President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt

Assignment III: 1932-1963


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President of the United States: Franklin Roosevelt


            In the election of 1932, voters repudiated Hoover and the Republicans in Congress.  They chose Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt as President, as well as electing an overwhelmingly Democrat majority in Congress.  Roosevelt was a distant cousin of former President Theodore Roosevelt.  He was married to another distant cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a niece of Teddy.  Franklin was, like Teddy, from a wealthy family in New York.  They, in fact,  had many similarities.  Just like Theodore was better known by his nickname “Teddy,” Franklin was better known by his nickname “FDR.”  Franklin’s first job in national politics was as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, just like Teddy’s.  Franklin’s most recent job before being elected President was as Governor of New York, also just like Teddy.  Teddy’s campaign slogan in 1904 had been the promise of a “Square Deal” for the American people.  Franklin’s campaign slogan in 1932 would be the promise of a “New Deal” for the American people.   After becoming President, Franklin would be one of the most successful and best leaders this nation has ever had, again, just like Teddy.

There were two big differences between Franklin and Teddy, however.  Whereas Teddy had been a Republican, Franklin was a Democrat.  And whereas Teddy was a physically strong, imposing, athletic type man, Franklin had polio and was paralyzed from the waist down.  Franklin benefitted, however, from the virtue of his defect.  The fact that he had polio apparently made him unusually sensitive to the pain of the poor and needy in America.  And during the Great Depression, this country had more poor and needy people than ever before or since.  Franklin was the perfect man for the job of President at this time of crisis.

FDR ran for President in 1932 using the song “Happy Days Are Here Again” as his way of encouraging voters, telling them that he would restore good times to the country if elected.  The vote in the election of 1932 was not so much a vote for Roosevelt, however, as a vote against Hoover.  Oddly, FDR did not campaign against Hoover’s three years of inaction but against his one year of action in terms of government intervention in the economy, saying what we needed was a balanced budget and sound currency.  He would quickly do a one-eighty on that after being elected.  Few people thought FDR would be able to turn the economy around overnight in 1933.  So, he had his work cut out for him, and he had something to prove to voters.

FDR came into the job of President in 1933 with a group of economic experts as his advisors.  He called them his “Brains Trust.”  They helped him formulate a plan for both short-term and long-term recovery of the economy.  FDR, his Brains Trust, and his Democrat-majority Congress wasted no time in starting the process of recovery.  Their first three months on the job were among the most important periods in American political history.  They called this time the “Hundred Days,” and during that time, they passed more sweeping legislation for economic recovery and stimulation than most Presidents and Congresses pass in four or eight years.  They created so many new federal programs and agencies that their names had to be shortened to acronyms to make them easier to remember and discuss.  These acronyms thus got the nickname FDR’s “Alphabet Soup” programs and agencies.

The first action that FDR took as President was to pass a law that would stop the bleeding in our nation’s banking system.  He and Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act (EBA).  It shut down every bank in the United States for four days.  During that four-day period, federal accountants went into each bank individually and inspected them for solvency.  Those banks which were considered fiscally sound were allowed to reopen.  Those which seemed shaky and on the verge of collapse were not allowed to reopen.  The inspectors kept the banks alive just long enough to let depositors come in and withdraw their money, then they shut the banks down permanently.  This prevented more banks from going out of business and liquidating depositors’ life savings to pay off their own bills.

Next, FDR created a new federal agency called the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which would insure deposits in those banks which the federal inspectors allowed to reopen.  The purpose was to encourage investors to have renewed confidence in our banking system and to deposit their money in banks, where it could create cash flow and stimulate the economy, rather than keeping their money at home where it could not help the economy at all.  Both the EBA and the FDIC were great successes.  They stabilized the banking industry and restored confidence in the system.  The FDIC was such a good idea that we still have it today.

The next economic measure in FDR’s New Deal was to create the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to oversee the stock market.  Its job was to prevent any unfair and unwise brokering practices and thus prevent any future collapses.  It would also have authority to shut down the stock market if it appeared that another collapse was imminent.  The thinking behind that idea was this: all collapses start with a panic of investors wanting to sell off all their stock and get out of the market.  If the SEC shut down the market at the beginning of a panic, however, then no one would be able to sell off all their stock.  This would give investors a chance to calm down and think more rationally.  Then, when the market reopened, investors would not be so panicky (hopefully). [This has proven to be a great idea so far.  The SEC has shut down the market a couple of times to prevent collapses, and each time it has worked.]

As soon as FDR and the Congress began implementing the New Deal, the President also did another new and extraordinary thing to prove his leadership.  He became the first President to use the new invention called radio to communicate to the American people on a regular basis.  He began a series of “fireside chats,” in which he talked to the people and told them exactly what he and the Congress were doing to try to end the Depression.  His radio addresses were not stuffy, pompous sounding political speeches, but more like calm, conversational explanations that people could easily understand and relate to.  These fireside chats endeared FDR to the voters, who greatly appreciated a President who was not cold, calloused, and indifferent like Hoover had been.

Another immediate action of FDR and the Congress was to continue one reform that the Hoover administration had started: repeal the 18th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution (which had stuck the nation with Prohibition) by passing the 21st Amendment.  The idea behind ending the experiment with Prohibition was threefold: 1) It would take a major burden off of law enforcement officers and agencies; 2) It would allow the federal, state, and local governments to collect taxes on the sale of alcohol, thus increasing revenue at a time when it was sorely needed; and 3) It would provide psychological “comfort” to those millions of Americans who wanted to drink but had previously been forced to do it illegally or not at all.

