The 20th century was a time of considerable transition for the United States. Going from the countries lowest point in history, to becoming the strongest nation in the world, left Americans and their leaders confronted with many difficult decisions. The decade of depression that had preceded World War II had produced enormous changes in US politics and the American political and economic systems. Beyond politics, Americans also faced challenges in their day to day lives as American culture and society was also going through transitions.
The ways in which these questions and problems were attempted to be answered, the balances of power that resulted, and the significance of wartime government were all key to how we got to where we are today. In the start of the century, the country was struck with hardship and despair. The stock market crash of 1929 leading to the largest depression in United States history, had left the American people feeling hopeless and were searching for a plan of recovery. By the time of the 1932 elections, the country was in desperate need for change and for someone to bring about that change.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the democratic candidate was willing to promise this change. On July 2, 1932 in his acceptance speech for the democratic presidential nomination, FDR promised a “new deal for the American people. ” He outlined the policies he had in mind to get the people what they wanted and needed: “What do the people of America want more than anything else? Two things; Work; work with all the moral and spiritual values that go with work. And with work, a reasonable measure of security- security for themselves and for their wives and children” (Polenberg, 8).
FDR arrived promising hope and change, and America believed in him, and so when the results came back it came as no surprise when he won handedly. He harbored the American Dream just like the millions of people who sent him to the White House a record four times. That, indeed, was precisely why they loved him so much: because the American Dream had lost its credibility during the Great Depression, and they trusted that he would be able to find a way back towards it. The New Deal arrived at a time when America desperately needed leadership to drag it out of the hole it was in.
No other institution of government, state or federal, was able or willing to cope with this responsibility at the time, so FDR was looked to for everything. This period of recovery can been seen as a turning point in American politics, with the President acquiring new authority and importance and the role of government in citizens’ lives increasing. FDR had a clear overarching vision of what he wanted to do to America, and was prepared to drive through the structural power changes required to achieve this vision.
FDR’s philosophy is summed up by his 1938 address to congress where he stated that the “government has a final responsibility for the well-being of its citizenship. If private co-operative endeavor fails to provide work for willing hands and relief for the unfortunate, those suffering hardship from no fault of their own have a right to call upon the Government for aid; and a government worthy of its name must make a fitting result” (Polenberg, 13) .
By the late 1940s and early 1950s the Cold War and the perceived threat of Communism prompted the United States to place even more emphasis on national security and ultimately to increase dramatically its defense spending, while subsequently resulting in deferred attention from many social needs. Just as our country began to think, ‘things are great, FDR is going to save our country through the New Deal’, the cold war came into the picture and haltered such promotion of certain inland concerns including the provisions outlined in the New Deal.
The perceived threat of the Soviet Union’s intelligence weighed on the minds of our nation’s political and military leaders; therefore we couldn’t put much focus into benefitting our own interests. The outside threat was outweighing the inside threat and we began to focus our attention on staying alive rather than our standard of living. We pushed money into acquiring missiles rather than into welfare programs. Consequently, our industrial structures underwent change and became increasingly military based.
Thus, “the conflict between these two powerful nations (us and the soviet union), what came to be called the Cold War, not only would shape international relations for the next 45 years but would deeply affect both nations’ political, economic, and cultural life” (Griffith/Baker, 36). In the 1960’s the Cold war, the Cuban missile crisis, and the start of US involvement in the Vietnam war were still at the heart of concern of leaders, including John F. Kennedy who was elected president in 1960.
In fact, at one point, people “thought that the administration was obsessed with Cuba” (Griffith/Baker, 149). While dealing with the war and foreign affairs, the nation was also having a struggle internally with African Americans fighting for equality and poverty still an issue of debate. Again, because of the involvement in the war and the dedication to foreign relations and national security, the presidents and congressional attention could not be focused entirely on tackling these issues, so other leaders stepped forward in this area.
Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King attempted to bring these issues into the spotlight, but it never took center stage in government priorities. It was frustrating at the time for these activist that during this time, “while some middle class African Americans had profited from the new economic and social opportunities created by the civil rights movement, the plight of many poor African Americans had actually worsened” (Griffith/Baker, 173). Still, there was movement occurring, and hope remained as President Kennedy was working on a Civil rights Act, and he was suspected to pull out of Vietnam.
