by Ben P
Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 07:09:57 PM EST
I envision this post as the first in a series that will detail American society and history for those with questions. There have been a number of such diaries on European countries, so I thought I would weigh in with a series on the US, likely followed by a series on Canada, that I hope might help everybody here understand the world in which we find ourselves a bit better. Especially for those in Europe who don't have a particularly detailed knowledge of American society. I will confess that following is actually a sample essay I wrote as a grading template for an exam I just helped administer in an introductory university course. But as I was writing it, I felt it could also serve as a useful primer for those looking to understand a bit more about recent US history. I will continue to post such entries in the future.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States was the most powerful nation (economically and militarily) on the planet and leader of the non-Communism world. It had just won a great, two-front war and pulled itself out of a decade long economic depression in the process. However, during the next the thirty years, much of the surface calm and optimism that seemed to exist in the immediate aftermath of the war had dissipated. In particular, challenges from committed African American civil rights and women's rights movements, controversy about American involvement in the Vietnam War, and growing cynicism and distrust of the nation's political institutions (particularly as a result of the Watergate Affair) fundamentally called into question the nation's self-assuredness.
Perhaps the first significant movement to challenge American self-confidence was the Civil Rights movement. While various forms of African American activism had existed - waxing and waning - since the end of the Reconstruction era, attempting to challenge segregation and second-class citizenship, it was not until the mid-1950s that this broad movement began to enter the broader national consciousness in a sustained manner. Firstly, in 1954, the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education Supreme Court Ruling struck down as unconstitutional the long-standing policy of "separate but equal" with regards to education. While the actual impact of the ruling did not have a significant, immediate impact, it did work to embolden African American activists and to increase their expectations as to the granting of equal rights and the elimination of legalized segregation. Then, in 1955-56, a figurehead (of sorts) for the then nascent movement emerged in the form of Martin Luther King. King, a minister then living in Montgomery, Alabama, led a successful boycott of the city's segregated bus system and as a result, vaulted himself and African American dissatisfaction and militancy more generally into the national spotlight, a position the Civil Rights movement would not really relinquish subsequently. However, the pace of change remained frustratingly slow for African Americans, and by the 1960s, a broader, more sustained activist assault on legalized segregation and African American oppression more generally appeared. King was again at the forefront of this movement, particularly with his leadership of the (successful) campaign against segregation in Birmingham, Alabama (as outlined in King's book, Why We Can't Wait). As a result of this sustained pressure, two landmark federal civil rights bills were passed: in 1964, an act outlawing segregation in public facilities, and in 1965, a second act permitting strong federal enforcement of African American voting rights. However, the day-to-day living conditions for many African Americans remained generally inferior to those of whites, and the Civil Rights movement turned towards attacking more complicated questions of economic and social inequalities. Unlike the early movement in favor of civil and political rights, this movement did not share the widespread sympathy of the nation's white majority, which led to a "backlash" against African American demands amongst significant portions of the white public. Additionally, African American frustration with the slow pace of change led to the emergence of more uncompromising, radical voices like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, whose appearance in the national spotlight also had the effect of alienating previously sympathetic segments of white opinion.
Like the African American Civil Rights movement, the Women's Movement played an important role in destabilizing the superficial social calm in the immediate aftermath of World War II. In many ways, the Women's Movement gained its impetus from the Civil Rights movement, as it did not really begin to penetrate the national consciousness until the latter part of the 1960s and 1970s. Also, like the Civil Rights Movement, it had been gathering steam for some time before it reached the elevated national profile it had achieved by the late 1960s. An important part of this process was World War II, which had the effect of greatly elevating the number of women working in the paid workforce. However, after the war ended, a sort of ideological and cultural consensus developed that suggested women should return to their "natural" role as homemakers. Nevertheless, the number of women remaining in the paid workforce remained historically high, even if many of these jobs were poorly paid and regarded as less "difficult." By the 1960s, powerful forces began to emerge that sought to challenge the dominant gender ideology that reigned in the 1950s. In particular, the publication in 1962 of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique marked an important turning point, as it dramatized previously "silent" discontent women felt about their culturally prescribed role. In the aftermath of Friedman, a strong political and social movement agitating in favor of women's legal, social, and economic equality emerged. Perhaps the most prominent organization leading this charge was the National Organization of Women, or NOW, founded by Friedan herself in 1966. By the early 1970s, this movement had achieved a number of significant reforms, in the guise of reformed divorce laws, liberalized abortion laws, federal enforcement against gender discrimination in the work place, amongst others. Many of the reforms advocated by the more moderate wing of the women's movement won widespread public support, much like the political and civic goals of the African American movement. However, also like the African American Civil Rights movement, when the pace of change frustrated many activists, more radical voices began to take center stage, which had the effect of alienating a significant portion of previously sympathetic opinion, and another "backlash" (this time against feminism) emerged. This backlash can perhaps help explain why the Equal Rights Amendment ultimately was not ratified, even though it looked certain to pass when it was ratified by 35 (of the required 39) states within one year of its proposal in 1972.