The next economic measure in FDR’s New Deal was to take the United States off the “gold standard.”  Before 1933, the U. S. Treasury could only print paper money equal in value to the amount of gold in the vaults.  That practice had always been considered a sound financial policy.  It would prevent the U. S. A. from spending more money than it made, and thus prevent inflation.   By taking the country off the gold standard, the federal government could now print more paper money than it could actually back in gold, which would allow the government to stimulate the economy by “priming the pump,” or by spending money that it did not actually have in order to jump-start the economy.  The economic theory behind this idea was called “Keynesianism,” named for British economist John Maynard Keynes who formulated it.  (It should be noted, however, that whether Keynes influenced Roosevelt’s policies or Roosevelt’s policies influenced Keynes’s theory is debatable.)

The introduction of Keynesianism marked a radical departure in America’s economic history.  It was exactly the opposite of the traditional laissez-faire approach to economics that the U. S. A. had previously believed in so adamantly.  With Keynesian pump-priming, now the U. S. government would not only take an active role in the economy, it would actually dictate how the economy would operate.  Rather than investors and businessmen creating jobs, now the federal government would create jobs.  It was, and still is, a controversial idea.

Many of FDR’s Alphabet Soup programs were created because Keynesianism allowed the government to spend money it did not have to stimulate the economy.  One of the first such programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  It put more than 2 million men to work around the nation in blue collar jobs.  The CCC built roads, bridges, dams, levees, fire towers, drainage canals, and made many other improvements to federal property.  It fenced in federal lands, it built state parks and national parks, and it planted thousands of acres in trees.  It was a successful program.  Its only shortcoming was that it was like Hoover’s public works projects: too little and too temporary.

A larger and more important federal program was the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  It employed more than 9 million men and women, mostly in white collar jobs.  It provided jobs to unemployed teachers, professors, writers, artists, musicians, journalists, historians, scientists, etc.  One of its most important projects was researching and writing histories of the various states.  Another of its important projects was collecting slave narratives.  At the time the program was started in 1936-37, there were still several thousand African-Americans alive who had been slaves when they were children.  The WPA workers researched the U. S. census to find all of these people, go to their homes, and interview them before they died.  Most of the elderly black interviewees were in their 80’s or 90’s.  Some of them were in frail health, and some had bad memories, but most were willing and able to sit down and tell the WPA interviewers what it was like for them to live in slavery. (These slave narratives were later collected by a historian named George P. Rawick in 1969 and published as a multi-volume series of books called The American Slave, which is an invaluable resource for the study of slavery in American history.)

Other New Deal programs that were equally successful included the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  The REA subsidized local electric companies to wire the whole rural United States for electricity.  Before the REA was created, electric companies could not afford to plant light poles and run light wires to every single isolated home throughout the countryside.  The REA made it cost-efficient for them to do it now, which improved the living standards of country folks throughout the United States in and after the 1930s.  The TVA was a big, ambitious project designed to provide flood control and prevent soil erosion in the poorest part of the United States—the southern Appalachian mountains region.  The Tennessee River flows through five southern states and runs very close to two other states.  Every year before the 1930s, it flooded regularly.  This made the Tennessee Valley virtually an unliveable place, and resulted in the terrible waste of otherwise good farm land.  The TVA, however, built a series of dams along the river to end that problem.  The dams also generated electric power, allowing the poor Appalachian mountains region to be wired for electricity for the first time.  The dams also created reservoirs, which made excellent recreation areas.  Thanks to the TVA, the Tennessee Valley was transformed from the poorest place in the United States to one of the most prosperous places in the nation.

Among the many New Deal programs, perhaps the most important in the long term of American history has been the Social Security Administration (SSA).  The idea behind social security was, and still is, to make sure that the welfare of senior citizens was provided for at taxpayer expense.  At the time it was created, there was another underlying idea behind it: to encourage older workers to retire, which would open up more jobs for young people.  Before the SSA was created, workers simply worked until they died or got too ill to continue.  Most American workers could not afford to quit working just because they turned 62, 65, or some other abstract age.  So, they held their jobs longer, which prevented several million young people from having jobs.  But now, thanks to social security, very few American workers want to work a day past their 65th birthday.  It was a brilliant idea, although it has turned into an “entitlement” over the years, and that is not good. [Entitlements are like the “sacred cows” of American politics.  No politician can dare do anything to “reform” social security today, even though the system is just about to collapse, because his opponent(s) will accuse him/her of trying to “starve” the old people.]

In all of the aforementioned programs, FDR and the Democrats received very little opposition from the Republican minority.  But that was not the case with the next two programs.  One, FDR and Congress created the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) to fix the many problems that farmers and ranchers faced during the Depression.  The purpose of this agency was to correct the imbalance in supply and demand.  There were too many farmers in the United States.  They grew too many of the same crops, which resulted in an oversupply of certain crops, such as cotton.  Likewise, those who raised livestock had produced an overabundance of cows, hogs, chickens, and sheep.  This oversupply caused the price of these commodities to plummet and then stay low year after year.  The AAA agents went into each county in each state, inspected the farming situation there, and made a determination about which farmers should be allowed to grow which crops or raise which livestock.  In some cases it instructed dirt-farmers to switch to a new crop.  In most cases, it told dirt-farmers not to grow anything at all.  For livestock farmers, the AAA instructed them to slaughter their herds rather than sell them.  This produced the very strange scenario of farmers wasting good food crops just at the time when Americans were going hungry because of the Depression. [Sometimes slaughtered livestock would be piled up in mountainous stacks and set ablaze in humongous bonfires.]  Those farmers who complied with the AAA instructions were given government paychecks which were considerably larger than the paycheck they would have gotten for growing whatever crop(s) or livestock they normally raised.  They thus got paid to do nothing.  How could farmers complain about that?  They couldn’t.

