- Turtle Island
- Europeans discover a new world
- Capitalism & colonialism
- So you say you want a revolution
- Westward, ho!
- A house divided
- Stirring the pot: segregation & immigration
- Robber barons & progressive reformers
- Depression, the New Deal, & World War II
- Suburbia & the second American revolution
- Pax Americana & the war on terror
Native peoples have always lived on the North American continent, which some called ‘Turtle Island.’ Or at least, that’s what indigenous histories and myths say. By the time anyone came along to claim differently, two to 10 million people occupied every corner of the turtle’s back and spoke over 300 languages.
The traditional Western explanation of the continent’s peopling – that Asians migrated over a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska some 30,000 to 20,000 years ago – likely occurred but is considered insufficient to explain all the evidence. Also, by turning Native Americans into ‘immigrants, ’ it’s been criticized for becoming an occasional, strange justification for America’s taking of the land.
The earliest identifiable Paleo-Indian cultures were the Clovis and Folsom, who lived throughout North America from about 10,000 to 8000 BC, or the end of the Ice Age. Since then, a vibrant mix of complex societies developed, some nomadic hunters and some settled farmers.
In the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, ‘Mound Builders’ dated from 3000 BC to AD 1300. In Illinois, Cahokia Mounds was once an urban metropolis of 20,000 people, the largest in pre-Columbian North America.
In the Southwest, Ancestral Puebloans occupied the Colorado Plateau until AD 1300; you can see their awe-inspiring cliff dwellings at Colorado’s Mesa Verde and New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Their descendents include the Hopi, whose 13th-century mesa-top pueblos.
Northwest cultures are famous for their totem poles and canoes; the Makah Indian Reservation contains an excavated 15th-century village.
However, Great Plains cultures came to epitomize ‘Indians’ in the American imagination, partly because they put up the best fight. Oklahoma offers several examples of pre-European life, at Anadarko and the Cherokee Heritage Center.
When Europeans first sailed into the western hemisphere, they called the continents a ‘New World.’ The unexpected land was certainly startling, but the real new world was ocean-spanning seafaring: as it turned out, the sea wasn’t earth’s edge, but instead a cool new superhighway. This radically altered the political landscape of Europe and Asia and spurred modern capitalism, which of course affected the way Europeans reacted to the Americas.
In 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, backed by Spain, voyaged west – looking for the East Indies. He found the Bahamas. With visions of gold, more Spanish explorers quickly followed: Hernán Cortés conquered much of today’s Mexico; Francisco Pizarro conquered Peru; Juan Ponce de León rattled around Florida looking for the fountain of youth. Not to be left out, the French explored Canada and the fur-rich Midwest, while the Dutch and the English cruised North America’s eastern seaboard.
In their wake, European explorers left behind diseases to which Native peoples had no immunities. More than any other factor (the usuals: war, slavery, famine etc), disease epidemics decimated native populations by anywhere from 50% to 90%. By the 17th century, North American Indians numbered about a million, and many of the continent’s once-thriving societies were in turmoil and transition.
In addition to seeking riches, European colonizers were driven by religious fervor: it seemed to them this underpopulated New World must have been reserved by god for Christians, and Spanish Catholic missionaries sought to convert the continent’s indigenous cultures (eventually establishing strings of missions across the South and in California).
In 1607, English noblemen established North America’s first permanent European settlement in Jamestown. Earlier settlements had ended badly, and Jamestown almost did too: the English chose a swamp, planted their crops late and died in bunches from disease and starvation. Some despairing colonists ran off to live with the local Indian tribes, who provided the settlement with enough aid to eke out a meager survival existance.
For Jamestown and America, 1619 proved a pivotal year: the colony established the House of Burgesses, a representative assembly of citizens to decide local laws, and it received its first boatload of 20 African slaves. Having finally grown a successful export crop – tobacco – the English needed workers: they didn’t have enough English servants (who, anyway, disdained field labor) and the Indians were difficult to convince or subdue. African slaves, by then well-established on Caribbean sugar plantations, fitted the bill.
