This article deals with the history of the United States of America in the 20th century. From a world history perspective, this is the period when the country moves from mainly pursuing its own interests thousands of miles away from the historic centres of power and culture, to moving centre stage and taking a leading role in world affairs – political, economic and cultural.
The start of the 20th century saw the United States established as a truly continental country. Its territory stretched across North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and although much of it, especially in the West, remained wilderness, even its less populated parts were beginning to fill up with towns, railroads, highways and ranches. The “Wild West” was being tamed as the forces law and order prevailed; the long series of wars with the Native American peoples were ended, with the tribes confined to reservations; and the early years of the century saw the last of the continental states being formed: Oklahoma (1907), New Mexico and Arizona (1912).
By this time, the United States was the richest nation in the world, thanks to the unprecedented industrialization of the closing decades of the 19th century, especially in the Midwest and the Northeast. This process was fuelled by a huge wave of immigration to these regions, and it continued into the 20th century. Vast industrial plants and mining operations emerged, run by enormous firms.
Already by the turn of the century the rise of these huge economic units had created anxieties about their monopoly positions, which threatened to distort markets; and also the power they had to abuse workers’ rights. This, coupled with growing impatience with corruption and inefficiency in national and local government, and with the often poor state of education, led to ever-more strident calls for reform in many spheres of national life. The “Progressive Era” which these led to saw changes in many fields: anti-trust measures to break up huge companies which now threatened to distort the markets through their monopoly positions; clean-ups of local governments; more democracy at the federal level (senators now became directly elected); improvements in schools, and so on.
Business interests were keen on spreading their wings overseas, and pushed for an expansionist policy abroad. The years either side of 1900 saw the United States acquire overseas territories, with Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico becoming virtual protectorates. The isthmus of Panama, between the Caribbean and the Pacific, also came under American control, and in 1914 the Panama canal was opened. This was a major commercial and strategic asset for the United States, dramatically shortening travel times between its East and West coasts and thus shrinking costs of shipping; and allowing the US Navy to switch warships from the Atlantic to the Pacific very easily.
The American people in general still retained a strong desire to abstain from international entanglements, and when World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, the country initially adopted a position of neutrality. Anti-German feeling grew, however, largely due to the unrestricted U-boat campaign that Germany launched against all shipping heading to and from British ports – the sinking of the large passenger liner, the SS Lusitania, for example, with many American citizens on board, caused uproar with the American public.
In 1917 the United States entered the war on the side of the British and French. Within a short time she was able to bring to bear her massive economic power as well as large numbers of fresh troops to aid the exhausted Allies. These were decisive in bringing about an Allied victory in 1918.
During the war, President Woodrow Wilson had played a key role in the establishment of the League of Nations, the first international organization of its kind aimed at trying to ensure peace prevailed in the world. By the time the war ended, however, isolationist sentiment had returned amongst the American people, and the United States remained aloof from the League. This prevented it from being nearly as effective as it might have been, and helped to allow the conditions which led up to the outbreak of World War II.
The reformism of the Progressive Era had not run its course, and in 1920 the women’s suffrage movement culminated in the passing of the 19th Amendment, specifying that women had the right to vote on the same basis as men. The same year the 18th Amendment prohibited the drinking of alcohol.
This backfired badly by leading to the rise of criminal gangs who, in the absence of legitimate businesses, moved in to control the distribution of alcoholic drinks. This they did largely through “speakeasies” – illegal bars which gangsters ran, often with the connivence of the local police and politicians. Finally Prohibition was ended by the 21st Amendment in 1933.
The years following the end of World War I saw the “Roaring Twenties”. This prosperous decade saw the rise of the automobile as a major form of transport; the first airlines came into operation. The years were also noted for cultural developments. Radios appeared in many homes, and cinema emerged as a dominant force – these were the years when Hollywood established its dominance over American – and world – movie-making, and silent films gave way to “talkies”. There was a dramatic rise in the popularity of jazz music, and the “flappers” made their appearance. These were young women (normally from wealthy backgrounds) who were determined to enjoy themselves in what their elders regarded as a very “unladylike” manner – wearing short skirts, smoking, listening to jazz music and energetically dancing the Charleston rather than the waltz.
