This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Counterinsurgency (known as COIN) is a theory of war that seeks to describe a proven set of techniques that a government may use to defeat a violent, internal, organized challenge to its authority and legitimacy. The term is sometimes also used to describe the set of activities itself (e.g., “conducting counterinsurgency”). The term originates from the middle of the 20th century, when it emerged from officials in U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s administration, as well as from British and French thinkers and practitioners with whom these officials were consulting. The Kennedy Administration and its allies were grappling with how to deal with what they viewed as Soviet attempts to destabilize post-colonial governments in the Third World and bring those nascent countries into the Soviet orbit. Encouraged by British and French experience in post-colonial rebellions and prior experience of imperial policing, the Kennedy administration hoped to apply their lessons learned to Cold War problems, most notably the growing challenges in Vietnam.
Rebellions, “irregular warfare,” “guerrilla warfare,” or “small wars,” or for that matter, thinking about means to put them down, go back to the beginnings of organized conflict itself. But 20th-century thinkers were informed most especially by British and French theorists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as British Colonel Charles E. Calwell and future Marshal of France, Hubert Lyautey. The most significant influence came from veterans, such as Sir Robert Thompson, of Britain’s “Emergency” in Malaya, from 1948–1960, and from David Galula, veteran of France’s conflict in Algeria from 1954–1960. Though these theorists differ on a number of points and on emphasis, the intellectual paternity is clear.
At its heart, the premise of counterinsurgency theory is that rebellions can only be eliminated by gaining the support of the population. Because rebels can hide amongst the people, influence them, and convince “fence sitters” to join in an insurgency, the government can only succeed when the majority of the population rejects the rebels and their message, refuses to offer them assistance, and ultimately turns them over to the authorities. Counterinsurgency theorists often invoke an image from a work by Chinese leader Mao Zedong, On Guerrilla Warfare, in which he described the people as water and guerrilla fighters as fish swimming in it.
Theorists argued for decades (indeed, the argument goes on) about whether America’s war in Vietnam failed because the nation was unable or unwilling to fully implement proper counterinsurgency practices. When the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 21st century began to falter, counterinsurgency and its proponents were once again center stage. Indeed, many maintain that, in 2007, the United States began to implement COIN, and that this turned the tide. But this argument remains in dispute, as do the theoretical and historical foundations of COIN more broadly.
Lawrence J. McAndrews
Americans almost universally agree on the importance of education to the success of individuals and the strength of the nation. Yet they have long differed over the proper mission of government in overseeing their schools. Before 1945, these debates largely occurred at the local and state levels. Since 1945, as education has become an increasingly national and international concern, the federal government has played a larger role in the nation’s schools. As Americans gradually have come to accept a greater federal presence in elementary and secondary schools, however, members of Congress and presidents from both major parties have continued to argue over the scope and substance of the federal role. From 1945 to 1965, these arguments centered on the quest for equity between rich and poor public school pupils and between public and nonpublic school students. From 1965 to 1989, national lawmakers devoted much of their attention to the goal of excellence in public education. From 1989 to the present, they have quarreled over how best to attain equity and excellence at the same time.
Gabriella M. Petrick
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
American food in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is characterized by abundance. Unlike the hardscrabble existence of many earlier Americans, the “Golden Age of Agriculture” brought the bounty produced in fields across the United States to both consumers and producers. While the “Golden Age” technically ended as World War I began, larger quantities of relatively inexpensive food became the norm for most Americans as more fresh foods, rather than staple crops, made their way to urban centers and rising real wages made it easier to purchase these comestibles.
The application of science and technology to food production from the field to the kitchen cabinet, or even more crucially the refrigerator by the mid-1930s, reflects the changing demographics and affluence of American society as much as it does the inventiveness of scientists and entrepreneurs. Perhaps the single most important symbol of overabundance in the United States is the postwar Green Revolution. The vast increase in agricultural production based on improved agronomics, provoked both praise and criticism as exemplified by Time magazine’s critique of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in September 1962 or more recently the politics of genetically modified foods.
