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Article

Robert David Johnson

The birth of the United States through a successful colonial revolution created a unique nation-state in which anti-imperialist sentiment existed from the nation’s founding. Three broad points are essential in understanding the relationship between anti-imperialism and U.S. foreign relations. First, the United States obviously has had more than its share of imperialist ventures over the course of its history. Perhaps the better way to address the matter is to remark on—at least in comparison to other major powers—how intense a commitment to anti-imperialism has remained among some quarters of the American public and government. Second, the strength of anti-imperialist sentiment has varied widely and often has depended upon domestic developments, such as the emergence of abolitionism before the Civil War or the changing nature of the Progressive movement following World War I. Third, anti-imperialist policy alternatives have enjoyed considerably more support in Congress than in the executive branch.

Article

The United States was extremely reluctant to get drawn into the wars that erupted in Asia in 1937 and Europe in 1939. Deeply disillusioned with the experience of World War I, when the large number of trench warfare casualties had resulted in a peace that many American believed betrayed the aims they had fought for, the United States sought to avoid all forms of entangling alliances. Deeply embittered by the Depression, which was widely blamed on international bankers and businessmen, Congress enacted legislation that sought to prevent these actors from drawing the country into another war. The American aim was neutrality, but the underlying strength of the United States made it too big to be impartial—a problem that Roosevelt had to grapple with as Germany, Italy, and Japan began to challenge international order in the second half of the 1930s.

Article

Malcolm Byrne

Iran-Contra was a major political scandal in the late 1980s that nearly derailed a popular president and left American society deeply divided about its significance. Although the affair was initially portrayed as a rogue operation run by overzealous White House aides, subsequent evidence showed that the president himself was its driving force with the knowledge of his most senior advisers. Iran-Contra was a foreign policy scandal, but it also gave rise to a significant confrontation between the executive and legislative branches with constitutional implications for their respective roles, especially in foreign policy. The affair exposed significant limits on the ability of all three branches to ferret out and redress official wrongdoing. And the entire episode, a major congressional investigation concluded, was characterized by a remarkable degree of dishonesty and deception, reaching to the highest levels of government. For all these reasons, and in the absence of a clear legal or ethical conclusion (in contrast to Watergate), Iran-Contra left a scar on the American body politic that further eroded the public’s faith in government.

Article

Courts and legislatures in colonial America and the early American republic developed and refined a power to compel civilians to assist peace and law enforcement officers in arresting wrongdoers, keeping the peace, and other matters of law enforcement. This power to command civilian cooperation was known as the posse comitatus or “power of the county.” Rooted in early modern English countryside law enforcement, the posse comitatus became an important police institution in 18th- and 19th-century America. The posse comitatus was typically composed of able-bodied white male civilians who were temporarily deputized to aid a sheriff or constable. But if this “power of the county” was insufficient, law enforcement officers were often authorized to call on the military to serve as the posse comitatus. The posse comitatus proved particularly important in buttressing slavery in the American South. Slaveholders pushed for and especially benefited from laws that required citizens to assist in the recapture of local runaway slaves and fugitive slaves who crossed into states without slavery. Though slave patrols were rooted in the posse comitatus, the posse comitatus originated as a compulsory and noncompensated institution. Slaveholders in the American South later added financial incentives for those who acted in the place of a posse to recapture slaves on the run from their owners. The widespread use of the posse comitatus in southern slave law became part of the national discussion about slavery during the early American republic as national lawmakers contemplated how to deal with the problem of fugitive slaves who fled to free states. This dialogue culminated with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in which the US Congress authorized officials to “summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus” and declared that “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required.” During Reconstruction, the Radical Republican Congress used the posse comitatus to enforce laws that targeted conquered Confederates. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern states pushed Congress to create what would come to be known as the “Posse Comitatus Act,” which prohibited the use of federal military forces for law enforcement. The history of the posse comitatus in early America is thus best understood as a story about and an example of the centralization of government authority and its ramifications.

Article

While presidents have historically been the driving force behind foreign policy decision-making, Congress has used its constitutional authority to influence the process. The nation’s founders designed a system of checks and balances aimed at establishing a degree of equilibrium in foreign affairs powers. Though the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the country’s chief diplomat, Congress holds responsibility for declaring war and can also exert influence over foreign relations through its powers over taxation and appropriation, while the Senate possesses authority to approve or reject international agreements. This separation of powers compels the executive branch to work with Congress to achieve foreign policy goals, but it also sets up conflict over what policies best serve national interests and the appropriate balance between executive and legislative authority. Since the founding of the Republic, presidential power over foreign relations has accreted in fits and starts at the legislature’s expense. When core American interests have come under threat, legislators have undermined or surrendered their power by accepting presidents’ claims that defense of national interests required strong executive action. This trend peaked during the Cold War, when invocations of national security enabled the executive to amass unprecedented control over America’s foreign affairs.