But that did not mean that the Republicans in Congress could not complain.  They certainly did.  They pitched a conniption fit, calling the AAA a “socialistic” program.  They saw it as the first step on the road to converting the U. S. A. from a capitalist nation to a socialist nation.  They were determined to stop it.  They had no actual power to stop it, however, except through the judiciary.  They sued on the basis of unconstitutionality.  The Supreme Court heard the case and ruled in favor of the Republicans and against the AAA.  The Court’s opinion held that the federal government had no constitutional authority to tell farmers what crops to grow or how much of a certain crop to grow.  The Court thus killed the AAA.  The ruling did not deter FDR, however.  He simply repackaged the AAA by changing a few words here and there and sent the AAA back through Congress for repassage.  Congress did pass the bill again, re-inventing the AAA.  The second time around, neither the Republicans nor the Supreme Court thought it was worth the fight. [We thus still have the federal government telling farmers what to grow and what not to grow today.  Farmers still get government paychecks for not growing certain crops.]

In evaluating the wisdom of the U. S. government regulating agriculture like this, it is instructive to know that the Communist Soviet Union, with its centrally planned Socialist economy, did the same thing but on a grander scale.  The Stalin regime actually confiscated all the land from all the farmers and redistributed it to created (supposedly) maximum productivity.  Stalin also eliminated about 10 million “excess” farmers, sending some to work in industrial jobs and sending others to die in Siberian gulags.  Did the Soviet policies work?  No.  All evidence suggests that farmers work harder and are more productive when they own their land and make their own economic choices about farming.  Critics of FDR thus say that his meddling with agriculture made things worse in the long run for farmers, even if better temporarily.

A second federal agency that FDR created which incurred the wrath of Republicans was the National Recovery Administration (NRA).  It did the same thing for industry that the AAA did for farming.  It sought to adjust the supply and demand of various manufactured products in the United States.  The government had done the same thing during World War I, after all, so why not do it during this time when the government was waging war against the Great Depression?  The NRA also sought to adjust prices to bring them in line with what consumers could afford, and to adjust wages for workers.  The NRA received the exact same kind of opposition as the AAA, only worse.  The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional as well.  Again, FDR was not deterred.  Rather, he was determined.  He repackaged many of the provisions of the NRA and sent them through Congress again, and again his plan became law.  The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, for instance, created the nation’s first “minimum wage” for workers, which we still have today.   [Although most Americans still generally favor having a minimum wage law today, it is not necessarily a good thing.  It prevents employers from paying better workers more than less productive workers in many cases.]

In evaluating the NRA wage and price controls, it is clear that they proved ineffective and even damaging to the economy in the 1930s and prolonged the Great Depression.  The Communist Soviet Union used the same type of wage and price controls in the 1930s under Stalin.  In the Soviet attempt to eliminate the rich and poor and create one giant middle class where everyone is equal in pay and purchasing power, they killed the incentive to produce, achieve, and excel which are the hallmarks of capitalism.  Rather than lifting up the poor, they chopped down the rich.  The result was an economy based on the lowest common denominator, not one based on rewarding achievement.  40 years later, President Richard Nixon would try using wage and price controls again with equally bad results.  History thus shows that there is such a thing as too much government regulation of the economy.

The problems that FDR had with getting his programs struck down by the Supreme Court led him to do something which tarnished his reputation slightly in history as a great President.  He tried to manipulate the Supreme Court to his own advantage.  The Court was controlled by Republican justices who had been appointed during the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover years.  Roosevelt wanted to convince several of the older justices to retire early so he could appoint Democrats to the Court who would agree with his controversial New Deal programs.  He also sought to increase the number of justices on the court.  But his “court-packing plan,” as it was called, backfired on him.  When the American public found out about it, the majority disapproved of the idea.  FDR had to back down under public pressure.  Still, all-in-all, he was a very, very popular President.

In 1936, FDR ran for re-election.  His biggest rival was a man from Louisiana named Huey Long—nicknamed “The Kingfish.”  Long was a Democrat who believed in Socialism.  But he was smart enough to know that he could not call himself a Socialist or join the Socialist party, because he would have been castigated.  So, he called himself a Democrat while standing for the same things as the Socialists did.  He was sort of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” in American politics.  He criticized FDR not for being too radical in proposing controversial programs to end the Depression but for not being radical enough.  He wanted the USA to follow the Soviet economic model more closely than FDR was doing.  Long came up with an idea called the “Share Our Wealth” program.  It called for the government to confiscate the wealth of all millionaires in America and redistribute it to the poorest Americans.  He promised each poor American family a check of $5,000.  He generated a lot of support, even though mathematically, his plan was unworkable.  (If you added all of the money of every American millionaire together and divided it by the number of poor families out there, there would not have been enough money to give each family even $1,000, much less $5,000.)  Long began running his campaign in 1935, and he put a big scare into FDR.  Unfortunately for Long, before the election, he was assassinated down in the Louisiana capitol at Baton Rouge.  By the time of the election in 1936, FDR had no serious competition and was easily re-elected.

An interesting phenomenon occurred during FDR’s first term in office that has changed American politics ever since.  Black voters switched and voted overwhelmingly Democratic for the first time in American history.  Blacks had traditionally supported the Republican party—the party of Lincoln and the abolitionists who ended slavery.  By the 1930s, however, blacks felt that the Republican party had abandoned them, and indeed they were right.  The Democrats had never done anything for blacks, either.  In fact, the Democrats had traditionally been the oppressors of blacks.  But, FDR changed all that.  He was a New Yorker who was not a racist.  He believed in giving every American a fair chance at a good life.  His New Deal programs did not discriminate on the basis of race.  All Americans qualified for social security, for REA electricity, for CCC and WPA jobs, and for FDIC banking insurance.  Blacks rewarded FDR with their votes in 1936, and have continued voting overwhelmingly for the Democratic party ever since. [For more information on this topic, take the Black History class.]


