The book: As a political scientist who has spent a portion of his career in government, Joseph Nye ’58 offers a personal account of his journey in his new book A Life in the American Century (Polity Press).  Reflecting on “the American Century” — a period where the US has enjoyed unrivalled power — Nye uses his own story during this period to understand American power and the ways it shaped policy on key issues including nuclear proliferation and East Asian security. A leader on the evolution of American power and world affairs, Nye recounts the triumphs and challenges the U.S. has faced throughout the last 100 years. He concludes the book with a sense of guarded optimism for the future of America. 

The author: Joseph Nye ’58 is a world-renowned authority on American power in the modern era. His books on the matter include Soft Power, Is The American Century Over?, and The Future of Power. Nye served as assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs, chair of the National Intelligence Council, and a deputy under secretary of state. He’s also the University Distinguished Service Professor emeritus and former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. 


Because the local hospital was overstretched as a result of a flu epidemic, I was born at home in South Orange, New Jersey, a leafy suburb of New York. Every day, my father took the train to Hoboken and a ferry boat across the Hudson to Wall Street where he was a junior partner in Freeman and Company, a bond trading firm started by distant cousins and neighbors from the Kennebec valley in Maine. He had started as a messenger boy at age 15 when his family ran out of money at the end of World War I. He never graduated from high school or college, but over the years filled in with evening classes at New York University (NYU). While he was proud when I earned a doctorate from Harvard in 1964, he loved to tease me about how long it took me to get educated. When I later became dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, I donated a tree in his memory in the school’s courtyard. My father and I were close, and I was very proud of him. He had an enormous influence on me, but there was always a bit of tension related to competition and independence.

While my father was a natural extrovert, my mother was an introvert, stoical and quietly strong-willed. She grew up in South Orange, one of two daughters of a divorced mother who was the daughter of German immigrants. When my grandmother later came to live with our family, she and my mother would speak German when they wanted to keep secrets from the children, particularly around Christmas time. My mother graduated from Columbia High School and attended Smith College, but had to drop out after her freshman year for financial reasons. She worked as a secretary in New York, where she met my father. They were a loyal couple, but almost polar opposites as personality types. I sometimes think I am more like my mother, but, like all humans, I am a hybrid.

The 1940s: FDR and Truman

During World War II, when I was in kindergarten, my parents moved thirty miles west to New Vernon, a rural hamlet of a few hundred people. My father doubled his daily commute so that my three sisters and I could grow up on a farm. We lived in a white clapboard colonial house across from an old Presbyterian church. Although we were in the center of the town, behind the house we had a 100-acre farm with barns, chicken and pig pens, and flowing fields and deep woods for a child to explore. Dad hired a farm manager, but also insisted that we children work on the farm: picking and storing apples, harvesting and grading potatoes, shucking field corn, helping to take care of the cows, pigs, and chickens. On Saturdays, it was often my job to kill, pluck, and dress a chicken that we would eat for the Sunday noon meal.

Another job I had as a boy in New Vernon was to mow a patch of lawn with an old-fashioned push mower, for which I was paid 25 cents; if I forgot, I was chastised. Rather than being given an allowance, we children were given tasks to earn money to encourage our independence. Having grown up poor and survived the Great Depression, my parents were quite frugal despite accumulating wealth. My father was not interested in conspicuous consumption or having children who flaunted wealth.

New Vernon was a small community: one stop light, one church, one grade school, one gas station, one small village store which doubled as the post office, and a volunteer fire department where square dances were held on Saturday nights. Our farm manager was the caller and I loved to attend as a kid. Everybody knew each other, everyone was white, and almost all were Republican. One evening, my father warned us that a Democrat was coming to dinner, but not to worry because he was a contractor and they had to be Democrats.

We bemoan our political polarization today, but partisanship was intense where I grew up. FDR was president at the beginning of Henry Luce’s American century. He had saved democracy in America during the challenge of the Great Depression, and he had overcome isola- tionism and led the United States into World War II. But FDR was no hero in rural Republican New Vernon. At the time of his death in April 1945, I was walking home from the township school in our little village when one of my first-grade friends echoed his parents’ views of FDR by proclaiming, “The tyrant is dead!”

Similarly, Harry Truman was an important president who launched the 1948 Marshall Plan in Europe and the creation of NATO in 1949, but in New Vernon many people dismissed him as an accidental president who would soon be voted out of power. On the eve of the November 1948 presidential election, my father sent me to bed before the results were known but assured me that, when I awoke in the morning Thomas Dewey would have defeated Harry Truman. (The Chicago Tribune made that same mistake with its premature much-photographed iconic headline “Dewey Wins!”) Our country is politically polarized today, but extreme partisanship is not new. It goes back to the early days of the Republic.

Beneath the sense of Republican community, there were also severe class and ethnic differences. At our little primary school, Harding Township School, it was more important to be an athlete than to be rich, and if you were from a very poor family or had an Eastern or Southern European name, other kids talked behind your back. Race was not an issue because there were no African American students. Years later, when my wife and I bought a house in a small New Hampshire town, I was fascinated to find a similar social structure. I have always been amazed at the ways in which humans, like the chickens we raised, work out pecking orders. On the surface, rural life may appear to resemble Edward Hicks’s famous primitive painting of “the peaceable kingdom,” but appearances can be deceptive. A small community has both pluses and minuses.

