Period 7 Overview
Rising Star to Rising Sun
Between 1890 and 1945 the United States moved from being a rising star on the world stage to becoming the dominant economic and military power in the world. Domestic changes included democratizing the political process, curbing the excesses of capitalism through government intervention, and moving toward a mass consumer society. In world affairs, the United States threw off its assumed cloak of isolationism and by the end of World War II had taken on the role of policeman of the world. None of these changes happened smoothly or swiftly, as periodic attempts were made to turn back the clock to nineteenth-century policies.
On the heels of the Gilded Age, with growing concern over the exploitation of disadvantaged classes, a progressive movement emerged, hopeful to make the government more responsive to the will of the people, curb the abuses of big business, and enact social welfare legislation. While progressives were extremely successful in making the political system more democratic through a series of constitutional amendments, they experienced only temporary victory in regulating big business and establishing social welfare safety nets.
Initial trust-busting efforts faded due to production needs during World War I and hostile courts struck down social legislation designed to protect the working class. Disillusionment with the idealistic goals of World War I doused the fire of reform and led to the “return to normalcy” of the Gilded Age under the conservative Presidents of the 1920s. Progressivism experienced a rebirth under the New Deal of the 1930s, necessitated by the economic collapse of the Great Depression.
From Agrarian to Urban
The United States rapidly moved toward becoming a mass society between 1890 and 1945. Yellow journalism, muckraking, psychological advertising, and the propaganda efforts of the Committee on Public Information (Creel Committee) all demonstrated that American opinion could be shaped by concerted effort. Additionally, with the development of commercial radio, the media stimulated movement toward consumerism by promoting the ideal that not having was “un-American”.
While the “Lost Generation” of writers criticized the shallow superficiality of American society, many Americans wallowed in it. Increased population size (as it more than doubled between 1890 and 1945) meant there were more people than ever to buy into it as well. Massive influxes of Southern and Eastern Europeans prior to 1920 supplemented natural population growth before the “quota system” of the 1920s stemmed the tide. Additionally, the 1920 census showed a trend of people moving to cities and out of rural areas.
This consumer base took full advantage of the benefit of lower prices brought about by the moving assembly line and other technological innovations and purchased automobiles, appliances and other consumer goods made affordable for the middle class. In the economic collapse of the 1930s, Americans saw the effects of unbridled consumerism and had opportunity to rethink the role of government in controlling the economy.
As the twentieth century dawned, America also became more outward looking, though progress toward internationalism proceeded in fits and starts. U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War (“this splendid little war”) positioned the United States as a player on the world stage and brought with it territorial acquisitions. Possession of the Philippines gave the United States an economic and military voice in Asia as evidenced by participation in the Boxer Rebellion and issuance of the “Open Door Policy.” After the assassination of President William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt’s rise to power, U.S. foreign policy became much more belligerent and aggressive. Roosevelt’s policies bullied countries of the Western Hemisphere to acknowledge the U.S. as policeman of the Western Hemisphere and secured the right to build the Panama Canal. Subsequently, “dollar diplomacy” would lead the U.S. to dominate the hemisphere economically as well.
Nor were U.S foreign policy interests limited to this side of the Atlantic. Deteriorating politics in Europe ultimately led the United States to reluctantly enter World War I and attempt to establish an idealistic peace maintained by the League of Nations. The war also resurrected the debate over the limitations of free speech during war, a debate that lingered into the 1920s and was again brought to the forefront during the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. Disillusionment with the idealistic goals of World War I manifested itself in the U.S. failure to join the League of Nations and a retreat from world involvement during the 1920s.
The Great Depression had the dual repercussions of countries drawing inward from involvement in foreign affairs and the rise of intensely nationalistic leaders (Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, etc.) who wielded great power. Ultimately many of these leaders became more aggressive and sought territorial aggrandizement, plunging the world again into war. The exigencies of war dramatically expanded U.S. production, effectively ending the Great Depression and promoting the belief that a primary function of government was to maintain a stable economy. Victory in World War II established the United States as the dominant economic and military power in the world. Though economic problems were resolved as a result of the war, philosophical confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States polarized other nations, leading to a “Cold War” which would engulf the world for decades.
Between 1890 and 1945 the United States became a superpower both economically and militarily. The single cry of progressives during this era was “strengthen the state,” and by 1945 the U.S. government bore little resemblance to its former self in terms of power. The United States also emerged from World War II as the dominant world power and the only country posessing atomic capacity. American society proved resilient to war, economic depression, and the creation of a mass society.
About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.
In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.