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American Indian activism after 1945 was as much a part of the larger, global decolonization movement rooted in centuries of imperialism as it was a direct response to the ethos of civic nationalism and integration that had gained momentum in the United States following World War II. This ethos manifested itself in the disastrous federal policies of termination and relocation, which sought to end federal services to recognized Indian tribes and encourage Native people to leave reservations for cities. In response, tribal leaders from throughout Indian Country formed the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 1944 to litigate and lobby for the collective well-being of Native peoples. The NCAI was the first intertribal organization to embrace the concepts of sovereignty, treaty rights, and cultural preservation—principles that continue to guide Native activists today. As American Indian activism grew increasingly militant in the late 1960s and 1970s, civil disobedience, demonstrations, and takeovers became the preferred tactics of “Red Power” organizations such as the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), the Indians of All Tribes, and the American Indian Movement (AIM). At the same time, others established more focused efforts that employed less confrontational methods. For example, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) served as a legal apparatus that represented Native nations, using the courts to protect treaty rights and expand sovereignty; the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT) sought to secure greater returns on the mineral wealth found on tribal lands; and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) brought Native educators together to work for greater self-determination and culturally rooted curricula in Indian schools. While the more militant of these organizations and efforts have withered, those that have exploited established channels have grown and flourished. Such efforts will no doubt continue into the unforeseeable future so long as the state of Native nations remains uncertain.
Early 20th century American labor and working-class history is a subfield of American social history that focuses attention on the complex lives of working people in a rapidly changing global political and economic system. Once focused closely on institutional dynamics in the workplace and electoral politics, labor history has expanded and refined its approach to include questions about the families, communities, identities, and cultures workers have developed over time. With a critical eye on the limits of liberal capitalism and democracy for workers’ welfare, labor historians explore individual and collective struggles against exclusion from opportunity, as well as accommodation to political and economic contexts defined by rapid and volatile growth and deep inequality.
Particularly important are the ways that workers both defined and were defined by differences of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and place. Individual workers and organized groups of working Americans both transformed and were transformed by the main struggles of the industrial era, including conflicts over the place of former slaves and their descendants in the United States, mass immigration and migrations, technological change, new management and business models, the development of a consumer economy, the rise of a more active federal government, and the evolution of popular culture.
The period between 1896 and 1945 saw a crucial transition in the labor and working-class history of the United States. At its outset, Americans were working many more hours a day than the eight for which they had fought hard in the late 19th century. On average, Americans labored fifty-four to sixty-three hours per week in dangerous working conditions (approximately 35,000 workers died in accidents annually at the turn of the century). By 1920, half of all Americans lived in growing urban neighborhoods, and for many of them chronic unemployment, poverty, and deep social divides had become a regular part of life. Workers had little power in either the Democratic or Republican party. They faced a legal system that gave them no rights at work but the right to quit, judges who took the side of employers in the labor market by issuing thousands of injunctions against even nonviolent workers’ organizing, and vigilantes and police forces that did not hesitate to repress dissent violently. The ranks of organized labor were shrinking in the years before the economy began to recover in 1897. Dreams of a more democratic alternative to wage labor and corporate-dominated capitalism had been all but destroyed. Workers struggled to find their place in an emerging consumer-oriented culture that assumed everyone ought to strive for the often unattainable, and not necessarily desirable, marks of middle-class respectability.
Yet American labor emerged from World War II with the main sectors of the industrial economy organized, with greater earning potential than any previous generation of American workers, and with unprecedented power as an organized interest group that could appeal to the federal government to promote its welfare. Though American workers as a whole had made no grand challenge to the nation’s basic corporate-centered political economy in the preceding four and one-half decades, they entered the postwar world with a greater level of power, and a bigger share in the proceeds of a booming economy, than anyone could have imagined in 1896. The labor and working-class history of the United States between 1900 and 1945, then, is the story of how working-class individuals, families, and communities—members of an extremely diverse American working class—managed to carve out positions of political, economic, and cultural influence, even as they remained divided among themselves, dependent upon corporate power, and increasingly invested in a individualistic, competitive, acquisitive culture.
