Henry Grunwald

The American Century … ?

VTR Date: October 27, 1990

Guest: Grunwald, Henry


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Henry Grunwald
Title: “The American Century…?”
VTR: 10/27/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And when today’s guest shared programs with me in years past, it was in his role as editor-in-chief of Time, Incorporated. Though we would also talk about world affairs, about cabbages and kings, mostly we focused on media matters, for then my guest presided, editorially, intellectually, over one of the world’s great communications empires. Today however, we return to cabbages and kings and what are in truth the highest matters of state, for now Henry Anatole Grunwald is Mr. Ambassador, having more or less removed himself form Time and Life and Fortune, etcetera, and having most recently served in Vienna as our nation’s ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Austria. Ambassador Grunwald recently reminded a group of his former journalistic colleagues of an aphorism attributed to a seventeenth century poet and diplomat, to the effect that, “An ambassador is an honest man who goes abroad to lie for his country”. Pointing out it is less well known that that poet and diplomat added, “A journalist is a dishonest man who stays home to lie for himself”. Well, whatever.

You know there’s something wonderful about literally, texturally touching the past as I do with my near-half-century-old Life magazine of February 1941. Life went to a Hollywood party in that issue and advertised a six-cylinder Studebaker sedan for $735. More important, it carried the now famous editorial essay by Ambassador Grunwald’s illustrious Time, Inc. predecessor in which the company’s founder and ideological leader, Henry R. Luce, dubbed his and still ours “The American Century”. Some people once were referred to Luce-thinking when this enormously powerful man projected America as the dynamic center of ever-widening spheres of enterprise, America as the training center of the skillful servants of mankind, America as the good Samaritan really believing again that it is more blessed to give than to receive. And America as the powerhouse of the ideals of freedom and justice. “It is in this spirit that all of us are called”, said Henry R. Luce, “Each to his own measure of capacity, and each in the widest horizon of his vision, to create the first great ‘American Century’”. Luce-thinking? Perhaps. But earlier this month Ambassador Grunwald returned to the same theme with a Time magazine essay on “The American Century”. And I would first ask him just how he bridges the gap between Luce’s thinking and, 50 years later, his own. Mr. Ambassador?

GRUNWALD: By the way, I called my article “The Second American Century” because I’m trying to suggest that the next century could once again be an American century provided we do a great many things that need to be done to pull ourselves together. But how do I bridge the gap between those, theirs, and today? Well, in one sense when Luce wrote that this country was still on the brink of tremendous world power. It had not yet entered World War II. It was forced into entering World War II by Pearl Harbor which followed that editorial by a number of months. We had at that time a tremendous sense, certainly Luce did and many others did, a tremendous sense of power which really came into being through World War II. We emerged form World War II after a tremendous effort, really an unparalleled effort, as unquestionably the leading power in the world, partly because so many of the other powers had been destroyed or almost destroyed by the war. So we had at that time, that is in Luce’s day and in the several years following, a sense of power that I’m not suggesting we still have today, should have, or could have today. We have learned a great deal. We have in many ways improved this country tremendously in these 50 years. In many ways it is a much better country that it was. In other respects, of course, it is also a worse country and a very troubled one. But my belief is that despite all the very upsetting and even tragic things that are happening here, we still have the means, the idealism, the energy to remain the leading power in the world.

HEFFNER: You know, when I went back to this, this issue of Life magazine, and it is thrilling to touch this piece of history again, I must admit I went back – and read that essay, that Luce essay back when I was a young man – I went back assuming I was going to find once again a statement of, truly a statement of manifest destiny and the phrase almost surfaces here, a statement of American imperialism. And it’s hard for me to do so.

GRUNWALD: Well, I think this editorial was not an expression of manifest destiny as we used to know it in the early years of this century or in the late nineteenth century. Nor was it, I really believe, imperialist. If you read it now, apart for the language which is very emotional and somewhat preachy because Harry was a missionary himself in a sense, being also the son of a missionary, but language aside, it was a relatively realistic statement with a great many qualifications, great awareness of the fact that our powers are not unlimited. If anything one could fault it, and it was faulted at the time, not just for imperialism, which as I say I think was the wrong phrase, but for an idealism that might almost be excessive, because it was so idealistic and we were called upon to do so much, be the good Samaritan of the entire world, that even then it was not easy to carry out. But the spirit was really one of idealism more than imperialism.

HEFFNER: Well, what do you mean by “The Second American Century”?

