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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    While an unprecedented 60 percent of high-school graduates went on to some form of higher education, controversy also swirled around what they might be learning in America’s colleges and universities. Academia seemed to many critics to lack any sense of design or purpose beyond the graduation of more than a million people a year. Open admission was common, courses were offered in almost anything (a study of fifty top schools showed 70,901 undergraduate courses offered in 1993, up from 36,968 in 1964), graduation requirements were often minimal, instruction was frequently impersonal, and athletics were routinely overemphasized.

    Conservatives contended that “political correctness,” a term that became popular in 1990 to express a knee-jerk sympathy with all things to the left, reigned supreme in academia. Marxism, moral relativism, and deconstructionism, the idea that all literature is without meaning, seemed everywhere on campus. Liberals, on the other hand, often complained about the persistence of racism and sexism, the teaching of “outdated” ethics, and required reading that focused on the works of “dead white males.” They sought “diversity” through a wide variety of often required “multicultural” courses they said would sensitize students to the values and customs of other races and cultures.

    Many liberals and conservatives decried the lack of attention paid to the liberal arts. Only 2 percent of colleges and universities required a single course in history. The most popular major in college was business.  









    The twentieth century posed unprecedented challenges to the American people. Among other things, they grappled with the Industrial Revolution, massive immigration, urbanization, reform, economic depression, two world wars, two Red scares, the restoration of war-torn Europe, the Cold War, nuclear power, civil rights, women’s rights, educational change, conservation efforts, energy crises, a revolution in medical technology, massive cultural change mounting crime, unprecedented prosperity, and the superpower status of post-Cold War America.

    Change is the most persistent theme of the century. A businessman in downtown Boston in 1900, looking at often dilapidated wooden buildings and streets frequently filled with debris, mud, dead horses, and ragged children would think himself almost on another planet were he transported to that same spot in our time. The Iowa farmer of 1900, having slaved behind a mule in the hot sun all day with only a chance of making a profit, could only dream of the security and comfort that rural Americans frequently experienced a hundred years later. The black southern share-cropper at the turn of this century, toiling in poverty and persecution, could surely not believe predictions of the equality and economic opportunity that awaited his great-great-grandchildren. Barely literate women who toiled with hot irons and steaming washtubs to keep huge families clean and presentable would look with astonishment at the trim, independent, educated, often childless stereotype of the 1990s woman. People who wobbled on bicycles with huge wheels might shriek as building-size airplanes roared overhead. Those who frequented vaudeville in William McKinley’s time might go into cardiac arrest during a modern film festival

in the Bill Clinton years.

    Much of what has happened in the twentieth century is clearly progress. The great strides in medicine, the wealth generated by industrialism and technology, the increased availability of education, and the equality brought about by the civil rights revolution, for example, have few serious detractors today. Not many would like to see the role of government diminished to the point that the disadvantaged were again left to die in the county poorhouse. Few would want the nation’s military presence again so small that we could be threatened by virtually anyone. Hardly any Americans would like to repeal the religious tolerance that holds sway in our largely secular era.

     Critics can also make a strong case against much of the change that transformed twentieth-century America. The bloody wars (more people died in 1945 than in any other single year in history), the descent of popular culture, the breakdown of the traditional family, the waning of traditional religious faith and morality, the pervasiveness of consumerism, the sharp decline in good manners, the disintegration of educational standards, the continued destruction of the environment-many books have lamented these and other features of modern life. A major lesson most Americans learned in this century is the truth that they are a major part of the world.  In an age of supersonic aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and stock markets reacting to developments all over the planet, isolationism is impossible.

    And the world of which we are a part remains extremely dangerous. In 1998, the Pentagon launched a new agency to deal with threats of weapons of mass destruction. Defense Secretary William Cohen said, “Today’s harsh reality is too powerful to ignore-at least 25 countries have, or are in the process of developing, nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, and the means to deliver them.” There was considerable concern as well about the fate of the massive arsenal of missiles in unstable Russia.

    Given the unprecedented dominance of the United States at century’s end, the American military bears much of the responsibility for keeping world peace. The United Nations and NATO will play a role, of course, but much of the financing and fighting in crucial situations will be carried out by Americans. In the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, the planet’s most powerful nation will be summoned in a time of crisis.

    A sign of genuine progress and hope at century’s end is the fact that democracy was the most widespread system in the world. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s chief national security advisor, observed in 1998 that “The majority of states today are elected democracies (117 out of 191), and 1.3 billion people (22 percent of the world population) live in free societies.” Thirty nine percent lived in countries with partially democratic systems, and the remaining 39 percent lived in basically antidemocratic systems.

    At the close of the twentieth century, the freedom and the prosperity enjoyed by Americans were the envy of much of the world. But millions around the globe also feared the secularism, the crime, the popular culture, the cynicism, and the growing disparity of wealth that were part of American life.

    The overwhelming challenge facing the United States as the year 2000 dawned was to respond to rapid change with enough intelligence, integrity, compassion, and courage to warrant the world’s full-scale admiration as well as respect. The globe’s leading nation had the responsibility not only to lead militarily but to create a society that could live up to its highest ideals, which were, in fact, the aspirations of a great many people everywhere at the dawn of the new century.













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