Rather than reverting to isolation, the United States took the lead in 1945 in organizing both the United Nations and a network of alliances.
It put through vigorous programs of economic aid to other countries, first through the Marshall Plan, then by direct assistance to the newly independent former colonies, and also by massive assistance through internationally organized financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Both political parties generally endorsed these programs; not until the American government began to suffer deep economic strains in its domestic programs under the impact of the escalating cost of the war in Vietnam did the sums appropriated or foreign aid begin to be cut.
Agreement between the Republican and Democratic parties on foreign policy was generally shared on domestic issues as well. Broadly, the Democrats, except for their southern wing, were somewhat more committed to interventionist positions in the economy, to social welfare programs, and to expanding civil liberties.
The Republicans were relatively more committed to laissezfaire positions on the economy and government, to somewhat more cautious programs for social welfare, and to the need to more closely match a sense of duty with a sense of rights in civil liberties. However, the majority of the Republican party either did not wish, or did not consider it politically possible, to undo the major programs associated with Roosevelt’s New Deal.
During his eight years as president (1953-1961) Dwight D. Eisenhower not only did not repeal the New Deal enactments but even expanded the system of Social Security. Nor did the Republicans shift the bases of foreign policy. Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles (1888-1959), spoke of “rolling the Russians back” and “liberating” their satellites in eastern Europe, but when he was challenged by Soviet military intervention in Hungary in 1956, he was unable to do anything, and the Democrats had no alternative policy to offer.
The early 1950s brought an episode in which a single senator, Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) of Wisconsin, attacked American civil servants and others, whom he called communists. A frightened people, not used to defeat, was persuaded that communists in high places had “lost” China or “sold” eastern Europe to the international communist movement.
McCarthy’s attacks fed upon these unproved fears, as he attacked and demoralized the diplomatic service, the movie industry, and university faculties. McCarthy’s tactics were similar to the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century, being based on fear and rumor, thus posing a challenge to the constitution’s insistence on strict canons of evidence. In 1954 McCarthy was condemned by his fellow senators for abuse of his powers.
The United States was generally prosperous and productive during the decades following World War II. So remarkable was the steady growth of the gross national product that it appeared that the Americans had learned how to avoid depression altogether. The general affluence did not, however, by any means filter down satisfactorily to the society’s poorest members. President Lyndon Johnson’s series of programs to assist the poor had to be abandoned because of the heavy expense of the war in Vietnam. The strains imposed by the war, accompanied by increasing domestic unrest, inflation, and rising unemployment, continued to mount, though unevenly.
That so many of the poor in the United States were black worsened what was already the gravest American social problem. Though individual blacks had won recognition in the arts, in sports, in entertainment, and often in business and the professions, blacks in general were handicapped by the failure of American society to provide them with equal opportunities for education and for jobs. This was true not only in the South but also in the cities of the North, where during the war hundreds of thousands of blacks had flocked to work.
In 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court unanimously declared that the existence of separate compulsory public schools for blacks was unconstitutional. The years that followed saw varying degrees of compliance with the new requirement. Most parts of the South were determined to disobey the Court by one means or another, or if they obeyed, to admit only token numbers of black students to white schools. The many efforts to speed compliance met with some success, and by 1970 in some southern cities, such as Atlanta, desegregation was well advanced.
But the existence of black ghettos in the northern cities and the prevalence of neighborhood schools everywhere meant that public education in New York or Boston was often as segregated as in Mississippi. Northern whites often opposed busing children to schools out of their home neighborhoods as a method of balancing the numbers of black and white children.
Southern white support for the Republican, Richard M. Nixon, in the election of 1968 left him with a political debt to southern politicians, and many observers felt that the diminished efforts of the federal government to enforce desegregation during his administration reflected an effort to repay this debt. The problem of equal education for all, including the rapidly increasing number of predominantly Spanish-speaking students, remained a serious one into the 1990s.
The drive to improve conditions for African Americans extended far beyond education, however. In the late 1950s and early 1960s activist whites and blacks worked to increase the registration of black voters in the South and to liberalize real estate practices in the North. Both drives made considerable headway, though some whites responded with intimidation and terror, others by quietly refusing to be involved.
