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Radicalism in the United States since 1945 has been varied, complex, and often fragmented, making it difficult to analyze as a coherent movement. Communist and pro-Soviet organizations remained active after World War II, but a proliferation of noncommunist groups in the 1940s and 1950s, formed by those disillusioned by Marxist theory or the Soviet Union, began to chart a new course for the American Left. Eschewing much of the previous focus on labor, the proletariat, and Marxist doctrine, American postwar radical organizations realigned around humanist values, moral action, democracy, and even religion, with tenuous connections to Marxism, if any. The parameters of postwar radical moral theory were not always clearly defined, and questions of strategy and vision caused frequent divisions among activists. Nonetheless, claims of individual dignity and freedom continued to frame left radicalism into the late 20th century, emphasizing identity politics, community-building initiatives, and cultural expression in the streets of U.S. cities and the halls of academia. The presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders in 2016 helped revitalize leftist rhetoric on the national stage with its calls for racial and economic equality on moral terms.
Since the early 1800s railroads have served as a critical element of the transportation infrastructure in the United States and have generated profound changes in technology, finance, business-government relations, and labor policy. By the 1850s railroads, at least in the northern states, had evolved into the nation’s first big businesses, replete with managerial hierarchies that in many respects resembled the structure of the US Army. After the Civil War ended, the railroad network grew rapidly, with lines extending into the Midwest and ultimately, with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, to the Pacific Coast. The last third of the 19th century was characterized by increased militancy among railroad workers, as well as by the growing danger that railroading posed to employees and passengers. Intense competition among railroad companies led to rate wars and discriminatory pricing. The presence of rebates and long-haul/short-haul price differentials led to the federal regulation of the railroads in 1887. The Progressive Era generated additional regulation that reduced profitability and discouraged additional investment in the railroads. As a result, the carriers were often unprepared for the traffic demands associated with World War I, leading to government operation of the railroads between 1917 and 1920. Highway competition during the 1920s and the economic crises of the 1930s provided further challenges for the railroads. The nation’s railroads performed well during World War II but declined steadily in the years that followed. High labor costs, excessive regulatory oversight, and the loss of freight and passenger traffic to cars, trucks, and airplanes ensured that by the 1960s many once-profitable companies were on the verge of bankruptcy. A wave of mergers failed to halt the downward slide. The bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970 increased public awareness of the dire circumstances and led to calls for regulatory reform. The 1980 Staggers Act abolished most of the restrictions on operations and pricing, thus revitalizing the railroads.
Rap is the musical practice of hip hop culture that features vocalists, or MCs, reciting lyrics over an instrumental beat that emerged out of the political and economic transformations of New York City after the 1960s. Black and Latinx youth, many of them Caribbean immigrants, created this new cultural form in response to racism, poverty, urban renewal, deindustrialization, and inner-city violence. These new cultural forms eventually spread beyond New York to all regions of the United States as artists from Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, and Chicago began releasing rap music with their own distinct sounds. Despite efforts to demonize and censor rap music and hip hop culture, rap music has served as a pathway for social mobility for many black and Latinx youth. Many artists have enjoyed crossover success in acting, advertising, and business. Rap music has also sparked new conversations about various issues such as electoral politics, gender and sexuality, crime, policing, and mass incarceration, as well as technology.