Reflecting that which occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, food production, politics, and policy at the turn of the twenty-first century has become a proxy for larger ideological agendas and the fractured nature of class in the United States. Battles over the following issues speak to which Americans have access to affordable, nutritious food: organic versus conventional farming, antibiotic use in meat production, dissemination of food stamps, contraction of farm subsidies, the rapid growth of “dollar stores,” alternative diets (organic, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, etc.), and, perhaps most ubiquitous of all, the “obesity epidemic.” These arguments carry moral and ethical values as each side deems some foods and diets virtuous, and others corrupting. While Americans have long held a variety of food ideologies that meld health, politics, and morality, exemplified by Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among others, newer constructions of these ideologies reflect concerns over the environment, rural Americans, climate change, self-determination, and the role of government in individual lives. In other words, food can be used as a lens to understand larger issues in American society while at the same time allowing historians to explore the intimate details of everyday life.
Humans have utilized American forests for a wide variety of uses from the pre-Columbian period to the present. Native Americans heavily shaped forests to serve their needs, helping to create fire ecologies in many forests. English settlers harvested these forests for trade, to clear land, and for domestic purposes. The arrival of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century rapidly expanded the rate of logging. By the Civil War, many areas of the Northeast were logged out. Post–Civil War forests in the Great Lakes states, the South, and then the Pacific Northwest fell with increasing speed to feed the insatiable demands of the American economy, facilitated by rapid technological innovation that allowed for growing cuts. By the late 19th century, growing concerns about the future of American timber supplies spurred the conservation movement, personified by forester Gifford Pinchot and the creation of the U.S. Forest Service with Pinchot as its head in 1905. After World War II, the Forest Service worked closely with the timber industry to cut wide swaths of the nation’s last virgin forests. These gargantuan harvests led to the growth of the environmental movement. Beginning in the 1970s, environmentalists began to use legal means to halt logging in the ancient forests, and the listing of the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act was the final blow to most logging on Forest Service lands in the Northwest. Yet not only does the timber industry remain a major employer in forested parts of the nation today, but alternative forest economies have also developed around more sustainable industries such as tourism.
Gentrification is one of the most controversial issues in American cities today. But it also remains one of the least understood. Few agree on how to define it or whether it is boon or curse for cities. Gentrification has changed over time and has a history dating back to the early 20th century. Historically, gentrification has had a smaller demographic impact on American cities than suburbanization or immigration. But since the late 1970s, gentrification has dramatically reshaped cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. Furthermore, districts such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Georgetown in Washington DC have had an outsized influence on the political, cultural, and architectural history of cities. Gentrification thus must be examined alongside suburbanization as one of the major historical trends shaping the 20th-century American metropolis.
Sarah B. Snyder
In its formulation of foreign policy, the United States takes account of many priorities and factors, including national security concerns, economic interests, and alliance relationships. An additional factor with significance that has risen and fallen over time is human rights, or more specifically violations of human rights. The extent to which the United States should consider such abuses or seek to moderate them has been and continues to be the subject of considerable debate.
Post-1945 immigration to the United States differed fairly dramatically from America’s earlier 20th- and 19th-century immigration patterns, most notably in the dramatic rise in numbers of immigrants from Asia. Beginning in the late 19th century, the U.S. government took steps to bar immigration from Asia. The establishment of the national origins quota system in the 1924 Immigration Act narrowed the entryway for eastern and central Europeans, making western Europe the dominant source of immigrants. These policies shaped the racial and ethnic profile of the American population before 1945. Signs of change began to occur during and after World War II. The recruitment of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico led to an influx of Mexicans, and the repeal of Asian exclusion laws opened the door for Asian immigrants. Responding to complex international politics during the Cold War, the United States also formulated a series of refugee policies, admitting refugees from Europe, the western hemisphere, and later Southeast Asia. The movement of people to the United States increased drastically after 1965, when immigration reform ended the national origins quota system. The intricate and intriguing history of U.S. immigration after 1945 thus demonstrates how the United States related to a fast-changing world, its less restrictive immigration policies increasing the fluidity of the American population, with a substantial impact on American identity and domestic policy.
