Americans in the 20th century

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The United States of America (commonly abbreviated to the United States, the U.S., the USA, America, and the States) is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district. The country is situated mostly in central North America, where its forty-eight contiguous states and Washington, D.C., the capital district, lie between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, bordered by Canada to the north and Mexico to the south.

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1.1. Living standards of America in the first half of the 20th century 6

1.2. Foreign policy of the USA. The Great Depression 13


2.1. The “Best Years” of the 20th century 27

2.2. Nixon`s America 34

2.3. The close of the century 44



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    The city of Washington boomed during the Nixon years as bureaucracies expanded to administer federal activities. Federal civil service employment reached almost three million in 1967, 1968, and 1969, peak peacetime records. In 1970 federal regulatory agencies employed 69,773 full-time employees. A decade later the number would rise to 121,791. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staffing grew during this same period from 4,093 to 14,045.

    During his first term, Nixon seemed not only to be in favor of government expansion, but he proposed a deficit in the federal budget. He declared, “We are all Keynesians now,” the first chief executive to endorse officially the federal deficit-spending policy of the English economist. Nixon was also favorable to the demands of organized labor. Inflation, which had remained low between 1953 and 1967, now became troubling, rising to 5.4 percent in 1969 and 5.9 percent in 1970. 

    The economy slipped into a recession in 1970, the first in almost a decade. By the summer of 1971 both inflation and recession seemed out of control, and the nation’s balance of international trade was worrisome. In August 1971, Nixon announced the New Economic Policy, devised by Treasury Secretary John Connally. The program offered an assortment of tax breaks and imposed a ninety-day freeze on wages and prices, to be enforced by a new federal bureaucracy. Critics note d that such an assault on the free market, unprecedented in peacetime, ran counter to everything Nixon had traditionally stood for. The president tackled the balance of trade issue by imposing 10-percent surcharge on imports. He took the dollar off the gold standard. The medicine seemed to work, and the economy blossomed in 1972. Inflation dropped to 3.5 percent, the stock market boomed, unemployment dropped, and the balance of international trade improved.

    In the first year of his presidency, Nixon proclaimed a new Far East policy. Under the Nixon Doctrine, America would provide Asian governments with economic and technical support but would no longer send troops. This was in harmony with the administration’s general policy of backing away from the traditional containment policy and depending increasingly on negotiation. While there might not be any more Vietnams, the president was under terrific pressure to end the war going on. An honorable peace in Vietnam was a top presidential priority. But Nixon was determined to maintain the existence of a noncommunist South Vietnam state, and this was unacceptable to Hanoi. In the spring of 1969, American forces began secretly bombing Viet Cong and North Vietnamese sanctuaries in neutral Cambodia. The bombing of a neutral nation was illegal, but the sanctuaries harbored troops, weapons, and supplies that were used to pursue a Communist victory in Vietnam.

    At the same time, Nixon announced a phase d withdrawal of American combat troops. He tried to negotiate further with Hanoi. He attempted to persuade the Soviets to intervene. Nothing worked: the North Vietnamese demanded an immediate and complete withdrawal and the formation of a coalition government that did not include General Thieu.

    In April 1970, shortly after pro-American General Lon Nol led a successful takeover of the government of Cambodia, Nixon sent American troops into the country to protect it from North Vietnam. The United States now had two allies to defend; Nixon had expanded the war.

    News of the Cambodian incursion caused a firestorm of dissent at home. At Kent State University four students were killed and nine wounded as National Guard troops opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators. A memorable photograph taken at the scene (a young woman weeping over the body of a fallen student) helped stir nationwide demonstrations against the nation’s policy in Indochina. Hundreds of campuses were closed down. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, protesters blew up an entire building, killing a young researcher who was working inside. There was trouble in Washington as well. The Senate repealed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and voted to cut off all funds to Cambodia. (The House did not concur on the funding bill.)