Article

Communist activists took a strong interest in American trade unions from the 1920s through the 1950s and played an important role in shaping the nature of the American union movement. Initial communist trade union activism drew upon radical labor traditions that preceded the formation of the American Communist Party (CPUSA). Early communist trade unionists experimented with different types of structures to organize unorganized workers. They also struggled with international communist factionalism. Communist trade unionists were most effective during the Great Depression and World War II. In those years, communist activists helped build the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and bring industrial unionism to previously unorganized workers. Throughout the history of communist involvement in the US labor movement, international communist policy guided general organizing strategies. Shifts in international policy, such as the announcement of a Soviet non-aggression pact with Germany, proved politically difficult to navigate on the local level. Yet, Left-led unions proved to be more democratically run and focused on racial and gender equality than many of those without communist influence. Their leadership supported social justice and militant action. The Cold War years witnessed CIO purges of Left-led unions and federal investigations and arrests of communist trade unionists. Repression from both within and without the labor movement as well as the CPUSA’s own internal policy battles ultimately ended communist trade unionists’ widespread influence on American trade unions.

Article

Steve Rosswurm

The US Catholic Church was for most of its history—and, in many places, still is—a working-class church. The choice for worship by successive waves of immigrants, from the Irish to the Polish to the Mexican, the Church, once it had created an institutional presence, welcomed “these strangers in a strange land.” These immigrants play a major role in creating and sustaining parishes that served both as a soul-sustaining refuge and, in many cases, a way station to the outside world. James Cardinal Gibbons, having learned from the central role that Irish workers played in the Knights of Labor and protests against the excommunication of the radical New York priest, Edward McGlynn, persuaded the Vatican to take a relatively liberal stance toward the “social question” in the United States. Rerum Novarum, the 1891 papal encyclical, condemned socialism and competitive capitalism, but more significantly asserted the “natural” right of workers to form unions as well as to have a living wage. It was within this religious legitimation of unionism that Irish Catholics came to prominence in the American Federation of Labor, that Monsignor John A. Ryan created a US Catholic social justice intellectual tradition, and that US bishops adopted the 1919 Program for Social Reconstruction. The Catholic labor moment came when the Church, led by the National Catholic Welfare Conference’s Social Action Department, midwestern bishops, and labor priests, not only supported the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), but consistently pushed the New Deal to implement the 1919 program. Philip Murray, the CIO’s Catholic president, led the expulsion of the Communist-led unions when the Communist Party, in the Wallace campaign, threatened both the country and everything the CIO had built. On the one hand, this Catholic labor moment dissolved in an overdetermined mixture of complacency, capitalist growth, and anti-Communism. On the other, a direct line can be traced from California’s labor priests to the Spanish Mission Band to Cesar Chavez and the formation of the United Farm Workers. It took time for the official Church to support the farm workers, but once that happened, it was all in: the support the Church, at all levels, gave them far exceeded anything it had done previously to implement Rerum Novarum.

Article

The relationship between the United States and the island of Ireland combines nostalgic sentimentality and intervention in the sectarian conflict known as the “Troubles.” Irish migration to the United States remains a celebrated and vital part of the American saga, while Irish American interest—and involvement—in the “Troubles” during the second half of the 20th century was a problematic issue in transatlantic relations and for those seeking to establish a peaceful political consensus on the Irish question. Paradoxically, much of the historiography of American–Irish relations addresses the social, economic, and cultural consequences of the Irish in America, yet the major political issue—namely the United States’ approach to the “Troubles”—has only recently become subject of thorough historiographical inquiry. As much as the Irish have contributed to developments in American history, the American contribution to the Anglo-Irish process, and ultimate peace process, in order to end conflict in Northern Ireland is an example of the peacemaking potential of US foreign policy.

Article

Erik Gellman and Margaret Rung

From the late 1920s through the 1930s, countries on every inhabited continent suffered through a dramatic and wrenching economic contraction termed the Great Depression, an economic collapse that has come to represent the nadir of modern economic history. With national unemployment reaching well into double digits for over a decade, productivity levels falling by half, prices severely depressed, and millions of Americans without adequate food, shelter or clothing, the United States experienced some of the Great Depression’s severest consequences. The crisis left deep physical, psychological, political, social, and cultural impressions on the national landscape. It encouraged political reform and reaction, renewed labor activism, spurred migration, unleashed grass-roots movements, inspired cultural experimentation, and challenged family structures and gender roles.

