W5.01 The Age of the Americans
Hi, welcome back. Make yourself comfortable. At the beginning of this week, I want to take on a topic that's come up a lot in the discussion threads, practically since the beginning of the course. You've all heard phrases like, history will judge, the judgment of history, the verdict of history. And one of the most pleasurable activities of historians is to step back and hand out judgments about heroes and villains and wise people and foolish people. We all do that. But a lot of you have already noticed that I don't do very much of that in this course. That doesn't mean that I don't have a moral sensibility, or that I'm not appalled by some of the things that we're describing. But what I want to do, first of all, is concentrate on giving you a foundation, arming you with information about the most important things that happened, what happened, concentrating on things that really seem to be shaping the flow of world history, and then delving into why those things happen, as best we can. We can then look in judgment on, well, here are the choices available to them, the facts available to them, the values available to them. And here's how they appraised, weighed those things, and made the calls they did. And we can see that they should've made different calls, even in the context of their time, they should've made different calls. There were other people pointing in a different direction that were ignored. But mainly what I want to do is arm you, so that you can engage in those sort of interpretive exercises and make up judgments for yourself as to who you think are heroes and who you think are fools. Okay, with that out of the way, let's turn to the first topic for this week: The Age of the Americans. The United States of America, indeed the fate of North America, had been important in world history, like the fate of the Indian subcontinent or northeast Asia or other key areas that are shaping the flow of world history. And we've dealt with them. We are now entering a period in which the United States of America takes on an especially important, even central role, in shaping the flow of world history during a particular period. It had become more and more important even by the 1920s, I eluded to this earlier. Although, a lot of that importance was commercial and cultural. Beginning in the 1940s, though, the Americans become exceptionally important and remain so for some time. In understanding why the United States plays such an important part in world history during the second half of the 20th century, a really formative period is between about 1940 and the mid-1950s. What are my bookends here? 1940, after the fall of France, the American government declares a national emergency and begins mobilizing on a vast scale to participate in global war. That fall of France and the decision by the United States that it needed to get ready to play a very large role, though it takes them a year and a half to fully get involved in the war, that bookend in 1940 is important. You can pick 1954 as another bookend. Some of you might prefer another one. By the mid-1950s, the United States has decided that it's going to have a global strategy of containing communism all over the world. And by this point, in the mid-1950s, the United States has done some things in its domestic politics, above all in its own civil rights issues, that I think set itself up to play a more important role in the world. Frankly, I think the United States Supreme Court's decision outlawing segregation in the public schools, the Brown v Board of Education decision of 1954, is actually an important pivotal historical moment, as the United States begins a second reconstruction of the southern part of its own country. Let's talk first about the dimension of America as a world power. Yes, America had been an important power, one of the world powers, especially beginning by 1898-1900. And that remains true in the 1920s and even in the 1930s. America's one of the world powers but by no means a dominant one. But during the 1940s and thereafter, the United States more and more emerges as a lead world power. In some cases, the lead world power. With that went the evolution of a national security state. This whole term so familiar to Americans, national security, this is a new phrase. National security is a phrase that people don't use until the 1940s. And they are using it in 1940s to try to capture the notion that security is about more than the size of the army and the navy. It had to embrace the preparation of the whole state. After World War II, actually, the United States begins rapidly demobilizing its military, strongly tempted to simply revert to the way it had been before the 1940s. And then the rise of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and some of the events I'll talk about in other presentations this week propelled the United States back into getting ready to wage world war. The result of that is that the ï¿½40s and ï¿½50s are the formative period for the creation of the institutions that define the American national security state. Here's President Truman signing an especially important piece of legislation, an amendment to the National Security Act of 1947, in a ceremony in 1949. This is the act that creates the American Department of Defense. And indeed this period, the ï¿½40s and early ï¿½50s, see not only the creation of a Department of Defense that takes the place of the old War