Henry Luce and 20th Century U.S. Internationalism

During the middle of the 20th century, Henry R. Luce (1898–1967) became one of the most influential American advocates for internationalism among figures working in the private sector. The founder of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines, Luce presented a powerful vision of the United States leading and transforming the world.

Henry Luce

Born in China in 1898 to missionary parents, from a young age Henry Luce developed a strong faith in the transformative power of U.S. ideals. His father was part of a growing group of U.S. missionaries who believed that it was their calling to save China through a combination of Christianity, modern science, democracy, and the sorts of freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Raised among people who shared in this belief, Luce internalized a similar view of China as a place that both needed and wanted U.S. assistance to bring it into the modern world. Subsequent experiences studying in England and the United States, and training to fight with U.S. forces in Europe at the end of World War I, cemented Luce’s conviction that the United States must play an active and leading role in world affairs.

Following his graduation from Yale in 1920 and a year at Oxford, Luce turned to journalism as a means to promote his internationalist vision. Luce and a classmate from Yale, Briton Hadden, gathered financial backing, and on March 3, 1923, issued the first installment of Time, which quickly became the cornerstone of his publishing empire. A combination of serious news and trivial matters initially culled from the daily papers, Time also presented a strong editorial stance on world events. The magazine came out strongly in favor of U.S. involvement overseas and democratic reform in China, and against Soviet Russia, Bolshevism, and domestic Prohibition. Time quickly gained popularity and its success allowed Luce to subsequently launch two more publications: Fortune, a monthly journal intended to raise internationalist sentiments among the business community, and Life, a weekly image-based magazine that sought to bring the world home to its readers through vivid photographs.

Cover of Time Magazine in 1950

Luce’s efforts to rally popular and government support for U.S. global leadership peaked with his editorial “The American Century,” published in Life in February 1941. This document had two main objectives: on one hand it called upon the United States to directly engage in the conflict in Europe by joining Britain in its battle against Germany; on the other, and more importantly, it said that the United States must replace Britain as the world leader and completely transform the system of international relations through the global application of “American principles.” Drawing upon his background in China, as well as on the internationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Luce argued that the United States had both the right and the moral obligation to use its military and economic might in the service of promoting higher ideals of freedom and democracy around the world. Luce’s vision of the American Century had important implications for U.S. foreign policy in both the short and long term.

Henry Luce advanced his agenda in the service of numerous causes, but he was most interested in U.S. policies toward Asia. After the outbreak of full-scale war between China and Japan in 1937, Luce called for greater U.S. support of China’s war effort, and particularly for the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek. After the end of World War II, Luce became a leader in the China lobby that urged massive assistance to the supposedly democratic and reform-minded Nationalists over the Communists led by Mao Zedong. When the U.S. Government did not heed his calls, he turned his efforts to criticizing the weak foreign policy of President Harry Truman and the Democrats, castigating those he believed had “lost” China to communism. After Chiang Kai-shek’s defeat, Luce turned his attention to Korea and then Vietnam, where he insisted that the United States must defend the anti-Communist regimes. Blind to the shortcomings of these anti-Communists, Luce consistently saw them as the means through which the United States could transform the world by spreading its values.

Throughout his professional life, Henry Luce was one of the most prominent internationalists in the United States. He used his magazines as high-profile venues to promote U.S. involvement overseas and developed exceptional political connections, even with adversaries such as Franklin Roosevelt, in an effort to shape foreign policy. Moreover, his vision of the American Century marked the full ascendance of internationalism over isolationism in U.S. foreign policy thinking. His call for the United States to use its power to shape and lead the international system has had an enduring influence during the Cold War and beyond.