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10-08-2015, 22:28

THE EMERGENCE OF THE UNITED STATES

Between 1945 and 1970, the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal largely determined the parameters of American domestic politics. The New Deal gave rise to a distinct pattern that signified a basic transformation in American society. This pattern included a dramatic increase in the role and power of the federal government, the rise of organized labor as a significant force in the economy and politics, a commitment to the welfare state, albeit a restricted one (Americans did not have access to universal health care as most other industrialized societies did), a grudging acceptance of the need to resolve minority problems, and a willingness to experiment with deficit spending as a means of spurring the economy. The influence of New Deal politics was bolstered by the election of Democratic presidents—Harry Truman in 1948, John F. Kennedy in 1960, and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Even the election of a Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1952 and 1956, did not significantly alter the fundamental direction of the New Deal. As Eisenhower conceded in 1954, “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.” No doubt, the economic boom that took place after World War II fueled public confidence in the new American way of life. A shortage of consumer goods during the war left Americans with both surplus income and the desire to purchase these goods after the war. Then, too, the growing power of organized labor enabled more and more workers to obtain the wage increases that fueled the growth of the domestic market. Increased government expenditures (justified by the theory of English economist John Maynard Keynes that government spending could stimulate a lagging economy to reach higher levels of productivity) also indirectly subsidized the American private enterprise system. Especially after the Korean War began in 1950, outlays on defense provided money for scientific research in the universities and markets for weapons industries. After 1955, tax dollars built a massive system of interstate highways, and tax deductions for mortgages subsidized homeowners. Between 1945 and 1973, real wages grew at an average rate of 3 percent a year, the most prolonged advance in American history. The prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s also translated into significant social changes. More workers left the factories and fields and moved into white-collar occupations, finding jobs as professional and technical employees, managers, proprietors, and clerical and sales workers. In 1940, blue-collar workers made up 52 percent of the labor force; farmers and farmworkers, 17 percent; and white-collar workers, 31 percent. By 1970, blue-collar workers constituted 50 percent; farmers and farmworkers, 3 percent; and white-collar workers, 47 percent. One consequence of this process was a movement from rural areas and central cities into the suburbs. In 1940, just 19 percent of the American population lived in suburbs, 49 percent in rural areas, and 32 percent in central cities. By 1970, those figures had changed to 38, 31, and 31 percent, respectively. The move to the suburbs also produced an imposing number of shopping malls and reinforced the American passion for the automobile, which provided the means of transport from suburban home to suburban mall and workplace. Finally, the search for prosperity led to new migration patterns. As the West and South experienced rapid economic growth through the development of new industries, especially in the defense field, massive numbers of people made the exodus from the cities of the Northeast and Midwest to the Sunbelt of the South and West. Between 1940 and 1980, cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Cleveland lost between 13 and 36 percent of their populations, while Los Angeles, Dallas, and San Diego grew between 100 and 300 percent. Although the country was becoming more affluent, it was also feeling more vulnerable as Cold War confrontations abroad had repercussions at home. The Communist victory in China aroused fears that Communists had infiltrated the United States. A demagogic senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, helped intensify a massive “Red scare” with his (unsubstantiated) allegations that there were hundreds of Communists in high government positions. But McCarthy went too far when he attacked alleged “Communist conspirators” in the U.S. Army, and he was censured by Congress in 1954. Shortly after, his anti-Communist crusade came to an end. The pervasive fear of communism and the possibility of a nuclear war, however, remained at a peak. While the 1950s have been characterized (erroneously) as a tranquil age, the period between 1960 and 1973 was clearly a time of upheaval that brought to the fore some of the problems that had been glossed over in the 1950s. The era began on an optimistic note. At age forty-three, John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) became the youngest president in the history of the United States and the first born in the twentieth century. His own administration, cut short by an assassin’s bullet on November 22, 1963, focused primarily on foreign affairs, although it inaugurated an extended period of increased economic growth. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908– 1973), who won a new term as president in a landslide in 1964, used his stunning mandate to pursue the growth of the welfare state, first begun in the New Deal. Johnson’s programs included health care for the elderly, a “war on poverty” to be fought with food stamps and a “job corps,” the new Department of Housing and Urban Development to deal with the problems of the cities, and federal assistance for education. Johnson’s other domestic passion was the achievement of equal rights for African Americans. The civil rights movement began in earnest in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court took the dramatic step of striking down the practice of maintaining racially segregated public schools. According to Chief Justice Earl Warren, “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” A year later, during a boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, the eloquent Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968) surfaced as the leader of a growing movement for racial equality. By the early 1960s, a number of groups, including King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), were organizing demonstrations and sit-ins across the South to end racial segregation. In August 1963, King led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This march and King’s impassioned plea for racial equality had an electrifying effect on the American people. By the end of 1963, a majority of Americans (52 percent) called civil rights the most significant national issue; only 4 percent had done so eight months earlier. President Johnson took up the cause of civil rights. As a result of his initiative, Congress in 1964 enacted the Civil Rights Act, which ended segregation and discrimination in the workplace and all public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act, passed the following year, eliminated racial obstacles to voting in southern states. But laws alone could not guarantee a “great society,” and Johnson soon faced bitter social unrest, both from African Americans and from the burgeoning antiwar movement. In the North and West, African Americans had had voting rights for many years, but local patterns of segregation resulted in considerably higher unemployment rates for blacks (and Hispanics) than for whites and left blacks segregated in huge urban ghettos. In these ghettos, calls for militant action by radical black nationalist leaders, such as Malcolm X of the Black Muslims, attracted more attention than the nonviolent appeals of Martin Luther King. In the summer of 1965, race riots erupted in the Watts district of Los Angeles that led to thirty-four deaths and the destruction of more than one thousand buildings. Cleveland, San Francisco, Chicago, Newark, and Detroit likewise exploded in the summers of 1966 and 1967. After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, more than one hundred cities experienced rioting, including Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital. The combination of riots and extremist comments by radical black leaders led to a “white backlash” and a severe division of American society. In 1964, only 34 percent of white Americans agreed with the statement that blacks were asking for “too much”; by late 1966, that number had risen to 85 percent. Antiwar protests also divided the American people after President Johnson committed American troops to a costly war in Vietnam (see the box on p. 197). The antiwar movement arose out of the free speech movement that began in 1964 at the University of California at Berkeley as a protest against the impersonality and authoritarianism of the large university. As the war progressed and U.S. casualties mounted, protests escalated. Teach-ins, sit-ins, and the occupation of university buildings alternated with more radical demonstrations that increasingly led to violence. The killing of four students at Kent State University in 1970 by the Ohio National Guard caused a reaction, and the antiwar movement began to subside. By that time, however, antiwar demonstrations had helped weaken the willingness of many Americans to continue the war. But the combination of antiwar demonstrations and ghetto riots in the cities also prepared many people to embrace “law and order,” an appeal used by Richard M. Nixon (1913–1995), the Republican presidential candidate in 1968. With Nixon’s election in 1968, a shift to the right in American politics had begun.

 

 

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