World War II


The Great Depression was not an American phenomenon; it was worldwide.  It began with the collapse of Germany in the 1920s, and it spread all over Europe and to America.  The economic problems in Germany caused the fall of the German government called the Weimar Republic.  When it fell, there was a mad scramble by many different political parties and factions to gain control of the German government.  Ultimately, in 1932, power fell into the lap of the National German Socialist Workers Party, better known as the Nazi party.  Its leader was a radical named Adolf Hitler.  Hitler came to power in Germany at about the same time that FDR came to power in America.  Both gained power by promising to solve the Great Depression.  But, of course, Hitler had a much broader agenda than that.  He wanted to get revenge on England and France for sticking his country with those dastardly reparations after World War I.  So, his main objective was to rebuild the German military machine which had been dismantled since the first world war and prepare it for a new world war that would restore Germany to its proper place as the most powerful country in Europe (and the world?).

Other powerful nations of the world experienced similar situations.  All suffered from the Great Depression, and all had military dictators to seize power.  Such included Mussolini in Italy, Stalin in Russia (which changed its name to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR), Franco in Spain, and Tojo in Japan.  Throughout the 1930s, all of these world leaders were vying for more land, more natural resources, and greater world power, the same as Hitler was doing in Germany.

FDR knew about the economic and military instability in these other nations which caused the rise of these evil leaders, but he did not do anything to prevent the situation.  Why?  There are several reasons.  1) The most important one is because America had its own problems to deal with that were so severe that FDR and Congress could not think about fixing any other nation’s problems until they fixed their own first.  Public opinion in America agreed with that assessment of the situation.  2) Another reason is that the United States was firmly committed to the policy of neutrality or isolationism with regard to foreign affairs.  As long as Hitler, Stalin, and the rest left us alone, we would not bother them either.  3) A third reason is that the United States really had no power at the moment to do anything about evil foreign leaders anyway.  After World War I, the U. S. military machine had been demobilized.  America continued its tradition of not keeping a large standing army during peacetime.  So, in order to stop the rise of Hitler or anyone else, the U. S. A. would first have to rebuild its military, and no one wanted to do that when we needed to use our taxpayer money for solving the economic problems of the Great Depression.  4) A fourth reason was that FDR and Congress did not see it as America’s problem to deal with in the first place.  As they saw it, it should be the responsibility of the League of Nations to deal with such problems.

Therefore, essentially, the United States just sat back and allowed a group of despots and tyrants to take over several of the most powerful nations in the world and thus jeopardize world peace and even (in the long run) American safety.  Thus, in the 1940s, the U. S. A. paid dearly for its indifference to foreign affairs during the 1930s.

For the first five years of Hitler’s rule, Germany was engaged in a military build-up.  By 1938, Hitler and the Nazis had a big and strong enough army to begin using it against their neighbors to take over territory and to start the process of retribution against France and England.  In 1938, Hitler ordered the invasion of Austria to the south and Czechoslovakia to the east.  He did so with the explanation that the Austrians and the Czechs were ethnically Germans, and he was just trying to unite all the German people in Europe into one big country.  His action scared the rest of the world, but his explanation made enough sense that no one protested too long or loud.  Instead, the Prime Minister of England, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Munich to sit down and talk with Hitler to find out what his intentions were next.  Hitler was nice and polite.  He met with Chamberlain and told him exactly what he wanted to hear.  Chamberlain felt relieved to know that Hitler was a nice guy who promised not to invade any more neighboring countries. Chamberlain told Hitler he could keep Austria and Czechoslovakia provided that he sign an official document promising to be peaceful from now on.  Hitler agreed.  Chamberlain brought the good news of this “Munich Pact” back home to England and assured the British people, and all the people of the world in fact, that they could sleep soundly now; they did not need to fear this nice man Hitler.  This policy that Chamberlain used in dealing with Hitler was called “appeasement.”

Hitler was, of course, a liar.  In 1939, he invaded another neighbor to the east—Poland—and took it by force easily.  At that point, Chamberlain looked like a fool because of appeasement and had to resign the Prime Minister’s office in England.  In his place stepped Winston Churchill, who immediately declared war on Germany.  World War II thus began in 1939.  Before England could even mobilize for war, however, Hitler invaded France to the west, using the strategy of the “blitzkrieg,” or lightning warfare.  France fell in about five weeks.  Thereafter, England alone stood in his way.

Still, even after war broke out in Europe, FDR and the American government refused to get involved.  The U. S. A. was determined to continue with its policy of neutrality and isolationism, the same as we did at the beginning of World War I.  Soon, all the great powers of the world except the U. S. A. were again in alliances and fighting on one side or the other.  England, what was left of France, and the USSR again formed the Allies, the same as in World War I.  Germany, Italy, and Japan formed the “Axis” Powers.  Even though the U. S. A. was officially neutral, almost all Americans were overwhelmingly in support of the Allies.  Therefore, FDR and Churchill worked out an agreement called the

Destroyers for Bases” deal in 1940 [supplemented a year later by an act of Congress called the “Lend-Lease” program] which made the U. S. A. a neutral partner with England.  The program allowed the U. S. Navy to “lend” England many of our old World War I battleships (which had only been used for about 1 year and had since then been docked and collecting barnacles).  In exchange, England would “lease” the U. S. Navy several of its naval bases around the world to help bolster American national defense—just in case.

That is where the situation stood in 1940 at the time of the next presidential election.  In the election of 1940, FDR broke a presidential tradition.  He did not step down from power after two terms in office.  Instead, he wanted to be President for 4 more years.  He explained that it was not a good idea to change leadership in the midst of such monumental crises as were going on at the time—a World War and a Great Depression.  Voters agreed, and re-elected FDR to an unprecedented third term in office.  FDR had not made the mistake that Wilson made by making it a major feature of his campaign to promise to keep the U. S. A. out of the war; all he said was that he was going to try like crazy to keep us out of it (until his opponent Wendell Wilkie forced him to declare his intentions, then he did make a promise to keep the U.S.A. out, but by then it didn’t matter to voters).  Even so, FDR could not sit back and do nothing while the evil Hitler took over all of Europe, because if Hitler succeeded there, he would next surely turn his attention toward destroying the United States.

