American History: The 20th Century

Figure 1.--

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. Readers here 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.

The 1900s

President McClinnley was assasinated in 1900 and was suceeded by Vice President Roosevelt. The Gulf coast city of Galeston was destoyed by a killer hurricane (1900). San Franciso ws devestated byab earhquake (1905). The Wright brothers flew the first heavier than air plane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (1903). Roosevelt and his energetic family became enomrously popular. He helped enact many importannt progressive reforms. He also was largely responsible for the construction of the Panama Canal. He also strongly promoted the U.S. Navy despite resistance from Congress. Roosevelt was reelected in 1904, but decided not to run in 1908. He help cles associate Willian Howard Taft win the nomination which at the time was tantamount to winning the election. America had emerged as an industrial giant. Autmobiles began to be built, but were still a relatively small industry until Henry Ford introduced the Model-T. There were virtually no paved roads in the country. Many authors allow ideology to direct their writing. One left-wing idealogue writes, "Life in the 1900s was depressing and was an era filled with extremely hard and strenous work that didn't offer any future for the average American in doing better." This is nonsence this sentence actually might apply to much of human hstory, but not to America in the 1900s. The first decade of the 20th century has been called variously the Age of Innocence, the Age of Optimism, and the Age of Confidence. In fact America's booming industrial economy created great wealth and prosperity for millions. It is true there were great social inequities. Many workers, especially immigrants, unprotected by social legislation and labor unions, often existed on a subsistence level. Huge numbers of European immigrants flloded into the United States. Despite the conditions in croded slums, most immigrants were better off in America than their hme countries and through hard work gradually carved out their place in American life. Baseball was the national game. The World Series began (1903).

The 1910s

The 1920s

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 1930s

The United States was during the 1930s was dominated by the Great Depression. There had been depressions earlier, but none as severe as the Depression of the 1930s. And because of the Progresive Movement, this time the American people turned to the Government to resolve the economic probems. The impact upon individuals that many began to question the free market capitalist system. The Hoover Administration began a massive Governmrent intervention in the economy and President Roosevelt's New Deal intervened even more massively. Both historians and economists debate the impact of the Government intervention. President Roosevelt in his First Hundred Days acted to save the babking system and stabilize attitudes toward the Goivernment. There were also important social reforms such as Social Security and shining economic successes like Rural Electrification. Some economists, however, are increasingly coming to the view that the pverall impact of Government intervention and misplaced policies like raising tariffs and taxes was toboth prolong and lenghen the Depression One indudtry which did not suffer during the Depression was Hollywood and the film industry. As bad a conditions were. most were able to come up with the 25c needed to see a movie. And people gcould enjoy the radio at home. Freeident Roosevelt's calming voice helped ecplsin what the Government was doing. Sports were popular and baseball was dominated by the Yankees. Young people enjoyed big band music and jazz began to enter the mainstream. Americans emerged from the Depression to find the terrible reality of totalitarian power in Europe and Asia. Americans were split on how to confront it. Some wanted to ignore it and withdeaw from participation in orld waffairs. Other including President Roosevelt saw that America had to confront totalitariaism and began the epic Ma href="/essay/war/ww2/cou/us/usiso-pr.html">struggle with isolationism, the result of which in mny ways fetermied the outcome of World war II.

The 1940s

The 1940s were dominated by World War II and the start of the Cold War

The 1950s

The 1960s

The 1960s for middle class Americans were those now so innocent seeming, yet turbulent years. All elements of American life began "heating up" in the 1960s. And the 60s along with the 20s are the two most remembered decades of the 20th century. Actually much of what is associated with the 60s occurred in the 70s. The decade began so optimistically with the election of President Kennedy. Yet in 1963 we were shocked by his assasination and soon found ourselves faced with the challenge of Civil Rightsand mired in the Viet Nam. We began the decade with our 1950s certainties and soon found events rapidly changing our values and long held assumtions. President Kennedy's assasination is most strongly etched into memory, but other snapshots include the Vietnam War; the Civil Rights movement; Dr. Martin Luther King; hippies, flower power, and the 1967 Summer of Love in 1967; as well as Woodstock and Motown. There is no doubt that America was fundamentally changed by the 60s. It was the decade in which the minorities (racial, women, and gays) began to enter the American mainstream. More difficult to say is just what caused that change. Some give great importance to the Urban riots. [Brokaw] Surely the Viet Nam was important. We might say it was the combined impact of liberal appoints to the judiciary and the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965). These laws changed the face of America. They also gave the South to the Republican Party for a generation, resulting in the election of a series of Republican presidents.

The 1970s

The 1970s were surely the most tumultuous decade of the 20th century. The issues which surfaced in the 1960s contunued into the 70s, many unresolved. The decade was dominated by the continuing Vientnam War. Protests against the War expanded. The American people had tired of the War and wanted an end to it. Former Voce President Richard Nixon had been elected with apomose to end the War (1968). He wanted to do so, but preserving the indpendence of a non-Communist South Vietnam. The plan was to Vietnamese the War, withdrawing American troops but continue to provide material support for the South. This failed. The North Vietnamese launched a major offensive and President Nixon resigned as a result of the Watergate Scandal. The Democratic Congress ended all material support for South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon and South Vietnam collapsed (1975). Liberals who expressed so much concern for the Vietnamese people during he war, suddely lost interest with the Communist victory. Democratic success in elections brought a liberal accenendancy that began fundamental changes. The United States passed land-mark civil rights legislation (1964-65). These laws and earlier Court rulings would take some time to percolate through the legal system and the national conciousness. Major changes were made in immigration law. Dr. Martin Luther King played a major role in these achievements, largely through a policy of non-violence. Disturbed by what they saw as the slow pace of change, some blacks turned to violence. American cites in the late-1960s exploded into violent urban riots which continued into the 1970s. Vilolent groups motivated by racial and left-wing ideologies included the Black Panthers, Symbionese Liberation Army, Weather Underground, and others. The Civil Rights Movement expanded to Native Americans, gays, women, and others. The Equal Rights amendment for women was passed, but never ratified. Liberal policies had some unforseen impacts. The welfare systen had negative impacts on the families invoilved, especially African-Americans. Along with family disintegration came rising crime levels, drug usage, and increased numbers of unwed births. And increasing liberal and minority control of big city schgools has resulted in increasing numbers of failed schools and disappointing academic achievemnent. This juust as job opportunities began to open up we see the development of a black inder-class unable to take advantage of the opportunities. Important advances were made in environmental quality with the pasage of the Clean Waters Act (1970) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). The Cold War reached a climax in the 1970s. President Nixon to ballance Soviet power reached an understanding with Communist China which had split with the Soviets. The American economy began to feel presure from foreign competitoirs and not only the Europeans. Japan also revovered from the War. A few leaders in the developing countries began to notice the failure of socialism as an economic system. The first were the Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Sinapore, South Korea, and Taiwam). The United States freely opened its market to these countries, in pat because of the Cold War, to bolter contries fighting Communism. The result was the beginning of the Rust Belt and the undermining of important segments of American industry. This was done under the mantra of free trade, but lkittle effort was made to enbsure that the resulting trade was fair.

The 1980s

The 1990s


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Created: 3:35 PM 6/23/2007
Last updated: 12:41 AM 3/15/2018