From the founding of the American republic through the 19th century, the nation’s environmental policy mostly centered on promoting American settlers’ conquest of the frontier. Early federal interventions, whether railroad and canal subsidies or land grant acts, led to rapid transformations of the natural environment that inspired a conservation movement by the end of the 19th century. Led by activists and policymakers, this movement sought to protect America’s resources now jeopardized by expansive industrial infrastructure. During the Gilded Age, the federal government established the world’s first national parks, and in the Progressive Era, politicians such as President Theodore Roosevelt called for the federal government to play a central role in ensuring the efficient utilization of the nation’s ecological bounty. By the early 1900s, conservationists established new government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, to regulate the consumption of trees, water, and other valuable natural assets. Wise-use was the watchword of the day, with environmental managers in DC’s bureaucracy focused mainly on protecting the economic value latent in America’s ecosystems. However, other groups, such as the Wilderness Society, proved successful at redirecting policy prescriptions toward preserving beautiful and wild spaces, not just conserving resources central to capitalist enterprise. In the 1960s and 1970s, suburban and urban environmental activists attracted federal regulators’ attention to contaminated soil and water under their feet. The era of ecology had arrived, and the federal government now had broad powers through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage ecosystems that stretched across the continent. But from the 1980s to the 2010s, the federal government’s authority to regulate the environment waxed and waned as economic crises, often exacerbated by oil shortages, brought environmental agencies under fire. The Rooseveltian logic of the Progressive Era, which said that America’s economic growth depended on federal oversight of the environment, came under assault from neoliberal disciples of Ronald Reagan, who argued that environmental regulations were in fact the root cause of economic stagnation in America, not a powerful prescription against it. What the country needed, according to the reformers of the New Right, was unregulated expansion into new frontiers. By the 2010s, the contours of these new frontiers were clear: deep-water oil drilling, Bakken shale exploration, and tar-sand excavation in Alberta, Canada. In many ways, the frontier conquest doctrine of colonial Americans found new life in deregulatory U.S. environmental policy pitched by conservatives in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. Never wholly dominant, this ethos carried on into the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.
America’s tremendous diversities of faith, region, and ethnicity complicate efforts to generalize relationships between religious groups and the labor movement. Americans’ historic and widely shared commitment to Christianity masks deep divisions: between white Christians and black Christians, between Catholics and Protestants, between northern Protestants and southern Protestants, and between “modernist” Protestants (who view the Bible in metaphorical terms as a source of ethical guidance and emphasize social justice) and “fundamentalist” Protestants (who view the Bible literally and eschew social activism in favor of individual evangelizing). Work, class, and the role of the labor movement add extra dimensions to these complexities, which are multiplied when considering non-Christian traditions such as Judaism or the other world religious communities that have grown in the United States since the immigration reforms of 1965.
Nevertheless, scholars accept a general narrative that delineates key periods, themes, and players over the course of the twentieth century. From the turn of the 19th century until the 1930s, the relationship between religion and labor was shaped by the centrality of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the labor movement, the development of a “social gospel” among northern mainline Protestants, and the massive immigration from southern and eastern Europe that brought millions of Catholic and Jewish workers into the United States before it largely ended in the 1920s. These developments were sometimes in tension. The AFL favored craft unionism and placed a premium on organizing skilled male workers; it therefore left out many of the unskilled new arrivals (as well as African Americans and most women). Consequently, the shape of “religion and labor” formed primarily around the dynamic between the AFL and Protestant social reformers, without much regard to the large masses of unorganized Catholic, Jewish, and African American workers.
These dynamics shifted in the Great Depression. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), begun as a committee within the AFL in 1934, sought the organization of entire industries—skilled and unskilled alike, and ethnic Catholics and Jews became unionized in large numbers. Even traditional racial barriers in the labor movement began crumbling in some industries. And, the labor movement expanded its geographical ambition, pushing aggressively into the South. In turn, the religious voices associated with the labor movement broadened and deepened. Labor’s new alliances with Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and southern evangelicals helped to push the ranks of organized workers to historic highs in the 1950s.
This coalition has faced divisive, even disastrous headwinds since the 1960s. The strength of anticommunism, especially within religious groups, caused some religious workers to retreat from the reformist ambitions of the labor movement and sparked a conservative religious movement deeply opposed to labor and liberalism. Race became an ever-hotter flashpoint. Although religiously affiliated civil rights reformers often forged alliances with unions, the backlash and resistance to civil rights among portions of the white working class undermined the efficacy of labor unions as sources of social cohesion. Perhaps most profoundly, the economy as a whole transformed from an urban-industrial to a post-urban service model. Organized labor has floundered in the wake of these changes, and the concomitant resurgence of a traditionalist, individualistic, and therapeutic religious culture has offered the remains of the labor movement little to partner with.
Emily Suzanne Clark
Religion and race provide rich categories of analysis for American history. Neither category is stable. They change, shift, and develop in light of historical and cultural contexts. Religion has played a vital role in the construction, deconstruction, and transgression of racial identities and boundaries.
