The decades from the 1890s into the 1920s produced reform movements in the United States that resulted in significant changes to the country’s social, political, cultural, and economic institutions. The impulse for reform emanated from a pervasive sense that the country’s democratic promise was failing. Political corruption seemed endemic at all levels of government. An unregulated capitalist industrial economy exploited workers and threatened to create a serious class divide, especially as the legal system protected the rights of business over labor. Mass urbanization was shifting the country from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one characterized by poverty, disease, crime, and cultural clash. Rapid technological advancements brought new, and often frightening, changes into daily life that left many people feeling that they had little control over their lives. Movements for socialism, woman suffrage, and rights for African Americans, immigrants, and workers belied the rhetoric of the United States as a just and equal democratic society for all its members. Responding to the challenges presented by these problems, and fearful that without substantial change the country might experience class upheaval, groups of Americans proposed undertaking significant reforms. Underlying all proposed reforms was a desire to bring more justice and equality into a society that seemed increasingly to lack these ideals. Yet there was no agreement among these groups about the exact threat that confronted the nation, the means to resolve problems, or how to implement reforms. Despite this lack of agreement, all so-called Progressive reformers were modernizers. They sought to make the country’s democratic promise a reality by confronting its flaws and seeking solutions. All Progressivisms were seeking a via media, a middle way between relying on older ideas of 19th-century liberal capitalism and the more radical proposals to reform society through either social democracy or socialism. Despite differences among Progressives, the types of Progressivisms put forth, and the successes and failures of Progressivism, this reform era raised into national discourse debates over the nature and meaning of democracy, how and for whom a democratic society should work, and what it meant to be a forward-looking society. It also led to the implementation of an activist state.
Maureen A. Flanagan
The story of mass culture from 1900 to 1945 is the story of its growth and increasing centrality to American life. Sparked by the development of such new media as radios, phonographs, and cinema that required less literacy and formal education, and the commodification of leisure pursuits, mass culture extended its purview to nearly the entire nation by the end of the Second World War. In the process, it became one way in which immigrant and second-generation Americans could learn about the United States and stake a claim to participation in civic and social life. Mass culture characteristically consisted of artifacts that stressed pleasure, sensation, and glamor rather than, as previously been the case, eternal and ethereal beauty, moral propriety, and personal transcendence. It had the power to determine acceptable values and beliefs and define qualities and characteristics of social groups. The constant and graphic stimulation led many custodians of culture to worry about the kinds of stimulation that mass culture provided and about a breakdown in social morality that would surely follow. As a result, they formed regulatory agencies and watchdogs to monitor the mass culture available on the market. Other critics charged the regime of mass culture with inducing homogenization of belief and practice and contributing to passive acceptance of the status quo. The spread of mass culture did not terminate regional, class, or racial cultures; indeed, mass culture artifacts often borrowed them. Nor did marginalized groups accept stereotypical portrayals; rather, they worked to expand the possibilities of prevailing ones and to provide alternatives.
James F. Siekmeier
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. officials often viewed Bolivia as both a potential “test case” for U.S. economic foreign policy and a place where Washington’s broad visions for Latin America might be implemented relatively easily. After World War II, Washington leaders sought to show both Latin America and the nonindustrialized world that a relatively open economy could produce significant economic wealth for Bolivia’s working and middle classes, thus giving the United States a significant victory in the Cold War. Washington sought a Bolivia widely open to U.S. influence, and Bolivia often seemed an especially pliable country. In order to achieve their goals in Bolivia, U.S. leaders dispensed a large amount of economic assistance to Bolivia in the 1950s—a remarkable development in two senses. First, the U.S. government, generally loath to aid Third World nations, gave this assistance to a revolutionary regime. Second, the U.S. aid program for Bolivia proved to be a precursor to the Alliance for Progress, the massive aid program for Latin America in the 1960s that comprised the largest U.S. economic aid program in the Third World. Although U.S. leaders achieved their goal of a relatively stable, noncommunist Bolivia, the decision in the late 1950s to significantly increase U.S. military assistance to Bolivia’s relatively small military emboldened that military, which staged a coup in 1964, snuffing out democracy for nearly two decades. The country’s long history of dependency in both export markets and public- and private-sector capital investment led Washington leaders to think that dependency would translate into leverage over Bolivian policy. However, the historical record is mixed in this regard. Some Bolivian governments have accommodated U.S. demands; others have successfully resisted them.
R. Joseph Parrott
The United States never sought to build an empire in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, as did European nations from Britain to Portugal. However, economic, ideological, and cultural affinities gradually encouraged the development of relations with the southern third of the continent (the modern Anglophone nations of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola, and a number of smaller states). With official ties limited for decades, missionaries and business concerns built a small but influential American presence mostly in the growing European settler states. This state of affairs made the United State an important trading partner during the 20th century, but it also reinforced the idea of a white Christian civilizing mission as justification for the domination of black peoples. The United States served as a comparison point for the construction of legal systems of racial segregation in southern Africa, even as it became more politically involved in the region as part of its ideological competition with the Soviet Union. As Europe’s empires dissolved after World War II, official ties to white settler states such as South Africa, Angola, and Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) brought the United States into conflict with mounting demands for decolonization, self-determination, and racial equality—both international and domestic. Southern Africa illustrated the gap between a Cold War strategy predicated on Euro-American preponderance and national traditions of liberty and democracy, eliciting protests from civil and human rights groups that culminated in the successful anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. Though still a region of low priority at the beginning of the 21st century, American involvement in southern Africa evolved to emphasize the pursuit of social and economic improvement through democracy promotion, emergency relief, and health aid—albeit with mixed results. The history of U.S. relations with southern Africa therefore illustrates the transformation of trans-Atlantic racial ideologies and politics over the last 150 years, first in the construction of white supremacist governance and later in the eventual rejection of this model.
Over the first half of the 20th century, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise (1874–1949) devoted himself to solving the most controversial social and political problems of his day: corruption in municipal politics, abuse of industrial workers, women’s second-class citizenship, nativism and racism, and global war. He considered his activities an effort to define “Americanism” and apply its principles toward humanity’s improvement. On the one hand, Wise joined a long tradition of American Christian liberals committed to seeing their fellow citizens as their equals and to grounding this egalitarianism in their religious beliefs. On the other hand, he was in the vanguard of the Jewish Reform, or what he referred to as the Liberal Judaism movement, with its commitment to apply Jewish moral teachings to improve the world. His life’s work demonstrated that the two—liberal democracy and Liberal Judaism—went hand in hand. And while concerned with equality and justice, Wise’s Americanism had a democratic elitist character. His advocacy to engage the public on the meaning of citizenship and the role of the state relied on his own Jewish, male, and economically privileged perspective as well as those of an elite circle of political and business leaders, intellectual trendsetters, social scientists, philanthropists, labor leaders, and university faculty. In doing so, Wise drew upon on Jewish liberal teachings, transformed America’s liberal tradition, and helped to remake American’s national understanding of itself.