These fads, which originated in America, were soon exported to Europe, and the Twenties witnessed American culture acquiring the enormous world-wide influence which it has never relinquished.
The good times of the 1920s came to an abrupt end with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, when a hyper-inflated stock-market boom turned to bust. There was a run on the banks, which ushered in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The economy contracted by a third, many businesses went bankrupt, factories closed and millions of men were thrown out of work. Large camps of unemployed people called “Hoovervilles” (named after President Herbert Hoover, whose policies were widely blamed for the recession) which sprang up in many major cities.
Nature seemed to add calamity on calamity when a spell of very dry weather lasting several years led to giant dust storms in the Midwest prairies, ripping thousands of square miles of fertile top soil from the fragile land. This gravely damaged agriculture in the region, reducing tens of thousands of farmers to poverty.
The widespread distress led to the rejection of the Republican party – seen as closely linked to big business and having little sympathy for the ordinary worker – at the polls, and the election of the Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt as president in 1932. He won on a promise to tackle poverty and unemployment, and immediately set about implementing a package of measures called the New Deal, to tackle these problems. These included unemployment relief, support for farmers, huge publicly-financed projects such as the construction of roads and dams to put people back to work, and more stringent banking regulation to help prevent bank runs from happening again.
This program was a lifeline to millions of families, but it was not until the outbreak of World War II that full employment returned.
As in World War I, the American people were reluctant to get involved in World War II when it broke out in Europe in 1939 – there was a widespread feeling that it was none of their business. Nonetheless the majority of Americans had no time for Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, and considerable sympathy for the British, who soon found themselves alone in the fight for Germany. The US government gave Britain massive financial support under the “Lend-Lease” program, and extended this to the USSR when Hitler’s forces suddenly invaded it in June 1941. These in turn stimulated factory production as the USA became the “arsenal of democracy”, as President Roosevelt put it, and the return to full employment.
In December 1941, aircraft of the Japanese navy suddenly attacked the main base of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, in Hawaii.
This brought the United States into World War II, and very quickly it had geared its economy completely to the war effort. The nation financed the entire Allied war machine, and its forces were actively engaged against the Germans in North Africa, Italy and northern Europe, as well as at sea and in the air, fighting alongside the British, Canadians, Australians and other Allies. The Americans and their Allies closed in on Germany from western Europe, whilst the Russians moved in from eastern Europe. The two huge Allied armies met up in central Germany, and the German government surrendered unconditionally in May 1945.
By then the Allies, whose forces in the Pacific were dominated by the Americas, had comprehensively defeated the Japanese. The US Navy and Marines had won hard-fought battles against the Japanese fleet at Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, the Solomon Island and Leyte Gulf, and had recaptured New Guinea, the Philippines and many Pacific islands. They were now closing in on the Japanese homeland. The war was brought to an end in August the same year when the American air force dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
During the war the United States and its Allies planned to replace the failed League of Nations with a new organization, the United Nations. This was brought into existence in 1945.
The war left the victorious United States and USSR as the two superpowers of the world. These two countries, however, stood for quite different values: the USA for democracy and the free market, the USSR for Communist dictatorship and a planned economy. For more than 40 years the two superpowers and their Allies faced each in a tense stand-off known as the Cold War. That it did not turn “hot” was thanks to the fact that both sides were armed with nuclear weapons, whose deployment would have caused destruction far outweighing any possible benefits for either side.
The United States bolstered its position in this international rivalry by implementing the Marshal Plan, which gave financial aid to the countries of western Europe, devastated by years of destructive warfare, and helped them get back on their feet. Its predominant aim was to blunt the appeal of communism in western Europe, which it succeeded in doing, and thus creating strong democracies on that continent (though not in Eastern Europe, which had by now fallen under Soviet control).
In 1949 the United States and its western European Allies organized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This prompted the USSR to organize its Allies into the Warsaw Pact, and the existence of these two alliances probably helped prevent the outbreak of a “hot” war by ratcheting up the dangers involved for all concerned.
