexorable spread o f American ideas about
art, science, music, gender relations and "the pursuit of
wealth," rather than military prowess, as the fundamental
source of American power. He foresaw a future in which the United
States would promote its values and interests through an unending
involvement in the affairs of other nations.
Today, as the century draws to a close, we are in many ways
living in the world Stead imagined. The collapse of communism
as an ideology and of the Soviet Union as a world power has made
possible an unprecedented internationalization of current American
values, among them free choice in the consumer marketplace, reduced
government economic regulation and an emphasis on individual self-fulfillment
rather than the social good, all promoted by an internationalized
mass media and consumer culture.
As this century turns, America's historic sense of mission
has been redefined to mean the creation of a single global free
market in which capital, natural resources and human labor are
nothing more than factors of production in an endless quest for
ever greater productivity and profits, while activities with broader
social aims are criticized as burdens on international competitiveness.
The ideology of the global free market assumes that the economic
life of all countries should be refashioned in the image of the
Even as the United States has risen to become the predominant
international power, however, conflict has persisted over the
nature of American society itself and what its role in the world
should be. This debate has involved not only political leaders
and captains of industry but the struggles of anonymous men and
women protesting their exclusion from the "pursuit of happiness"
promised by the Declaration of Independence and the "blessings
of liberty" enshrined in the Constitution. Often in the face
of powerful opposition and government repression, popular social
movements of workers, feminists, civil libertarians and many others
have done much to shape the twentieth century, extending American
rights and freedoms into realms inconceivable in 1900.
The Nation came into existence in 1865, a pivotal year in
the consolidation of American nationalism (hence the magazine's
title) and of racial egalitarianism, products of the North's victory
in the Civil War and the destruction of slavery. But the nation
and The Nation soon retreated from the ideal of racial equality.
E.L. Godkin, this magazine's first editor, an early advocate of
enfranchising the (male) former slaves, added his influential
voice to calls for abandoning federal responsibility for enforcing
blacks' newly acquired rights.
By the turn of the century, the language of "race"-race
conflict, race feeling, race problems-had assumed a central place
in American public discourse, applied not only to now disenfranchised
and segregated African-Americans but to Asians, increasingly barred
from entering the country, and to the millions of new immigrants
from southern and eastern Europe. This has indeed turned out to
be the century of the color line, as W.E.B. Du Bois prophesied,
and of its dismantlement-at least in its legal manifestations-thanks
to the courage of ordinary men and women who braved violent retribution
to demand racial justice. ~
History, however, is not a linear narrative of progress. Rights
may be won and taken away; gains are never complete or uncontested,
and popular movements generate their own countervailing pressures.
As the century draws to a close; long-discredited ideas (social
Darwinism, belief in inborn racial inequality and the "natural"
differences between the sexes) again occupy respected positions
in public discourse. Today's attacks on affirmative action, abortion
rights, freedom of expression and the separation of church and
state remind us that, as the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson
put it during the Civil War, "revolutions may go backwards."
Nonetheless, America at the turn of this century is a far freer,
more egalitarian society than in 1900, the result not of the immanent
logic of a supposed American Creed of justice and equality but
of struggles on picket lines and at lunch counters, in polling
booths and even in bedrooms.
From the Spanish-American War to Vietnam, citizen movements
have also challenged the dominant imperial vision of American
power and the ways the United States has ridden roughshod over
others' right of self-determination. Today's challenges to the
ideology of globalization by a revitalized labor movement, environmentalists
and others are heirs to a long tradition that imagines this country's
worldwide role as the promotion of greater social equality rather
than military power and corporate profits.
Of the questions that have preoccupied Americans for the past
two centuries none are more pressing than the vast inequalities
in wealth, income and power spawned by capitalism's heedless expansion.
The Founding Fathers, convinced that democratic government required
an economically independent citizenry, feared that progress would
ultimately produce a society with a wealthy aristocracy akin to
the upper classes of Europe and a non-propertied majority easily
incited to use their political power to despoil the rich. In such
circumstances, they feared, republican government could not flourish.
Today this same fundamental question of the relationship between
political and economic democracy continues to bedevil our country
and, indeed, the entire world.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the replacement in Africa
and Latin America of military regimes by elected governments,
the 1990s were supposed to be the worldwide decade of democracy.
Yet in our own country, democracy is in disarray: Fewer than half
the population bothers to vote, and distrust of government as
an alien and intrusive force is pervasive.
Much of this disillusionment stems from the popular belief
(not unreasonable, based on recent experience) that our political
system is so corrupted by money that only wealthy individuals
and giant corporations can expect to have their interests attended
to by the state. The challenge of the new century is whether this
disillusionment with the functioning of our democracy can become
the basis for a revitalization of the traditions of American radicalism
Globalization may be Americanizing the world, but it is also
throwing into question traditional ideas about the relationship
between national identity, social justice and political freedom.
Decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of millions of people
are made by institutions-the World Bank, International Monetary
Fund, World Trade Organization and multinational corporations-
that operate without a shred of democratic accountability.
Will capitalism's global march produce a widely shared abundance
or a continued widening of the gap between social classes-or,
more precisely, on the evidence of the 1990s, the gulf between
the very rich and everyone else, which persists amid an economic
boom? Will political rationales for corporate power like neoliberalism
or the Third Way become more deeply entrenched? Will democratic
self-government survive the next century, or will the continuing
internationalization of economic relations render the nation-state
essentially irrelevant? Will America's role in the world be that
of an increasingly isolated superpower, or will the United States
support and work through multilateral organizations like the UN?
Will the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the American population
promote greater toleration and a more egalitarian society in which
all share the same substantive rights or will it produce fragmentation
and bitterness as the affluent (mostly white) wall themselves
off from those at the lower rungs of the social order? These are
the questions, bequeathed by the twentieth century, that will
shape the life of the nation and The Nation in the twenty-first.