Race is a social concept and a means of classifying people. The “natural” and “inherent” differences between races are human constructs, social taxonomies created by cultures. In American history, the construction of racial identities and racial differences begins with the initial encounters between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans. Access to and use of religious and political power has shaped how race has been conceived in American history. Racial categories and religious affiliations influenced how groups regarded each other throughout American history, with developments in the colonial period offering prime examples. Enslavement of Africans and their descendants, as well as conquered Native Americans, displayed the power of white Protestants. Even 19th-century American anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism intersected racial identifications. At the same time, just as religion has supported racial domination in American history, it also has inspired calls for self-determination among racial minorities, most notably in the 20th century.
With the long shadow of slavery, the power of white supremacy, the emphasis on Native sovereignty, and the civil rights movement, much of the story of religion and race in American history focuses on Americans white, black, and red. However, this is not the whole story. Mexican-Americans and Latinx immigrants bring Catholic and transnational connections, but their presence has prompted xenophobia. Additionally, white Americans sought to restrict the arrival of Asian immigrants both legally and culturally. With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the United States increased further. This religious and racial pluralism in many ways reflects the diversity of America, as does the conflict that comes with it.
The Great Depression of 1929–1941 brought not only economic and social crisis, but also forced families, churches, and religious organizations to reckon with individual and social suffering in ways that they had not done in the United States since the Civil War. This reckoning introduced a period of both theological and institutional transformation. Theologians wrestled not only with the domestic depression, but also with international instability as they faced questions about pacifism, economic and racial justice, and religious persecution. Ordinary people prayed for rain and revival. Many turned to their religious communities to wrestle together with the troubles they faced, or turned from those communities in disappointment and despair.
During the decades before the Great Depression, religious institutions across the United States had expanded their charitable efforts and their social reform campaigns, but the Depression wiped out the support for that work just as Americans needed it most. The New Deal brought a new set of questions about the relative roles of church and state in welfare and reform and introduced a period of religious ferment and church–state realignment. At the same time, the discontent and dislocation that the Great Depression wrought on local communities meant that individuals, families, and communities wrestled with deep theological questions together, often in ways that fractured old religious alliances and forged new ones. For American Jews and some Catholics, events in Europe proved even more troubling than those at home, and local communities reorganized around international activism and engagement.
Dynamic and creative exchanges among different religions, including indigenous traditions, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, and Islam, all with developing theologies and institutions, fostered substantial collective religious and cultural identities within African American communities in the United States. The New World enslavement of diverse African peoples and the cultural encounter with Europeans and Native Americans produced distinctive religious perspectives that aided individuals and communities in persevering under the dehumanization of slavery and oppression. As African Americans embraced Christianity beginning in the 18th century, especially after 1770, they gathered in independent church communities and created larger denominational structures such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the National Baptist Convention. These churches and denominations became significant arenas for spiritual support, educational opportunity, economic development, and political activism. Black religious institutions served as contexts in which African Americans made meaning of the experience of enslavement, interpreted their relationship to Africa, and charted a vision for a collective future. The early 20th century saw the emergence of new religious opportunities as increasing numbers of African Americans turned to Holiness and Pentecostal churches, drawn by the focus on baptism in the Holy Spirit and enthusiastic worship that sometimes involved speaking in tongues. The Great Migration of southern blacks to southern and northern cities fostered the development of a variety of religious options outside of Christianity. Groups such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, whose leaders taught that Islam was the true religion of people of African descent, and congregations of Ethiopian Hebrews promoting Judaism as the heritage of black people, were founded in this period. Early-20th-century African American religion was also marked by significant cultural developments as ministers, musicians, actors, and other performers turned to new media, such as radio, records, and film, to contribute to religious life. In the post–World War II era, religious contexts supported the emergence of the modern Civil Rights movement. Black religious leaders emerged as prominent spokespeople for the cause and others as vocal critics of the goal of racial integration, as in the case of the Nation of Islam and religious advocates of Black Power. The second half of the 20th century and the early 21st-first century saw new religious diversity as a result of immigration and cultural transformations within African American Christianity with the rise of megachurches and televangelism.
Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence Speech” of July 1979 was a critical juncture in post-1945 U.S. politics, but it also marks an exemplary pivot in post-1945 religion. Five dimensions of faith shaped the president’s sermon. The first concerned the shattered consensus of American religion. When Carter encouraged Americans to recapture a spirit of unity, he spoke in a heartfelt but spent language more suitable to Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency than his own. By 1979, the Protestant-Catholic-Jewish consensus of Eisenhower’s time was fractured into a dynamic pluralism, remaking American religion in profound ways. Carter’s speech revealed a second revolution of post-1945 religion when it decried its polarization and politicization. Carter sought to heal ruptures that were dividing the nation between what observers, two decades hence, would label “red” (conservative Republican) and “blue” (liberal Democratic) constituencies. Yet his endeavors failed, as would be evidenced in the religious politics of Ronald Reagan’s era, which followed. Carter championed community values as the answer to his society’s problems aware of yet a third dawning reality: globalization. The virtues of localism that Carter espoused were in fact implicated in (and complicated by) transnational forces of change that saw immigration, missionary enterprises, and state and non-state actors internationalizing the American religious experience. A fourth illuminating dimension of Carter’s speech was its critique of America’s gospel of wealth. Although this “born-again” southerner was a product of the evangelical South’s revitalized free-market capitalism, he lamented how laissez-faire Christianity had become America’s lingua franca. Finally, Carter wrestled with secularization, revealing a fifth feature of post-1945 America. Even though faith commitments were increasingly cordoned off from formal state functions during this time, the nation’s political discourse acquired a pronounced religiosity. Carter contributed by framing mundane issues (such as energy) in moral contexts that drew no hard-and-fast boundaries between matters of the soul and governance. Drawn from the political and economic crises of his moment, Carter’s speech thus also reveals the all-enveloping tide of religion in America’s post-1945 age.
Kyle B. Roberts
From Cahokia to Newport, from Santa Fe to Chicago, cities have long exerted an important influence over the development of American religion; in turn, religion has shaped the life of America’s cities. Early visions of a New Jerusalem quickly gave way to a crowded spiritual marketplace full of faiths competing for the attention of a heterogeneous mass of urban consumers, although the dream of an idealized spiritual city never completely disappeared. Pluralism fostered toleration and freedom of religious choice, but also catalyzed competition and antagonism, sometimes resulting in violence. Struggles over political authority between established and dissenting churches gave way after the American Revolution to a contest over the right to exert moral authority through reform. Secularization, the companion of modernization and urbanization, did not toll the death knell for urban religion, but instead, provided the materials with which the religious engaged the city. Negative discursive constructions of the city proffered by a handful of religious reformers have long cast a shadow over the actual urban experience of most men and women. Historians continue to uncover the rich and innovative ways in which urban religion enabled individuals to understand, navigate, and contribute to the city around them.
Christopher D. Cantwell
Home to more than half the U.S. population by 1920, cities played an important role in the development of American religion throughout the 20th century. At the same time, the beliefs and practices of religious communities also shaped the contours of America’s urban landscape. Much as in the preceding three centuries, the economic development of America’s cities and the social diversity of urban populations animated this interplay. But the explosive, unregulated expansion that defined urban growth after the Civil War was met with an equally dramatic disinvestment from urban spaces throughout the second half of the 20th century. The domestic and European migrations that previously fueled urban growth also changed throughout the century, shifting from Europe and the rural Midwest to the deep South, Africa, Asia, and Latin America after World War II. These newcomers not only brought new faiths to America’s cities but also contributed to the innovation of several new, distinctly urban religious movements. Urban development and diversity on one level promoted toleration and cooperation as religious leaders forged numerous ecumenical and, eventually, interfaith bonds to combat urban problems. But it also led to tension and conflict as religious communities busied themselves with carving out spaces of their own through tight-knit urban enclaves or new suburban locales. Contemporary American cities are some of the most religiously diverse communities in the world. Historians continue to uncover how religious communities not only have lived in but also have shaped the modern city.