The next year, 1620, was equally momentous, as a boatload of radically religious Puritans pulled ashore at what would become Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were escaping religious persecution under the ‘corrupt’ Church of England, and in the New World they saw a divine opportunity to create a new society that would be a religious and moral beacon. The Pilgrims also signed a ‘Mayflower Compact, ’ one of the seminal texts of American democracy, to govern themselves by consensus.
For decades, the Pilgrims and local Native tribes lived fairly cooperatively, but deadly conflict erupted in 1675. King Philips’ War lasted 14 months and killed 5000 people (mostly Native Americans), with the remaining Indians being put on slave ships bound for the Caribbean.
And so, the ‘American paradox’ was born: white political and religious freedom would come to be founded on the enslavement of blacks and the elimination of Indians.
For the next two centuries, European powers – particularly England, France, Portugal and Spain – competed for position and territory in the New World, extending European politics into the Americas. As the British Royal Navy came to rule Atlantic seas, England increasingly profited from its colonies and eagerly consumed the fruits of their labors – sweet tobacco from Virginia, sugar and coffee from the Caribbean.
Anticipating the industrial revolution, these luxuries were profitable only when mass produced as export goods using cheap labor in rigidly organized plantations. In America, as the 17th century became the 18th century, slavery was slowly legalized into a formal institution to support this plantation economy, and as this happened, the colonies transitioned from a society with slaves to a slave-based society.
Overall, North America received only 6% of all slaves transported from Africa to the Americas, but slaves made up a large proportion of the American colonies: by the 1770s, one out of five persons was a slave.
Meanwhile, Britain mostly left the American colonists to govern themselves. Town meetings and representative assemblies became common, in which local citizens (that is, white men with property) debated community problems and voted on laws and taxes.
However, by the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, Britain was feeling the strains of running an empire: they’d been fighting France for a century and had colonies scattered all over the world. It was time to clean up the bureaucracies and share the financial burden.
Britain stationed a permanent army in America. They passed laws forbidding settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains and north of the Ohio River (to avoid more wars), and they passed a series of taxes to raise funds for the Crown and its defense.
The colonists were not amused. Their arguments ran something like this:
Limit expansion? No way!
Pay taxes to fund Britain’s military? Forget it!
Take orders from a monarch on a tiny island an ocean away? Nuts!
From 1763 onward, the colonies protested and boycotted English policies and engaged in a running public discussion of political theory that would culminate in the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers. With these documents, the American colonists took many of the Enlightenment ideas then circulating worldwide – of individualism, equality and freedom; of John Locke’s ‘natural rights’ of life, liberty and property – and fashioned a new type of government to put them into practice.
In 1773, colonial and British frustrations came to a head with the Boston Tea Party, after which Britain clamped down hard, shutting Boston harbor, increasing its military presence and enforcing imperial authority.
In 1774, representatives from 12 colonies convened the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to air complaints and debate how to respond. Colonists, still identifying as aggrieved Englishmen, worked themselves up into a good lather, and both sides readied for a fight.
Then, in April 1775, British troops skirmished with armed colonists in Massachusetts, and the Revolutionary War began.
Soon after shooting started, in May 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and chose George Washington, a wealthy Virginia farmer, to lead the American army. Trouble was, Washington lacked gunpowder and money (the colonists resisted taxes even for their own military), and his troops were a motley collection of poorly armed farmers, hunters and merchants, who regularly quit and returned to their farms due to lack of pay.
