The development of military arms harnessing nuclear energy for mass destruction has inspired continual efforts to control them. Since 1945, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and South Africa acquired control over these powerful weapons, though Pretoria dismantled its small cache in 1989 and Russia inherited the Soviet arsenal in 1996. Throughout this period, Washington sought to limit its nuclear forces in tandem with those of Moscow, prevent new states from fielding them, discourage their military use, and even permit their eventual abolition.
Scholars disagree about what explains the United States’ distinct approach to nuclear arms control. The history of U.S. nuclear policy treats intellectual theories and cultural attitudes alongside technical advances and strategic implications. The central debate is one of structure versus agency: whether the weapons’ sheer power, or historical actors’ attitudes toward that power, drove nuclear arms control. Among those who emphasize political responsibility, there are two further disagreements: (1) the relative influence of domestic protest, culture, and politics; and (2) whether U.S. nuclear arms control aimed first at securing the peace by regulating global nuclear forces or at bolstering American influence in the world.
The intensity of nuclear arms control efforts tended to rise or fall with the likelihood of nuclear war. Harry Truman’s faith in the country’s monopoly on nuclear weapons caused him to sabotage early initiatives, while Dwight Eisenhower’s belief in nuclear deterrence led in a similar direction. Fears of a U.S.-Soviet thermonuclear exchange mounted in the late 1950s, stoked by atmospheric nuclear testing and widespread radioactive fallout, which stirred protest movements and diplomatic initiatives. The spread of nuclear weapons to new states motivated U.S. presidents (John Kennedy in the vanguard) to mount a concerted campaign against “proliferation,” climaxing with the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Richard Nixon was exceptional. His reasons for signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) with Moscow in 1972 were strategic: to buttress the country’s geopolitical position as U.S. armed forces withdrew from Southeast Asia. The rise of protest movements and Soviet economic difficulties after Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office brought about two more landmark U.S.-Soviet accords—the 1987 Intermediate Ballistic Missile Treaty (INF) and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)—the first occasions on which the superpowers eliminated nuclear weapons through treaty. The country’s attention swung to proliferation after the Soviet collapse in December 1991, as failed states, regional disputes, and non-state actors grew more prominent. Although controversies over Iraq, North Korea, and Iran’s nuclear programs have since erupted, Washington and Moscow continued to reduce their arsenals and refine their nuclear doctrines even as President Barack Obama proclaimed his support for a nuclear-free world.
Michael E. Donoghue
The United States’ construction and operation of the Panama Canal began as an idea and developed into a reality after prolonged diplomatic machinations to acquire the rights to build the waterway. Once the canal was excavated, a century-long struggle ensued to hold it in the face of Panamanian nationalism. Washington used considerable negotiation and finally gunboat diplomacy to achieve its acquisition of the Canal. The construction of the channel proved a titanic effort with large regional, global, and cultural ramifications. The importance of the Canal as a geostrategic and economic asset was magnified during the two world wars. But rising Panamanian frustration over the U.S. creation of a state-within-a-state via the Canal Zone, one with a discriminatory racial structure, fomented a local movement to wrest control of the Canal from the Americans. The explosion of the 1964 anti-American uprising drove this process forward toward the 1977 Carter-Torrijos treaties that established a blueprint for eventual U.S. retreat and transfer of the channel to Panama at the century’s end. But before that historic handover, the Noriega crisis and the 1989 U.S. invasion nearly upended the projected transition of U.S. retreat from the management and control of the Canal.
Early historians emphasized high politics, economics, and military considerations in the U.S. acquisition of the Canal. They concentrated on high-status actors, economic indices, and major political contingencies in establishing the U.S. colonial order on the isthmus. Panamanian scholars brought a legalistic and nationalist critique, stressing that Washington did not create Panama and that local voices in the historical debate have largely been ignored in the grand narrative of the Canal as a great act of progressive civilization. More recent U.S. scholarship has focused on American imperialism in Panama, on the role of race, culture, labor, and gender as major factors that shaped the U.S. presence, the structure of the Canal Zone, as well as Panamanian resistance to its occupation. The role of historical memory, of globalization, representation, and how the Canal fits into notions of U.S. empire have also figured more prominently in recent scholarly examination of this relationship. Contemporary research on the Panama Canal has been supported by numerous archives in the United States and Panama, as well as a variety of newspapers, magazines, novels, and films.
Robert G. Parkinson
According to David Ramsay, one of the first historians of the American Revolution, “in establishing American independence, the pen and press had merit equal to that of the sword.” Because of the unstable and fragile notions of unity among the thirteen American colonies, print acted as a binding agent that mitigated the chances that the colonies would not support one another when war with Britain broke out in 1775.