Military assistance programs have been crucial instruments of American foreign policy since World War II, valued by policymakers for combating internal subversion in the “free world,” deterring aggression, and protecting overseas interests. The 1958 Draper Committee, consisting of eight members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, concluded that economic and military assistance were interchangeable; as the committee put it, without internal security and the “feeling of confidence engendered by adequate military forces, there is little hope for economic progress.” Less explicitly, military assistance was also designed to uphold the U.S. global system of military bases established after World War II, ensure access to raw materials, and help recruit intelligence assets while keeping a light American footprint. Police and military aid was often invited and welcomed by government elites in so-called free world nations for enhancing domestic security or enabling the swift repression of political opponents. It sometimes coincided with an influx of economic aid, as under the Marshall Plan and Alliance for Progress. In cases like Vietnam, the programs contributed to stark human rights abuses owing to political circumstances and prioritizing national security over civil liberties.
Gregory A. Daddis
For nearly a decade, American combat soldiers fought in South Vietnam to help sustain an independent, noncommunist nation in Southeast Asia. After U.S. troops departed in 1973, the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 prompted a lasting search to explain the United States’ first lost war. Historians of the conflict and participants alike have since critiqued the ways in which civilian policymakers and uniformed leaders applied—some argued misapplied—military power that led to such an undesirable political outcome. While some claimed U.S. politicians failed to commit their nation’s full military might to a limited war, others contended that most officers fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the war they were fighting. Still others argued “winning” was essentially impossible given the true nature of a struggle over Vietnamese national identity in the postcolonial era. On their own, none of these arguments fully satisfy. Contemporary policymakers clearly understood the difficulties of waging a war in Southeast Asia against an enemy committed to national liberation. Yet the faith of these Americans in their power to resolve deep-seated local and regional sociopolitical problems eclipsed the possibility there might be limits to that power. By asking military strategists to simultaneously fight a war and build a nation, senior U.S. policymakers had asked too much of those crafting military strategy to deliver on overly ambitious political objectives. In the end, the Vietnam War exposed the limits of what American military power could achieve in the Cold War era.
Michael A. Krysko
Radio debuted as a wireless alternative to telegraphy in the late 19th century. At its inception, wireless technology could only transmit signals and was incapable of broadcasting actual voices. During the 1920s, however, it transformed into a medium primarily identified as one used for entertainment and informational broadcasting. The commercialization of American broadcasting, which included the establishment of national networks and reliance on advertising to generate revenue, became the so-called American system of broadcasting. This transformation demonstrates how technology is shaped by the dynamic forces of the society in which it is embedded. Broadcasting’s aural attributes also engaged listeners in a way that distinguished it from other forms of mass media. Cognitive processes triggered by the disembodied voices and sounds emanating from radio’s loudspeakers illustrate how listeners, grounded in particular social, cultural, economic, and political contexts, made sense of and understood the content with which they were engaged. Through the 1940s, difficulties in expanding the international radio presence of the United States further highlight the significance of surrounding contexts in shaping the technology and in promoting (or discouraging) listener engagement with programing content.
Michael A. McDonnell
The American War for Independence lasted eight years. It was one of the longest and bloodiest wars in America’s history, and yet it was not such a protracted conflict merely because the might of the British armed forces was brought to bear on the hapless colonials. The many divisions among Americans themselves over whether to fight, what to fight for, and who would do the fighting often had tragic and violent consequences. The Revolutionary War was by any measure the first American civil war. Yet national narratives of the Revolution and even much of the scholarship on the era focus more on simple stories of a contest between the Patriots and the British. Loyalists and other opponents of the Patriots are routinely left out of these narratives, or given short shrift. So, too, are the tens of thousands of ordinary colonists—perhaps a majority of the population—who were disaffected or alienated from either side or who tried to tack between the two main antagonists to make the best of a bad situation. Historians now estimate that as many as three-fifths of the colonial population were neither active Loyalists nor Patriots.
When we take the war seriously and begin to think about narratives that capture the experience of the many, rather than the few, an illuminating picture emerges. The remarkably wide scope of the activities of the disaffected during the war—ranging from nonpayment of taxes to draft dodging and even to armed resistance to protect their neutrality—has to be integrated with older stories of militant Patriots and timid Loyalists. Only then can we understand the profound consequences of disaffection—particularly in creating divisions within the states, increasing levels of violence, prolonging the war, and changing the nature of the political settlements in each state. Indeed, the very divisions among diverse Americans that made the War for Independence so long, bitter, and bloody also explains much of the Revolutionary energy of the period. Though it is not as seamless as traditional narratives of the Revolution would suggest, a more complicated story also helps better explain the many problems the new states and eventually the new nation would face. In making this argument, we may finally suggest ways we can overcome what John Shy long ago noted as the tendency of scholars to separate the ‘destructive’ War for Independence from the ‘constructive’ political Revolution.