The British ‘Redcoats, ’ on the other hand, represented the most powerful military on earth. The inexperienced Washington had to improvise constantly, sometimes wisely retreating, sometimes engaging in ungentlemanly sneak attacks. During the winter of 1777 the American army nearly curled up in a ball and starved at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, the Second Continental Congress was trying to articulate what exactly they were fighting for. In January 1776, Thomas Paine published the wildly popular Common Sense, which passionately argued for independence from England. Soon, independence seemed not just logical, but noble and necessary, and on July 4, 1776, a fortuitous collection of intellectuals finalized and signed the Declaration of Independence. Largely written by Thomas Jefferson, it elevated the 13 colonies’ particular gripes against the monarchy into a universal declaration of individual rights and republican government. It was so moving it helped inspire revolutions elsewhere, and famously begins:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
However, to succeed on the battlefield, General Washington needed help, not high sentiment; in 1778, Benjamin Franklin persuaded France (always eager to trouble England) to ally with the revolutionaries, and they provided the troops, material and sea power that won the war. The British surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, and two years later the Treaty of Paris formally recognized the ‘United States of America.’
At first, the nation’s loose confederation of states, squabbling and competing like hens at a grain bucket, were hardly ‘united.’ So the founders gathered again in Philadelphia, tinkered like mechanics, and in 1787 drafted a new-and-improved Constitution: the US government was given a stronger federal center, with checks and balances between its three major branches; and to guard against the abuse of centralized power, a citizen’s Bill of Rights was approved in 1791.
With the Constitution, the scope of the American Revolution solidified: a radical change in government; and preservation of the economic and social status quos. Rich landholders kept their property, which included their slaves; Native Americans were excluded from the nation; and women were excluded from politics. These blatant discrepancies and injustices were widely noted (rather snidely by Europeans); they were the results of pragmatic compromise (such as to get slave-dependent Southern states to agree) and of the widespread belief in the essential rightness of arrangements.
As a result, from that moment till now, US history has pulsed with the ongoing struggle to define ‘all’ and ‘equal’ and ‘liberty’ – to take the universal language of America’s founding and either rectify or justify the inevitable disparities that have bedeviled this democratic society.
As the 19th century dawned, proof of the ‘rightness’ of the American experiment appeared everywhere, and self-satisfied optimism was the mood of the day. With the invention of the cotton gin (1793) – followed by threshers, reapers, mowers and later combines – agriculture was industrialized, and US commerce surged. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase doubled US territory, and expansion west of the Appalachians began in earnest.
Relations between the US and Britain – despite lively trade – remained tense. The British maintained forts in the Ohio Valley, and enjoyed inciting the Indians to harass American settlers, while Britain’s navy harassed US ships. In 1812, the US declared war on England again, but the two-year conflict ended limply, without much gained by either side. The British abandoned their forts, and the US renewed its vow to avoid Europe’s ‘entangling alliances.’ One result was the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which declared that henceforth all of the Americas were closed to European colonialism. So there.
In the 1830s and 1840s, eyes growing wider with nationalist fervor and dreams of continental expansion, many Americans came to believe it was ‘Manifest Destiny’ that some, no, all the land should be theirs. The 1830 Indian Removal Act aimed to clear one obstacle, while the building of the railroads cleared another, linking Midwest farmers with East Coast markets.
In 1836 a group of Texans fomented a revolution against Mexico. Ten years later, the US annexed the Texas Republic, and when Mexico complained, the US simply waged war to take it – and while they were at it, they wanted California too. In 1848, Mexico was soundly defeated and ceded this territory to the US, adding just a bit more land with the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. This completed the USA’s continental expansion. Except for those pesky Indians, Americans had it all, sea to shining sea.
By a remarkable coincidence, only days after the 1848 treaty with Mexico was signed, gold was discovered near Sacramento, California. By 1849, surging rivers of wagon trains were creaking west filled with miners, pioneers, entrepreneurs, immigrants, outlaws and prostitutes, all seeking their fortune. This made for exciting, legendary times, but throughout loomed a troubling question that had simmered to the boiling point.
As new states were added to America, would they be slave states or free states? The nation’s future depended on the answer.
