Pearl Harbor and the American Century

Posted: Dec 07, 2011 12:01 AM

Seventy years ago today, America was brutally attacked at Pearl Harbor by an enemy that used planes as suicide bombs. A lesser nation would have been devastated. But America was no lesser nation. America was an exceptional nation. And so President Roosevelt vowed on December 8, 1941 that “the American people in their righteous might” would rise up and “win through to absolute victory.”

America’s “Greatest Generation,” in their “righteous might,” turned that day of devastation into the first day of the American Century. A century in which the “righteous power” of America would become the greatest power in world history.

A world led by an exceptional America is the only world, and the only America, that most people reading these words have ever known.

But today, just seventy years after it began, the American Century may be coming to a premature end.

Economies go up and down. Presidents come and go. But two things have endured since the American Century began. 1) since 1945, America has been a leading economic superpower and, since 1989, the world’s only superpower and 2) the majority of Americans have consistently believed in our “righteous might” as an exceptional nation.

In Ronald Reagan’s telling, American exceptionalism meant that America was not just big and powerful, but that America was also special, a “shining City upon a hill,” chosen by divine providence to be an exceptional nation with an exceptional mission in the world; to be a light of hope unto others. But, when Reagan said “you and I have a rendezvous with destiny,” he also warned that “we will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

That “thousand years of darkness” may be upon us soon.

IMF projections now show that the economic “‘Age of America’ will end and the U.S. economy will be overtaken by that of China” as early as 2016.

But the greatest challenge to this generation of Americans is not economic. It is philosophical.

This year, for the first time since records have been kept, most Americans surveyed by Pew Research no longer believe that America is exceptional.

I asked Charles Krauthammer why. He said, “if you listen to [President] Obama’s speeches, you’d think we’re exceptional in how many sins and crimes we’ve committed through the ages—that’s what makes us exceptional.” President Obama famously underlined this point by dismissing American exceptionalism as being no different than “the Brits believ[ing] in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believ[ing] in Greek exceptionalism.” He then traveled to Japan and bowed down to their emperor. And, when asked to define ‘victory’ over those who used planes as weapons to attack this generation of Americans, President Obama said “I’m always worried about using the word ‘victory’ because it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.” Managed decline, relativism, and weakness have replaced exceptionalism in the Oval Office.

Democratic President Roosevelt wasn’t “worried about using the word ‘victory.’” He vowed that “the American people in their righteous might” would rise up and “win through to absolute victory,” and, in doing so, begin the American Century.

Now, at what may be the end of the American Century, we have a choice to make. We can either re-embrace American exceptionalism, or “take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”

As Ronald Reagan said in 1974, “we cannot escape our destiny nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall in Philadelphia…We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”

That last best hope is running out. The time for this generation of Americans to embrace our “righteous might”—our American exceptionalism—is now. In the coming weeks, I look forward to exploring the theme of American exceptionalism with you through this column and through your much-valued comments.

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