The decade of the 1980s represented a turning point in American history—a crucial era, marked by political conservatism and an individualistic ethos. The 1980s also witnessed a dramatic series of developments in U.S. foreign relations, first an intensification of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and then a sudden relaxation of tensions and the effective end of the Cold War with an American victory. All of these developments were advanced and symbolized in the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), a polarizing figure but a highly successful political leader. Reagan dominates our memories of the 1980s like few other American leaders do other eras. Reagan and the political movement he led—Reaganism—are central to the history of the 1980s. Both their successes and their failures, which became widely acknowledged in the later years of the decade, should be noted. Reaganite conservatives won political victories by rolling back state power in many realms, most of all in terms of taxation and regulation. They also succeeded in putting America at the unquestioned pinnacle of the world order through a victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, although this was unforeseen by America’s Cold Warriors when the 1980s began. The failures of Reaganite conservatism include its handling of rising poverty levels, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and worsening racial tensions, all problems that either Reaganites did little to stem or to which they positively contributed. In foreign affairs, Reaganites pursued a “war on terror” of questionable success, and their approach to Third World arenas of conflict, including Central America, exacted a terrible human toll.
The 1950s have typically been seen as a complacent, conservative time between the end of World War II and the radical 1960s, when anticommunism and the Cold War subverted reform and undermined civil liberties. But the era can also be seen as a very liberal time in which meeting the Communist threat led to Keynesian economic policies, the expansion of New Deal programs, and advances in civil rights. Politically, it was “the Eisenhower Era,” dominated by a moderate Republican president, a high level of bipartisan cooperation, and a foreign policy committed to containing communism. Culturally, it was an era of middle-class conformity, which also gave us abstract expressionism, rock and roll, Beat poetry, and a grassroots challenge to Jim Crow.
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.
K. Tsianina Lomawaima
In 1911, a group of American Indian intellectuals organized what would become known as the Society of American Indians, or SAI. SAI members convened in annual meetings between 1911 and 1923, and for much of that period the Society’s executive offices were a hub for political advocacy, lobbying Congress and the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA), publishing a journal, offering legal assistance to Native individuals and tribes, and maintaining an impressively voluminous correspondence across the country with American Indians, “Friends of the Indian” reformers, political allies, and staunch critics. Notable Native activists, clergy, entertainers, professionals, speakers, and writers—as well as Native representatives from on- and off-reservation communities—were active in the Society. They worked tirelessly to meet daunting, unrealistic expectations, principally to deliver a unified voice of Indian “public opinion” and to pursue controversial political goals without appearing too radical, especially obtaining U.S. citizenship for Indian individuals and allowing Indian nations to access the U.S. Court of Claims. They maintained their myriad activities with scant financial resources solely through the unpaid labor of dedicated Native volunteers. By 1923, the challenges exhausted the Society’s substantial human and miniscule financial capital. The Native “soul of unity” demanded by non-white spectators and hoped for by SAI leaders could no longer hold the center, and the SAI dissolved. Their work was not in vain, but citizenship and the ability to file claims materialized in circumscribed forms. In 1924 Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting birthright citizenship to American Indians, but citizenship for Indians was deemed compatible with continued wardship status. In 1946 Congress established an Indian Claims Commission, not a court, and successful claims could only result in monetary compensation, not regained lands.
Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese
Mass migration to suburban areas was a defining feature of American life after 1945. Before World War II, just 13% of Americans lived in suburbs. By 2010, however, suburbia was home to more than half of the U.S. population. The nation’s economy, politics, and society suburbanized in important ways. Suburbia shaped habits of car dependency and commuting, patterns of spending and saving, and experiences with issues as diverse as race and taxes, energy and nature, privacy and community. The owner occupied, single-family home, surrounded by a yard, and set in a neighborhood outside the urban core came to define everyday experience for most American households, and in the world of popular culture and the imagination, suburbia was the setting for the American dream. The nation’s suburbs were an equally critical economic landscape, home to vital high-tech industries, retailing, “logistics,” and office employment. In addition, American politics rested on a suburban majority, and over several decades, suburbia incubated political movements across the partisan spectrum, from grass-roots conservativism, to centrist meritocratic individualism, environmentalism, feminism, and social justice. In short, suburbia was a key setting for postwar American life.