The US Constitution hadn’t ended slavery, but it had given Congress the power to approve or disapprove slavery in new states. As a result, debates raged constantly over slavery’s expansion, particularly since this shaped the unfolding balance of political power between the industrial North and the agrarian South, called the Slave Power.
Since the founding, Southern politicians had dominated government and rabidly defended slavery as ‘natural and normal.’ This enraged northern abolitionists (who also assisted the ‘Underground Railroad, ’ a series of safe havens ferrying runaway slaves to the North). But most Northern politicians weren’t so much anti-slavery as pro free labor. They feared ending slavery with a penstroke would be ruinous. Limit slavery, they reasoned, and in the competition with industry and free labor, slavery would wither without inciting a violent slave revolt – a constantly feared possibility. Indeed, in 1859, radical abolitionist John Brown tried (unsuccessfully) to spark just that by raiding the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
The economics of slavery were undeniable: in 1860, the market value of the South’s human property was about $3 billion. Were plantation owners ever going to let that walk free? Also, the South exported three-quarters of the world’s cotton, which accounted for about half of US exports. The Southern economy supported the nation’s economy, and it required slaves.
The 1860 presidential election became a referendum on this issue, and the election was won by a young politician who favored limiting slavery and the Slave Power: Abraham Lincoln.
For the South, even the threat of federal limits was too onerous to abide, and as Lincoln took office, 11 states (called the Confederacy) seceded from the union. Now, could Lincoln allow these states to walk free? If any unhappy state could leave the nation ‘at pleasure, ’ wouldn’t that destroy republican government itself? In 1865, in his second inaugural address, Lincoln eloquently expressed this dilemma: ‘Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.’
In April 1861, the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Civil War came. Over the next four years the carnage was as gruesome as in any war to that point in history. By the end, 620, 000 soldiers, nearly an entire generation of young men, were dead; southern plantations and cities (most notably Atlanta) lay sacked and burned. The course of the war, and all the ways it could have unfolded, remain the subject of impassioned debate. Both sides had their share of ineffectual and cunning leaders and used troops recklessly; both had moments of demoralization and determination. The North’s industrial might provided an advantage, but its victory was not preordained; it unfolded battle by bloody battle.
As fighting progressed, Lincoln recognized that if the war didn’t end slavery outright, victory would be pointless. In 1863, his Emancipation Proclamation expanded the war’s aims and freed the South’s four million slaves (an act officially accomplished by the Constitution’s 13th Amendment in 1865). In April 1865, Confederate General Robert E Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S Grant in Appomattox, Virginia. Slavery was over, and the Union had been saved.
Black Americans quickly learned that the Civil War ended an economic system of forced labor, but the society they entered remained largely, and often deeply, racist. During Reconstruction, from 1865–77, the civil rights of ex-slaves were protected by the federal government, which also extracted reparations from Southern states and generally lorded victory over the losers. Ill-will and bad feelings ran so deep that Civil War grudges are nursed to this day.
After Reconstruction, Southern states developed a system of ‘sharecropping’ that kept blacks indentured to the land for a measly share of crops, and they enacted endless laws aimed at keeping whites and blacks ‘separate but equal.’ Black men were given the vote in 1870, but the South’s segregationist ‘Jim Crow’ laws (which remained until the 1960s Civil Rights movement) effectively disenfranchised and impoverished blacks in every meaningful sphere of daily life.
Meanwhile, free from war, the US could finally turn its full attention west: the telegraph and the transcontinental railroad (completed in 1869) shrank time and space; the interior West was systematically explored and mapped for the first time; and the continent’s overflowing natural resources (its gold and silver, its coal and forests) fueled a galloping industrialization. Of course, to fully exploit the West, the US had to solve its lingering ‘Indian problem’. Still, the US truly appeared to the world like a ‘land of opportunity, ’ and immigrants flooded in from Europe and Asia (in total, about 25 million people arrived from 1880 to 1920). Poles, Germans, Irish, Italians, Russians, Jews, Chinese and more came to build the nation’s railroads, smelt its steel, harvest its grain and slaughter its cattle.