Two major types of print dealt with the political process of the American Revolution: pamphlets and newspapers. Pamphlets were one of the most important conveyors of ideas during the imperial crisis. Often written by elites under pseudonyms and published by booksellers, they have long been held by historians as the lifeblood of the American Revolution. There were also three dozen newspaper printers in the American mainland colonies at the start of the Revolution, each producing a four-page issue every week. These weekly papers, or one-sheet broadsides that appeared in American cities even more frequently, were the most important communication avenue to keep colonists informed of events hundreds of miles away. Because of the structure of the newspaper business in the 18th century, the stories that appeared in each paper were “exchanged” from other papers in different cities, creating a uniform effect akin to a modern news wire. The exchange system allowed for the same story to appear across North America, and it provided the Revolutionaries with a method to shore up that fragile sense of unity. It is difficult to imagine American independence—as a popular idea let alone a possible policy decision—without understanding how print worked in colonial America in the mid-18th century.
Since the social sciences began to emerge as scholarly disciplines in the last quarter of the 19th century, they have frequently offered authoritative intellectual frameworks that have justified, and even shaped, a variety of U.S. foreign policy efforts. They played an important role in U.S. imperial expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Scholars devised racialized theories of social evolution that legitimated the confinement and assimilation of Native Americans and endorsed civilizing schemes in the Philippines, Cuba, and elsewhere. As attention shifted to Europe during and after World War I, social scientists working at the behest of Woodrow Wilson attempted to engineer a “scientific peace” at Versailles. The desire to render global politics the domain of objective, neutral experts intensified during World War II and the Cold War. After 1945, the social sciences became increasingly central players in foreign affairs, offering intellectual frameworks—like modernization theory—and bureaucratic tools—like systems analysis—that shaped U.S. interventions in developing nations, guided nuclear strategy, and justified the increasing use of the U.S. military around the world.
Throughout these eras, social scientists often reinforced American exceptionalism—the notion that the United States stands at the pinnacle of social and political development, and as such has a duty to spread liberty and democracy around the globe. The scholarly embrace of conventional political values was not the result of state coercion or financial co-optation; by and large social scientists and policymakers shared common American values. But other social scientists used their knowledge and intellectual authority to critique American foreign policy. The history of the relationship between social science and foreign relations offers important insights into the changing politics and ethics of expertise in American public policy.
Timothy James LeCain
Technology and environmental history are both relatively young disciplines among Americanists, and during their early years they developed as distinctly different and even antithetical fields, at least in topical terms. Historians of technology initially focused on human-made and presumably “unnatural” technologies, whereas environmental historians focused on nonhuman and presumably “natural” environments. However, in more recent decades, both disciplines have moved beyond this oppositional framing. Historians of technology increasingly came to view anthropogenic artifacts such as cities, domesticated animals, and machines as extensions of the natural world rather than its antithesis. Even the British and American Industrial Revolutions constituted not a distancing of humans from nature, as some scholars have suggested, but rather a deepening entanglement with the material environment. At the same time, many environmental historians were moving beyond the field’s initial emphasis on the ideal of an American and often Western “wilderness” to embrace a concept of the environment as including humans and productive work. Nonetheless, many environmental historians continued to emphasize the independent agency of the nonhuman environment of organisms and things. This insistence that not everything could be reduced to human culture remained the field’s most distinctive feature.
Since the turn of millennium, the two fields have increasingly come together in a variety of synthetic approaches, including Actor Network Theory, envirotechnical analysis, and neomaterialist theory. As the influence of the cultural turn has waned, the environmental historians’ emphasis on the independent agency of the nonhuman has come to the fore, gaining wider influence as it is applied to the dynamic “nature” or “wildness” that some scholars argue exists within both the technological and natural environment. The foundational distinctions between the history of technology and environmental history may now be giving way to more materially rooted attempts to understand how a dynamic hybrid environment helps to create human history in all of its dimensions—cultural, social, and biological.
Christopher P. Loss
Until World War II, American universities were widely regarded as good but not great centers of research and learning. This changed completely in the press of wartime, when the federal government pumped billions into military research, anchored by the development of the atomic bomb and radar, and into the education of returning veterans under the GI Bill of 1944. The abandonment of decentralized federal–academic relations marked the single most important development in the history of the modern American university. While it is true that the government had helped to coordinate and fund the university system prior to the war—most notably the country’s network of public land-grant colleges and universities—government involvement after the war became much more hands-on, eventually leading to direct financial support to and legislative interventions on behalf of core institutional activities, not only the public land grants but the nation’s mix of private institutions as well. However, the reliance on public subsidies and legislative and judicial interventions of one kind or another ended up being a double-edged sword: state action made possible the expansion in research and in student access that became the hallmarks of the post-1945 American university; but it also created a rising tide of expectations for continued support that has proven challenging in fiscally stringent times and in the face of ongoing political fights over the government’s proper role in supporting the sector.