    With much of the country in an uproar, Nixon stepped up what he called “Vietnamization”-the gradual withdrawal of American troops and the building up of South Vietnamese forces. There were 234,000 American military personnel in Southeast Asia at the end of 1970, and 156,000 at the conclusion of 1971. While 14,589 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam in 1968, the number was down to 1,831 in 1971.

   On March 29, 1971, a military court convicted Lieutenant William Calley of multiple murders committed at My Lai-4. Calley and his men had been ordered to destroy a hamlet suspected of harboring Viet Cong troops. Instead of first evacuating the inhabitants, the troops opened fire, killing over a hundred civilians. The media made much of this and similar atrocity stories that shocked millions of Americans and accelerated the antiwar movement. Calley defenders saw the junior office r as a scapegoat. They noted the unique horrors of this struggle: for one thing, it was extremely difficult to identify the enemy; even friendly looking little children sometimes threw hand grenades. They also recalled the fact that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops had massacre d hundreds of thousands of villagers over the years. Nixon reduced Calley’s sentence.

    On June 13, 1971, the New York Times caused a sensation by publishing the first installment of the “Pentagon Papers,” an extensive and secret study of American involvement in Vietnam from World War II through 1968. The study was stolen from the RAND corporation by a former employee and onetime Pentagon re searcher, Daniel Ellsberg. Numerous classified documents showed that American leaders had lied repeatedly, ignored peace offers, and deliberately escalated the war.

    By the summer of 1971 polls showed that two-thirds of the American people were ready to withdraw all American troops from Vietnam by the end of the year, even if that meant a communist takeover. The Senate pushed hard for troop withdrawal. Privately, President Nixon grew increasingly frustrated, convinced he was surrounded by forces eager to damage his presidency, defeat his Vietnam policies, and help the communists. Included in a clandestine counterattack was the creation of “the plumbers,” a small band of men led by White House staffer Egil “Bud” Krogh dedicated to preventing leaks of secret government documents and discrediting Daniel Ellsberg. In September, former CIA man E. Howard Hunt, ex-FBI agent G. Gordon Liddy, and three Cubans broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, but failed to find relevant materials.

    The North Vietnamese stepped up their assault in 1972. Nixon responded with an increase in bombing, a naval blockade of North Vietnam, and appeals to both China and the Soviet Union to apply pressure on behalf of peace. These steps prompted Hanoi to resume peace talks. An agreement was tentatively hammered out in October between Kissinger and a North Vietnam official, but their government balked and the fighting resumed.

    In secretly ordering a cover-up of the Watergate burglary during the 1972 campaign, President Nixon was guilty of obstructing justice, a federal crime. Two young Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, assigned to cover what was thought to be a minor incident, began to uncover the larger political overtones of the story almost immediately. In September and October, the reporters charged that the burglary could be traced to the upper levels of the White House, as high as Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman. Presidential spokesmen flatly denied the allegations, and the rest of the media largely ignored them during the campaign.

     Following his overwhelming victory at the polls, Nixon demanded total personal loyalty of those around him, requiring all of his appointees, including members of the cabinet and White House staff, to submit their resignations, which he would accept or reject as he saw fit. He vowed to reverse the generally liberal tone of his administration, and declared war on congress by “impounding,” refusing to spend, billions of dollars designed for purpose s he disapproved of. He bristled at critics of his Vietnam War policies, and vetoed the War Powers Act. White House tape recordings later revealed that a source of this intense combativeness was concern about the Watergate investigation. Nixon was keenly aware that it had the potential of destroying his presidency.

    The Watergate burglars went on trial in January 1973. Two were convicted and five others pleaded guilty. Sensing more to the story than a mere burglary, U.S. District Court Judge John Sirica imposed stiff sentences, hoping to compel the defendants to talk. The tactic worked. On March 19, James McCord confessed that he and his accomplices were under pressure to keep silent and that perjury had been committed during the trial.

    Meanwhile, the Senate created a special Watergate Committee, headed by 76-year-old conservative Democrat Sam Ervin of North Carolina. Ervin was highly respected for his integrity, learning, and folksy sense of humor. The ranking Republican, Howard Baker of Tennessee, was honest, articulate, and ambitious. Knowing he was in deep trouble, Nixon said that he would invoke executive privilege and re fuse to let any staff members testify before the committee.