This fed an urban migration that made the late 19th century the age of cities. In particular, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia swelled to rival London and Paris as global centers of industry and commerce. These crowded, buzzing multiethnic hives both spurred the xenophobic fears of whites and gave rise to the dream that America could become a unique ‘melting pot’ of the world’s cultures.
For American business, laissez-faire economic policy, the industrial revolution and hordes of cheap labor equaled towering piles of cash. Industrialists like JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegy and John D Rockefeller became politically powerful ‘robber barons’ controlling vast monopolies (or trusts) in oil, banking, railroads and steel. These paragons of capitalism were America’s version of royalty, to be crowned by Wall Street.
But as industrialism created wealth for the few, it consigned many to poverty and dangerous, even deadly work in choking factories and sweatshops; this was vividly depicted in The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair’s muckraking exposé of Chicago’s unsavory meatpacking industry. Mechanization and piecework might be godsends to farming, textiles and automobile manufacturing (Henry Ford started churning out economically-priced Model Ts in 1908), but unchecked they sowed pain and injustice. Increasing protests sparked new, heated arguments pitting the rights of private property against the rights of people. Put politically, wasn’t it the federal government’s duty to intervene when an unregulated free market was, in effect, abusing, impoverishing and killing its own citizens? Whose liberty, whose welfare, deserved society’s protection: business or labor?
Well, Rockefeller wasn’t running a charity. In the 1880s, the Populist movement (which sought to help farmers) was an early effort to transform America’s emerging class anger into a political force. Populism eventually petered out, to be replaced by the urban and more radical socialist movement, whose militant fringe was occupied by the International Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies). Labor unions blossomed and strikes were frequent and often violent.
In the first decades of the 20th century, socialist movements developed worldwide; in the US, most citizens rejected actual socialism, but many embraced its ideas and ways of thinking. Still, the Socialist party was a real force, so much so that socialist candidate Eugene Debs won 6% of the vote in the 1912 presidential election.
In order to calm labor unrest and thwart socialism, Progressives pursued a slew of reforms: the trusts were busted up, and eventually regulations established a 40-hour work week, improved worker and food safety, and outlawed child labor, among others.
Meanwhile, the US was developing a novel approach to imperialism, which President Williiam Howard Taft dubbed ‘dollar diplomacy.’ To feed its overproductive economic engine, the US was desperate to gain access to new international markets. The 1898 Spanish-American War showed the way: rather than wage war for territory, the US would henceforth pursue an ‘informal empire’ using private commerce and banking. America would intervene militarily only as a paternal, well-meaning global ‘policeman’: not to impose its own colonial rule (so yucky and expensive), but instead to protect regional security, financial stability, private property and open markets.
President Woodrow Wilson also helped develop this approach, which still informs US foreign policy. By the start of WWI, the US had transitioned from a debtor to a creditor nation, and Wilson understood that, despite widespread parochial isolationism, the US needed to be engaged in the international community. Though Wilson’s League of Nations failed, his idea of a cooperative ‘concert of nations’ would be realized after WWII.
As the Great War erupted in Europe in 1914, the US officially maintained neutrality, though it profitably sold armaments to the Allies. Germany responded by attacking US freighters, and in 1917 the US reluctantly entered the fight against the Central Powers. Wilson was hard pressed to sell the war at home, and suppression of anti-war dissent became standing policy.
After the war, moralistic calls for social reform resumed: Prohibition (outlawing liquor) was inaugurated, and in 1920 the feminist movement won a major victory when the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote. However, a tide of good feeling drowned out further reformist voices. America had won the war, the economy was humming, capitalism’s worst abuses were softened, wages were rising, unemployment was falling, and the Jazz Age burst into full swing. Middle-class Americans evolved into modern-day consumers, oohing and aahing over their new electric appliances, their clothes washers and refrigerators. For a while, despite ongoing problems – ie poverty, crime, corruption – optimism ruled. Flappers danced the Charleston, radio and movies captivated millions, and stock prices kept going up, up, up, until…
In October 1929, investors, worried over a gloomy global economy, started selling stocks, and seeing the selling, they panicked until they’d sold everything. The stock market crashed, and the US economy collapsed like a house of cards – revealing just how jerryrigged it actually was.