GRUNWALD: I mean that when all is said and done, we still are the preeminent power in many, many different categories. Economic admittedly less so than before, but still very powerful, still the leading power by some margin. We are for whatever that’s worth nowadays, the leading military power. And I believe that we are, we still have the capacity to be electorally, scientifically, technologically the leading power in the world. That, of course, has to do with compared to whom or what. What I was trying to argue in my piece for Time was that the other possible claimants to the leading role in the 21st century as far as we can see, and admittedly it’s a little early, the leading claimants have great faults. There is Japan of course. Maybe we think that Japan will be the great power of the 21st century. I think it’s possible but Japan has many weaknesses even in its economy, certainly in its social structure, certainly in its dealings with the rest of the world. Another possible claimant of course is the European community centering around Germany. Again it’s quite possible that this will happen that Europe will be the leading power of the 21st century, but there are a great many problems there. There is great, despite the fact that they are generally, I think, trying to unite, a true united Europe is still very far off if it will ever happen. And there are a great many other problems that Europe will face in asserting a leadership role in the world. So I think that almost by a process of elimination or unless some power emerges that we cannot yet foresee, I think that America will remain willy-nilly, almost I might say, stuck with the role of the leading power of the century.

HEFFNER: And do you want it to be stuck in that way, Mr. Ambassador?

GRUNWALD: I certainly do.


GRUNWALD: Because I think we have still for all our tremendous faults – and I could go on about our faults at great lengths like everybody else – but for all our faults I think we have a tremendous amount to offer the world, primarily in our conception of freedom. There has been no country in history that has ever been as free as ours. I could drop a footnote there and say that we sometimes carry our freedom too far. Nonetheless the freedom of thought, of action, of enterprise that we keep renewing in this country I still think has a great deal to say to the rest of the world. And what’s been happening in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and elsewhere is at least partial proof of that because we now suddenly find ourselves in a situation where former communist countries or other countries in the Third World are really aiming to imitate us, not specifically saying, “We want to be like America”, but they’re saying, “We want free enterprise, we want the free market”. They understand that the free market requires a certain degree of political freedom. All of this essentially – you don’t have to call it that – but essentially that is the American system.

HEFFNER: But that’s a burden, isn’t it, to extend and expand that system? Whether we’re talking about ideas or we’re talking about economic know-how.

GRUNWALD: Well, it is a burden, but I think that first of all, the best way to extend that system or the surest way to extend that system is to make that system as successful as possible at home. That is to be a light on other nations, as our Founding Fathers used to say, and we have a long way to go to improve our system here and make it truly a model for others. Beyond that there will be, there are today, there will be in the future, certain very costly or fairly costly things we ought to do including some military operations from time to time. I would think probably much more modest than in the past and certainly much more modest than World War II or Korea. There will be some…I think we will be called upon to provide some technical and economic assistance. But I think it’s a burden that we can bear, and above all it’s a burden that should be borne not out of idealism only or because we want to do good in the world, which is a goal I respect, but because it’s good for ourselves ultimately.

HEFFNER: Well now wait just a second, Mr. Ambassador.


HEFFNER: I can understand what you have said before, but why should, and how is it good for us to bear that burden? If you concede that we’re talking about a burden, why should we bear it?

GRUNWALD: Well, first of all let me way that when I say “burden” I think it’s, I’m assuming that it will not be that huge a burden that it will not approach, as I said, the efforts that were necessary for World War II or for foreign aid immediately following World War II and so on. But yes, burden. I think because, in a sense, because of something that Luce said in his essay, mainly that we have a certain…we have the power to influence the world environment. We have the power to influence, if not shape, but certainly influence, what kind of world in which we exist. In other words, specifically a world as far as possible peaceful, as far as possible democratic, and as far as possible given over to free enterprise. Because we will not thrive, we would not thrive in a world in which, if you can imagine that we are the only country that is left that is free both economically and politically. I think we will not do very well with, we will not be very happy or prosperous if the Third World, let’s say, or many parts of the Third World were in tremendous turmoil, would not, could not afford to trade with us, would not afford to buy our goods, and kept, as I say, exporting trouble. So I think we have a stake in keeping a reasonably orderly and a reasonably democratic world, to promoting that kind of a world, without assuming that it can be done perfectly or completely.

HEFFNER: In that balance, in that tension between self-interest and the need to be or the obligation to be good Samaritans, which do you find weighing more heavily in terms of your own assumption that we should participate more in the world outside?

GRUNWALD: I must say frankly I find the aspect of self-interest, of serving our own interests more compelling. But it is a question of how I define self-interest, and I at least partly define self-interest, as I have said, in helping others promote the kind of, create the kind of world which will benefit us as well as them.

HEFFNER: When you…

GRUNWALD: You might say enlightened self-interest, to use an old phrase.