Cara L. Burnidge
Since 2001, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of scholarly monographs dedicated to religion and foreign relations. More scholars and policymakers agree that religion is an important feature of foreign affairs, regardless of whether one thinks it ought to be. While policymakers and scholars often discuss “religion” as a single “lens” for understanding the world, religious traditions do not exist in isolation from the political, economic, or social and cultural aspects of life. Tracing religious influences on U.S. foreign policy, then, can lead scholars in a variety of directions. Scholars researching religious influences in foreign policy could consider theologies and creeds of religious organizations and figures, the rhetoric and rituals of national norms and civic values, the intersection of “sacred” and “secular” ideas and institutions, the service of individual policymakers and diplomats, international legal or military defenses for or against specific religious groups, or public discourse about religion, to name but a few options.
Advances in the study of religion and foreign policy will require collaboration and dialogue across traditional boundaries for disciplines, fields, and subfields. For many scholars, this means broadening research approaches and methods. Instead of prioritizing “first-” and “second-” order causes, for instance, historians and social scientists could move beyond cause-effect relationships alone, complicating U.S. foreign relations by considering intersectional experiences and interstitial explanations. Rather than looking for “the” univocal religious influence, scholars might pay greater attention to the multiplicity of “religious” influences on a given topic. This will likely occur by reading and researching beyond one specific area of expertise. It will also require attention to differentiating between institutional and “popular” or “lived” religion; recognizing the disparities between the official dogma of a religious affiliation and ethnographic and empirical data on religious practice; and giving attention to the underlying assumptions that occur when international organizations, national governments, and scholars choose to pay attention to certain forms of “religious” thought, behavior, and organizations and not others.
Jane H. Hong
Laws barring Asians from legal immigration and naturalization in the United States began with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and expanded to include all other Asian groups by 1924. Beginning in World War II, U.S. lawmakers began to dismantle the Asian exclusion regime in response to growing international pressure and scrutiny of America’s racial policies and practices. The Japanese government sought to use the U.S. Asian exclusion laws to disrupt the Sino-American alliance of World War II, causing Washington officials to recognize these laws as a growing impediment to international diplomacy and the war effort. Later, the Soviet Union and other communist powers cited U.S. exclusion policies as evidence of American racial hypocrisy during the Cold War.
A diverse group of actors championed the repeal of Asian exclusion laws over the 1940s and early 1950s. They included former American missionaries to Asia, U.S. and Asian state officials, and Asian and Asian American activists. The movement argued for repeal legislation as an inexpensive way for the United States to demonstrate goodwill, counter foreign criticism, and rehabilitate America’s international image as a liberal democracy. Drawing upon the timely language and logic of geopolitics, advocates lobbied Congressional lawmakers to pass legislation ending the racial exclusion of Asians from immigration and naturalization eligibility, in support of U.S. diplomatic and security interests abroad.
The story of the pre-Columbian Mississippi Period (1000
Rock and roll, a popular music craze of the mid-1950s, turned a loud, fast, and sexy set of sounds rooted in urban, black, working class, and southern America into the pop preference as well of suburban, white, young, and northern America. By the late 1960s, those fans and British counterparts made their own version, more politicized and experimental and just called rock—the summoning sound of the counterculture. Rock’s aura soon faded: it became as much entertainment staple as dissident form, with subcategories disparate as singer-songwriter, heavy metal, alternative, and “classic rock.” Where rock and roll was integrated and heterogeneous, rock was largely white and homogeneous, policing its borders. Notoriously, rock fans detonated disco records in 1979. By the 1990s, rock and roll style was hip-hop, with its youth appeal and rebelliousness; post‒baby boomer bands gave rock some last vanguard status; and suburbanites found classic rock in New Country. This century’s notions of rock and roll have blended thoroughly, from genre “mash-ups” to superstar performers almost categories unto themselves and new sounds such as EDM beats. Still, crossover moments evoke rock and roll; assertions of authenticity evoke rock. Because rock and roll, and rock, epitomize cultural ideals and group identities, their definitions have been constantly debated. Initial argument focused on challenging genteel, professional notions of musicianship and behavior. Later discourse took up cultural incorporation and social empowerment, with issues of gender and commercialism as prominent as race and artistry. Rock and roll promised one kind of revolution to the post-1945 United States; rock another. The resulting hope and confusion has never been fully sorted, with mixed consequences for American music and cultural history.