I came from a wealthier family than the average, but I was not an athlete. I had few neighbors to play with, and I was younger than the other kids in my class, which, at that age, was a disadvantage. I was usually near the last to be picked when sides were chosen for games at school. Unfortunately, this did not drive me to excel in my academic work, which held little status among my peers. Some of the most popular kids had “stayed back” in previous years, and that made them bigger, stronger, and bossier. My academic goal was just to get by, which I did. When a teacher spoke to my parents about underachieving and assigned me extra homework, I treated it as punishment, not an incentive. Kids will only learn when they are ready to do so.

Though I did like to read, my favorite activities involved being outdoors. I loved to hunt and fish. The center of our village had a cross- roads with a blinking stoplight. Down the hill from the crossroad was a pond amidst open fields where I would catch sunnies and catfish and bring them home for my patient German grandmother to cook. In an age before cell phones and computer games, radio and television were our other sources of entertainment, but the screens were small, and the programs were few. More often, I played outside, where I crept through the woods and constructed forts of logs and re-enacted the fantasy of defending our farm. Or I would ride my bike to a friend’s house, or a few miles further to fish for trout in Primrose Brook in Jockey Hollow, where George Washington’s troops had spent the Winter of 1779.

What I learned from growing up in rural New Vernon in the 1940s was self-discipline and self-reliance. I had a few good friends, but there were not many kids to play with. I wasn’t a lonely child because I had a large warm family that gave me confidence and my father was generous with praise and strict with criticism when deserved. I learned self-initiative, which served me well during my college years when I had a summer job in a mining camp on the Alaskan border and hitchhiked alone across the country. I benefited from that self-reliance later, too, as a young researcher in East Africa, and when I joined the State Department and felt like the proverbial child thrown into a pool and told to swim or sink.

America today is divided between urban and rural cultures, and while the population trends favor the cities, our federal constitution gives rural areas a persisting political power. Growing up in rural America has helped me appreciate that culture, but even more important it gave me a deep love of nature and the outdoors. In the eighteenth century, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant said that two things filled him with awe – the starry heavens above and the moral law within. When I become too discouraged with my study of the latter and disillusioned by the many terrible ways that humans treat each other, I can always find solace in the former. This came in very handy when the pandemic struck in 2020, when my faith was restored by raising baby chicks and my vegetable garden flourished from the additional attention. I have maintained a vegetable garden all my life. I love watching things grow. Over the years, I have received numerous honorary degrees, but one of my favorite prizes is a purple ribbon I won for a cauliflower that was rated the best vegetable in the show at a local New Hampshire fair.

The Eisenhower years

Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, the hero of World War II in Europe, was a moderate Republican with broad popular appeal. His victory in 1952 helped to reconcile a large part of the Republican Party (including my parents) with the New Deal. He ushered in what is sometimes portrayed as a “return to normal” in the US. While we were locked in a bipolar Cold War with the Soviet Union, American culture, economic prepon- derance, and military strength were the foundation of the American century.

Eisenhower came into office with modest objectives. He consolidated Truman’s doctrine of containment and made it sustainable by a set of prudent judgments such as avoiding land wars in Korea and Vietnam that later trapped his successors. He strengthened the new alliances with

Europe and Japan and was willing to negotiate with the Soviet Union. While he relied on nuclear threats of massive retaliation to offset Soviet conventional superiority in Europe and to save spending on expensive land forces, he was simultaneously very careful in resisting the actual use of nuclear weapons against North Korea and China.

Eisenhower understood the limits of American power, and managed crises well. Although he used the misleading metaphor of dominoes falling in Southeast Asia, he avoided letting this suck him into major involvement in Vietnam. He considered intervening with air power, nuclear weapons, or ground troops, but finally ruled out acting unilaterally. He kept his emotional needs separate from his analysis and avoided the trap that later destroyed Lyndon Johnson, who lacked Eisenhower’s emotional and contextual intelligence. One result of Ike’s prudence was eight years of peace and prosperity.

But it was also a period marked by fear of communism, and the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose career prospered for four years on the basis of his big lies. Fear encouraged conformity. Books like David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and William Whyte’s The Organization Man were critical of conformity. TIME magazine dubbed my college contemporaries “The Silent Generation.” There was a great deal of conformism, but that title fails to capture what for many of us was also an age of exploration, at home and abroad, as Otto Butz described in his book The Unsilent Generation.

In 1950, I no longer walked up a rural road to Harding Township School but took a school bus to Morristown School in the county seat ten miles away, where I discovered that, in a new environment, with a little effort, I could be first in class and a leader. As I tell my friends who worry about their children, kids learn when they are ready to learn, but a change in incentives and reinforcement can make a big difference. I also learned to play team sports, traveled to Europe with my family, and was introduced by my younger sister to her classmate Molly Harding, who would become the most important person in my life. When it was time for college, I never did the type of proper search with multiple applications that creates anguish for so many young people today. Fortunately for me, competition was not as tough then. I applied to two schools, Princeton and Yale, but growing up in Northern New Jersey, I had my heart set on the former. In my ignorance, I turned out to be lucky.

Excerpted from A Life In the American Century. Copyright (c) 2024 by Joseph S. Nye. Used with permission of the publisher, Polity. All rights reserved.


“This is a fascinating book from a wonderful person. Through the insightful eyes of Joe Nye as he grows up in the American Century, we get to see the triumphs and challenges of our times unfold, from Vietnam to the present. The result is a reasonable, realistic, yet also idealistic view of our role in the world.” — Walter Isaacson, Professor of History at Tulane University