Article

Patrick Iber

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union each sought to portray their way of organizing society—liberal democracy or Communism, respectively—as materially and morally superior. In their bids for global leadership, each sponsored “front” groups that defended their priorities and values to audiences around the world. These campaigns frequently enrolled artists and intellectuals, whose lives, works, and prestige could be built up, torn down, exploited, or enhanced through their participation in these groups. Alongside overt diplomatic efforts, the United States funded a number of organizations secretly through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). These efforts are often described as belonging to the “Cultural Cold War,” although the programs in fact supported overlapping networks that did anti-Communist work among labor unions, students, and others in addition to artists and intellectuals. The major CIA-sponsored group of intellectuals was the Congress for Cultural Freedom, established in 1950, and the “freedom” in its name was the major concept deployed by United States–aligned propagandists, to emphasize their differences from totalitarianism. The Cultural Cold War, as a program of psychological warfare conducted by the US government, grew out of the intersecting experiences of the left in the 1930s and the security apparatus of the United States at the dawn of the Cold War. The covert nature of the programs allowed them to evade scrutiny from the US Congress, and therefore to engage in activities that might otherwise have been stopped: working with people with radical political biographies or who still identified as “socialists,” or sponsoring avant-garde art, such as abstract expressionist painting. The programs spanned the globe, and grew in scope and ambition until their exposure in 1967. Subsequently, the United States has developed other mechanisms, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, to promote organizations within civil society that support its interests.

Article

Donna T. Haverty-Stacke

The first Labor Day parade was held on September 5, 1882, in New York City. It, and the annual holiday demonstrations that followed in that decade and the next, resulted from the growth of the modern organized labor movement that took place in the context of the second industrial revolution. These first Labor Day celebrations also became part of the then ongoing ideological and tactical divisions within that movement. By the early 1900s, workers’ desire to enjoy the fruits of their labor by participating in popular leisure pursuits came to characterize the day. But union leaders, who considered such leisure pursuits a distraction from displays of union solidarity, continued to encourage the organization of parades. With the protections afforded to organized labor by the New Deal, and with the gains made during and after World War II (particularly among unionized white, male, industrial laborers), Labor Day parades declined further after 1945 as workers enjoyed access to mass cultural pursuits, increasingly in suburban settings. This decline was indicative of a broader loss of union movement culture that had served to build solidarity within unions, display working-class militancy to employers, and communicate the legitimacy of organized labor to the American public. From time to time since the late 1970s unions have attempted to reclaim the power of Labor Day to make concerted demands through their display of workers’ united power; but, for most Americans the holiday has become part of a three-day weekend devoted to shopping or leisure that marks the end of the summer season.

Article

Elizabeth McKillen

American workers have often been characterized by the press, scholars, and policy-makers as apathetic and ill-informed about foreign policy issues. To highlight this point, scholars have frequently used an anecdote about a blue-collar worker who responded to an interviewer’s questions regarding international issues in the 1940s by exclaiming “Foreign Affairs! That’s for people who don’t have to work for a living.” Yet missing from many such appraisals is a consideration of the long history of efforts by both informal groups of workers and labor unions to articulate and defend the perceived international interests of American workers. During the early years of the American Republic, groups of workers used crowd actions, boycotts, and protests to make their views on important foreign policy issues known. In the late 19th century, emerging national labor unions experimented with interest group lobbying as well as forms of collective action championed by the international labor movement to promote working-class foreign policy interests. Many 20th- and 21st-century US labor groups shared in common a belief that government leaders failed to adequately understand the international concerns and perspectives of workers. Yet such groups often pursued different types of foreign policy influence. Some dominant labor organizations, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), participated in federal bureaucracies, advisory councils, and diplomatic missions and programs designed to encourage collaboration among business, state, and labor leaders in formulating and promoting US foreign policy. Yet other labor groups, as well as dissidents within the AFL and CIO, argued that these power-sharing arrangements compromised labor’s independence and led some trade union leaders to support policies that actually hurt both American and foreign workers. Particularly important in fueling internal opposition to AFL-CIO foreign policies were immigrant workers and those with specific ethno-racial concerns. Some dissenting groups and activists participated in traditional forms of interest group lobbying in order to promote an independent international agenda for labor; others committed themselves to the foreign policy programs of socialist, labor, or communist parties. Still others, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, advocated strike and international economic actions by workers to influence US foreign policy or to oppose US business activities abroad.

Article

The American labor movement has declined significantly since 1960. Once a powerful part of American life, bringing economic democracy to the nation, organized labor has become a shell of itself, with numbers far lower than a half-century ago. The 1960s began with a powerful movement divided on race but also deeply influenced by the civil rights movement. Deindustrialization and capital mobility cut into labor’s power after 1965 as factories closed. The rise of public sector unionism in the 1970s briefly gave labor new power, but private sector unions faced enormous internal dissension throughout that decade. The Reagan administration ushered in a new era of warfare against organized labor when the president fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Soon, private sector employers engaged in brutal anti-union campaigns. Reforms within labor in the 1990s sought to renew the movement’s long tradition of organizing, but with mixed success at best. Since the 1980s, we have seen more attacks on organized labor, especially Republican-led campaigns against public sector union rights beginning in 2011 that culminated in the 2019 Supreme Court ruling that declared required dues for non-union members unconstitutional. Labor’s decline has led to a new era of income inequality but also brought a stronger class-centric politics back into American life as everyday people seek new answers to the tenuousness of their economic lives.