Decided by the Supreme Court in 1973, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion across the United States. The 7-2 decision came at the end of a decades-long struggle to reform—and later repeal—abortion laws. Although all of the justices understood that Roe addressed a profoundly important question, none of them imagined that it would later become a flashpoint of American politics or shape those politics for decades to come.
Holding that the right to privacy covered a woman’s choice to terminate her pregnancy, Roe and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, struck down many of the abortion regulations on the books. The lead-up to and aftermath of Roe tell a story not only of a single Supreme Court decision but also of the historical shifts that the decision shaped and reflected: the emergence of a movement for women’s liberation, the rise of grassroots conservatism, political party realignment, controversy about the welfare state, changes to the family structure, and the politicization of science. It is a messy and complicated story that evolved parallel to different ideas about the decision itself. In later decades, Roe arguably became the best-known opinion issued by the Supreme Court, a symbol of an ever-changing set of beliefs about family, health care, and the role of the judiciary in American democracy.
Kristin L. Ahlberg
In the 20th century, US policymakers often attempted to solve domestic agricultural oversupply problems by extending food aid to foreign recipients. In some instances, the United States donated food in times of natural disasters. In other instances, the United States offered commodities to induce foreign governments to support US foreign policy aims or to spur agricultural modernization. These efforts coalesced during the 1950s with the enactment of Public Law 480, commonly known as the Food for Peace program, which provided for a formal, bureaucratic mechanism for the disbursement of commodities. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, successive presidential administrations continued to deploy commodities in advance of their often disparate foreign policy objectives.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America that there were “two great nations in the world.” They had started from different historical points but seemed to be heading in the same direction. As expanding empires, they faced the challenges of defeating nature and constructing a civilization for the modern era. Although they adhered to different governmental systems, “each of them,” de Tocqueville declared, “seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”
De Tocqueville’s words were prophetic. In the 19th century, Russian and American intellectuals and diplomats struggled to understand the roles that their countries should play in the new era of globalization and industrialization. Despite their differing understandings of how development should happen, both sides believed in their nation’s vital role in guiding the rest of the world. American adherents of liberal developmentalism often argued that a free flow of enterprise, trade, investment, information, and culture was the key to future growth. They held that the primary obligation of American foreign policy was to defend that freedom by pursuing an “open door” policy and free access to markets. They believed that the American model would work for everyone and that the United States had an obligation to share its system with the old and underdeveloped nations around it.
A similar sense of mission developed in Russia. Russian diplomats had for centuries struggled to establish defensive buffers around the periphery of their empire. They had linked economic development to national security, and they had argued that their geographic expansion represented a “unification” of peoples as opposed to a conquering of them. In the 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars and the failed Decembrist Revolution, tsarist policymakers fought to defend autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationalism from domestic and international critics. As in the United States, Imperial and later Soviet leaders envisioned themselves as the emissaries of the Enlightenment to the backward East and as protectors of tradition and order for the chaotic and revolutionary West.
These visions of order clashed in the 20th century as the Soviet Union and the United States became superpowers. Conflicts began early, with the American intervention in the 1918–1921 Russian civil war. Tensions that had previously been based on differing geographic and strategic interests then assumed an ideological valence, as the fight between East and West became a struggle between the political economies of communism and capitalism. Foreign relations between the two countries experienced boom and bust cycles that took the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust and yet maintained a strategic balance that precluded the outbreak of global war for fifty years. This article will examine how that relationship evolved and how it shaped the modern world.
Robert O. Self
Few decades in American history reverberate with as much historical reach or glow as brightly in living mythology as the 1960s. During those years Americans reanimated and reinvented the core political principles of equality and liberty but, in a primal clash that resonates more than half a century later, fiercely contested what those principles meant, and for whom. For years afterward, the decade’s appreciators considered the era to have its own “spirit,” defined by greater freedoms and a deeper, more authentic personhood, and given breath by a youthful generation’s agitation for change in nearly every dimension of national life. To its detractors in subsequent decades, the era was marked by immature radical fantasies and dangerous destabilizations of the social order, behind which lay misguided youthful enthusiasms and an overweening, indulgent federal government. We need not share either conviction to appreciate the long historical shadow cast by the decade’s clashing of left, right, and center and its profound influence over the political debates, cultural logics, and social practices of the many years that followed.
