The Watergate affair has become synonymous with political corruption and conspiracy. The crisis has, through fact, fiction, and debate, become considerably more than the arrest of five men breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington DC in the early hours of Saturday, June 17, 1972. Instead, the term “Watergate” has since come to represent the burglary, its failed cover-up, the press investigation, the Senate enquiry, and the eventual resignation of the thirty-seventh president of the United States, Richard Nixon. Arguably, Watergate has come to encompass all the illegalities of the Nixon administration. The crisis broke when the Vietnam War had already sunk public confidence in the executive to a low ebb, and in the context of a society already fractured by the turbulence of the 1960s. As such, Watergate is seen as the nadir of American democracy in the 20th century. Perversely, despite contemporaries’ genuine fears for the future of the US democratic system, the scandal highlighted the efficiency of the US governmental machine. The investigations that constituted the Watergate enquiry, which were conducted by the legislative and judicial branches and the fourth estate, exposed corruption in the executive of the United States that stretched to the holder of the highest office. The post-war decades had allowed an imperial presidency to develop, which had threatened the country’s political equilibrium. Watergate disclosed that the presidency had overreached its constitutional powers and responsibilities and had conspired to keep those moves hidden from the electorate. More significantly, however, the forced resignation of Richard Nixon revealed that the checks-and-balances system of government, which was conceived almost 200 years before the Watergate affair, worked as those who devised it had planned. Watergate should illustrate to Americans not just the dangers of consolidating great power in the office of the president, but also the means to counteract such growth.
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.
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.
Not many bilateral relationships in modern world history have as many twists and turns as the one shared by the United States and Germany. Their relationship has waxed and waned like few others: from mild indifference to faint and uncomplicated appreciation in the 18th and 19th centuries, to growing awareness, rivalry, and then outright hostility in the early 20th century, to codependent enabling and then horrific existential conflict in the mid-20th century, and finally to occupation, reconstruction, and mutually supportive and global-stabilizing friendship after 1945. With early trajectories that informed and mirrored each other, the paths of the United States and Germany eventually collided in the First World War, a conflict born of issues that were only half-resolved in its immediate aftermath. The outbreak of the Second World War laid bare the incompleteness of the Versailles settlement, leading to the complete and utter destruction of German civil society and ushering in an era of American supremacy in the Western world. The United States’ ambitious effort to reconstruct German society along American lines defined the relationship during the postwar period, but a turn toward nationalism in both countries in the early 21st century resurrected old questions and fears.
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.
Patrick William Kelly
The relationship between Chile and the United States pivoted on the intertwined questions of how much political and economic influence Americans would exert over Chile and the degree to which Chileans could chart their own path. Given Chile’s tradition of constitutional government and relative economic development, it established itself as a regional power player in Latin America. Unencumbered by direct US military interventions that marked the history of the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, Chile was a leader in movements to promote Pan-Americanism, inter-American solidarity, and anti-imperialism. But the advent of the Cold War in the 1940s, and especially after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, brought an increase in bilateral tensions. The United States turned Chile into a “model democracy” for the Alliance for Progress, but frustration over its failures to enact meaningful social and economic reform polarized Chilean society, resulting in the election of Marxist Salvador Allende in 1970. The most contentious period in US-Chilean relations was during the Nixon administration when it worked, alongside anti-Allende Chileans, to destabilize Allende’s government, which the Chilean military overthrew on September 11, 1973. The Pinochet dictatorship (1973–1990), while anti-Communist, clashed with the United States over Pinochet’s radicalization of the Cold War and the issue of Chilean human rights abuses. The Reagan administration—which came to power on a platform that reversed the Carter administration’s critique of Chile—reversed course and began to support the return of democracy to Chile, which took place in 1990. Since then, Pinochet’s legacy of neoliberal restructuring of the Chilean economy looms large, overshadowed perhaps only by his unexpected role in fomenting a global culture of human rights that has ended the era of impunity for Latin American dictators.