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On the eve of World War II many Americans were reluctant to see the United States embark on overseas involvements. Yet the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, seemingly united the nation in determination to achieve total victory in Asia and Europe. Underutilized industrial plants expanded to full capacity producing war materials for the United States and its allies. Unemployment was sucked up by the armed services and war work. Many Americans’ standard of living improved, and the United States became the wealthiest nation in world history. Over time, this proud record became magnified into the “Good War” myth that has distorted America’s very real achievement. As the era of total victories receded and the United States went from leading creditor to debtor nation, the 1940s appeared as a golden age when everything worked better, people were united, and the United States saved the world for democracy (an exaggeration that ignored the huge contributions of America’s allies, including the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and China). In fact, during World War II the United States experienced marked class, sex and gender, and racial tensions. Groups such as gays made some social progress, but the poor, especially many African Americans, were left behind. After being welcomed into the work force, women were pressured to go home when veterans returned looking for jobs in late 1945–1946, losing many of the gains they had made during the conflict. Wartime prosperity stunted the development of a welfare state; universal medical care and social security were cast as unnecessary. Combat had been a horrific experience, leaving many casualties with major physical or emotional wounds that took years to heal. Like all major global events, World War II was complex and nuanced, and it requires careful interpretation.

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The foreign relations of the Jacksonian age reflected Andrew Jackson’s own sense of the American “nation” as long victimized by non-white enemies and weak politicians. His goal as president from 1829 to 1837 was to restore white Americans’ “sovereignty,” to empower them against other nations both within and beyond US territory. Three priorities emerged from this conviction. First, Jackson was determined to deport the roughly 50,000 Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles living in southern states and territories. He saw them as hostile nations who threatened American safety and checked American prosperity. Far from a domestic issue, Indian Removal was an imperial project that set the stage for later expansion over continental and oceanic frontiers. Second and somewhat paradoxically, Jackson sought better relations with Great Britain. These were necessary because the British Empire was both the main threat to US expansion and the biggest market for slave-grown exports from former Indian lands. Anglo-American détente changed investment patterns and economic development throughout the Western Hemisphere, encouraging American leaders to appease London even when patriotic passions argued otherwise. Third, Jackson wanted to open markets and secure property rights around the globe, by treaty if possible but by force when necessary. He called for a larger navy, pressed countries from France to Mexico for outstanding debts, and embraced retaliatory strikes on “savages” and “pirates” as far away as Sumatra. Indeed, the Jacksonian age brought a new American presence in the Pacific. By the mid-1840s the United States was the dominant power in the Hawaiian Islands and a growing force in China. The Mexican War that followed made the Union a two-ocean colossus—and pushed its regional tensions to the breaking point.