The Most Significant Events in the Latter Half of the 20th Century Michael Hackelton Axia College of University of Phoenix HIS 135 The American Experience Since 1945 George Lawrence-Ell 24 August 2008 The Most Significant Events in the Latter Half of the 20th Century Introduction During the latter half of the 20th century, the United States changed greatly in the arenas of politics, economics, and social make up. Following World War II, in just 50 years, the US saw periods of great economic growth, a population explosion, a polarizing effect in US and world politics, and the emergence of the United States as the dominating world super power.
This paper will look at some of the more significant events and people from each of the five decades from 1950 to the year 2000. In addition, it will conclude with a look at the next ten years, with some pontification of what is to come. 1950’s – America Enters the Cold War The most significant defining event of the 1950’s would have to be the Cold War. Prior to World War II, Europe and the former Soviet Union held dominate positions in the world, each carrying different government philosophies, and methods of promoting those philosophies.
With the help of the United States, Germany was stopped not once, but twice at world-domination and communism became the new feared vehicle for world expansion. With the economies of Western Europe struggling and the United States flourishing, a developing Cold War between US Democracy and Soviet Communism began and would last for 40 years. The Cold War, which grew out of President Truman’s policy of containment in the late 1940s, dominated the political scene in the United States. The Cold War was part of Truman’s response in supporting South Korea ith US troops during the Korean War. With the Korean War coming to an end in 1953, President Eisenhower continued the fight against the spread of Communism. The fight was evidenced through Eisenhower’s doctrine of liberation and in the US development and testing of atomic weapons, and the methods capable of delivering them. In addition, Eisenhower and then Secretary of Defense John Foster Dulles maintained a willingness to use these new weapons of mass destruction, and even threatened to do so on more than one occasion.
Here at home, the communist threat existed as well. Through a relatively small communist political party, and as Exploring America: History, Literature, and Faith clearly states, “it was not against the law to be a Communist” (Notgrass, 2002, p. 530). Nevertheless, it was unpopular to be a Communist and during the early 1950s, a popular trend in proving patriotism emerged, with the loyalty oath. Many government agencies and private businesses required employees to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States.
In the US Congress, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R) of Wisconsin set out on a glorified witch-hunt, to eliminate communist sympathizers from the United States government and other areas of influence. What may have begun with good intentions, in the end, served only to ruin individuals’ lives and expanded the fears of many Americans. The McCarthy hearings or “McCarthyism” as it became known to be, were infamous, and received criticism from many. Through the proceedings, Senator McCarthy became one of the most powerful men in American politics and even affected the decision making of both the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. Moes, 2001) 1960’s – The Battle for Civil Rights In the 1960’s, the Cold War remained alive and well, but in this decade, the battle for civil rights made a larger impression on the political and social landscape. Although slavery officially ended in 1865, inequality and segregation amongst the races quickly crept back in to everyday life, in addition to racism and prejudice, which was regularly passed from one generation to the next. In the 1950’s, several landmark Supreme Court decisions began to break down the barriers of race, finally llowing them to come together, at least from a legal standing. Before the 1950’s and 60’s, racial inequality was just accepted to some degree. In fact, the issue of racism was not exclusive to Black America. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and even women, found the lack of equal rights to White men through much of our history. Nevertheless, in 1960, the battle for civil rights became more active. On January 31, 1960, Joseph McNeill made his way to Greensboro, North Carolina, returning to college as a freshman.
Upon encountering the normal attitude segregation of services, or refusal of services, to Negroes, Joseph proceeded to lead a sit-in, a non-violent protest modeled after the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. Within a few days, the protest grew from four participants to more than 1600, and during the next two weeks, inspired 15 sit-ins across North Carolina and other areas in the southeastern United States (Nation of Nations, Davidson, 2006). The sit-in gave power to a concept, that non-violent protests could make a difference. In 1963, the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ed a march on Birmingham, Alabama, and led similar marches until his death by assassination in 1968. During Dr. King’s most infamous protest march on Washington, DC in August 1963, he delivered his “I have a dream speech”, words that have echoed for decades. Dr. King inspired Black Americans, and his demonstration method has been used since in various causes. In 1964, Rev. King was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts and was name Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. His realized the need to work directly with the US Congress and President Kennedy, and his efforts paid off with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Carson, 2008).
