The American Century


The 20th Century is often referred to as “The American Century”.

What drove the United States from its isolationist stance to leader of the free world?

Participation, if somewhat belatedly, on the side of the victorious allies in two world wars elevated her to Great Power status. But I would contend that it was the Berlin Airlift that finally pushed the U.S. to dispense with its isolationist leanings and step up fully as the leader of the free world.

As well as looking at America’s rise, I want to use this post to round out the two series I recently completed:

  • Planning – The Great Illusion – World War One
  • The Berlin Airlift

U.S.’s pivotal role in WWII, will have to wait until a later date.

The Emerging Giant

In the later part of the 19th century the U.S. was completing its mission of internal colonization, its self-declared “Manifest Destiny”.

Mid-century it had taken a bloody civil war to prevent a schism of the white European ruling elite.

Could a divided America have in less than a century attained world power?

With her growing industrial might she was able to get a seat at the table with the other Great Powers and embark on foreign adventures and annexations.

  • Spanish American War (Treaty of Paris 1898)
    • Cuba
    • Puerto Rico
    • Philippines
    • Guam
  • Hawaii (Annexed 1898 – Statehood 1959)
  • China
    • Part of the International force 1899 – 1901

At the same time there was a dichotomy, as well as reaching out and participating in the world there was still a strong isolationist movement.

A World at War

When the European powers went to war in 1914 America remained neutral, and President Wilson pledged, “not to send our boys to fight in a European war”. This stand was maintained in the face of the sinking of the liner Lusitania on the 7th of May 1915, with the loss of 1,198 passengers and crew including 128 Americans.

In early 1917 two events changed the situation.

  • The Zimmermann Telegram, which was an attempt by the German Foreign Office, to tempt Mexico to join the war on the side of Germany, with an aim to regaining the territories lost to the U.S. during the Mexican – American War in the 1840s.  Mexico wisely declined to participate, but Britain who had intercepted the message ensured that the American government was made aware of it.
  • The second event was Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, effective from the 1st of February 1917. It was an attempt to starve Britain into submission. However, it meant that any ships heading to or from British ports could be sunk without warning.

With American ships now being sunk, President Wilson, went to Congress asking for a declaration of war on Germany.

The United States of America declared war on Germany on the 6th of April 1917. By 1918 American forces under the command of General Pershing were fighting in Europe and participating in final victory

Home Again

After the war Wilson’s support for a” League of Nations”, to prevent another disastrous war, was not reciprocated by Congress, and America slipped back into its isolationist bubble.

Within a decade America and the world were hit by the Great Depression, and there was little time for Americans to think of anything far from home.

As things began to improve, Europe was once again threatened by the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

Once more an American president promised, “not to send our boys to fight in a European war”.

But, as the British Empire stood alone and her gold ran out, America gradually, stepped-up her efforts to support her. Lynne Olsen in her book Citizens of London give a great account of the influential Americans in London who aided this process.

Over There

The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December 1941, changed everything and America was now “all in”.

The war ground on and by 1945 the Americans and the Soviets were suppling much of the manpower, whilst Britain’s relative importance declined. America was also supplying much of the materiel for the three major allies.

Germany surrendered on May the 8th and the occupation of Germany by the victorious allies commenced.

The Occupation

The following post covers the occupation in some detail so I will not touch on it here.

The Berlin Airlift

The following Timeline covers the period of the Airlift and beyond to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when America had assumed the position of the only world Super-Power.


I used this post with the story of America’s Century as a vehicle to tidy up some loose ends for the two series of posts, and it is a final report on both.

There are no obvious project management words of wisdom, but with a bit of luck there will be next week.

Check in next week when we will be talking about “Luck” and what it means for project managers

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