God’s Chosen People
Henry Luce and His American Century
Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 560 pp.
Old geezers tend to collect things: coins or stamps, memories or tall tales. Much to my wife’s dismay, I collect vintage copies of Life magazine, dozens of which are piled up in the basement of our home. Let me emphasize that I am a discriminating collector, my interest confined to the period between 1936, when the magazine first appeared, and 1952 (an entirely arbitrary cutoff date). I’m also cheap, so if a dealer is asking more than five bucks a copy, I’ll pass. Niggardliness has a side benefit: our basement is not yet completely overrun.
To spend an evening leafing through old issues of Life is to enter a world radically different from our own. To mistake that world for the “real” world of the 1930s and ’40s would be to commit a grievous error. It is instead Life as interpreted by Henry R. Luce, the magazine’s creator and the self-proclaimed editor-in-chief of the media juggernaut known as Time Inc.
For Luce, interpretation did not imply detachment. By the late 1930s, mere reporting had ceased to describe Time Inc.’s mission. The empire’s purpose was to promote what Luce, in a famous Life essay appearing under his byline in February 1941, christened “The American Century.” In this empathetic but shrewdly insightful biography, Alan Brinkley, Allen Nevins Professor of American History at Columbia, dissects the American Century by charting the ambitions, achievements, and disappointments of its leading celebrant.
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About the Author
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.