Dr. King was not the sole leader of the civil rights movement however. A second strain of protesters activated in the 1960’s, those promoting Black Power. Led by groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, the Black Power movement vehemently disagreed with Dr. King’s non-violent tactics and instead, demonstrated through violent protests and sparked riots in Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, and Detroit during the mid-1960’s. 1970’s – The Vietnam War In having to name one significant event in the 1970’s, it would have to be the Vietnam War.
Although the building up to the war began as early as the late 1950s, fighting did not begin until the mid to latter half of the 1960’s, and the US would not feel the brunt of the war until 1970. It is safe to say that all wars are political, but none more so than Vietnam. The war was unpopular to say the least, and greatly divided our nation more so than any other time in history. Many questioned why the US was involved in Southeast Asia, others why after several years of fighting were we still involved. The divisions were deep, affecting the US politically, socially, and economically.
Politically, many Americans protested the war, some even on foreign soil. Fresh from the battle over civil rights, students in particular, led demonstrations and marches at American Universities and many, got out of hand. In May 1970, 750 Ohio National Guardsmen were ordered to quell the peace at Kent State, during just such an event. 300 students after demonstrating poured into the streets of a nearby town breaking windows and return to campus only to burn down an old ROTC building. Before the dust settled, four students were dead and nine more wounded.
A similar event took place at Jackson State, a mere ten days later finding two students dead and a dozen wounded (Nation of Nations, Davidson, 2006). Those who served in Vietnam were not immune to disagreement with the war and in the early 1970s, several protested before Congress including sitting Senator John Kerry, (D-MA). Soldiers spoke of alleged atrocities committed by US soldiers while in Vietnam. In addition to protests, young men publicly burned their draft cards and many ran to Canada in order to escape orders to Vietnam.
Following the war, in 1977, President Carter signed a pardon, releasing more than 10,000 from the crime of desertion (1977). Socially, Vietnam fed the growing American counterculture, with many of those deeply involved with the drugs and free sex movement; also likely to go along with the anti-war movement. A second result of the war was a lack of winning it. When our soldiers came home, they were not welcomed with open arms and ticker-tape parades. Instead, they were shamed and abused and in no way, supported.
Secondarily, many of our soldiers were exposed to experimental drugs and chemicals such as Agent Orange and napalm during the war, resulting in major health issues to veterans to this day. Finally, the war affected the United States economically, not exclusively, but part of the overall picture. Although it is difficult to put a price tag on a war, the US spent billions of dollars each year to fund the war alone. It is hard to say how much the war cost when the loss of more than 58,000 soldiers, and years of providing health care for our veterans.
The economy in the 1970s was already struggling; with higher inflation and an energy crisis, the Vietnam War only increased federal deficits. 1980’s – Ronald Wilson Reagan Elected President A former “B-List” Hollywood actor and two time governor of California, road his horse into Washington DC in 1981; ready to change the world. Ronald Reagan, best known for his “Bedtime with Bonzo” movies in the 1950s, defeated President Jimmy Carter in the fall of 1980, and would spend the next eight years in Washington, influencing America and the entire world, for generations.
Reagan, originally a “New Deal Democrat”, believed in people taking personal responsibility, and saving social support only when it was necessary to help someone back on their feet. In addition, Reagan’s conservative beliefs affected the social side of politics, with strong support for the family, the war against illegal drugs, and a return to the “original intent” of the New Deal. Reagan was one of the most influential figures in the 20th Century, and may have been one of our greatest presidents.
When Regan took office in January 1981, the US economy was struggling, and on its way to recession. America had come a long way from FDR’s New Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, and even LBJ’s Great Society. America fought in two unpopular wars in Korea and Vietnam, and lasted through a brutal energy crisis. Unemployment was over 7% and inflation over 11%; tax rates were though the roof as well. Reagan brought with him a conservative belief system, a return to personal responsibility, and the promotion of family values.
Reagan believed in a strict adherence to supply-side economics, the very same type of program advocated by Presidents Harding and Coolidge. Reagan believed that lowering tax rates would actually stimulate the economy, by allowing Americans to invest and spend more of their own hard-earned money. As such, he reduced personal and corporate tax rates, equally across the class spectrum and advocated for a simplified tax code, in order to close loopholes allowing individuals to hide earnings from paying any taxes. The result was an increase in the actual money the government collected each year.
Reagan’s policies lowered taxes, inflation, and interest rates and fueled an unbelievable economic expansion, kicking off 16 years of positive growth, never before seen in the US economy (Sperry, 2001). An additional Reagan accomplishment was the restoration of the US as a military power. Following the drawdown from Vietnam, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations never rebuilt the military. President Reagan believed, if we to win the Cold War, and keep our enemies at bay worldwide, it would be through a strong national defense.