It seems ironic that while FDR and most Americans were focused on possible war with Germany that another Axis power, Japan, became the nation to attack the U. S. A. and force it into the war.  The attack came on December 7, 1941, against the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  What caused the attack?  The answer is complex.  Japan had become an imperialist power at about the same time as the U. S.A.—right around the turn of the 20th century.  Japan had already taken possession of every little island and every little weak country in the Pacific ocean that the United  States or some other imperialist power did not own.  The U. S. A. feared that Japan would next try to attack and take control of the islands that we called our “protectorates” in the Pacific, such as the Philippines.  The Philippines are due south of Japan, after all.  The U. S. A. also feared that Japan would violate the Open Door Policy toward China by attacking that giant neighbor.  The U. S. A. was right.  Japan invaded the northern part of China, called Manchuria, in 1939.  Japan also invaded French Indochina (Vietnam).  FDR and the U. S. government then placed an embargo on Japan to punish it.  The embargo hurt Japan badly.  Japan had previously bought most of its oil from the U. S. A.  Now, because of the embargo, Japan had to try to get oil from other sources, and that was neither easy nor cheap.  By the end of 1941, Tojo of Japan decided that his best choice would be to defeat the United States in war.  Then it could get all the oil it wanted.

So, Japan launched its surprise attack on Hawaii.  It was probably a good strategy from a military point of view, except Tojo was thinking small.  If he had launched surprise attacks on several American naval bases at the same time, it probably would have destroyed our ability to fight back, and the Japanese military machine might have knocked us out before we even got in the war.  But, as it was, the attack on Pearl Harbor did not damage the American navy badly enough to do Japan any good.  The attack was terrible, for sure.  It killed about 3,500 Americans and destroyed about 200 American ships and airplanes, but that was just the tip of the iceberg of the U. S. military.  Fortunately for us, FDR and Congress had learned another lesson from the mistakes of the Wilson administration in World War I.  Whereas Wilson waited until war was declared in 1917 to start building the American military for war, FDR started in 1939, immediately after war broke out in Europe—just in case.  It turned out to be a very wise move.

The very next day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR asked for and received a congressional “Declaration of War” against Japan.  In declaring war on Japan, the U. S.A.  was declaring war on all of the Axis powers.  The Axis powers, including Germany, immediately responded by declaring war on us.  We were now at war again—for the second time in only 22 years.  FDR and the U. S. A. then embarked upon the biggest and fastest military build-up in the history of the world.  The U. S. A. would ultimately build the greatest war machine the world would ever see.  Some 16 million Americans either volunteered or were drafted to fight.  In addition, another 15 million civilians got jobs working in national defense industries building war materials.  In 1942, therefore, some 31 million Americans got jobs because of the war.  This ended the Great Depression overnight.  The New Deal had helped alleviate some of the suffering of the Depression, but it had not ended it.  World War II did.

The U. S. A. then spent some $300 billion in building our war machine from 1942 to 1945.  How much money was that in the 1940s?  It was more money than the federal government had spent all totaled in its whole history before 1942.  That’s right.  In just three short years, the U. S. A. spent in excess of its cumulative budget for the previous 166 years.  Wow!  But that is exactly the kind of effort it was going to take to overcome the dual enemies of the Great Depression and the Axis powers.

After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States military was immediately attacked again.  This time it was in the Philippines, which had been a U. S. protectorate since 1898.  The Japanese attacked in December 1941, and by May 1942 they controlled all of the Philippines.  Even though the Americans there gave a valiant fight, they were outnumbered and unprepared for the attack.  The American general in charge in the Philippines was Douglas MacArthur.  He evacuated the islands to save as many American soldiers’ lives as possible.  Even so, the Japanese still killed some 10,000 Americans and captured 10,000 more.  The ones who died early were the lucky ones.  Those who were captured endured three years of hell in the Japanese concentration camps of the Philippines.  The American prisoners were first marched on a grueling journey from one side of the jungle island to the other with almost no food or water.  The Americans called it the “Bataan Death March.”  The Japanese tortured the American prisoners in ways that we cannot really imagine for the next three years.  As MacArthur evacuated the island, he vowed revenge, saying dramatically to the Filipino people,  “I shall return.”

The U. S. military’s immediate concern in 1942, therefore, was staving off the Japanese assault on the Pacific.   Japan already controlled China and most of the Asian coastline, the Philippines, and most of the islands of the Pacific.  They were determined to take possession of everything in the Pacific, including Australia.  The U. S. A. could not let that happen.  In the spring and summer of 1942, therefore, the U. S. Navy got in Japan’s way.  First, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the U. S. Navy fought to protect Australia (which was part of the British empire and therefore our ally).  The battle was a draw.  We did not defeat the Japanese navy, but we kept it from taking Australia.  Next came the Battle of Midway.  Midway was a small island in the middle of the Pacific, sort of half-way between Hawaii and the Philippines.  The U. S. A. controlled it and had a naval base there.  It was of vital strategic importance because of its location.  The U. S. Navy defeated the Japanese navy–finally–in this battle.  There were other battles in the Pacific in 1942, as well, but the Battle of Midway was the most important because it marked a turning point in our war with Japan.  From that battle on, the U. S. A. took the offensive and put Japan on the defensive.  Now, they were running from us rather than attacking us.

