American History: The 20th Century


Figure 1.--The United States emerged as an industrial giant in the late-19th century. Much of that industry was based on low-cost labor--often new European immigrants. Henry Ford changed the dynamic of American Industry. The automobile was until Ford's Model-T a high-cost luxury for the well-to-do. Ford's Model-T was a bonerattling car for the average man. And Ford saw his workers as not only labor, but potential customers. He scandalized fellow industrialists by offering his workers an unheard of salary of $5 a day. The result was the growth of an an enormous new industry. During the Depression, Will Rodgers quipped that America was the only country ever to go to the poor house in an automobile. America's industrial might would have huge consequences for the 20th century. A key question is why this enormous industrial expansion and innovation occurred in America.

Some histoirians have called the 20th century the American Century. It was in the 20th century that America finally implememented the promise of its ideals to all its citizens and in the process saved Western civilization. America in the early 20th century was an exceptional country in that it was the only important Industrial power that had no military conscription and large army. Europe on the otherhabnd devoted vast spending to armaments. England since the 16th century had played a role in maintaining the European ballance of power. Britain no longer had this capability by the 20th century because of the rising power of Russia and Germany. The balance of power took on increasing importance in the 20th century because of the increasing spread of democractic ideals and a desire for national self determinsation. This resulted in the appearance of many small European states and restive ethnic groups without the ability to maintain or achieve their independence in the face of the massive resources which could be mobilized by Russia and Germany. The United States which had persued an isolationist policy during the 19th century finally entered world politics. The United States prevented authoritarian Imperial Germany from dominating the Contindent in World War I. Next America pervented totalitarian and genocidal NAZI Germany from dominating the Continent in World war II. And then after the War first prevented the totalitarian Soviet Union from dominating Western Europe and eventually helped to liberate Eastern Europe fro Soviet tutelage. It was under the umbrella of American power that today even the smallest European state can enjoy its national identity and independence in unprecsented security. Domestically America in the 20th century gradually implemented a series of progressiveand lineral reforms designed to widen the opportunity of all americans. The Civil Rights movement finally opened up opportunities for all AMericans, especially black Americans.

Decade Trends

Readers can view American history chronologically by decade. This provides more chronologicaly contunuity than the more thematic approach. Some of the decaded like the 20s and 60s are legendary. The 20s even has a memorable name--the Roaring 20s. The 40s of course included the titantic struggle of World War II. And the 60s began an era of change that is still being worked out.

Major Events

Readers can also take a more thematic view of American history in the 20th century. Here we will list only the major events and developments.

Triangle Waist Factory Fire (1911)

American workers in the 19th and early 20th century labored in unsafe workplaces with no or little effort by the government to protect them. When one thinks of industrial accidents and unsafe work places, we often think of dangerous mines, steel mills, meat packing plants. The best known industrial accident in America was the fire at the Triangle Waist Factory in New York City where girls and young women were laboring for minimal wages to help their families survive. Child labor was not a rare exception, but a major component of the industrial workforce. Girls as young as 14 died in the Fire. The fire killed 146 mostly immigrant workers. The fire had an enormous impact on America. Not only did legislation follow to protect workers, but the Fire in many ways helped lay the foundation for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. FDR's Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins was later to say that March 25, 1911 was "the day the New Deal began."

World War I (1914-18)

Terroism was at the heart of World War I in a chilling reminder to our modern age. War had been brewing in Europe for decades. It was a terrorist act that was the actual catalyst. Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (June, 28, 1914) assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The Austrians were incorporating Bosnia into their Empire and had chosen the most sacred day in Serbian history, their defeat by the Ottoman Turks on the plains of Kosovo, for (July 6) gave its support for Austro-Hungary's plan to punish the Serbs. Germany and Austria-Hungary became known as the Central Powers. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia and France began to mobilize its troops. As a result of Kaiser Wilhem's bumbling, France had succeeded in signing a mutual defense treaty. Germany felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The German Army entered neutral Belgium (August 4), in an effort to go around the strong French border defenses. Britain declared war on Germany over the violation of Belgian neutrality. Britain, France, and Russia became known as the Allied countries. The Germans were convinced they could take Paris before either th British or Russians could intervene. Miraculously the French Army managed to stop the Germans at the Marne and the Western Front became a brutal war of attrition. Italy had signed a treaty with Germany and Austria Hungary, decided not to honor it and later entered the War. Turkey had signed a defensive alliance with Germany in July 1914 and seeing an opportuity to make major gains against their historic enemy Russia joined the Central Powers. Making another effort to win the War, Germany in 1917 reimplemented unrestricted submarine warfare, bringing America into the War. Despite German victories on the Eastern Front agaist Russia, the added resources and man power America provided enabled the Allies to break the German's on the Western Front. The Kaiser was forced to abdicate and a new government had to seak an armistace.