Even as suburbia grew in magnitude and influence, it also grew more diverse, coming to reflect a much broader cross-section of America itself. This encompassing shift marked two key chronological stages in suburban history since 1945: the expansive, racialized, mass suburbanization of the postwar years (1945–1970) and an era of intensive social diversification and metropolitan complexity (since 1970). In the first period, suburbia witnessed the expansion of segregated white privilege, bolstered by government policies, exclusionary practices, and reinforced by grassroots political movements. By the second period, suburbia came to house a broader cross section of Americans, who brought with them a wide range of outlooks, lifeways, values, and politics. Suburbia became home to large numbers of immigrants, ethnic groups, African Americans, the poor, the elderly and diverse family types. In the face of stubborn exclusionism by affluent suburbs, inequality persisted across metropolitan areas and manifested anew in proliferating poorer, distressed suburbs. Reform efforts sought to alleviate metro-wide inequality and promote sustainable development, using coordinated regional approaches. In recent years, the twin discourses of suburban crisis and suburban rejuvenation captured the continued complexity of America’s suburbs.
In the decade after 1965, radicals responded to the alienating features of America’s technocratic society by developing alternative cultures that emphasized authenticity, individualism, and community. The counterculture emerged from a handful of 1950s bohemian enclaves, most notably the Beat subcultures in the Bay Area and Greenwich Village. But new influences shaped an eclectic and decentralized counterculture after 1965, first in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, then in urban areas and college towns, and, by the 1970s, on communes and in myriad counter-institutions. The psychedelic drug cultures around Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey gave rise to a mystical bent in some branches of the counterculture and influenced counterculture style in countless ways: acid rock redefined popular music; tie dye, long hair, repurposed clothes, and hip argot established a new style; and sexual mores loosened. Yet the counterculture’s reactionary elements were strong. In many counterculture communities, gender roles mirrored those of mainstream society, and aggressive male sexuality inhibited feminist spins on the sexual revolution. Entrepreneurs and corporate America refashioned the counterculture aesthetic into a marketable commodity, ignoring the counterculture’s incisive critique of capitalism. Yet the counterculture became the basis of authentic “right livelihoods” for others. Meanwhile, the politics of the counterculture defy ready categorization. The popular imagination often conflates hippies with radical peace activists. But New Leftists frequently excoriated the counterculture for rejecting political engagement in favor of hedonistic escapism or libertarian individualism. Both views miss the most important political aspects of the counterculture, which centered on the embodiment of a decentralized anarchist bent, expressed in the formation of counter-institutions like underground newspapers, urban and rural communes, head shops, and food co-ops. As the counterculture faded after 1975, its legacies became apparent in the redefinition of the American family, the advent of the personal computer, an increasing ecological and culinary consciousness, and the marijuana legalization movement.
Anne L. Foster
The beginning of modern war on drugs in the United States is commonly credited to President Richard Nixon, who evoked fears of crime, degenerate youth, and foreign drugs to garner support for his massive, by early 1970s standards, effort to combat drugs in the United States. Scholars now agree, however, that the essential characteristics of the “war on drugs” stretched back to the early 20th century. The first federal law to prohibit a narcotic in the United States passed in 1909 and banned the import of “smoking opium.” Although opium itself remained legal, opium prepared for smoking—a form believed to be consumed predominantly by ethnic Chinese and imported into the United States—was not. All future anti-narcotics policies drew on these foundational notions: narcotics were of foreign origin and invaded the United States. Thus, interdiction efforts at U.S. borders, and increasingly in producer countries, were an appropriate response. Narcotics consumers were presented as equally threatening, viewed as foreigners or at the margins of American society, and U.S. lawmakers therefore criminalized both drug use and drug trafficking. With drugs as well as drug users defined as foreign threats, militarization of the efforts to prohibit drugs followed. In U.S. drug policy, there is no distinction between foreign and domestic policy. They are intertwined at all levels, including the definition of the problem, the origin of many drugs, and the sites of enforcement.