Thus began the Great Depression. Frightened banks called in their dodgy loans, people couldn't pay, and the banks folded. Millions lost their homes, farms, businesses and savings, and as much as 50% of the American workforce became unemployed. Scores hit the roads in search of work.
With despairing immediacy, Americans now understood that they didn’t just need protection from industrialism’s workplace sins, but society-wide insurance from market forces beyond their control. With belated embarrassment, the US moved to establish social programs that other industrialized nations had created decades earlier.
In 1932, Democrat Franklin D Roosevelt was elected president on the promise of a ‘New Deal’ to rescue the US from its crisis, and he would become a pivotal figure in US history. He significantly expanded the role of the federal government to protect citizens, such as with Social Security (insuring retirement savings), and he instituted government-funded employment programs and enormous public works (such as Hoover Dam). In all, Roosevelt did much to ameliorate the pain of the Great Depression and of America’s economic system; New Deal programs remain the foundation of US social policy.
When, once again, war broke out in Europe in 1939, the isolationist mood in America was as strong as ever. However, the extremely popular Roosevelt, elected to an unprecedented third term in 1940, understood that the US couldn't sit by and allow victory for the fascist, totalitarian regimes of Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan. Roosevelt did all he could to help Britain (such as providing military supplies with the Lend-Lease Act) and used his considerable persuasive powers to get a skittish Congress to go along.
Then, on December 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, killing over 2000 Americans and sinking several battleships. As US isolationism transformed overnight into outrage, Roosevelt had the excuse he needed. Days later, Germany also declared war on the US, and America joined the Allied fight against Hitler and the Axis powers. From that moment, the US put almost its entire will and industrial prowess into the war effort.
Neither the Pacific nor the European theaters went well initially for the US. In the Pacific, fighting didn’t turn around until the US unexpectedly routed the Japanese navy during a battle at Midway Island in June 1942. Afterward, the US drove Japan back with a series of brutal battles recapturing Pacific islands.
In Europe, the US dealt the fatal blow to Germany with its massive D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944: unable to sustain a two-front war (the Soviet Union was savagely fighting on the eastern front), Germany surrendered in May 1945.
Nevertheless, Japan continued to battle. So newly elected President Harry Truman – worried that a US invasion of Japan would lead to unprecedented carnage – chose to drop experimental atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The products of a top-secret government program called the Manhattan Project, the bombs vaporized the cities and their inhabitants. Japan surrendered days later. The nuclear age was born.
Over the next three decades, the US enjoyed prosperity but little peace. World war was replaced with the Cold War, and America suffered a period of racial turmoil that was as violent as it was inevitable – the continuing steep price for the devil’s bargain of the nation’s founding.
Though wartime allies, the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist USA soon engaged in a running competition to dominate the globe. The two superpowers engaged in proxy wars (most notably the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 and the Vietnam War from 1959 to 1975), with only the mutual threat of nuclear annihilation keeping them from direct war. Founded in 1945, the United Nations couldn’t overcome this worldwide ideological split and was largely ineffectual in preventing Cold War conflicts.
Its continent unscarred and its industry bulked up by the war, America entered an era of surreal affluence. In the 1950s, a mass migration left the cities for the suburbs, where affordable single-family homes sprung up like mushrooms after the rain. Americans drove cheap cars using cheap gas over brand-new interstate highways. They swam in the comforts of modern technology, swooned over television, and got busy, giving birth to a ‘baby boom.’