Some blacks, feeling that justice would never be gained by gradual means, turned away from organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had traditionally preferred to work by persuasion, toward more militant groups. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (1926-1968)—a nonviolent black minister from the South who in 1955 had sponsored a successful black boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, and in 1957 had founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to press for nonviolent change throughout the South—lost some of his large following to other groups advocating Black Power.
During the summers of 1965 through 1967 severe rioting broke out in Los Angeles, Newark, Detroit, and other northern cities. Blacks burned their own neighborhoods, looted shops, and fought with the police. The passage of a federal Civil Rights Act in 1968 and the outlawing of discrimination in real estate transactions did not calm the stormy situation. Black violence aroused bitter protest, even among white moderates who favored the black advance but were growing more and more anxious about public order.
The new wave of violence in American life derived not only from the race question. Democrat John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic to be elected president, succeeding Eisenhower and defeating vice-president Nixon (1960), was a young man of intelligence, personal elegance, and charm. To the young he seemed to offer a new start and charismatic leadership, and abroad he was widely respected.
His New Frontier envisioned federally sponsored medical care for the aged, tax reform, civil rights, and antipoverty measures. But Kennedy had deeply angered the far right and was hated for his efforts to fight organized crime and to press forward with civil rights. He was assassinated in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald (1939—1963) while riding through Dallas in a motorcade. Televised details of the crime came into every American home, as did the subsequent murder of the assassin.
The failure of the nation to protect its president, of the Dallas police to protect the accused assassin, and of subsequent investigations to come to a definite conclusion about the assassination added to the national sense of suspicion and fear. The murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, and the murder of President Kennedy’s brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, while he was campaigning to secure the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1968, all combined to produce a major public revulsion.
Though many black civil rights leaders continued to advocate nonviolent tactics to achieve their goals, King’s murder in particular gave new strength to those leaders who argued that full equality could be achieved for blacks in the United States only through the use of force.
Crime continued to present a severe and growing problem, and easy access to guns continued to set the United States apart from all other nations. Some saw the failure to enact strong anti-gun laws as a sign that the United States did not realize it was no longer a frontier society; others felt that the constitution guaranteed the right to bear arms, and they argued that infringements on this right were an attack on a basic civil liberty. These three assassinations, as well as subsequent attempts on other presidents and public figures, would stir a debate that clearly posed the democratic dilemma of how best to define the public good.
After the assassination of John Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed office and, in an intensive legislative drive, successfully put through much of the social program that Kennedy had not been able to achieve. His goal, he said, was to create the Great Society. But the gains were outweighed in the public mind by the cost in life and money of the war in Vietnam and by the rising discontent with a society that could not fairly distribute its own affluence.
Children of the well-to-do were “opting out” of society in large numbers. Some took drugs—the increasingly fashionable marijuana, heroin, cocaine, or LSD. Many dropped out of school and left home: the “hippies ” of the late 1960s. Behind their veneer of long hair and strange clothing they revealed much about which a thoughtful segment of society worried: that the structure of society was alienating many young people; that the cost of drugs was leading to ever higher crime rates; that a gap was opening between generations; that the family as a unit for promoting stability was being threatened.
Other young people rebelled actively against the institutions of their immediate world—the university and the draft board. Student violence in 1968 and 1969 sometimes took the form of sit-ins or building seizures, accompanied by the disruption of classes, the theft of documents from files, and the attempted intimidation of classmates, professors, or administrators. When university authorities summoned police or the National Guard to quell the violence, the effect often was to turn moderate students into radicals.
The universities were thus faced with a painful dilemma: either to submit to intimidation and violence, usually from the left, or to fight, thus vastly increasing the numbers of the disenchanted. When the National Guard fired into a student demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, killing four white students, and a few days later police in Jackson, Mississippi, killed two more who were black, there was a cry of outrage and guilt on university campuses and in homes throughout the nation.