Mass transit has been part of the urban scene in the United States since the early 19th century. Regular steam ferry service began in New York City in the early 1810s and horse-drawn omnibuses plied city streets starting in the late 1820s. Expanding networks of horse railways emerged by the mid-19th century. The electric streetcar became the dominant mass transit vehicle a half century later. During this era, mass transit had a significant impact on American urban development. Mass transit’s importance in the lives of most Americans started to decline with the growth of automobile ownership in the 1920s, except for a temporary rise in transit ridership during World War II. In the 1960s, congressional subsidies began to reinvigorate mass transit and heavy-rail systems opened in several cities, followed by light rail systems in several others in the next decades. Today concerns about environmental sustainability and urban revitalization have stimulated renewed interest in the benefits of mass transit.
By serving travelers and commerce, roads and streets unite people and foster economic growth. But as they develop, roads and streets also disrupt old patterns, upset balances of power, and isolate some as they serve others. The consequent disagreements leave historical records documenting social struggles that might otherwise be overlooked. For long-distance travel in America before the middle of the 20th century, roads were generally poor alternatives, resorted to when superior means of travel, such as river and coastal vessels, canal boats, or railroads were unavailable. Most roads were unpaved, unmarked, and vulnerable to the effects of weather. Before the railroads, for travelers willing to pay the toll, rare turnpikes and plank roads could be much better. Even in towns, unpaved streets were common until the late 19th century, and persisted into the 20th. In the late 19th century, rapid urban growth, rural free delivery of the mails, and finally the proliferation of electric railways and bicycling contributed to growing pressure for better roads and streets. After 1910, the spread of the automobile accelerated the trend, but only with great controversy, especially in cities. Partly in response to the controversy, advocates of the automobile organized to promote state and county motor highways funded substantially by gasoline taxes; such roads were intended primarily for motor vehicles. In the 1950s, massive federal funds accelerated the trend; by then, motor vehicles were the primary transportation mode for both long and short distances. The consequences have been controversial, and alternatives have been attracting growing interest.
Justus D. Doenecke
For the United States, isolationism is best defined as avoidance of wars outside the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Europe; opposition to binding military alliances; and the unilateral freedom to act politically and commercially unrestrained by mandatory commitments to other nations. Until the controversy over American entry into the League of Nations, isolationism was never subject to debate. The United States could expand its territory, protect its commerce, and even fight foreign powers without violating its traditional tenets. Once President Woodrow Wilson sought membership in the League, however, Americans saw isolationism as a foreign policy option, not simply something taken for granted. A fundamental foreign policy tenet now became a faction, limited to a group of people branded as “isolationists.” Its high point came during the years 1934–1937, when Congress, noting the challenge of the totalitarian nations to the international status quo, passed the neutrality acts to insulate the country from global entanglements.
Once World War II broke out in Europe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt increasingly sought American participation on the side of the Allies. Isolationists unsuccessfully fought FDR’s legislative proposals, beginning with repeal of the arms embargo and ending with the convoying of supplies to Britain. The America First Committee (1940–1941), however, so effectively mobilized anti-interventionist opinion as to make the president more cautious in his diplomacy.
If the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor permanently ended classic isolationism, by 1945 a “new isolationism” voiced suspicion of the United Nations, the Truman Doctrine, aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and U.S. participation in the Korean War. Yet, because the “new isolationists” increasingly advocated militant unilateral measures to confront Communist Russia and China, often doing so to advance the fortunes of the Republican party, they exposed themselves to charges of inconsistency and generally faded away in the 1950s. Since the 1950s, many Americans have opposed various military involvements— including the ones in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan— but few envision returning to an era when the United States avoids all commitments.