The decade’s political and ideological clashes registered with such force because post–World War II American life was characterized by a society-wide embrace of antiradicalism and a prescribed normalcy. Having emerged from the war as the lone undamaged capitalist industrial power, the United States exerted enormous influence throughout the globe after 1945—so much that some historians have called the postwar years a “pax Americana.” In its own interest and in the interest of its Western allies, the United States engaged in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union over the fate of Europe and no less over the fate of developing countries on every continent. Fiercely anticommunist abroad and at home, U.S. elites stoked fears of the damage communism could do, whether in Eastern Europe or in a public school textbook. Americans of all sorts in the postwar years embraced potent ideologies justifying the prevailing order, whether that order was capitalist, patriarchal, racial, or heterosexual. They pursued a postwar “normalcy” defined by nuclear family domesticity and consumer capitalism in the shadow cast by the threat of communism and, after 1949, global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. This prevailing order was stultifying and its rupture in the 1960s is the origin point of the decade’s great dramas.
The social movements of that decade drew Americans from the margins of citizenship—African Americans, Latina/o, Native Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians, among others—into epochal struggles over the withheld promise of equality. For the first time since 1861, an American war deeply split the nation, nearly destroying a major political party and intensifying a generational revolt already under way. Violence, including political assassinations at the highest level, bombings and assassinations of African Americans, bombings by left-wing groups like the Weathermen, and major urban uprisings by African Americans against police and property bathed the country in more blood. The New Deal liberalism of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman reached its postwar peak in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and then retreated amid acrimony and backlash, as a new conservative politics gained traction. All this took place in the context of a “global 1960s,” in which societies in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere experienced similar generational rebellions, quests for meaningful democracy, and disillusionment with American global hegemony. From the first year of the decade to the last, the 1960s were a watershed era that marked the definitive end of a “postwar America” defined by easy Cold War dualities, presumptions of national innocence, and political calcification.
To explain the foregoing, this essay is organized in five sections. First comes a broad overview of the decade, highlighting some of its indelible moments and seminal political events. The next four sections correspond to the four signature historical developments of the 1960s. Discussed first is the collapse of the political consensus that predominated in national life following World War II. We can call this consensus “Vital Center liberalism,” after the title of a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or “Cold War liberalism.” Its assault from both the New Left and the New Right is one of the defining stories of the 1960s. Second is the resurgence, after a decades-long interregnum dating to Reconstruction, of African American political agency. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was far more than a social movement for civil rights. To shape the conditions of national life and the content of public debate in ways impossible under Jim Crow, black American called for nothing less than a spiritual and political renewal of the country. Third, and following from the latter, is the emergence within the American liberal tradition of a new emphasis on expanding individual rights and ending invidious discrimination. Forged in conjunction with the black freedom movement by women, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and homophiles (as early gay rights activists were called) and gay liberationists, this new emphasis profoundly changed American law and set the terms of political debate for the next half century. Fourth and lastly, the 1960s witnessed the flourishing of a broad and diverse culture of anti-authoritarianism. In art, politics, and social behavior, this anti-authoritarianism took many forms, but at its heart lay two distinct historical phenomena: an ecstatic celebration of youth, manifest in the tension between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation, and an intensification of the long-standing conflict in American life between individualism and hierarchical order.
Despite the disruptions, rebellions, and challenges to authority in the decade, the political and economic elite proved remarkably resilient and preserved much of the prevailing order. This is not to discount the foregoing account of challenges to that order or to suggest that social change in the 1960s made little difference in American life. However, in grappling with this fascinating decade we are confronted with the paradox of outsized events and enormous transformations in law, ideology, and politics alongside a continuation, even an entrenchment, of traditional economic and political structures and practices.
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.