By the Fall of 1942, FDR and the Allies had made a decision.  Now that the U. S. Navy had Japan on the run in the Pacific, it could afford to concentrate the bulk of its military force on stopping Hitler in Europe.  The American and Allied strategy thus came to be called the “Europe First Policy.”  It meant that the U. S. government would focus on defeating Germany first rather than Japan.  All the U. S. A. needed to do in the Pacific after 1942 was hold Japan at bay.  But it had to concentrate immediately on defeating Hitler; the war with Germany could not wait; given six more months, Hitler might defeat England and take over the world.  The U. S. A. could not let that happen.

In fact, Hitler could have already defeated England by the end of 1942 if it had not been for making a stupid mistake.  In the middle of his campaign to get his revenge on England and France for the reparations issue, he decided to attack the Soviet Union as well.  He thus started a two-front war, which meant he had to place half of his military on the eastern front against the Soviets and leave only half of it to fight England.  That mistake made all the difference in who won and who lost the war.  It allowed England to hold on and stave off the German juggernaut until the United States could come to the rescue.

The strategy behind the Europe First Policy had essentially three parts: 1) The U. S. A. would launch a massive aerial bombardment campaign over Germany.  American airplanes would drop tons and tons of bombs on German cities, hoping to destroy weapons factories and infrastructure, and thus soften up the Germans’ war-making capability.  2) The U. S. A. would launch a land invasion against the Axis.  The plan was to attack the “soft underbelly of Europe” rather than making a straight ahead attack on the western front.  The attack would thus begin with the U. S. forces landing in North Africa and kicking the Germans out of that region.  That would give us a base from which to launch an attack on Europe.  Then we would attack the island of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea.  From there, we would attack Italy.  Once in control of Italy, we would move due north into Germany.  3) Meanwhile, after softening up German defenses and forcing Hitler to move thousands of troops to Italy to stop the American assault there, we would be able then to launch our really big invasion on the western front.

The first part of the strategy worked wonderfully.  American bomber planes wreaked havoc on Germany.  The second part of the strategy started off shaky, got better, but ultimately bogged down.  The American general in charge of the North Africa campaign was Dwight Eisenhower.  In his army’s first engagement with the top German Field Marshal, “the Desert Fox” Erwin Rommel, Eisenhower’s army got beat.  It was a battle between tanks in the Sahara desert.  It took a certain kind of skill to fight in the desert.  Fortunately, Eisenhower and his subordinate generals learned quickly from their mistakes.  In the second engagement, the Americans defeated Rommel, and, along with British troops, ultimately succeeded in driving the Germans out of Africa.  Next, Eisenhower ordered General George S. Patton to invade Sicily.  Patton took the island but did not follow orders about how to do it, so he was replaced by General Omar Bradley, who then led the American invasion of Italy.  The Italian Campaign turned into a quagmire.  It was not a quick, easy victory like what the U. S. military had enjoyed in most of its other battles or campaigns.  It lasted the whole year of 1943.  By the end of 1943, the U. S. Army still had not captured all of Italy, only the southern half of it.  But that was okay, because the whole point of the operation was to divert Hitler’s attention away from the western front by forcing him to commit troops for the defense of Italy. The plan worked.  Now the U. S. A. was ready to launch part three of the strategy.

In the early weeks and months of 1944, the U. S. A. and the Allies began preparing for the invasion on the western front.  It would be the largest invasion in the history of warfare.   Eisenhower was appointed the first and only Supreme Commander of Allied Forces.  So, he not only gave orders to Americans but also to British, French, Canadian, and Australian troops, among others.  In order for the invasion to succeed, Eisenhower 1) had to choose the right place, the right time, the right amount of land, air, and naval forces; 2) he had to have a plan for how to proceed on to Germany once the initial invasion succeeded; 3) he had to make sure he coordinated all of the various nations’ armies under his command, and 4) he had to—above all—keep the whole operation secret from the Germans.  The final result of months of preparation was “Operation Overlord,” which got the nickname “the D-Day invasion” (short for Decision Day invasion).  It called for 4,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes, and 2 million ground troops to cross the English channel from England to the coast of France all at one time.  The day chosen was June 6, 1944.

The D-Day invasion worked just as Eisenhower drew it up on paper.  The reason was that Hitler thought the invasion was a diversion.  He thought it was a decoy and the real invasion was coming further up the coast in Belgium or Holland.  Hitler outsmarted himself.  The D-Day invasion caught his forces unprepared to stave off 2 million Allied troops.  D-Day was extremely bloody (as anyone who has watched the movie Saving Private Ryan knows), but it was not nearly as bloody as it might have been.  About 6,000 American soldiers died assailing the beaches of Normandy.  Had Hitler been prepared for the invasion, the death toll would have easily been 10 times as great as it actually was, if not far more than that.

Once the United States succeeded in putting those 2 million troops on the ground in France, the next step was to start marching them toward Germany.  They marched and fought.  The Germans fought fiercely but ultimately had to retreat under the pressure.  Meanwhile, as the Americans pushed the Germans back on the western front, the Russians had managed to get an advantage on the eastern front and begin pushing the Germans back from that direction at the same time.  Hitler’s forces were thus caught in the middle of an Allied sandwich attack.  They were being squeezed in from all sides.  It seemed now only a matter of time before victory belonged to the Allies.  But the Germans were not ready to give up that easily.  Hitler decided to make one last do-or-die counter-offensive on the western front.  The result was the Battle of the Bulge in November 1944, which took place along the French-German border.  It caught the American army by surprise.  The Americans had to convert from playing offense to defense immediately with no time to prepare.  The Germans very nearly succeeded in breaking through our lines.   In the end, however, the line bent, but it did not break.  From an aerial view, the bend in the American line looked like a “bulge;” hence, the name of the battle.