As such, military spending increased at a remarkable rate through the decade, and the US achieved the status Reagan had hoped. Nevertheless, leading the world is not all fun and games and in 1983, American peacekeeping forces in Beirut, Lebanon, were attacked in their barracks, resulting in more than 200 deaths. Reagan would eventually pull our troops out of the UN multinational task force operating during the Lebanese Civil War. Two days following the Beirut attack, Reagan ordered American forces to invade Grenada, in order to squelch a communist government aligned with the Soviets and Cuba (Notgrass, 2002).
Throughout Reagan’s presidency, he carried an almost cowboy-like attitude about himself. A likely character trait from his days as an actor, Reagan had a way with people, and through the 1980s, was able to work foreign policy miracles with the USSR, that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union during Bush’s term. Reagan was instrumental at the passage of the Intermediate Range Missile Force (IMF) treaty in 1987 and pushed the idea of a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which was eventually labeled Star Wars, after the popular science fiction movie from the 70s. 990’s – The Clintons Go to Washington When considering influential people and events in the 1990s there are only two names that come to mind, Bill and Hillary Clinton. Although Clinton was not elected president until the fall of 1992, he and his wife set the tone for the decade. From the 1992 campaign, accusations of scandal and impropriety followed this couple everywhere and to this day. Nevertheless, with all the bad press, President Clinton still managed to maintain a rather high approval rating, even after impeachment by the House of Representatives in 1998.
Presidential scandals and even impeachment, while certainly not new with the Clintons further polarized the political scene and in the style and theme as Watergate, came Filegate, Travelgate, Troopergate, Whitewater, and a host of other investigations of wrongdoing. The one indiscretion that finally did catch up with Mr. Clinton was that of lying to a grand jury. Although the House voted for impeachment, the US Senate never put together enough votes to carry out a conviction or sentencing for the infraction.
Of the two impeachment charges, the first was rejected 55-45 and the second, 50-50. Neither charge met the two-thirds requirement of passage by the US Senate (Clinton Acquitted, 1999). An unfortunate side-effect to scandal, is a loss of one’s accomplishments in all the noise. President Clinton presided over an explosive economy, continuing from the growth started during the Reagan years. In addition, Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was started by the first President Bush. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was passed under President Clinton.
Nevertheless, the United States changed socially under the Clinton Administration as well. Opting for a liberal agenda, one of the President’ first actions in office, was to life the ban on homosexuals serving in the military. The policy that came to known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” was extremely controversial. In addition, the president selected his wife Hillary, to chair an effort to overhaul the nation’s medical insurance industry, with a socialized medical program, all to be controlled by the federal government (Notgrass, 2002). Conclusion
In the latter half of the 20th century, the United States made significant changes, in fact, in 50 years, the country changed economically, politically, and socially perhaps more than in country’s first 150+ years. Considering the next ten years is a challenge, especially not knowing which direction our current political scene will take. Should we as a nation follow the route of the Clintons, Obama’s and the Democrat party in general, the movement down the path of socialism and Marxism could be swift. On the other hand, a return to the conservative values of Ronald Reagan could bring back economic and social stability.
At this point, the jury is out as to whether the current Republican party can fill Reagan’s boots, but only time will tell. References Carson, C. (2008). Martin Luther King Biography and Quick Facts. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from http://www. mlkonline. net/bio. html Carter, J. (1977, January 21). Proclamation 4483: Granting Pardon for Violations of the Selective Service Act. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from http://www. usdoj. gov/pardon/carter_proclamation. htm Clinton acquitted; president apologizes again (1999, February 12). Retrieved August 24, 2008, from http://www. nn. com/ALLPOLITICS/stories/1999/02/12/impeachment/ Davidson, J. (Ed. ). (2006). Nation of nations: A concise narrative of the American republic (4th ed. , Vol. 2). New York: McGraw-Hill. Moes, G. J. (2001). Streams of Civilization (Vol. 2). Arlington Heights, IL: Christian Liberty Press. Notgrass, R. (2002). Exporing America (Vol. 2). Cookeville, TN: The Notgrass Company. Sperry, Ph. D, P. B. (2001, March 1). The Real Reagan Economic Record: Responsible and Successful Fiscal Policy. Retrieved August 7, 2008, from http://www. heritage. org/Research/taxes/BG1414. cfm