The “Chinese 49’ers” who arrived in the United States a decade before the American Civil War constituted the first large wave of Asian migrants to America and transplanted the first Asian cuisine to America. Chinese food was the first ethnic cuisine to be highly commodified at the national level as a type of food primarily to be prepared and consumed away from home. At the end of the 19th century, food from China began to attract a fast-growing non-Chinese clientele of diverse ethnic backgrounds in major cities across the nation, and by 1980 Chinese food had become the most popular ethnic cuisine in the United States, aided by a renewal of Chinese immigration to America. Chinese food also has been a vital economic lifeline for Chinese Americans as one of the two main sources of employment (laundries being the other) for Chinese immigrants and families for decades. Its development, therefore, is an important chapter in American history and a central part of the Chinese American experience.
The multiple and often divergent trends in the U.S. Chinese-food industry show that it is at a crossroads today. Its future hinges on the extent to which Chinese Americans can significantly alter their position in the social and political arena and on China’s ability to transform the economic equation in its relationship with the United States.
Ted R. Bromund
The Special Relationship is a term used to describe the close relations between the United States and the United Kingdom. It applies particularly to the governmental realms of foreign, defense, security, and intelligence policy, but it also captures a broader sense that both public and private relations between the United States and Britain are particularly deep and close. The Special Relationship is thus a term for a reality that came into being over time as the result of political leadership as well as ideas and events outside the formal arena of politics.
After the political break of the American Revolution and in spite of sporadic cooperation in the 19th century, it was not until the Great Rapprochement of the 1890s that the idea that Britain and the United States had a special kind of relationship took hold. This decade, in turn, created the basis for the Special Relationship, a term first used by Winston Churchill in 1944. Churchill did the most to build the relationship, convinced as he was that close friendship between Britain and the United States was the cornerstone of world peace and prosperity. During and after the Second World War, many others on both sides of the Atlantic came to agree with Churchill.
The post-1945 era witnessed a flowering of the relationship, which was cemented—not without many controversies and crises—by the emerging Cold War against the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War in 1989, the relationship remained close, though it was severely tested by further security crises, Britain’s declining defense spending, the evolving implications of Britain’s membership in the European Union, the relative decline of Europe, and an increasing U.S. interest in Asia. Yet on many public and private levels, relations between the United States and Britain continue to be particularly deep, and thus the Special Relationship endures.
Blake C. Scott
Tourism is so deep-seated in the history of U.S. foreign relations we seem to have taken its presence for granted. Millions of American tourists have traveled abroad, yet one can count with just two hands the number of scholarly monographs analyzing the relationship between U.S. foreign relations and tourism. What explains this lack of historical reflection about one of the most quotidian forms of U.S. influence abroad?
In an influential essay about wilderness and the American frontier, the environmental historian William Cronon argues, “one of the most striking proofs of the cultural invention of wilderness is its thoroughgoing erasure of the history from which it sprang.” Historians and the American public, perhaps in modern fashion, have overlooked tourism’s role in the nation’s international affairs. Only a culture and a people so intimately familiar with tourism’s practices could naturalize them out of history.
The history of international tourism is profoundly entangled with the history of U.S. foreign policy. This entanglement has involved, among other things, science and technology, military intervention, diplomacy, and the promotion of consumer spending abroad. U.S. expansion created the structure (the social stability, medical safety, and transportation infrastructure) for globetrotting travel in the 20th century. As this essay shows, U.S. foreign policy was crucial in transforming foreign travel into a middle-class consumer experience.