Department, which ran the Army and the Navy Department, but it also sees the creation of things like: an independent armed force called the Air Force, that used to be part of the Army; a White House organized body that's designed to combine all the different agencies that contribute to national power and make decisions among them; in the 1940s, there was a significant expansion of the military organization into a committee system, very much influenced by British examples, that becomes more and more important during the 1950s and then takes on an even greater role beginning with legislation in the 1980s; and then a significant expansion of the American intelligence community. The creation, in 1947, of something called a Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, that actually becomes much larger and more important in the 1950s, for reasons we'll see in a minute. Similarly, created in 1952, is another large intelligence agency, the National Security Agency, devoted to capturing signals and electronic intelligence of many kinds. These are agencies that employ tens of thousands of people, spending billions of dollars. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. But it begins to give you some sense of how in the ï¿½40s and ï¿½50s, these defining institutions of a large part of the American government come into existence. As these new institutions are being built up, the United States increasingly sees its mission as the defense of frontiers to try and limit the spread of communism, frontiers in both Europe and Asia that will be focal points for the attention of the United States government. But in analyzing the rise of America to this important role in world history, if we just focus on these national security changes, we're going to miss a big part of the story. Another key part of the story is actually the rising role of the United States as a kind of economic model, an organizing state for the world. The United States becomes the largest example of the practice of Social Democracy, as I've been defining that term, beginning in the 1930s and onward. It becomes the exemplar of big business, big unions, and a big government managing and umpiring the relationship among them and doing more. The United States is the leading spokes-country for international cooperation and free trade. Some irony here, the United States had been a habitually protectionist country from the late 1800s on really into the 1930s. Britain had been the free trade country. Britain had abandoned the doctrines of free trade at the beginning of the 1930s. After the end of World War II, it was the United States now, that played the role of calling for free trade as an organizing principle to have a vital world economy and extolling the virtues of international cooperation in managing any number of institutions that could make economic exchange work. Yet a third dimension, that has to be stressed, is the domestic transformation of the United States. If the United States did not get its own house more in order, it could hardly have played such a large role in the politics and culture of the world. For instance, an often overlooked point is the integration of the American South into the national economy. It's hard for us to remember this now. But in the 1920s and even well into the 1930s, frankly the American South was regarded as the substantially unreconstructed, backward, backwater of American society. Weaker education, oppression of the Negroes, a kind of a benighted, dark, and colorful place, fit for the fiction of William Faulkner but hardly for imitation in the rest of the country. Its industries: weak. Its economic growth: modest. Its laborers: mainly black, trapped in an almost a sort of serfdom, sharecropping on their tenant plots. All this begins to change, especially during the 1910s and ï¿½20s, as African Americans are increasingly able to free themselves from this kind of peonage in the South and begin migrating in large numbers to the cities and factories of the North. Places like Chicago. But there's an enormous change in the 1930s and 1940s with the institutions of Roosevelt's New Deal, the institutions and opportunities created by the war, that allow Southern businesses to begin growing and fully participating in the national labor market and the national capital markets. It's not a very well understood story, though we see the results of it all around us in the enormous growth of cities like Atlanta or cities like Houston. Look at what's happening in Houston in the 1940s and 1950s. By the way, Houston is my hometown, but you can see it goes from a city of less than 400,000 people in 1940 to nearly a million by 1960, and by 1970, it'll have more than tripled in population and be one of the largest cities in the United States. Why? It's turned from a city that's just a center for selling and trading the cotton that's grown in East Texas, to a city that's now the center of a global oil industry, oil and petrochemicals. Industry, finance, engineering. Supplying both the nation and the world. There are similar stories that could be told of several cities in the American South. So, the integration of the South into the national economy is a huge story in America's domestic transformation. Another part of that story is the whole rise of the western United States, the rise of California. Today California has a population of 34 million people and an economy that would, if it was counted as a country, be one of the