    At the same time, the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on the confirmation of L. Patrick Gray as FBI head. Gray had been acting director since May and had been in charge of the Watergate investigations. On March 22, Gray admitted that White House counselor James Dean had “probably” lie d to the FBI during its probe. The full Watergate story quickly began to unfold. Following rumors of their direct involvement, Nixon aides Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned. Dean was fired. Attorney General Richard Kleindienst was replaced by Defense Secretary Elliot Richardson. The administration suffered another blow in early May when Nixon campaign leaders Maurice Stans and John Mitchell were indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with campaign contributions made by convicted financier Robert Vesco. [7, p.12].

     On May 17 the Watergate Committee began televised hearings that lasted twelve weeks. Nixon was forced to abandon his claim of executive privilege, and witness after witness, under incisive questioning, told senators of administration intrigue and corruption. In July, James Dean linked Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman directly to Watergate, and charged that Nixon had been personally involved in the cover-up. Soon the existence of secret White House tape recordings became known, tapes that might prove whether Dean or Nixon was telling the truth. The Watergate Committee and special prosecutor Archibald Cox demanded certain of the tapes. Nixon refused, and the committee sued. Whether the tapes became public or not, Nixon’s reputation was badly damaged, especially among Washington insiders and students of politics, and his administration was crippled.

    Watergate thrust political humor into the mainstream for the first time. Comedian Mark Russell became famous for his withering ridicule of the president. Nixon impersonator David Frye drew howls with lines like, “There is a bright side to everything. My administration has taken crime out of the streets and put it in the White House where I can keep an eye on it.”

    Making matters worse, on October 10 Vice President Spiro Agnew pleaded guilty to tax evasion on bribes he had taken while governor of Maryland. He resigned the same day. Nixon quickly named 60-year-old Congressman Gerald R. Ford, Jr., of Michigan as Agnew’s successor. While some critics questioned his intelligence, Ford was widely admired on Capitol Hill for his experience and integrity. At his confirmation hearings, Ford expressed confidence in Nixon’s innocence in the Watergate matter but urged the president to cooperate in the investigations.

    Over a million letters, telegrams, and telephone calls flooded congressional offices in late October after Nixon fired the attorney general, deputy attorney general, and special prosecutor Cox, and ordered the FBI to seal all executive office files.

    The noose around Nixon’s neck tightened swiftly. In November the president replaced special prosecutor Richardson with Leon Jaworski, a move that proved to be to Nixon’s disadvantage. In March 1974, Mitchell, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman were indicted for obstructing justice in the Watergate affair. In April, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed earlier requested tapes and documents. When Nixon submitted edited transcripts of the tapes, the public was disgusted by the foul language and devious behavior they revealed. The committee rejected them as inaccurate and soon began impeachment hearings.

    The American people were not eager to see the president driven from the White House. A Gallup poll found in May that 49 percent of respondents thought Nixon’s actions insufficiently serious “to warrant his being impeached and re moved from the presidency.” In another poll taken that month, 40 percent called the president a man of integrity. As late as July 1974, 55 percent of those interviewed in a Harris poll agreed that Nixon “is trying to do his best in an almost impossible job.”

    Still, Nixon’s popularity had dropped sharply from the 68-percent job approval rating he had enjoyed in January. Political scientist and pollster C. Everett Ladd thought later that the  wobbly economy in 1974 (80 percent of respondents in August identified economic matters as the most important problem facing the country, and 70 percent referred specifically to the high cost of living) did as much as anything to undermine the public’s confidence in Nixon. In May, special prosecutor Jaworski went before the Supreme Court seeking vital tape recordings from the president. On July 24 the Supreme Court voted unanimously that the president had to turn over sixty-four tapes to Jaworski. The House Judiciary Committee soon voted to send three articles of impeachment to the floor of the House. On August 5 the special prosecutor learned from a tape recording that Nixon had known about the Watergate burglary long before he admitted it and was clearly guilty of obstructing justice. After hearing from Republican congressional leaders that his impeachment and conviction were certain, Nixon resigned on August 9. President Ford quickly assured the American people that “our long national nightmare is over.”