At home, the early 1950s saw the international tensions reflected in a widespread of purge of anyone suspected of pro-Communist sympathies from any high profile positions, especially in politics, the media or education. These years were known as the McCarthy era, as a leading instigator in these purges was senator Joseph McCarthy.
By the late 50s the American public were tiring of what was increasingly seen as an attack on one of the main props of American democracy, freedom of thought, and a series of Supreme Court decisions went against the instigators of the purges. By the end of the decade McCarthyism had run its course.
While conflict between the superpowers was avoided, wars between Communist and non-Communist regimes around the world were not. The Korean War (1950-2) was a major conflagration which flared up in East Asia. UN forces – largely provided by America – were pitted against the Communist forces of China and North Korea, who had invaded South Korea. After a series of hard-fought campaigns the American-led UN troops were able to drive the Communists back to the 38th parallel.
Despite the international tensions, the years after World War II were ones of strong economic growth. Car ownership soared, allowing people to live further away from where they worked; home-ownership became more affordable, suburbs spread out from city centres, and such goods as televisions and fridges became commonplace in homes. Air travel became widespread, and jet airliners were introduced into service in 1958. University education became much more widespread.
The late 1950s saw the rivalry between the two superpowers take a new form, as they competed to see who could achieve the greatest milestones in space. First honours in this Space Race went to the Russians, who put a satellite (Sputnik) into orbit in 1957. A few years later (1961) they consolidated their lead by putting a man (Yuri Gagarin) into orbit. However, it was the Americans who put the first man on the moon, in 1969, thus comprehensively winning the competition.
The Space Race gripped the imagination of millions of people, while others looked on aghast at what they saw as a shocking waste of money. But out of this competition came a host of technological developments, including new metal alloys and the miniaturization of electronic devices, which gave computerization a huge boost and helped shape the world we live in today.
In the late 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights movement caused major tensions, particularly in the southern state. Black activists and their white supporters sought to end the racial discrimination that had predominated in the South since the introduction of the “Jim Crow” laws in the 1870s and 80s. The Federal government under President Eisenhower entered the fray on the side of the Civil Rights activists, and enforced voting rights and equality of education for African-Americans.
The Civil Rights movement also improved the status of Native Americans within American society, and of women of all races.
Meanwhile, the Cold War had been dragging on, and for a brief moment almost turned into “hot” in 1962 when the Soviet government sought to base missiles on Cuba (which had become a communist state in1959).
A firm response by the US government under President Kennedy reversed the Soviet policy, and the tensions subsided.
Unsurprisingly the tensions of the Cold War abroad coupled with those of the Civil Rights movement at home led to a tense political atmosphere at home.
In November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated by a lone gunman in Dallas, Texas. This event, involving the gunning down of their youthful and admired leader, deeply shocked America, and the whole of the non-communist world.
The nation experienced more high-profile assassinations in subsequent years – president Kennedy’s brother Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and the famed Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King in the same year. This latter event sparked off violent and destructive riots in many US cities, most notably in Chicago, which followed a series of riots the previous year (the “long hot summer” of 1967).
By that time, US forces were becoming involved in a long-standing struggle in Vietnam, against the Communist forces of North Vietnam trying to occupy the South. American engagement continued to escalate, but the US Air Force’s bombing of the north seemed to achieve little.
Along with the mounting death till amongst US soldiers and some well-publicised atrocities committed by US and South Vietnam troops, the apparent lack of success of US forces turned American public opinion against the war. The Americans eventually evacuated Vietnam (in 1973, by which the American death toll had risen to 58,000), leaving the way open for the Communist to take over the whole country (1975).
Dramatic cultural changes had meanwhile been sweeping through American and other Western societies. In the late 1950s singers such as Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly pioneered the rise of Pop music. This in turn led to the emergence of the “Hippie” movement as millions of young people rejected their parents’ values and embraced a counter-culture promoting a much more liberal lifestyle which involved more relaxed attitudes to sex and recreational drugs. From the counter-cultural forces of the 1960s and early 70s came the environmental movement of the 1970s onwards. They also set in train controversies which have divided Americans ever since, on such issues as abortion and gay rights.