Middle-class whites did, anyway. African Americans remained segregated, poor and unwelcome at the party. Echoing 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC), led by Martin Luther King Jr, aimed to end segregation and ‘save America’s soul’: to realize color-blind justice, universal equality and fairness in economic opportunity.
Beginning in the 1950s, King preached and organized nonviolent resistance in the form of bus boycotts, marches and sit-ins, mainly in the South. White authorities often met these protests with water hoses and batons, and demonstrations sometimes dissolved into riots, but with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, African Americans spurred a wave of Civil Rights legislation that swept away racist laws in what some called America’s ‘second revolution.’ However, despite this, African Americans today still struggle to overcome persistent inequalities in education and employment.
Meanwhile, the 60s experienced further upheavals: rock ’n’ roll spawned a youth rebellion, and drugs sent technicolor visions spinning in their heads. President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, followed by the assassinations in 1968 of his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, and of Martin Luther King. Americans’ faith in their leaders and government received further shocks: the bombings and brutalities of the Vietnam War, as seen on TV, led to horrified outrage and widespread student protests. Yet President Richard Nixon, elected in 1968 partly for promising an ‘honorable end to the war, ’ only escalated US involvement and secretly bombed Laos and Cambodia. Then, in 1972, the Watergate scandal broke: a burglary at Democratic Party offices was, through dogged journalism, tied to President ‘tricky Dick’ Nixon, who became the first president to resign from office in 1974.
In addition, these decades saw the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, the first struggles for gay rights and, with the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the realization that the nation’s vaunted industry had left a polluted, diseased environmental mess.
Is it any wonder, then, that the 1970s became the solipsistic ‘Me decade’? Cynical Americans, tired of fighting each other and being lied to by politicians, turned up the disco, popped birth-control pills and got their freak on. The US finally departed from Vietnam in 1975 (having failed to stop communism), and the economy hit the skids. The decade’s popular music was so insipidly cheerful because in their hearts Americans couldn’t have been more depressed.
In 1980, Republican California governor and former actor Ronald Reagan campaigned for president by promising to make Americans feel good about America again. The affable Reagan won easily, and his election marked a pronounced shift to the right in US politics.
Reagan wanted to defeat communism, restore the economy, deregulate business and cut taxes. To tackle the first two, he launched the biggest peacetime military build-up in history, and dared the Soviets to keep up. They went broke trying, and the USSR collapsed.
Military spending and tax cuts created enormous federal deficits, which hampered the presidency of Reagan’s successor, George HW Bush. Despite winning the Gulf War war – liberating Kuwait in 1991 after an Iraqi invasion – Bush was soundly defeated in the 1992 presidential election by Southern Democrat Bill Clinton. Clinton had the good fortune to catch the 1990s high-tech internet boom, which seemed to augur a ‘new economy’ based on white-collar telecommunications. The US economy erased its deficits and ran a surplus, and Clinton presided over one of America's longest economic booms.
In 2000 and 2004, George W Bush, the eldest son of George HW Bush, won the presidential elections so narrowly that the divided results seemed to epitomize an increasingly divided nation. 'Dubya' had the misfortune of being president when the high-tech bubble burst in 2000, but he nevertheless enacted tax cuts that returned federal deficits even greater than before. He also championed the right-wing conservative ‘backlash’ that had been building since Reagan.
On September 11, 2001, Islamic terrorists flew hijacked planes into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. This catastrophic attack united Americans behind their president as he vowed revenge and declared a ‘war on terror.’ Bush soon attacked Afghanistan in an unsuccessful hunt for the Al-Qaeda terrorist cells, then he attacked Iraq in 2003 and toppled its anti-US dictator, Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile,Iraq descended into civil war.
Following scandals and failures - torture photos from Abu Ghraib, the federal response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the inability to bring the Iraq war to a close - Bush's approval ratings reached historic lows in the second half of his presidency. Hungry for change, Americans responded by electing political newcomer, Barack Obama, who became America's first African American president in 2008.