America’s Edge: Take Some Favorable Demographics, Add Ingenuity, Stir in a Large Quantity of Natural Gas…
If the United States were a person, a plausible diagnosis could be made that it suffers from manic depression. The country’s self-perception is highly volatile, its mood swinging repeatedly from euphoria to near despair and back again. Less than a decade ago, in the wake of the deceptively easy triumph over the wretched legions of Saddam Hussein, the United States was the lonely superpower, the essential nation. Its free markets and free thinking and democratic values had demonstrated their superiority over all other forms of human organization. Today the conventional wisdom speaks of inevitable decline and of equally inevitable Chinese triumph; of an American financial system flawed by greed and debt; of a political system deadlocked and corrupted by campaign contributions, negative ads, and lobbyists; of a social system riven by disparities of income, education, and opportunity.
It was ever thus. The mood of justified triumph and national solidarity after global victory in 1945 gave way swiftly to an era of loyalty oaths, political witch-hunts, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s obsession with communist moles. The Soviet acquisition of the atom bomb, along with the victory of Mao Zedong’s communist armies in China, had by the end of the 1940s infected America with the fear of existential defeat. That was to become a pattern; at the conclusion of each decade of the Cold War, the United States felt that it was falling behind. The successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 triggered fears that the Soviet Union was winning the technological race, and the 1960 presidential election was won at least in part by John F. Kennedy’s astute if disingenuous claim that the nation was threatened by a widening “missile gap.”
At the end of the 1960s, with cities burning in race riots, campuses in an uproar, and a miserably unwinnable war grinding through the poisoned jungles of Indochina, an American fear of losing the titanic struggle with communism was perhaps understandable. Only the farsighted saw the importance of the contrast between American elections and the ruthless swagger of the Red Army’s tanks crushing the Prague Spring of 1968. At the end of the 1970s, with American diplomats held hostage in Tehran, a Soviet puppet ruling Afghanistan, and glib talk of Soviet troops soon washing their feet in the Indian Ocean, Americans waiting in line for gasoline hardly felt like winners. Yet at the end of the 1980s, what a surprise! The Cold War was over and the good guys had won.