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A Primer on American History, Part I

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.

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Great, just great.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 07:18:01 PM EST
by Grand Poobah on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 08:14:30 PM EST
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.
However, after Nixon resigned and Ford pardoned him, people just said "well, our system of checks and balances worked, all is well, we can go back to sleep now". I am afraid all was not well, and if the Bush presidency goes the way of Nixon's (don't hold your breath) the reaction might be the same "checks and balances work, nothing to worry about". Except that it is becoming abundantly clear that there is a systemic problem of some sort and nobody really wants to stare it in the face.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Dec 14th, 2005 at 08:20:16 PM EST
Hi Ben.

Love the diary.

I have heard a lot of time this way of looking at US history as an awakening of a naive society in the 60's.

I do not quite belive it. Or at least, it is not the full picture. I do not doubt that on certain setors of the society this is what happened, but I doubt that this is how the situation went.

I think more on the lines that some sectors of the society found a crack to spread their vision of the world. I do not think it was an awakening, it was more a local (in time) event. Actually it was a failure of the system of control. New empires are easy to control.. as the grow old,they require high sofistication. 60's were the breaking point.

We can see that in the 80's, when a new complete plan to get back in control was starting to develop, things turn back to standard procedures and only individual and lucky factors (like Carter and Bush father reaching the White House) made this world 8and the US) a much more better place (South-America and Asia in no particular order).. but again, they are individuals, the system does not generate the proper responses.

In other words, the constant of the American empire has been the way the different elite groups and industrial sectors sorted out their differences without the average american being aware of the fact..in the 60's certain groups managed to give this information and how it affected the averaged american..together with certain internal groups fed up of the system.

As Migeru said, there is something rotten,today it is almost impossible to crack the system thanks to the system in place, but this makes ruling the empire much more difficult...

So, in a sense, watergate was great fireworks but nothing changing in substance, not even the naive trust in the american politics.. and more importantly the relevance of the res publica and the complex discourse on discussing general empire-related affairs.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Thu Dec 15th, 2005 at 06:11:08 AM EST
thanks for this, it's good.

i'm presently addicted to a slightly cheesy, but very soulful american tv series on sky called 'american dreams' that follows a family's fortunes through the 60's. it shows the variety of irrepessible social forces coming into play, and their effect on this large, very traditional family, thr pryors.

the acting is ok, but the real strength is how the plots really explain u.s. history very graphically, in a way that would be understandable by an average 14 year-old.

really quite subversive.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Thu Dec 15th, 2005 at 07:53:20 PM EST
The only thing to fear is fear itself.

The moment of optimism in 1945-46 was brief. Cold war America seems to have been obsessed not merely with the foreign threat but also the threat within. The Civil Rights Movement, Watergate and the neocons just fed the fear of the other, amongst those prone to such views.

The essay says nothing about McCartyhyism and the influence of what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex.

The first is an example of a recurring pattern of paranoia. These societal panic attacks often combine a foreign threat and fear of domestic subversives. Other examples are the Alien and Sedition Acts in the 1790's, the Anti-Masonic movement in the 1830's, the Know-Nothings in the 1850's, the Red Scare after World War 1, McCarthyism in the 1940's and 50's and post 9/11 in our own time.

The second is the last two generations contribution to institutionalising paranoia. There are now powerful interests whose grip on wealth and influence depends on scaring the people and reinforcing their fear.  

by Gary J on Fri Dec 16th, 2005 at 08:04:54 AM EST
It may sound cynical, but in my opinion, George W. Bush would have never been re-elected without the 9/11 tragedy. It helped him round up public support to go after Saddam Hussein, ignore the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, push ahead with his ultra-conservative agenda, and generally look like the savior of the nation. Hopefully, we won't end up with death squadrons operating in the U.S. in our "best interests".
by aquilon (albaruthenia at gmail dot com) on Fri Dec 23rd, 2005 at 03:20:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you may have missed quite how much WWII had on both the Black rights and the women's movements. There was a documentary, I believe called "Rosie the Riveter" which traced the involvement of American women in the heavy industrial workforce really for the first time during the war as they replaced the men sent to the armed forces. The men's return meant they were expected to return to the home so that the soldiers could resume thier peacetime work. Combined with the necessary independence caused by the separation, this led to a great deal of resentment at the loss of status and income.

Also little explored in American histories is the effect on black servicemen of serving in Europe, particularly in Britain during the war. Remember that really up to almost the end they were in segregated units and often in menial support roles. To a large extent Britain was colour blind and regarded the US forces equally. While there were comparatively few black Africans serving in Britain, there were quite a number of black Afro-Carribbeans serving on an equal footing in the Empire forces. If I remember correctly the Pentagon even made some special training films narrated by Burgess Meredith for black Americans warning them not to misinterpret the friendliness they would receive for sexual advances from "loose women" on the model they experienced at home. Three of the European allies, Britain, France and the Netherlands all had imperial possessions which included blacks (plus Belgioum to a lesser extent as the history of the Belgian possessions in Africa is more murky) This confered on the blacks citizenship that was not seen as different from the "indigenous" whites of the homelands. While that comment is slightly idealised and certainly the larger numbers of those intending to settle in the late 40s and 50s engendered a degree of racism in those societies, the African-American experience during wartime was very different to that they were used to in the USA at the time.

I would therefore argue that for both women and black Americans the experience of wartime and the immediate peacetime disappointments led to an increase in the sense of grievance that had a significant catalytic effect on the liberation movements of the 50s and 60s.  

by Londonbear on Fri Dec 23rd, 2005 at 10:06:03 PM EST


A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Dec 24th, 2005 at 11:52:23 AM EST
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