After the Battle of the Bulge, it truly was just a matter of time until the Allies won the war.  At the same time this battle was taking place in Europe, back home in the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt was again running for re-election.  Never before had a President run for a third term, much less a fourth term.  FDR was defying all American traditions.  He did so on the same basis he had run for the third term, saying it was not a good idea to change leadership in the midst of a war.  Voters agreed and elected him again.  Unfortunately, the U. S. A. would ultimately be forced to change leadership during the war anyway, because FDR would soon die.  FDR lived just 5 more months after the election.  Thus, he did not live to see the end of Hitler, Tojo, or the war.  He died in April 1945 at Warm Springs, Georgia, while sitting for a painting.  When he died, his Vice-President—the third Vice-President he had in four terms in office—became President.  His name was Harry S. Truman.  (We will discuss Truman later.)

Within a month after the death of Roosevelt, the American and Russian armies converged upon Berlin, Germany, Hitler killed himself, and the Nazis surrendered.  The war in Europe was over.  On May 8, 1945, the free world celebrated “VE Day,” meaning “victory in Europe day.”  Then came the unpleasant task of cleaning up the mess that the Nazis had made of Europe.  Over the next few weeks, the world would be shocked to discover what had previously only been a rumor: the Nazis had rounded up all the Jews they could catch in Europe and sent them to concentration camps, where they were starved, tortured, worked to death, and finally exterminated in gas chambers.  Those fortunate ones who were still alive were liberated, and got to tell their stories to the horrified people of the Allied nations.

Meanwhile, once it became clear that the Allies would defeat Hitler, the

  1. S. A. could then turn its attention back to the Pacific and to defeating Japan. General Douglas MacArthur was still in command of the U. S. Army in the Pacific, while Admiral Chester Nimitz was in command of the U. S. Navy.  Nimitz and MacArthur engaged in an “Island Hopping” strategy in 1944 and 1945 to liberate all the territory that Japan had captured at the beginning of the war.   The strategy was to begin at the islands furthest away from Japan, and progressively move closer and closer to Japan itself.  One of the most important places to liberate was the Philippines.  MacArthur had vowed to return with a vengeance, and now was the time.  It would not be easy.  The U. S. Navy first had to defeat the Japanese Navy and Air Force in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  The battle was fierce, and the Japanese were desperate.  Tojo changed his strategy here.  He called for Japanese pilots to volunteer to fly suicide missions.  They were told to fly their planes into American ships and hopefully cause explosions that would sink the ships.  Those who volunteered were called “Kamikazes,” meaning “the divine wind.”  Despite the efforts of hundreds of Kamikazes, the Japanese still lost the battle.  The U. S. military recaptured the Philippines, liberated the American P. O. W.’s, and MacArthur moved in and set up headquarters.

The next major stop in the Island Hopping campaign was Iwo Jima.  This was a small volcanic wasteland that sat hundreds of miles from the nearest civilization, but it was strategically important because the Japanese had a major fort there.  The U. S. Marines had to capture the island.  The fighting was extremely bloody, but the Americans prevailed.  Upon capturing the island, the Marines planted the U. S. flag atop Mount Suribachi [which provided the famous photograph that was later turned into a bronze life-size statue of American heroism in Washington, D. C.].

After Iwo Jima, the next stop was the Japanese island of Okinawa, which is very close to the main islands that make up the nation of Japan.  The closer the Americans got to Japan proper, the more fiercely the Japanese soldiers fought.  At Okinawa, they were instructed not to surrender but to fight to the death.  Most of them did.  The Battle of Okinawa was the single bloodiest battle of the whole war for the United States, causing more than 80,000 American casualties.  But the U. S. A. won, and the next stop was Japan itself.

The planned invasion of Japan was an extremely dangerous and scary proposition.  Military experts predicted that the United States would suffer possibly up to 1 million casualties in taking the islands by conventional means.  If there was an alternative, surely the U. S. government must take it.  There was.  It was a new super weapon called the “atomic bomb,” which American and British scientists had been working on feverishly for about 6 years.  The history of the atomic bomb is fascinating and important, so we must discuss it in some detail here.

The genesis of the bomb begins with a discovery made by a German scientist named Albert Einstein in the early 1900s.  Einstein developed the “theory of relativity,” which held that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared.  He theorized that atoms, which have mass, could conceivably be split, thus creating energy as a by-product of the electrical discharge resulting from electrons being knocked out of their normal orbits.  It was just a theory, but other scientists began experimenting in laboratories to prove Einstein’s theory true.  In the early 1930s, soon after Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany, Hitler’s scientific advisors explained to him the theory, saying that it could possibly be developed into a weapon.  If an atom could be split, the discharge from the first atom could start a chain reaction that would split other atoms beside it, which in turn would split other atoms, and so on-and-so on.  It would cause an explosion of the very building blocks of the universe, in other words.  If such a weapon could be harnessed, it would make all other weapons obsolete.  Hitler ordered his scientists to begin trying to build such an explosive device immediately.

Some German scientists knew from the beginning that Hitler was an evil man, and they refused to be a party to this mad-man’s quest for world power.  They fled from Germany to England and the United States.  Among them was Albert Einstein himself, who was already in America doing lectures at Princeton University at the time Hitler came to power.  Einstein warned President Roosevelt about Hitler’s plans to build a super weapon.  Roosevelt, after discussing the issue with his scientific advisors, then began the “Manhattan Project,” which was a joint effort between American and British scientists and some German defectors to produce an atomic bomb for the Allies before Hitler’s team beat them to it.

The Manhattan Project was supervised by J. Robert Oppenheimer (an American of German descent) and General Leslie Groves.  Despite the name, the project did not take place in Manhattan.  It was actually spread over several different locations in the United States.  First, at the University of Chicago, American scientists conducted controlled laboratory experiments to determine which atom or atoms might actually be split.  Only the extremely heavy radioactive elements would possibly work.  These experiments with uranium proved successful, as the first atom was split by man-made manipulation.