This potentially would have aided the civil rights movement, and arguably due to the importance Robert Kennedy put on reforming African American’s rights, JFK would have addressed this issue now with more vigor. In 1963, however JFK was assassinated and Lyndon B Johnson took office, thus changing the course abruptly. LBJ passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in schools, public places, and employment. He also proposed a set of domestic programs which he called “The Great Society” which goal was to eliminate poverty and racial injustice.
There was a major increase in spending that addressed problems outlined in the New Deal such as education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation but differed from the New Deal in types of programs enacted. However well-intended these programs might have been, its goals were not being met at the rate in which civil rights activists would have liked. Part of the reason being that in opposition to Kennedy’s plan for Vietnam LBJ decided to continue fighting. Most of his attempts to increase the standard of living failed, partly due to his involvement in the war, and the liberalistic views of the Kennedys were put on hold.
Heading into the 1970’s the American people had entered another type of depression. This time it was a psychological depression, not an economic one. In the previous ten years, it had been subjects of some monumental blows, including the assassinations of their beloved president JFK and that of Martin Luther King Jr. LBJ had been wrapped up in Vietnam and in the war, Americans lost numerous American lives. Richard Nixon, who took over in office after LBJ, ended US involvement in the Vietnam War, but Americans felt a sense of defeat in how the War ended.
Nixon didn’t help the American psyche when news of the Watergate scandal broke and ultimately led to his resignation in 1974. During Ford’s administration from 1974-1977 the public suffered from inflation and a recession, and during the Carter administration from 1977-1981 had a high disapproval rating and he wasn’t re-elected in 1981. When Ronald Reagan was elected president, he had a huge task ahead of him. He had to try and pull Americans out of this psychological depression and start moving forward. Like Roosevelt, Reagan used a major address to congress and offered optimism to the American people.
He was the republican hope to bring conservatism into power and during this time moral issues pushed through politics with new, greater importance. Issues such as abortion and gay rights surfaced and the conservatives often times blamed liberal ideals with problems in American at the time, such as the AIDS epidemic. As public attention was placed on these such issues many organizations backed by his presidency flourished with more power and increases in capitol. This can be views as an attempt to create barriers between labor unions and business interests and hurt their relations with democratic liberalists.
Through deregulation, conservatives hoped to get business to break its alliance with organized labor. Consumer advocates, for their part, were happy to weaken the labor unions and business interests that had been their rivals for influence within the Democratic Party. ” (Griffith/Baker, 375). The presidential administrations in the 1970’s until now, from Presidents Nixon, Carter and Reagan to Clinton and Bush II have been viewed as unsuccessful in creating any long term political coalition that plausibly benefited all Americans.
I feel the main reason for this is that none of these presidents seemed to work well together with congress and most of their endeavors were shut down as soon as they suggested them. The people viewed this as a failure to meet their needs or be proactive in domestic affairs, but the truth is that since they couldn’t agree on how to meet the needs of the people, they couldn’t attempt at doing so. Unlike FDR were he stacked the court and he basically got passed whatever legislation he wanted, these presidents couldn’t do so with more emphasis placed on following the rules and thus none of their ideas made it outside congressional grounds.
Also the good things they did achieve were masked by scandal and poor decisions. Nixon was involved in Watergate, Carter was in office during the hostage crisis of 1980, Clinton was caught up in a sex scandal, and George W. Bush led America into a much debated war. “Meanwhile, deep beneath the surface clash of political parties, powerful currents continued to reshape the fundamental character of American Politics and civic life. Chief among these were;.. ; the rise of more narrowly segmented and professionally organized interest groups” (Griffith Blakely). This included the work of lobbyists and powerful interest groups.
Ever since the emergence of lobbying in the Grant administration, special interests groups have had a major impact on what gets passed, promoted, and voted upon politically. These groups who are constantly working toward their own interests and constantly forcing the issues make it known their great importance when it comes to elections and therefore in determining what our country places emphasis on. Within the past forty years with the advancements in technology and the mass Medias affect on the public, these interests groups play an even more significant role.
Throughout this past century, the goals of our country have remained the same, and each president has hoped to bring about this dream into being, however, there have been many road blocks along the way. Wars, depression, inflation, civil disputes, ect. have emerged in various times and thrown our country off the winding course to reaching our goals. As a result this era saw many changes economically, socially, governmentally, and culturally. The fluctuations of power played a determining role in these changes. These changes that occurred shaped America into its current state, and will most definitely play a role in the years to come.