US History in the Twentieth Century

To My Esteemed Colleagues:

In light of your current debate, I am honored and privileged to offer my insights. Let me rephrase the understanding that I have of your dilemma: the narrative of United States history since 1940 is inextricably connected to the larger narrative of the history of the world, so it might be misleading to refer to a course covering that period of US history without alluding to that element of the subject matter. However, world history only arises as an issue where it affects United States history, so it might not be necessary to refer to world history in the title of the course. In the light of these concerns, it might not be easy to make a firm decision. For this reason, I would like to refer to the work of two historians, McCormick and Lipsitz, as well as portions of the Brown and Shannon book Going to the Source. In their books, McCormick and Lipsitz both deal with world and US history, the subject matter frequently overlapping. I think that by looking at the approaches of these two narratives to US history, as well as the effects of world history on Americans as evident in Brown and Shannon, we will find that “The US in the World, 1940-2005” is a suitable title for this course.

Lipsitz’s book, Rainbow at Midnight—Labor and Culture in the 1940s, is an effort to explore how the war efforts of the 1940s brought about significant concerns in the social fabric of the United States. The subject matter of this book is, from the very beginning, concerned not only with the domestic issues of the United States, but also with the themes and events from the world abroad, at the very least due to the fact that much of the social change that Lipsitz attempts to document occurs as a direct result of the United States’ involvement in World War II. In Chapter Two, he explains that “while nations fight wars for clearly defined strategic and political goals, individuals often act from more personal motives” (George Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight, 46). Many Americans likely supported the war effort in hopes of returning to an idyllic America—”restored patriarchal authority…a postwar world free of fear, filled with material abundance and comfort, and firmly grounded in family ties and romantic affection,” but the effects of the United States’ role as a nation in the world at war prompted domestic social and cultural changes that would irreversibly alter the face and atmosphere of that very nation (Ibid, 46).

Rainbow at Midnight discusses issues relating to the working class in America in the 1940s and Lipsitz especially concerns himself with the role of organized labor in the shaping of American culture in the period. The war effort placed great demands on manufacturers in the United States, who in turn required more employees for increased production. This came at a period of time when many companies put forth resistance to organized labor and unionization, but the constraints placed on manufacturers by high production demands weakened their resistance. “In the thirties, Yale and Town resisted unionization so bitterly that it closed down a plant in Detroit rather than deal with a union” (Ibid, 121). The United States role as a nation among nations, though, particularly through its involvement in World War II, had significant impact on the struggle for working class rights. “Only after government military spending converted 93 percent of the plant’s production to war needs…did Yale and Towne reluctantly recognize a labor organization it did not control” (Ibid, 121).

Lipsitz’ entire book is devoted to addressing those social changes, the shift in the cultural climate of the United States in the 1940s, and the nation’s history in this period is largely dependent on the larger fabric of world history. A comprehensive narrative of United States history in this time period requires attention to the issues of the rest of the world. Without that attention, the narrative would be grossly incomplete.

McCormick wrote a book called America’s Half-Century—United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War and After. The aim of this book is to explore the United States’ role as a world power during the Cold War, and one of the topics it addresses is the issue of the decline of the United States’ power in the latter portion of that era. This book is an effort to reflect on the United States in the world, and yet in many places, domestic issues arise where they have played a significant role in the nation’s ability to step up to the plate as a world leader.

McCormick begins in chapter one by explaining how the capitalist world system emerged, overtaking systems of imperialism and a sort of mutual isolationism as it created a world economy. There are three constants to this capitalist world system: “there are always implicit geographical boundaries,” “there is always a center or a pole,” and that there are three types of zones within the system—core, periphery, and semi-periphery (Thomas McCormick, America’s Half-Century, 3). The United States became the center of the world system following World War II, achieving “hegemony,” or the status of a superpower among nations. Hegemonic powers, McCormick explains, tend to promote an internationalist world system because doing so helps to sustain their status as such. Domestic issues quickly become necessary in understanding foreign policy as McCormick describes political leadership (“in-and-outers”) in the United States in order to later explain the government’s process of deciding foreign policy. McCormick also discusses how American economists had differing opinions about the extent to which capital should be invested internationally.

Domestic issues arise again when McCormick discusses the United States’ “high tide for…hegemony.” In the light of threats to American hegemony in the Latin American sphere by way of insurgency, the United States did not want to risk losing ground in Asia as the threat of communist insurgency became clear in Vietnam. McCormick discusses the 1964 presidential campaign, in which Johnson assured voters that American troops would not be sent to fight in Asia, while the government was, in fact, “selecting its future bombing targets in North Vietnam before Americans went to the polls in the fall” (Ibid, 152). In the United States efforts to ensure hegemony during the Cold War and retain its status as a power superior to the Soviet Union, foreign policy must address the danger of allowing peripheral nations to be lost to communism. Economic strength is necessary for hegemony, after all, and communism posed a threat to the ability of the United States to derive economic strength through its use of peripheral nations as bases for trade and suppliers of resources. The fear of a domino effect in Indochina and the hopes of nurturing Japanese economic recovery and the potential return of China to the capitalist world system all served as reasons for the United States to struggle against communism in Vietnam (Ibid, 111). This struggle, however, proved to undermine United States’ hegemony rather than ensure it.

Going to the Source by Brown and Shannon includes a chapter that provides a collection of letters that Jeff Rogers, the son of President Nixon’s Secretary of State, William Rogers, wrote home during his service in Vietnam. These letters demonstrate the complexities of Americans’ reactions to the war in Vietnam and the United States’ role in the world. Shortly after his arrival in Vietnam, Rogers wrote to his parents that he felt “good about doing something relatively positive in this war” (Victoria Brown and Timothy Shannon, Going to the Source, Volume Two, 258). In February 1969, he wrote about Nixon’s positive attributes as president and even mentions that “self-proclaimed ‘liberals'” share in his support (Ibid, 262). By the following month, though, he expressed disillusion with the fact that “we see or sense no progress towards any goal” (Ibid, 263). He pointed out his frustration with the idea that US news sources “exaggerate an d underplay events” (Ibid, 263). “So if intelligence reports and press reports have such little relation to what really is happening, who does one believe” (Ibid, 263). These letters illustrate the role that the war in Vietnam played in the lives of Americans by causing common citizens—and even the children of high-ranking government officials—to question the role of the United States in the world and consequently their faith in their own government.

Rainbow at Midnight discusses the struggle of the working class in America in the 1940s, struggles that were significantly shaped by the role of the United States in the world. America’s Half-Century discusses United States’ foreign policy since World War II, but domestic issues consistently affect America’s role in the world. And Jeff Rogers’s letters in Going to the Source illustrate the role that America’s place in the world plays in the lives of citizens. In light of these demonstrations of intermingling world and US history, I strongly suggest that we call our history course “The United States in the World, 1940-2005.”

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