The Roaring Twenties

The 1920s is one of the most famous decades in American history. It is one of the few decades with a iniversally knowm name--the Roaring Twenties. It was a decade of peace, one of two separaring the Great War--orld War I ((1914-18) and the even more terrible World War II (1939-45). President Harding who won the 1920 presidential election offered to return America to normalcy. The 20s were, however, anything but normal. The 20s were a reaction to the auterity and sacrifice of the War. The decade is, as a result, sometimes called the Jazz Age as music and dance bcame more licentious. Hem lines rose. Limiting the fun was the 18th amendment which brought in prohibition--which was widely ignored giving a huge boost to organized crime. The 19th amendmendment allowed women to vote for the first time. The economy boomed after making the tranision to peace. Wages rose and Americans experienced the greatest prosprrity in history. People brought big cars, appliances, and homes. Trading stocks became widely popular and not just an activity to the rich. Calvin Cooldige won the 1924 presidential election serving as president for most of the decade. The icons of the decade were a diverse group: Al Capone, Charles Lindberg, and Babe Ruth. There were important scientific achievements. Penicillin was discovered. President Hoover won the 1928 presidential election and promised conginued prosperity. The Wall Street crash (1929), howver, led to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The Depression (1929-39)

The Great Depression of the 1930s was the worst economic slump ever to affect the United States. It was not just a national economic crisis, but one which spread to virtually every country. The greatest calamity to befall Americans in the 20th century was the Great Depression--a worse calamity than even two world wars. The Depression began with the Wall Street stock market crash in October 1929. Soon business were going under and Americans were losing their jobs. All Americans were affected. Eventually about one-third of all wage earners were unemployed and many who kept their jobs saw their earmings fall. President Hoover who had engineered a humanitarian miracle in Europe during World War was unable to break away from the mindset that the Government should not intervene in the economy. President Roosevelt was elected by a landslide in 1932. He brought emergy and new ideas to Washington and the Federal Government initiated programs that would have been rejected out of hand only a few years ago. Roosevelt was willing to use the Government to solve economic and social problems besetting Americans. The people loved him, electing him to an unprecedented third and fourt term. The propertied class or "economic royalists" as he called them, hated him. Roosevelt's program was called the New Deal and the many programs initaited help change the face of the United States: Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority, rural electrification, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), protection for union organizers, and many others. The conservative-dominated Federal Courts struck down WPA, but many New Deal programs endure to this day. The great novel to emerge from the Depression was John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath which addressed to problems of rural Americans and the dust bowl. Urban Americans of course also suffered. While the New Deal brought relief to many desperate Americans, the Depression lingered until orders for war material from Europe began to flood into America in the late 1930s. The rest of the world was also affected by the Depression. Britain and France also struggled with the economic down turn. The response in Germany and Japan was totlalitarianism, militarism, and finally war.

World War II (1939-45)

World War II involved enveloped virtually every part of the world during the years 1939-45. The principal belligerents were the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allies (France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and, China). The Soviet Union, while not a member of the Axis, was until the German invasion in June 1941, a virtual ally of the Germans-seizing territory from neigboring states and occupying the Baltic states. To most observers it looked like German had essentually won the War in 1940 and 41, seizing most of SWestern Europe and North Africa. Then in 6-months the direction of the War was fundamentally altered when in Hitler attacked the Soviet Union bringing that enormous country into the War on the Allied side (in effect switching sides) and Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor bringing America into the War. World War II was the central event of the 20th century. It not only was the largest most destructive war in human history, but it also fundamentally changed social, economicm and political trends in Europe, North America and Asia. While the focus of most studies of the War are primarily on the titantic military campaigns, weapons, and leaders, children also played a role in the War. They in many ways the people most affected by the War. Millions were killed as a result of military action and the genocidal policies of Germany and Japan. The Germans in particular targeted Jewish children in the Holocaust. Children denied food and housing and in many cases orphaned died in large numbers in occupied countries. Germans kidnapped large numbers of blond children which they regarded as stolen genetic property. Many children were involved in the fighting. The Germans at the end of the War were using young teenagers, but all sides used large numbers of older teenagers. Ine of the many impacts of World War II was on fashion. Quite a range of fashion shifts occurred during and after World War II. Some of the major changes included: an increasing shift to casual dress, less elaborate fashions, the disappearance of knickers, short pants began to be worn as summer attire, American boys stop wearing kneesocks and long stockings, American Scouts and Cubs begin wearing long pants, "T" shirts and jeans became a mainstay of American boyhood, short hair styles become popular for boys in America after the War.

