Well, nobody’s going to call it ”The American Century,” that’s for sure. Not if David Halberstam is right. Best known for his encyclopedic reporting in such books as The Best and the Brightest (Vietnam and the Kennedy administration), The Powers That Be (the press), and The Reckoning (the Japanese auto industry), this time out Halberstam has written an extended essay. He delivers a stern warning to Americans that unless they wake up and smell the economic and geopolitical coffee, as Ann Landers might put it, ”something terrible is going to happen.” Exactly what disaster awaits us, Halberstam is far too cautious to say.
The genesis of The Next Century, Halberstam says, came on a day two years ago when he and the ubiquitous Henry Kissinger were scheduled to address the conference of the National Governors’ Association. Listening to Kissinger’s customary warning about the global threat of Soviet communism, Halberstam realized that his audience consisted of the people who must deal with the real problems of the U.S. So he dropped his planned speech in favor of a meditation upon what he considered to be the genuine issues of national security: ”the ability of a country to house its people, to feed them, to educate them, to provide them with opportunities in keeping with their desires and education.”
If you didn’t know better, you’d think Halberstam himself were running for office. Most of The Next Century consists of an earnest, thought-provoking, if often predictable, treatment of that familiar op-ed page topic, The Japanese Challenge. Will our children turn off MTV long enough to learn calculus? Will we adults learn to add and subtract before the politicians sink us forever in a swamp of debt? And if not, who is to blame? Can democracy survive?
Good, if familiar, questions. Like most of us, Halberstam seems inwardly divided about the answers. He makes a persuasive case that Washington’s expensive obsession with high-tech weaponry has left the nation ”vulnerable to competitors less burdened by the myth of empire.” But it’s equally clear that he finds the notion of America’s special destiny in the world hard to relinquish. According to Halberstam, it is unthinkable that Americans will wean themselves entirely from the ”We’re No. 1” psychology.
Although the dust jacket of The Next Century advertises ”provocative solutions to our current dilemma,” the reader will have to search a long time before finding anything resembling a positive recommendation. ”I still do not think,” Halberstam writes, ”we as a nation get it. Again and again we look for excuses why the Japanese do things better than we do. If we are being beaten, then the rules must be wrong; someone must be cheating.” True enough. When we’re not boasting, we’re feeling sorry for ourselves. But then it’s also probably true that intellectuals like Halberstam have a tendency to underestimate the creativity and adaptability of the American people — probably always will. B