The radical protests, the campus violence, and the long battle in the media and in Congress between “hawks” (who favored pursuing the war in Vietnam with vigor) and “doves” (who considered the war immoral, impractical, or lost) had injected a high level of apprehension and confusion into the lives of most Americans. By 1967 the total number of casualties in Vietnam had exceeded 100,000. That fall 70,000 demonstrators picketed the Department of Defense. Though de-escalation of the war began before he took office in 1969, Nixon inherited the domestic chaos of the preceding years.
As we have seen, Nixon moved quickly to effect basic changes in foreign policy, while narrowing the range of newly acquired civil liberties at home. Under the guidance of his national security adviser and eventual secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, Nixon took several bold initiatives. He sped up the de-escalation of American involvement in Vietnam, accepting Kissinger’s argument that the conflict there was essentially a civil war from which the United States must slowly extricate itself.
Once unencumbered in southeast Asia, the United States could maintain an equilibrium of power among itself, the Soviet Union, an increasingly assertive China, the growing industrial might of Japan, and the new unity of Europe. To this end, Nixon initiated Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union; declared that there must in future be “Asian solutions to Asian problems”; and most dramatically, sent Kissinger on a secret mission to the People’s Republic of China in July 1971, and then visited the country himself early in 1972, to “normalize relations” between the two nations.
A politician who had based his early reputation on intense anticommunism, Nixon was now ready to recognize the need to do business with those regimes. Nixon thus brought about a diplomatic revolution in which, by the mid-1970s, Communist China appeared to be cautiously aligned with the United States against the Soviet Union. This, in turn, created renewed strains with both the Soviet Union and Japan.
Nixon had reasoned that an easing of world tensions and an end to the bloodshed in Vietnam would also ease tensions at home. He was correct. Student protests slackened, an uneasy racial peace was achieved, and the early 1970s were marked by relative tranquility. Perhaps as a result, Nixon was returned to office in a landslide election in 1972, capturing every state save one.
But a new instability soon plagued the nation, for early in his second administration it became known that a group of President Nixon’s supporters had not only burglarized the headquarters of the Democratic party in the Watergate complex in Washington but that Nixon’s closest aides appeared to have had knowledge of the burglary.
Soon hearings in the Senate and intense investigative reporting by journalists revealed that the president had tape recorded conversations in his Oval Office and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency (the latter barred by law from domestic surveillance activities) had been pressed into service to obtain information that would help the Nixon reelection and to cover up the initial revelations about Watergate.
Facing almost certain impeachment for misconduct in office, President Nixon finally resigned on August 9, 1974. He was succeeded by Gerald R. Ford (1913— ), a respected Michigan Republican who had served in the House of Representatives for a quarter of a century and had been appointed vice-president to replace Spiro Agnew, who had resigned in 1973.
The Watergate affair had proved deeply divisive, and President Ford set out to bind up the nation’s wounds. He pardoned Nixon to avoid the extended rancor of a trial, although Nixon’s assistants were convicted and sentenced to jail. He then turned to the problem of inflation, which mounted in 1974 in the face of higher oil prices, and public attention turned to energy policy.
Despite peace in Vietnam and a rise in the stock market, Ford was unable to win a widespread following. Though low by European standards, the American inflation rate stood at 7.6 percent and unemployment at 8 million. An oil embargo against the West by Arab states had revealed that the United States was vulnerable in its consumption of energy. And the right wing of the Republican party was up in arms against what it regarded as a weak American policy in the Middle East, in Latin America, and even in Israel, which was thought to have precipitated the energy crisis by its war against the Arab states in 1973-1974.
Thus a political unknown who had captured the Democratic nomination, James Earl Carter, (1924— ), known even formally as Jimmy Carter, attained the presidency by a narrow margin. Voters were prepared to try a new approach; above all, they wanted to return to a sense of security about the economy. In this and much else, the Carter presidency disappointed many.
