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.
Spanning countries across the globe, the antinuclear movement was the combined effort of millions of people to challenge the superpowers’ reliance on nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Encompassing an array of tactics, from radical dissent to public protest to opposition within the government, this movement succeeded in constraining the arms race and helping to make the use of nuclear weapons politically unacceptable. Antinuclear activists were critical to the establishment of arms control treaties, although they failed to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons, as anticommunists, national security officials, and proponents of nuclear deterrence within the United States and Soviet Union actively opposed the movement. Opposition to nuclear weapons evolved in tandem with the Cold War and the arms race, leading to a rapid decline in antinuclear activism after the Cold War ended.
Over the past seventy years, the American film industry has transformed from mass-producing movies to producing a limited number of massive blockbuster movies on a global scale. Hollywood film studios have moved from independent companies to divisions of media conglomerates. Theatrical attendance for American audiences has plummeted since the mid-1940s; nonetheless, American films have never been more profitable. In 1945, American films could only be viewed in theaters; now they are available in myriad forms of home viewing. Throughout, Hollywood has continued to dominate global cinema, although film and now video production reaches Americans in many other forms, from home videos to educational films.
Amid declining attendance, the Supreme Court in 1948 forced the major studios to sell off their theaters. Hollywood studios instead focused their power on distribution, limiting the supply of films and focusing on expensive productions to sell on an individual basis to theaters. Growing production costs and changing audiences caused wild fluctuations in profits, leading to an industry-wide recession in the late 1960s. The studios emerged under new corporate ownership and honed their blockbuster strategy, releasing “high concept” films widely on the heels of television marketing campaigns. New technologies such as cable and VCRs offered new windows for Hollywood movies beyond theatrical release, reducing the risks of blockbuster production. Deregulation through the 1980s and 1990s allowed for the “Big Six” media conglomerates to join film, theaters, networks, publishing, and other related media outlets under one corporate umbrella. This has expanded the scale and stability of Hollywood revenue while reducing the number and diversity of Hollywood films, as conglomerates focus on film franchises that can thrive on various digital media. Technological change has also lowered the cost of non-Hollywood films and thus encouraged a range of alternative forms of filmmaking, distribution, and exhibition.
The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, captured global attention and achieved the initial victory in what would soon become known as the space race. This impressive technological feat and its broader implications for Soviet missile capability rattled the confidence of the American public and challenged the credibility of U.S. leadership abroad. With the U.S.S.R.’s launch of Sputnik, and then later the first human spaceflight in 1961, U.S. policymakers feared that the public and political leaders around the world would view communism as a viable and even more dynamic alternative to capitalism, tilting the global balance of power away from the United States and towards the Soviet Union.
Reactions to Sputnik confirmed what members of the U.S. National Security Council had predicted: the image of scientific and technological superiority had very real, far-reaching geopolitical consequences. By signaling Soviet technological and military prowess, Sputnik solidified the link between space exploration and national prestige, setting a course for nationally funded space exploration for years to come. For over a decade, both the Soviet Union and the United States funneled significant financial and personnel resources into achieving impressive firsts in space, as part of a larger effort to win alliances in the Cold War contest for global influence.
From a U.S. vantage point, the space race culminated in the first Moon landing in July 1969. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy proposed Project Apollo, a lunar exploration program, as a tactic for restoring U.S. prestige in the wake of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. To achieve Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely back to Earth by the end of the decade, the United States mobilized a workforce in the hundreds of thousands. Project Apollo became the most expensive government funded civilian engineering program in U.S. history, at one point stretching to more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The United States’ substantial investment in winning the space race reveals the significant status of soft power in American foreign policy strategy during the Cold War.
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.
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.
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.
Madeline Y. Hsu
The global political divides of the Cold War propelled the dismantling of Asian exclusion in ways that provided greater, if conditional, integration for Asian Americans, in a central aspect of the reworking of racial inequality in the United States after World War II. The forging of strategic alliances with Asian nations and peoples in that conflict mandated at least token gestures of greater acceptance and equity, in the form of changes to immigration and citizenship laws that had previously barred Asians as “aliens ineligible to citizenship.”1 During the Cold War, shared politics and economic considerations continued to trump racial difference as the United States sought leadership of the “free” capitalist world and competed with Soviet-led communism for the affiliation and cooperation of emerging, postcolonial Third World nations. U.S. courtship of once-scorned peoples required the end of Jim Crow systems of segregation through the repeal of discriminatory laws, although actual practices and institutions proved far more resistant to change. Politically and ideologically, culture and values came to dominate explanations for categories and inequalities once attributed to differences in biological race. Mainstream media and cultural productions celebrated America’s newfound embrace of its ethnic populations, even as the liberatory aspirations inflamed by World War II set in motion the civil rights movement and increasingly confrontational mobilizations for greater access and equality.
These contestations transformed the character of America as a multiracial democracy, with Asian Americans advancing more than any other racial group to become widely perceived as a “model minority” by the 1980s with the popularization of a racial trope first articulated during the 1960s. Asian American gains were attained in part through the diminishing of barriers in immigration, employment, residence, education, and miscegenation, but also because their successes affirmed U.S. claims regarding its multiracial democracy and because reforms of immigration law admitted growing numbers of Asians who had been screened for family connections, refugee status, and especially their capacity to contribute economically. The 1965 Immigration Act cemented these preferences for educated and skilled Asian workers, with employers assuming great powers as routes to immigration and permanent status. The United States became the chief beneficiary of “brain drain” from Asian countries. Geometric rates of Asian American population growth since 1965, disproportionately screened through this economic preference system, have sharply reduced the ranks of Asian Americans linked to the exclusion era and set them apart from Latino, black, and Native Americans who remain much more entrenched in the systems of inequality rooted in the era of sanctioned racial segregation.
Ana Elizabeth Rosas
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.
On August 4, 1942, the Mexican and U.S. governments launched the bi-national guest worker program, most commonly known as the Bracero Program. An estimated five million Mexican men between the ages of 19 and 45 separated from their families for three-to-nine-month contract cycles at a time, in anticipation of earning the prevailing U.S. wage this program had promised them. They labored in U.S. agriculture, railroad construction, and forestry, with hardly any employment protections or rights in place to support themselves and the families they had left behind in Mexico. The inhumane configuration and implementation of this program prevented most of these men and their families from meeting such goals. Instead, the labor exploitation and alienation that characterized this guest worker program and their program participation paved the way for, at best, fragile family relationships. This program lasted twenty-two years and grew in its expanse, despite its negative consequences, Mexican men and their families could not afford to settle for being unemployed in Mexico, nor could they pass up U.S. employment opportunities of any sort. The Mexican and U.S. governments’ persistently negligent management of the Bracero Program, coupled with their conveniently selective acknowledgement of the severity of the plight of Mexican women and men, consistently cornered Mexican men and their families to shoulder the full extent of the Bracero Program’s exploitative conditions and terms.
In September 1962, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) held its first convention in Fresno, California, initiating a multiracial movement that would result in the creation of United Farm Workers (UFW) and the first contracts for farm workers in the state of California. Led by Cesar Chavez, the union contributed a number of innovations to the art of social protest, including the most successful consumer boycott in the history of the United States. Chavez welcomed contributions from numerous ethnic and racial groups, men and women, young and old. For a time, the UFW was the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s beloved community—people from different backgrounds coming together to create a socially just world. During the 1970s, Chavez struggled to maintain the momentum created by the boycott as the state of California became more involved in adjudicating labor disputes under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). Although Chavez and the UFW ultimately failed to establish a permanent, national union, their successes and strategies continue to influence movements for farm worker justice today.