Cold War (1945-89)

The United States and its allies following World War II fought a 45-year struggle war with the Soviet Union and China. The War pitted the ideals of Western democracy and free enterprise against totalitarian states with command economies. At stake was the future social order of mankind. Germany's defeat left Stalin in control of the countries of Eastern Europe. President Harry Truman when he became president in April 1945 began taking a stronger approach to the Soviets, disturbed by Soviet actions in Poland. Stalin proceeded to install People's Republics in these states which meant Stalinist police states subservient to the Soviet Union. American and European democracies sharply criticised the Sovietactions. Winston Churchill warned in 1946 that an "iron curtain" was descending through the middle of Europe. Joseph Stalin who had virtually allied himself with Hitler in 1939 to launch World War II, blamed the War on "capitalist imperialism" and threatened Western Europe. President Truman decided to support Western Europe economically (the Marshall Plan) and militarily (NATO). The Cold War was a period of intense East-West competition, tension, and conflict, but always short of full-scale war. The first major episode was the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948. Berlin was during much of the Cold War a focal point of the conflict. The Soviets brutally suppressed attempts by Eastern Europeans to overthrow Soviet imposed governments: East Germany (1953), Poland (1956), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1978). There were proxy wars and competition for influence in developing countries, many of which introduced Soviet command economics. There was also an arms race between the two super powers. After Stalin died in 1953, the Cold War became more unbalanced. There were periods of relaxation followed by resumed confrontation. The most dangerous point of the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). There were efforts to pursue detente during the 1970s. Unlike the other major conflicts in world history, in the end the Cold War was not settled by force of arms. It was the example of the West, especially the success of free market economics and political democracy that defeated Communism. Not all historians agree that the Cold War was necessary and that the foundation of Western democracy was at stake.

Civil Rights Movement

The American Civil Rights Movement is one of the most momentous epics in the history of the American Republic. I date it from the Brown vs. Topeka Supreme Court deseggregation decission (1954) to the passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965), but of course the struggle began long before that and continues today. The hope of real freedom for the emancipated slaves after the Civil War was quashed by racist state governments after the withdrawl of Federal trops in the 1870s. The gains achieved by blacksere gradually eroded by racist Jim Crow legislation and extra legal terror fomented by the Klu Klux Klan. Lynchings and mob vilolence througout the South cowed blacks into submission and precented them from voting. The economic deprivation and terror caused a small numbers of blacks to migrate north and after World War I (1914-18) this migration increased significantly. The Supreme Court countenced segreagation in the Plessy vs. Fergusson (1898) decission and a system of racial apartaid enforced by law and the lynch rope ruled the American South until after World War II (1939-45). President Truman prepared the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement when he desseggregated the military (1948) and took other steps which led to the landmark Supreme Court Brown decission. Brown Although the Brown decission did not immediately desegragate Southern schools, it did help foster a decade of nonviolent protests and marches, often carried out by teenagers and youths. These ranged from the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott to the student-led sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the 1960s. These protests were finalized by a massive March on Washington (1963). The Civil Rights Act (1964) which provided a frange of legal protections including access to public accomodations. The Voting Rights Act (1965) was the capstone of the movement, guaranteeing access to the voting booth and in the process fundamentally changing America.

The Great Society (1965-69)

The Kennedy Administration (1961-63) programs referred to as the New Frontier were primarily concerned with foreign affirs and the Cold War. Developments in the South, primarily racist violence against blacks, forced the Adninistration to act on Civil Rights. The Kennedy Administration also initiated action on other social issues such as poverty and hunger which it addressed with Food Stamps. Other New Frontier reforms stalled in Congress. The assasination of President Kennedy brought Vice President Lyndon Johnson to office. The Johnson Administration (1963-69) was much more concerned with domestic issues, especially the questioin of poverty in America. President Johnson in a nation-wide speech addressed his vision of ending poverty in America--the Great Society. His program expanded the initial steps of the Kennedy Administration abd focused on two long-standing problems, poverty and racial injustice. The two were od course in part related. John ininitated new programs in education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation. Johnson invisioned the Great Society in as a cobtinuation of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal which he had support as a young Texas Congressman. John more than Kennedy or even Roosevelt was a Congressional insider. He was one of the most effective Senate Majority Leaders and as President put that expertise at work passing his Great Society measures. This was possible because of the Democratic landside he orcestrated in the 1964 election. Perhaps the most important and enduring achievements of the Great Society were Medicare, Medicade, and increased Federal spending for education. The Great Society has become very controversial. Conservative President Ronal Reagan latersaid it was not the New Deal he opposed, but Johnson's Great Society. Johnson's goal of eliminting povery was not achieved, although lost in the debae was the fact that it was reduced. It is unclear if Johbson failed because the programs were poorly designed or the fact that spending had to be curtailed because of the Vietnam War.








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Created: 3:35 PM 6/23/2007
Last updated: 7:03 AM 1/19/2009