We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Nathaniel Cadle, author of The Mediating Nation: Late American Realism, Globalization, and the Progressive State. By the early twentieth century, as Woodrow Wilson would later declare, the United States had become both the literal embodiment of all the earth’s peoples and a nation representing all other nations and cultures through its ethnic and cultural diversity. This idea of connection with all peoples, Cadle argues, allowed American literary writers to circulate their work internationally, in turn promoting American literature and also the nation itself. Reexamining the relationship between Progressivism and literary realism, Cadle demonstrates that the narratives constructed by American writers asserted a more active role for the United States in world affairs and helped to shift global influence from Europe to North America.
In today’s post, Cadle marks the anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania and the end of the era of American isolationism.
This past August 1 marked the centenary of the start of the First World War, with commemorations taking place across the planet. May 7, 2015, marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. Torpedoed by a German U-boat, the Lusitania sank in just eighteen minutes, killing nearly 1,200 people. Well over one hundred of the victims were American citizens, and while the sinking did not in itself cause the United States to declare war—the United States remained neutral for two more years—the event did turn public opinion against Germany and, along with Germany’s continued use of submarine warfare, helped make direct U.S. involvement in the war inevitable.
In a sense, then, the sinking of the Lusitania spelled an end for U.S. isolationism, dramatically demonstrating that the United States was interconnected with the rest of the world to such a degree that the events of the war could have a direct and profound effect on the lives of Americans whether they were combatants or not. More generally, it also set the stage for what Henry Luce, on the verge of the United States’ entry into yet another world war fifteen years later, would famously call “the American Century.” Indeed, Luce viewed the United States’ unwillingness to seize leadership of the international community at the end of the First World War as a lost opportunity to shape world politics for the better, and his essay exhorted Franklin Roosevelt to succeed where Woodrow Wilson had failed.
Luce’s pronouncement that, “in the 20th century,” the United States was “the most vital nation in the world” continues to exert a powerful influence on U.S. foreign policy. During one of his presidential debates with Mitt Romney in 2012, for example, Barack Obama declared that “America remains the one indispensable nation”—a sentiment echoed by Hillary Clinton in her recent book Hard Choices. The fact that both the current president and the woman who may replace him are still using the rhetoric of “The American Century” well into the 21st century would have pleased Luce. He ended his essay by suggesting that the 20th century was merely “the first great American Century.”
Of course, pinpointing exact dates for something as abstract as “the American Century” is ultimately a fool’s errand. (Hence the ironic precision of Virginia Woolf’s assertion—generally interpreted as a reference to the emergence of literary modernism—that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.”) After all, Luce’s vision sits comfortably within a very long tradition of American exceptionalism, which stretches at least as far back as John Winthrop’s reference to New England as “a city upon a hill” in his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity.” Nevertheless, a centenary gives us the opportunity to think seriously about a particular historical event and its role in shaping the world we live in today. The centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania thus provides an occasion for Americans to consider a full century of asserting themselves as the world’s arbiters at moments of international crisis.
Nathaniel Cadle is assistant professor of English at Florida International University. His book The Mediating Nation: Late American Realism, Globalization, and the Progressive State is now available. Read his previous guest post, “Central American Refugees and the ‘Traditional’ Immigrant Narrative.”