Period 8 Overview
A Cold Welcome to the World Stage
Following World War II, the U.S. became the dominant world power and frequently faced off with the Soviet Union in a “Cold War” of repeated confrontations. This positioning removed any possibility that the U.S. could slip back into a cocoon of isolationism. Instead, the U.S. pursued a policy of containment (challenging exportation of communist philosophy to other countries) both economically and militarily. This confrontation, often through third parties, had many important outworkings. Containment involved the United States in two significant wars in Korea and Vietnam, and led to a nuclear arms race and the looming prospect of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
The arms race also stimulated exceptional technological development, resulting in mankind successfully venturing to space. At the same time, the Cold War led to internal suspicions concerning citizen loyalty, deep divisions between age groups (the generation gap), and the alienation of many developing countries as the United States sided with colonial powers tamping nationalistic uprisings. The 1970s saw a period of malaise in foreign policy, making the United States increasingly vulnerable to challenges from developing countries, particularly oil-rich nations. Throughout the period, however, the United States maintained its status as the leader of the free world.
Expansion of Rights
The country also moved toward traditionally progressive goals while greatly expanding equality for minorities and protecting individual constitutional rights from government interference. Separate but equal laws were increasingly challenged in the courts with the definitive ruling that separate was inherently unequal coming in Brown v Board of Education. The success of the Civil Rights Movement empowered other minorities to organize and push for equal rights. Groups like the National Farm Workers Union, the American Indian Movement, and the National Organization for Women became significant forces lobbying for change. As well as protecting civil rights, the courts handed down decisions which supported the constitutional rights of the accused, more clearly separated church and state, and protected individual privacy from government intrusion.
The rampant liberalism of the early 1960s also moved substantially toward realizing the goals of the earlier progressive movement. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society waged a “War on Poverty,” further propelling the country toward the establishment of entitlement safety nets for less fortunate members of society (per liberals), or toward a “welfare state” (per conservatives). Social welfare legislation also dealt with consumer protection, environmental preservation, and transportation safety. By 1968, the war in Vietnam halted social reform in the U.S. as massive spending on both could not be sustained and many questioned the program’s effectiveness. Even Michael Harrington, who wrote The Other America, which some say triggered the war on poverty, ultimately concluded, “What was supposed to be a social war turned out to be a skirmish and, in any case, poverty won.”
By the election of 1968 former conservative southern Democrats and the “silent majority” flocked to the Republican party, electing Richard Nixon as president, beginning a definitive movement of the United States toward a much more conservatism. Despite some social programs continuing modestly, in the 1970s liberalism stalled as the Watergate scandal and the Arab Oil Embargo defined the nation’s political and economic realities.
An Economic Baby BOOM!
The U.S. economy bounced back quickly in the wake of World War II. Increased demand for consumer goods and the technology required by the arms race (the “military-industrial” complex) kept American factories humming throughout the 1950s. Suburbs and interstate highways sprang up to connect middle-class Americans with easier access to make cash and credit card purchases for the upcoming baby boomer generation. A consumer-driven mass society emerged, much as it had in the 1920s, as Americans once more seemed to value conformity. Still, some Americans questioned this materialistic lifestyle and the “beat” critics of the 1950s morphed into the “counter culture” movement of the 1960s, which challenged the traditional mores of society and drove a wedge between generations.
America underwent a pronounced change economically, shifting from a manufacturing to a service-based economy. Manufacturing jobs were relocated overseas and the United States fell into an unfavorable balance of trade. By the 1960s and 1970s there was a pronounced migration from the Northern rust belt to the Southern sun belt. White flight, the movement of affluent whites from deteriorating urban areas, left city centers largely populated by minorities and raised cries for urban redevelopment. As the 1960s progressed and the war in Vietnam and spending on social welfare programs declined, the economy fell on hard times.
By the 1970s, “stagflation” (a stagnant economy combined with high inflation) was a new reality and, combined with the Arab Oil Embargo, drove the U.S. economy into a deep recession. This economic downturn, coupled with progressive challenges to traditional American values, redirected the political movement to a conservative economic and social posture. By 1980, calls for the deregulation of business, reduction in federal government power, and return to traditional social and economic values led to the “Reagan Revolution” and a rollback in the progressive reforms liberals sought.
Between 1945 and 1980 America abandoned its default policy of isolationism and became the dominant force in the free world. Combating communism had profound implications at home and abroad. At the same time, calls for social justice (both peaceful and militant) permeated the entire period, leading to greater racial and gender equality. Throughout all this were periods of economic growth and recession as the U.S. economy moved from a manufacturing to a service-based economy. By 1980 the United States, though somewhat roughed up, remained the dominant world power both militarily and economically. In addition, the country witnessed greater pluralism and diversity than it had previously known.
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.