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Journal of Policy History 12.4 (2000) 513-526

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Who, What, When, Where, and How

Byron E. Shafer

Olivier Zunz, Why the American Century? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)

Olivier Zunz knows what really created an "American Century." As a result, he knows that the phenomenon existed long before Henry Luce coined the phrase: Luce was effectively celebrating, not its arrival, but its maturing years. The dynamic involved was complex. It was (and is) both institutional and cultural. Nevertheless, this dynamic had its own main actors, and if their contributions did not call it forth, they did operationalize it. Indeed, the story of these actors acquires additional interest because some--Robert Yerkes or especially Beardsley Ruml--are reliably underplayed in alternative grand accounts, while others who are not--Alfred P. Sloan or even Henry Ford--acquire their role here for different, less conventional reasons.

What happened on American soil from the 1870s was a unique interaction of grand institutional sectors, where educational institutions were actually key. It was a unique reconstitution of evolutionary capitalism, in which marketing and consumerism were likewise key. It was the redefinition of a social type that de Tocqueville had long since branded unique, in which "the common man" became "the average American," where advertising and--mirabile dictu--the social sciences were key. And it was a more troubled effort to create a political theory that could both summarize and guide the result, making it more comprehensible at home and more accessible abroad. These developments implied a fundamental difference in social organization: in the institutional structure of society, in the character of economic life, in the process of individual definition, in the provision of a politics to [End Page 513] go with them, and then in their international role--their export and its impact:

Reflecting on the 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union that conceded final victory to the Americans, French historian Francois Furet pointed to that fact that the former Soviet superpower may have been a formidable political and military force but never a civilization. The proof is that it could vanish without leaving any substantial legacy behind it. My premise in describing the "American century" that helped shape the "Pax Americana" is to show exactly the opposite. The United States became a superpower precisely because of its civilization. (Zunz, xvi)

Said differently, the composite became a "modern society" of a peculiar sort, with a historical trajectory that the developed nations of Europe, and now those of Asia as well, have only partially traversed as this is written.

The Model Elicited

Chapter 1, "Producers, Brokers, and Users of Knowledge," sets out to reveal both the substantive and the structural basis for a new form of social organization. The structural basis was the arrival of a distinctive institutional matrix, a distinctive pattern of interaction among major institutional elites. And the substantive basis was nothing less than the arrival of a "culture of inquiry," even a "knowledge-based economy," a hundred years before contemporary seers began to proclaim it. The "American System" of manufacture fits into this portrait, but it is not the diagnostic characteristic. Rather, what distinguished the United States from other developed nations of the late nineteenth century was that the emergent sectors of its economy and society were independent of the state, unlike the coordinating model of Germany, while being deeply and continuously interactive, unlike the isolated and segmented models of France and Britain.

Along with this institutional matrix, servicing but simultaneously operationalizing it, came new ways of thinking about invention and application, as well as new career patterns for moving scientific discoveries into industrial production. Crucial among the specific institutions that carried this interaction were the great research universities, the industrial laboratories of major corporations, and the agricultural stations elicited by government. What this interaction did in one sense was to allow all three to grow, as they expanded scientific knowledge and employed the graduates of a growing knowledge industry. What it did in another sense was to speed the conversion [End Page 514] of new knowledge into new products and, especially...


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