HEFFNER: When you came back from Austria, when you returned from being the ambassador there, did you have any sense that perhaps in this country there were or are the kinds of divisions that Luce was aware of in ’41? The interventionists and the isolationists?

GRUNWALD: Well, first of all, when I came back to this country after two years abroad, I was quite shaken because I became intensely aware, having been away for two years, about the tremendous problems and almost tragic problems that we have here, especially in New York City. The divisions that exist are quite, I think are somewhat different from the divisions in Luce’s day. He was arguing basically, as you said, about intervention versus isolationism. We have, we are beginning to see a new isolationism now. But the big divisions, the big sort of internal feuds are mot about that; they really are ethnic, racial, and above all they are about how to organize a just as well as an efficient society, the old problem about how can you have capitalism which is both efficient and just. That is the great problem now.

HEFFNER: Particularly if we’re thinking about exporting our ideas, our ideals, and our economic system.

GRUNWALD: Yes, that’s quite right.

HEFFNER: After all, you begin your essay with reference to our problems…


HEFFNER: …in the cities, and you end your essay in the same way.

GRUNWALD: Yes, indeed. And my proposition really is that it’s not a prediction that it will be, that the next period in history will be another American century; I’m saying it can be if we pull ourselves together and if we do certain things that are difficult but that I think can be done.

HEFFNER: From the perspective of one who had been abroad for two years, what did you see as what we need to do, if we do it, you said?

GRUNWALD: Well, not necessarily just from the perspective of from abroad, but from what I’ve seen since I came back and what I’ve known before, one of the major things we must do in my opinion is to start people thinking in somewhat different ways. I think we have to learn that we can’t have everything at the same time, and that we must make choices. I think we must do something – and this is not going to surprise you – but we must do something very serious about our educational system. We must do something about young people who are poor and who are being almost written off as lost to a great extent. That has to change. And I think we must really try once again we have tried several times before to look at our government, to look at the nature of our government, to look at its horrendous complexity and lack of efficiency. One of the things that has struck me tremendously in recent weeks during the big battle of the budget is that it was couched entirely in terms of do we spend more or do we tax more and do we spend less, do we tax less, and who bears the tax burden. Nobody for a moment thought that, and a factor in this equation could be more efficient, a leaner government. I know that sounds like a totally Pollyanna issue, that everybody has talked about cutting out waste. I’m not talking about cutting out waste only; I’m talking about simply making, creating a more efficient mechanism. And I know it’s been tried, but I am totally convinced that we must try it again, and somebody someday will do it.

HEFFNER: Now when the Grace Commission reported there was so much talk there about, well, you say you’re not talking about savings, you’re talking about efficiency. But Mr. Grace and his group is talking about the same thing. How realistic did you think that was?

GRUNWALD: I thought it was a very good report with some, you know, everybody could disagree with some parts of it. I disagree with some parts of it. I think it was an excellent report on the whole. It really is very disheartening that very little happened as a consequence of it. That itself would seem to refute what I’m saying, that there is any hope for making our government more efficient. But I am a great believer that sooner or later the seemingly impossible things can sand do happen.

HEFFNER: You mean it’s not totally wishful thinking?

GRUNWALD: In my mind it is not. Perhaps you feel that it is, but I don’t think it is totally wishful thinking. I remind you of a lot of things in the past 50 years that seemed like wishful thinking. For instance, race relations in not only the South but in the rest of the country. They are far from ideal today but surely they are light years away from where they were 50 years ago or when this essay of Luce’s was written. That might have seemed like wishful thinking. I think we have done a great deal in social welfare that seemed unthinkable in those days. We have done if anything, too much or perhaps in a too disorganized way, but those are major, major changes. They won’t happen quickly, but they can happen.

HEFFNER: Well, Mr. Ambassador, since you begin your essay on the second American century and end it with that same note about what we must do in your estimation at home, wouldn’t that burden be readily, more easily – nothing is going to be easy – but more easily achieved or handled if we were not also very much wrapped up in the idea, I can’t help but think…President Bush is a Yalie, and Henry Luce is a Yalie…with concepts of what Americans will do abroad, what the connection is between them. If we were to tend to our own guns, don’t you think we’d have a better chance to respond to the challenges that you’ve come home and see so blatantly placed before you?

GRUNWALD: I don’t think so. I‘m not a Yalie but I went to New York University, but I still don’t think that argument is quite right. The argument was undoubtedly made, in fact it was made, as we both know, after World War II. And if we had had, if we had taken that advice then and if we had not undertaken the Marshall Plan, for instance, if we had not tried to work along with what Harry Truman called Point Four, that is technical assistant for underdeveloped countries, if we had not ultimately done something like the Peace Corps, in other words, if we had gone home, I think the world in which we live would be very different and we would be a much less prosperous country along with the rest of the world, because the world is interdependent. And we simply cannot isolate ourselves from it.