     Few now mourned Nixon’s forced retirement. People were exhausted and disillusioned by the corrupt administration. Many blamed the president for the return of double-digit inflation. Republicans, who had dropped four special elections earlier in the year, were generally pleased to see a change in leadership. The left condemned Nixon as a war criminal and social reactionary.

    In fact, Nixon’s record in office contained achievements that liberals should have applauded. The president wound down the Vietnam War, opened China to the West, stabilizes d relations with the Soviet Union, and made significant moves to expand the Great Society. For all of his rhetoric against the sixties counterculture, Nixon proved to be an ally in certain ways. Still, there was no denying that Nixon had disgrace d the presidency and temporarily shaken the nation’s confidence in government. And there was more to the dark side of the president and his men than people realized in 1974. Nixon would spend the remaining twenty years of his life justifying his actions and raising funds to prevent the American people from hearing the rest of the tape recordings made in the Oval Office during his administration.



2.3. The close of the century


   By the late 1990s, ruminations about the meaning of the past century began flooding newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. The more popular accounts stressed “progress,” long a common word in the national lexicon. America’s 270 million people, it was said, were more prosperous, healthy, educated, equal, tolerant, and law abiding than their forbears of the nineteenth century. With the conclusion of the Cold War, the opportunities for world peace were never better. The facts substantiating this thesis were abundant. But a stream of pessimism was also present in this literature, especially among scholars and the deeply religious. William Bennett, who headed the National Commission on Civic Renewal, noted in 1998 that while the United States le d the industrialized world in wealth, power, and influence, it also led in the rates of murder, violent crime, imprisonment, divorce, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, teen suicide, cocaine consumption, and pornography production and consumption.

    A Wall Street Journal /NBC News poll published in December 1997 reported that 41 percent of all adults identified themselves with the Democratic Party and 32 percent with the Republicans. Nearly a quarter of those polled, 23 percent, declared themselves independents. Both the elderly and the younger voters tilted toward the Democrats. Experts thought that the GOP effort to trim Medicare benefits accounted for the disenchantment among seniors.

     But these data disguised the fact that more Americans saw themselves as conservative rather than liberal. In mid-1998, pollster Richard Wirthlin reported that when respondents did not have  the option of answering “moderate,” they said 58 to 33 percent that they were  conservative. This figure had held steady for years, and other studies substantiated it.

    Los Angeles attorney and broadcaster Hugh Hewitt published a provocative argument in May 1998, contending that the United States in fact had a six-party system and that “Each of our major political parties is really three smaller parties stacked in a pyramid.” The Party of Faith consisted of conservative Christians who normally backed the Republican Party. The Party of Race contained minorities who overwhelmingly voted for the Democrats. The Party of Government comprised the labor unions (especially the public employee and teachers’ unions), environmentalists, consumer advocates, and all others who needed direct government support and sought expanded tax revenue. The Party of Patriotism appealed to the Reagan right, including conservative intellectuals and members of the armed forces, who backed Republicans. And the Party of License-the academic left, feminists, and the gay community-supported Democrats. [6, p.91].

    To Hewitt, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson personified the Party of Race, Vice President Al Gore the Party of Government, feminist Betty Friedan the Party of License, Dr. James Dobson of “Focus on the Family” the Party of Faith, billionaire Warren Buffet the Party of Wealth, and Senator John McCain the Party of Patriotism. Hewitt thought that in the long run the GOP was at a disadvantage, in part because of the internal friction surrounding the moral demands of the Party of Faith. The rapid growth of the Party of Race worked in the same direction.

