The American Myths

Donald W. White’s publication of The American Century: the Rise and Decline of the U.S. as a World Power, provides an explanation on how the historians and scholars utilize different myths to justify their status power. The book begins with the three mythic symbols of U.S. history. Manifest Destiny echoes the frontier expansion; Social Darwinism illustrates the expansion of Western civilizations, which also deals with the European immigration to the New World; and Economic Determinism explains the vast growth of industrialization of economic production.[1] These three essential theories provide an orthodox view of United States development before the twentieth century. White’s central arguments tackled on the consensus view of U.S. history in the twentieth century, which are the American Century and the Century of the Common Man.The world of the 20th century, if it is to come to life in any viability of health and vigor, must be to a significant degree an American century. - Henry R. Luce

The first new myth was inspired by Henry Luce, who declared the twentieth century would be the American Century. Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, who believed that the United States had both right and moral obligation to use its military and economic might in service of promoting higher ideals of freedom and democracy around the world. As he proposed that American be the “Good Samaritan of the entire world.”[2]

Henry Wallace formulated the second myth, the Century of the Common Man. Henry Wallace, the Vice President during Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime term as president, gave a speech in 1942 to support the President’s “Four Freedoms,” and to criticized Henry Luce’s concept of the American Century. In Wallace’s view, American people shared the interest of world order with other peoples because of the tradition of democracy.[3]

The distinctions between the American Century and the Century of the Common Man are evident in economic interest. The American Century favored American businessmen and discouraged regulation by diplomatic and governmental institutions. This ideology is similar to the belief in capitalism and laisser-faire. The Century of the Common Man expressed the view that the development of others must be their own, and Americans only offer their help to make it happen but not taking over the operation.[4] In the most straightforward explanation, the American Century centered American interest and the Century of the Common Man centered the common interest of the world’s people. The century which we are entering can be and must be the century of the common man. - Henry A. Wallace

So, how do these myths integrate with the study of the Vietnam War? Scholars and historians have been debated and argued the motive of the military engagement in Vietnam in the mid-1950s. These myths, the American Century and the Century of the Common Man, represented the rise of the United States and its manifestations in trade, aid, culture, and alliances. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States was, and still is, the most dominated country in the world; these two myths provide some explanations in the rise of the United States, especially in its foreign policy in Vietnam. The involvement in Vietnam divided the country with some supporting the supposed Anti-communism crusade and others strongly opposing the U.S. foreign intervention. These myths offer the collective perspective of the two sides of the argument in the United States’ role in Vietnam.

[1] Donald W. White, The American Century: The Rise and Decline of the United States as a World Power (London: Yale University Press, 1996), 7.

[2] White, The American Century, 11.

[3] White, 10.

[4] White, 12.

Back                                                                                                                                                                   Next →

(Historical Narratives)                                                                                                                                                                                 (Vietnamese Refugees)