HEFFNER: If that was true then, it’s not necessary, is it that it is true now and that a proper respect for the opinions of those who return home and find out what’s going on in our streets might lead us to say at this time, at the end of the century rather than in the 1940s, we must look elsewhere?

GRUNWALD: Well, again I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I’m not advocating an interventionism or foreign activities along the scales, along the scale of the forties or fifties. We have to do it much more modestly these days. Certainly Europe no longer needs anything like, no longer needs any help from us at all. Quite the contrary; we must involve them in working in the Third World and so on. However, there are, there is a great deal we must do through private contacts, through private enterprise abroad. Not through massive foreign aid. I’m not talking about that. But there are intellectually and politically things that I really believe we must do. I think less and less militarily. I think the Gulf situation is a very special one which I don’t think will arise again very, very readily elsewhere. But I really do think that we have to stay involved.

HEFFNER: We are taping this show at the end of October 1990. You mention the Gulf. By the time we hit the airwaves who knows what will have happened with the Gulf.

GRUNWALD: Correct…

HEFFNER: One reads this past week about the commitment of more and more American troops and more and more American resources. How can we reconcile that with the needs at home and in the streets that you have so clearly delineated in your essay on “The Second American Century”?

GRUNWALD: Well, I think it’s quite possible that if certain things had been done differently in the past such as if we had managed to achieve independence of East and Mid-Eastern oil, and if we had recognized Mr. Saddam Hussein’s true niche earlier, this commitment would not have been necessary. The reason it was judged to be necessary by the President and by a great many other people, leaving aside past mistakes which one could always argue about, the reason of course…there are two reasons…one is oil, which is essential to our prosperity, and the other is Israel, which is essential to us in different ways. I mean there are certain times when you simply have to override, it seems to me, the very strong domestic needs. And again we mustn’t think that we’re going to take this money and somehow it’s going to go down a rat hole and we could use all that money to build up schools at home or what ever. I think that, as you say, we don’t know at this moment how the Gulf situation will come out, but ultimately it is, there’s at least a fair chance that it will, that if we succeed there in what we’re trying to do that we will improve our own situation.

HEFFNER: Mr. Ambassador, when you were abroad did you get the sense that your fellow diplomatists felt that this country could do both, could tend to its own garden and be as involved as you would like it to be in the export of what we can best export?

GRUNWALD: Well, it depends on which of my colleagues. But most of them, yes, did think so…

HEFFNER: And you?

GRUNWALD: …and wanted us very much to be involved abroad and I certainly do too. I’m not saying it would be easy, but I think it’s doable.

HEFFNER: You think we have the resources?

GRUNWALD: I think we have the resources, yes.

HEFFNER: You say it’s not easy, but it is doable. In your estimation will Americans generally support that notion?

GRUNWALD: Yea, I think they will. I hope.

HEFFNER: You make no further statement about that. It’s a wish, it’s a hope.

GRUNWALD: It’s a wish and it’s a hope, but it’s also a question of how reasonable the demands are that we make on the American people. I don’t think that they will support anything that is too ambitious. I don’t think they would support a Gulf operation once every year or once every other year. But I think they will support reasonable, reasonable degree of involvement abroad.

HEFFNER: Do you think we are interpreting our venture thus far in the Gulf sufficiently for Americans to be able to say, “They’re not asking too much of us. Yes, we’ll go that far.”?

GRUNWALD: No, I very frankly wish that our government had done a somewhat more persuasive job in the last few weeks in explaining why we’re there and why we need to be there. I think that could have been done perhaps a little bit more eloquently and more directly.

HEFFNER: And journalism, has it in America done that explaining?

GRUNWALD: Well, I think it’s done it a little better than the government.

HEFFNER: I’m going to press you a little bit on that. Sufficiently? You say, “A little better than the government”. Would your demands upon journalism be met? And now we only have 45 seconds left to us.

GRUNWALD: Well, I think if I were running a magazine or a newspaper today there are quite a few things I would have done that weren’t done, but basically I think the major news organizations that I’m aware of, including The New York Times, including my old magazine, Time, have done very well indeed in explaining the situation, yes.

HEFFNER: I guess that leads me to ask you to stay where you are if you will. We’ll do another program about the media, your old organization, and a great many others. Will you do that?

GRUNWALD: Sometime, yes, sure.

HEFFNER: Okay. Thank you very much, Henry Grunwald, for joining me today.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s themes, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.