Unfolding more or less parallel to these social movements was American involvement in Vietnam. American involvement in Vietnam stemmed primarily from the nation's Cold War policy concerns, particularly from the policy of containment. This idea, first articulated by Diplomat George Kennan in his "Long Telegram," suggested that Communism must be stopped from spreading or gaining a foothold anywhere in the world outside of where it was already established. In the early years of the Cold War, this doctrine was applied generally successfully in Western Europe and then, somewhat less successfully, in Korea. However, in Vietnam, the policy ran aground as American policy makers misinterpreted Vietnamese Communism as part of a larger global conspiracy led by Moscow or Beijing, when in fact Vietnamese (Communist) leader Ho Chi Minh's main goals were nationalistic. Additionally, American attempts to establish a non-Communist South Vietnam largely ran aground, as successive governments were unable to establish the kind of nationalist credentials or governing competence that would have enabled the non-Communist South to successfully rival Ho Chi Minh's vision. Finally, American policy makers were unable to provide a universally clear and compelling reason for why American involvement in Vietnam was necessary, while events "on the ground" seemed to undercut these same leaders' optimistic spin of events. While arguably the United States "won" the war in a strictly military sense, the United States clearly lost in terms of its ability to shape the political outcome. More generally, American involvement had the effect of (for some) undermining American claims of its own goodness and nobility in global affairs, while (for others) also undermining the mystique of American global omnipotence (or the nation's ability to shape foreign affairs to its liking).
Occurring towards the end the period this essay surveys, the Watergate affair had the effect of undermining American's faith in its political and governmental institutions. In some ways, Watergate was a direct result of America's involvement in Vietnam. Pentagon insider Daniel Ellsberg leaked a large array of previously classified documents regarding America's Vietnam policy to the New York Times in 1971. As a result of what the Nixon administration viewed as a serious breech of national security, President Nixon assembled a team known as the "Plumbers" whose specific task was to block this kind of leak from happening again. However, the "Plumbers" soon began to move beyond this role, and in the summer of 1972, members of this organization broke into Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Complex in Washington, DC in an effort to gain sensitive material about Democratic campaign strategy for that fall's Presidential election. While it was later revealed that Nixon did not authorize the break-in, he nevertheless worked quickly in its aftermath to cover-up any investigation into the burglary. As a result, and as more material about the break-in did become public, Nixon was forced to resign in 1974 (to avoid being impeached) as a result of his role in the cover-up. On the whole, the Watergate affair worked to greatly increase American distrust of elected officials as well as their belief in the fundamental beneficence of government as a whole.
Thus, Watergate, along with the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women's Rights Movement worked to undermine what seemed to be a spirit of optimism, consensus, and confidence that reigned in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Civil Rights and the Women's Movement worked to dramatize significant inequalities and currents of social discontent, undermining notions that American society was fundamentally egalitarian and harmonious. The Vietnam War worked to erode belief in the goodness and omnipotence of America's global role. While finally, the Watergate Affair had the effect of significantly undermining America's faith in elected officials' honesty and beneficence. All told, these events played a significantly role in contributing to a national "crisis of confidence" in the generation following World War II.