Politically, these social and cultural developments was mirrored in the Great Society program of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the mid- to late-sixties, which enshrined civil rights in law and sought to distribute the nation’s wealth more widely through medical and educational programs.
From the mid-70s the Cold War entered a new, more stable phase, known as Détente. President Richard Nixon exploited an open rift between the two leading Communist powers, the USSR and China, to improve the United States’ relations with both.
President Nixon’s presidency was brought down by illegal actions taken by his re-election team during the 1972 elections in what became known as the Watergate scandal (named after the hotel in which these actions took place). Several of his chief aides were sent to prison and he himself resigned in in 1974.
The second half of the 1970s was a difficult period for the United States – indeed for the western world as a whole. The West’s support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 led to the Arab oil producing states, through their organization, OPEC, to quadruple the price of oil the following year. This had serious ramifications for the advanced economies of the world, which had become completely dependent on oil for their vast energy needs – none more so than America. The following years were ones of stagnation and inflation – or “stagflation”, as this unwelcome condition was labeled.
It was this, plus a hostage crisis in which American embassy staff in Iran were taken hostage in 1979 (and a bungled attempt to free them led to humiliation for the United States), which led to the defeat of President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan.
To get the economy motoring again, President Reagan presided over major tax cuts and the large-scale deregulation of American business. As a result, the 1980s saw an end to stagflation and growth took off again.
President Reagan also initiated a policy of building up the US’s armed forces, especially her missile defences. This was in the knowledge that the Soviet Union, already falling markedly behind the West in economic power, simply could not compete in this new arms race.
The effect of this was to undermine the Soviet regime and lead to the fall of communism, first in Eastern Europe (in 1989 the Berlin Wall, which the communists had erected across that city to prevent its citizens crossing to the freer, more prosperous West Berlin, came down), and then in the Soviet Union itself. From 1991 the constituent republics of the Soviet Union broke free to become independent states – albeit leaving Russia as still by far the largest state on Earth, by area.
As a result of these momentous developments, the Cold War came to an end and the United States found itself the only superpower on the planet. The 1990s saw almost continuous economic growth. The world of business and leisure was being transformed by the rise of the internet, and this led to a dramatic stock bubble in the late 1990s – followed by an equally dramatic bust in the early 2000s. Since then the internet has continued its rise to become a central feature of modern-day life.
In politics the impeachment of President Bill Clinton on charges of misleading Congress on issues of sexual impropriety caused feverish excitement until it failed (1998). This seemed to be a marker of how trivial American politics had become with the end of the Cold War, but in fact it reflected a growing polarisation between conservatives and liberals within American society, in a phenomenon known as the “Culture Wars”. This has only become more bitter in the following decades, and, according to some commentators, has the potential to tear the nation apart, with unimaginable consequences.
Internationally, the 1990s saw America having to reorientate its attention towards new issues. In 1991, under President George Bush Snr, America led a coalition of forces to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, which it had occupied; and in 1998, under President Clinton, the US Air Force played a prominent role in the NATO bombing of Serb positions in Kosovo, which brought an end to the long-running Balkan War which had followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.
During the starkest of new threats came to the fore with the rise of Islamic terrorism. The attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington, on September 11th, 2001, shocked the entire world. In the wake of this, President George W. Bush declared a “War on Terror”, and a little later the USA and its Allies invaded Afghanistan, whose Taliban government supported the Al Qaida group which had carried out the attack.
In 2003, with only the United Kingdom as an ally, American forces invaded Iraq, which, under its dictator Saddam Hussein, it suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction. This swiftly led to the fall of Saddam Hussein, but mired US and British forces in dealing with Iraqi insurgents and inter-religious fighting for many years.
Another threat which the country had to take account of in the 200s was the rising power of China. Until 2005, this power was mainly in the economic sphere, as China became the workshop of the world; only towards the very end of this period did China start flexing its political and military muscles, posing a challenge to America’s friends in East Asia, especially, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.