On January 5, 2014—the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty—the New York Times asked a panel of opinion leaders a simple question: “Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?” While the answers varied, all the invited debaters accepted the martial premise of the question—that a war on poverty had been fought and that eliminating poverty was, without a doubt, a “fight,” or a “battle.”
Yet the debate over the manner—martial or not—by which the federal government and public policy has dealt with the issue of poverty in the United States is still very much an open-ended one.
The evolution and development of the postwar American welfare state is a story not only of a number of “wars,” or individual political initiatives, against poverty, but also about the growth of institutions within and outside government that seek to address, alleviate, and eliminate poverty and its concomitant social ills. It is a complex and at times messy story, interwoven with the wider historical trajectory of this period: civil rights, the rise and fall of a “Cold War consensus,” the emergence of a counterculture, the Vietnam War, the credibility gap, the rise of conservatism, the end of “welfare,” and the emergence of compassionate conservatism. Mirroring the broader organization of the American political system, with a relatively weak center of power and delegated authority and decision-making in fifty states, the welfare model has developed and grown over decades. Policies viewed in one era as unmitigated failures have instead over time evolved and become part of the fabric of the welfare state.
Elizabeth R. Varon
Perhaps no other American leader has experienced so precipitous a fall from grace as Andrew Johnson, seventeenth president of the United States (1865–1869). During the Civil War, Johnson was the preeminent symbol of Southern Unionism—and thus, the ideal running mate for Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 election, on the Union Party ticket. Four years later, as president, he was widely viewed as a traitor to his political allies and even to the Union, and barely escaped impeachment. In modern scholarship, the image persists of Johnson as politically inept, and willfully self-destructive—driven by visceral emotions, particularly by implacable racism, and lacking in Lincoln’s skill for reading and molding public opinion. But such an image fails to capture fully the scope of his political influence. As President, Johnson staked claims that shaped the course of Reconstruction—that emancipation signified nothing but freedom; that the immediate aftermath of the Civil War was a golden moment of reconciliation, which Radicals squandered by pushing for black suffrage; that the Congressional program of Reconstruction inaugurated a period of so-called “black rule,” during which former Confederates were victimized and disfranchised. Such propaganda was designed to deem the Republican experiment in black citizenship a failure before it even began. Johnson’s term offers an example as striking as any in U.S. history of the power of presidents to set the terms of political debates—and of the power of their words to do lasting harm.
Judy Yung and Erika Lee
The Angel Island Immigration Station (1910–1940), located in San Francisco Bay, was one of twenty-four ports of entry established by the U.S. government to process and detain immigrants entering and leaving the country. Although popularly called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Angel Island station was in fact quite different from its counterpart in New York. Ellis Island was built in 1892 to welcome European immigrants and to enforce immigration laws that restricted but did not exclude European immigrants. In contrast, as the primary gateway for Chinese and other Asian immigrants, the Angel Island station was built in 1910 to better enforce discriminatory immigration policies that targeted Asians for exclusion. Chinese immigrants, in particular, were subjected to longer physical exams, interrogations, and detentions than any other immigrant group. Out of frustration, anger, and despair, many of them wrote and carved Chinese poems into the barrack walls. In 1940, a fire destroyed the administration building, and the immigration station was moved back to San Francisco. In 1963, the abandoned site became part of the state park system, and the remaining buildings were slated for demolition. Thanks to the collective efforts of Asian American activists and descendents of former detainees, the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, and the immigration site, including the Chinese poetry on the barrack walls, was preserved and transformed into a museum of Pacific immigration for visitors.
Joan R. Gundersen
Episcopalians have built, reimagined, and rebuilt their church at least three different times over the course of 400 years in America. From scattered colonial beginnings, where laity both took major roles in running Church of England parishes and practiced a faith that was focused on worship, pastoral care, and good works, Anglicans created a church that blended hierarchy, democracy, and autonomy. It took time after the disruptions of the American Revolution for Episcopalians to find their place among the many competing denominations of the new nation. In the process women found new roles for themselves. Episcopalians continued to have a large impact on American society even as other denominations outpaced them in membership. As individuals they shaped American culture and became prominent advocates for the social gospel. Distracted at times as they tried to balance catholic and Protestant in their thought and worship, they built a church that included both religious orders and revival gatherings. Although perceived as a church of the elite, its members included African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, and union members. Episcopalians struggled with issues of race, class, and gender throughout their history. After World War II, their understandings of the teachings of Jesus pulled a majority of Episcopalians toward more liberal social positions and created a traditionalist revolt eventually resulting in a schism that required new rebuilding efforts in parts of America.