largest economies in the world. But back in 1930, the population of California was relatively modest and mainly agricultural. Of course, all that has changed, a lot of it as a result of American defense works and defense industry. It's interesting just to notice the changing distribution of the population within the United States. Thanks to this chart, put together by the United States Census Bureau, we can chart what happens between, say, 1790 and 1900. Looking at the situation in 1900, you see how important the agricultural Midwest is. The grainery of the world. The West is still a very thinly populated part of the country. Run that forward 30 years, we begin to see some changes, but they're not dramatic changes, as of say about 1930. But then, look at what happens between 1930 and the present day. You see the continuing significance of the South, as one of the larger and more dynamic parts of the American population. But then you also see the rise of the West, with the vast majority of this population concentrated in California, Oregon, and Washington state. There are all sorts of ways to try to map the rise of California, I like this particular image. This is from 1956. It's the newly constructed amusement park at Disneyland, to the east of Los Angeles. Or the lights of Los Angeles in the early 1950s, now a sprawling metropolis. Another critical dimension to the United States being able to attain whatever stature it gained in the mid-20th century was the fact that the United States finally and more decisively took on the legacy of African slavery inside the country. This large population of African Americans who still, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, though they'd been freed from slavery, had been kept in a state of profound legal discrimination and systematic oppression. That begins to change in the 1940s. This is not a coincidence. If you ask yourself why the 1940s? Why the 1950s? Why then did a second reconstruction of the American South begin? You can't separate that from what's going on in world history, from the stance the Americans had been talking in World War II. They had just mobilized the whole country, passionately, to destroy a tyranny based on racial prejudice. That had to bounce back in all kinds of ways, in the way Americans then viewed the heritage of racial prejudice inside their own country. And you can see at the edges, the erosion of the old established American positions on race. The integration of the United States Armed Forces, for the first time, in 1948. Key court decisions. Black Americans keep pushing for their freedom. Increasingly, they are seeing some of the major power sources in the country are going to make another try at helping them break through and gain a new era of freedom. In that story, I do think the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Brown case is a kind of landmark. You can see the top headline here in the New York Times announcing the decision, a nine to nothing decision. One thing I also like in this story though, if you look down here at the very bottom, this story right here is saying that the American Broadcasting Network, the Voice of America, that provides news in 34 languages all over the world, is flashing this court ruling within the hour of its delivery. Court decisions like these, of course didn't end the process, they reopened it, and the struggle would go on for decades afterwards. For instance, one of the immediate events that followed, in 1955, was a boycott of the segregated bus system in Alabama, in Montgomery, Alabama, by black Americans who simply refused to ride the city buses and provide financial support for a bus system that treated them as second class citizens. The boycott was triggered when this young women, named Rosa Parks, simply refused to give up her bus seat to whites as the bus driver insisted that she do. She becomes then, a leader in that bus boycott. In this photograph, she's joined by an active local reverend in Montgomery, a man who is becoming increasingly known for his oratorical skills: his name is Martin Luther King, Jr. As we reflect on the role of the United States in world history in the second half of the 20th century, what I don't want you to do is to think of this as an inexorable and inevitable rise, something that was bound to happen. When you delve into the details of each of these individual stories, the national security story, the economic story, the civil rights story, the details show that none of these things, it seems to me, were foregone conclusions. Maybe integration of the South into the national economy was, but I'm not even sure about that. In each of these stories, there's a complex, twisty narrative involving bureaucratic rivalries, clashing beliefs, circumstances that are creating opportunities for large change, but then key choices that are being made as to how to pick up those opportunities. We'll touch, occasionally, in succeeding segments on what some of those contingent choices were. We won't have time in this course to delve more deeply into all these crosscurrents of American history. But the purpose of this presentation is just to notice the significance of the United States now in world history and to just reflect a little bit on what had to happen in the United States for it to play this kind of role. In the next presentation, we'll talk about a critical catalyst in the outside world that pushed America back into getting ready for world war.