     In 1998, Congressional Democrats and Republics got into a heated row over “statistical sampling” of the 2000 census. Census data, taken every decade, were used to redraw House district lines and to distribute hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending. Republicans sought to rely upon actual people counted, the traditional method. Democrats, arguing that too many poor people and minorities, who usually voted Democratic, were missed by census takers. The Census Bureau admitted that in 1990 it had failed to count some 4 million people, or just below 2 percent. A Democratic motion to use both census forms and a statistical input that would help tally hard-to-reach Americans failed in the House 227-201, on a largely party line vote. Republicans filed suit to block sampling, and the initial response from a lower court was supportive.

    During the battle in the House, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri said, “The census is today’s great civil rights issue, and once again Republicans are standing against what is right.” The number three Republican, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, said an administration that had been accused of illegally using FBI files could not be trusted with census statistics. He asked, “Can we trust this president to do what’s right?”

    The Census Bureau reported in mid-1998 that the decline of the traditional family-a married couple with children under 18-was slowing. A quarter of American households fit that description in 1997.The percentage of single parent families, which had double d between 1970 and 1990, was also leveling off, amounting to 13 percent in 1997. The divorce rate was dropping, from 5.0 per 1,000 people in 1985 to 4.3 percent in 1997. Ralph Monaco, a University of Maryland researcher, said, “The wild, carefree years are over. The average boomer is now older and wiser” and settling down with spouses and children. [ 2, p.94].

    But a return to the 1950s was unlikely. In 1997, 85 percent of black females with children under 6 years of age had never been married. The same was true of about three-quarters of Hispanic women and 56 percent of white   women. In 1998, 33 percent of women aged 25 to 29 had never married; it was 48 percent for men in the same age group. Living together out of wedlock, which became popular in the sixties, was an accepted way of life for millions.

     A national survey sponsored by the Washington Post and published in 1998 revealed that large majorities of both men and women said it would be better if women could stay home and take care of the house and children. But at the same time, equally large majorities wanted equality for women in the work place, and men approved of women working outside the home.

    Sociologists Suzanne Bianchi and Daphne Spain reported that between 1970 and 1995, the percentage of women ages 25 to 54 who worked outside the home climbed from 50 percent to 76 percent. Seventh five percent of college-educated women were in the paid labor force. In 1996, women were 29 percent of lawyers and judges, and 26 percent of all physicians. In 1998, a third of all professional athletes were women, almost double the proportion in 1983. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 1998 that the woman working outside the home was responsible for the 154-percent increase in married-family real median income over the past half century, from $20,620 in 1947 to $51,591 in 1997.

    In 1998, Washington State could boast that 41 percent of its state legislators were women. (The national average was 22 percent.) Arizona became the first state to have an all-female elected line of succession: governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, and superintendent of public instruction.

    The quality of education being offered by the nation’s public schools was one of the hottest topics of the late 1990s. National test scores were often woeful. In 1994, only 7 percent of 17-year-olds could solve multistep math problems and had mastered beginning algebra; only 2 percent of eleventh graders were judged as writing effectively. The education of teachers was often severely criticized. Lack of discipline and incidents of violence in the schools were all too common. Perceptive observers were generally agreed that anti-intellectualism was pervasive. Conservative Charles Sykes, in “Dumbing Down Our Kids”, contended that “America’s schools are in deep trouble, not because they lack men and women who care about children, but because they are dominated by an ideology that does not care much about learning.”

    Polls showed that television watching consumed much of the lives of America’s young people. A 1991 survey showed that 56 percent believed that television had the greatest influence on children’s values-more than parents, teachers, and religious leaders combined. [21, p. 35].

    Many wanted a voucher system that would permit parents to send their children to a school of their choice at public expense, even if that school was religious. Milwaukee and the State of Wisconsin led the nation in this direction. In the late 1990s, cases challenging this approach were working their way toward the United States Supreme Court. Others looked to charter schools, for-profit schools, and home-schooling as alternatives. (By 1998, about 1.5 million American children were participating in some form of home schooling. One study showed home-schooled students outperforming their public-school counterparts by up to 37 percent when measured by standardized tests.) Teachers’ unions and the Clinton administration, among others, defended the public schools, emphasizing their historic value in a democracy and seeking increased funding.

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