Carter achieved some gains, most notably in environmental legislation, urban redevelopment, and deregulation of some sectors of the economy. Although he brought the Israeli and Egyptian leaders together to sign an accord that appeared to end the longstanding hostility between their nations, Carter’s presidency was crippled by an event in Iran. There the United States had long
supported the powerful shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980), son of Reza Shah, who had abdicated in 1941. Iran under the Pahlavis was a test case of modernization; to go too fast would alienate the traditional Islamic clergy and the peasantry; to go too slowly would lose the middle class and the Westernized Iranians. Although the shah had instituted a White Revolution— agricultural reforms that gave Iran a steadily rising standard of living—he was seen as corrupt, despotic, enriching himself and his family at the expense of the peasantry.
The United States failed to see revolution in Iran coming and, when it came, appeared to deal with it falteringly. Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation but not an Arab land, was ill understood in the United States, where the study of the Middle East generally, and of Islam in particular, was little developed. Violence was followed by martial law in 1978. From France the exiled Shi’ite religious leader, the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902–1989), orchestrated a rebellion that drove the shah into exile in January 1979. The ayatollah returned to Iran the next month, and soon his power was virtually absolute.
In the meantime, the shah had been admitted to the United States for treatment of cancer. On November 4, 1979, militant students stormed the American embassy in Teheran and seized ninety hostages, including sixty-five Americans, whom they refused to release unless the shah was returned to Iran to stand trial for crimes against the people. The Iranians remained in control of the embassy for 444 days, despite international condemnation, an abortive rescue mission by American forces, and intense diplomatic pressure from the United States. For fifteen months Americans were faced nightly on their television sets with the dramatic (and inflated) spectacle of “America held hostage.”
While Carter was faulted for not having taken precautions to protect the American embassy, there was little that he could do thereafter. And it was this very sense of national helplessness that turned the electorate against him. To underscore how they could help manipulate American elections,the Iranians released the hostages on January 20, 1981, jut minutes after a new president of the United States, Republican Ronald Reagan (1911– ), was sworn into office.
The turmoil continued in Iran as the revolution passed through phases of vengeance and countervengeance, much like the French Revolution. Waves of executions eliminated Marxists, those who had collaborated with Americans, those who had worked for the shah, and those who opposed the new Islamic Republic’s constitution, which had been shaped by the clergy. Members of the ecumenical, international Bahai faith, which had a following in the United States, were also systematically killed, while the United States stood helplessly by.
Ronald Reagan had been elected on a wave of public frustration. He was a right-wing conservative who offered voters a clear alternative to previous administrations. Once in office, however, he proved to be less conservative than the right wing had hoped, and he soon tempered some of his stands. Reagan appealed to Americans who felt that government had become too big, too interfering, and too central to their lives. He promised deregulation, decentralization, and a restoration of public and private morality. Working against these goals were the risks inherent in an arms race with the Soviet Union, a resurgence of the environmentalist movement, and apparently intractable inflation and unemployment.
In the 1980s the United States was undergoing unprecedented change. A nation once thought to be committed to isolation was now involved with events virtually everywhere. A nation that once had the highest standard of living in the world had sadly discovered the poor in its midst and was acutely aware of its dependence on other nations for resources such as oil.
By 1989 the United States had fallen to fifth place in per capita income among Western nations (omitting the oil-rich Arab states), and stood twelfth in its health rate. Its illiteracy and infant mortality rates were climbing. The United States was still the dominant nation in the world, but on the indicators most significant in time of peace, it had been marginally—and to Americans, quite unexpectedly—overtaken by several nations.*
Once shaped by an economy of abundance, so that each succeeding generation, as well as arriving immigrants, could anticipate a better future, the United States now faced shortages in areas crucial to the economy, rising demands from the less privileged part of the population, and an agonizing awareness of the magnitude of the problems.
Once shaped by an illusion of “free security”—security from foreign invasion, virtually free of cost, since neither land neighbor, Canada or Mexico, posed a military threat and other nations were thousands of miles across the seas—the United States feared for its security in the atomic era and could maintain such security as it had only at great cost.
Many Americans turned toward their past, nostalgically hoping that these old, formative influences might still work for American society. But by the 1980s many other people were on the path to the future, determined to find an American-style solution to American problems, to maintain civil liberties and democratic government, to achieve security and stability.