Other important sites were Oak Ridge, Tennessee, just outside of Knoxville near the University of Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington.  There, scientists experimented with ways to enrich uranium and plutonium in quantities large enough to produce a bomb, and with ways to package the radioactive material until it could actually be placed inside a detonating device.  They were successful.

Meanwhile, at Los Alamos, New Mexico, scientists worked on actually building the first atomic bomb.  It took nearly 6 years to get that first bomb from Einstein’s brain and on to paper, then into the experimental stage, and finally in actual production.  By the spring of 1945, Oppenheimer and company had an atomic bomb in their hands.  Even at that point, no one knew for sure whether it would really work.  It was purely theoretical.  The only way to find out was to detonate it and see what would happen.  In the New Mexico desert, the first bomb was detonated near Alamogordo in June 1945.  It worked!  It produced a mushroom cloud, and the explosion destroyed everything for miles around.  It was even more devastating than the scientists had hoped.

The next question was: could the scientists replicate this experiment every time they tried?  Or was the first bomb just a fluke?  After more testing, it was clear that the first explosion was no accident.  This was reliable new technology.

With this super weapon at the disposal of new President Harry S. Truman, the United States now had a choice in the summer of 1945 about whether to launch a conventional invasion of Japan or not.  It was a moral dilemma for Truman and his scientific and military advisors.  On the one hand, to use the atomic bomb might kill a million Japanese citizens—men, women, and children alike—not just soldiers.  On the other hand, not to use it might result in a million young American men dying to finally end this tragic war.  Truman decided to let the Japanese be the ones to die.  After all, remember Pearl Harbor?  Remember the Kamikazes?  Remember 80,000 casualties at Okinawa?

At the end of July 1945, Truman warned Tojo that if Japan did not surrender immediately, the United States would drop a new super bomb on one of its giant industrial cities that produced war-materials. The Japanese thought it was a bluff.  They had no idea just how much of a super bomb Truman was talking about.  They soon found out.  On August 6, 1945, an American plane flying at 40,000 feet dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan.  Hiroshima was a city with a population of about 400,000. [It was about the size that Jacksonville, Florida, is today.]  The bomb destroyed about half of the city and killed about half of the people.  The Japanese government in Tokyo still did not really understand the extent of the damage.  To Tojo, it was much the same as if a bad earthquake had hit Japan, which is something that did happen from time to time.  The Japanese gambled that the United States did not have another bomb like that.  Even if the U. S. A. did have another one, they gambled that Truman would not use it.  They did not surrender.  They were wrong. . . dead wrong.  3 days later, on August 9, 1945, the U. S. A. dropped the second atomic bomb on Japan.  This one was on the city of Nagasaki.  Nagasaki was a larger city than Hiroshima, but, ironically, the bomb did not do quite as much damage to this city as the first one.

Now the Japanese government understood.  They realized they could not continue.  They surrendered.  The surrender was made official on September 2, 1945.  This day was celebrated as “VJ Day,” or victory in Japan day.  The surrender was signed aboard the U. S. S. Missouri, and General Douglas MacArthur took great satisfaction in personally accepting the surrender.   Afterwards, MacArthur would stay in Japan for the next five years with an American force and rule Japan as a conquered enemy nation.


President of the United States: Harry Truman


At the end of World War II, there was no doubt that the United States was the most powerful nation in the world.  England, France, and Germany, which had previously been the world’s superpowers, were now second-rate powers.  The only nation besides the U. S. A. to end the war in a better position than it had started it was the Soviet Union.  The U. S. S. R. had been our ally during the war, but after the war, it became our biggest competitor.  In the first few years after the war, however, the Soviets were no match for the U. S. A. in terms of wealth, technology, or military power.  The most important advantage the U. S. A. had was the atomic bomb.  The United States had invented it in 1945, but the U. S. S. R. had not developed one yet.  Joseph Stalin used this fact as an excuse to annex all of the territory the Russian army had taken from the Nazis in the war.  He wanted to keep plenty of distance between the American sphere of influence and his home and capital, Moscow.  All of this territory under Russian control provided him with a “buffer zone,” or safety zone, which Winston Churchill nicknamed the “Iron Curtain.”  More properly, these eastern European nations that the Soviet Union annexed were called the “Eastern Bloc” countries.

President Harry Truman and the American public feared that Stalin’s intention might be to keep pushing westward and conquering more territory just as Hitler had done, because Russian Communism seemed just as evil to them as German Nazism and Italian Fascism.  Truman, therefore, issued the Truman Doctrine, which called for “containment” of Communism around the world.  The policy said that the U. S. A., as the undisputed leader of the free, Democratic-Capitalist world had the responsibility of stopping the spread of Communism.  This idea was important, because wherever the U. S. A. stopped its spread, we got an ally, and wherever the U. S. A. did not stop it, the Soviets got an ally.  To give nations an incentive to join the Democratic-Capitalist camp rather than joining the Communist camp, the United States offered the nations of Europe the European Recovery Program, better known as the “Marshall Plan” (named for Secretary of State George Marshall).  The plan offered huge amounts of money (more than $17 billion in all) to impoverished countries that had been devastated in the war.  The money would help those countries rebuild what had been destroyed by war.

The containment policy and the Marshall Plan were both fairly successful at stopping the spread of Communism, although not completely successful.  The main problem for the U. S. A. was that neither policy could take back nations that had already fallen under Communism, and there were many of those.

The idea of “containment” was first tested in Berlin, Germany, in 1948.  After the war, the city had been divided into two halves: the eastern half was controlled by the Soviets, and the western half by the U. S. A., Britain, and France.  The nation of Germany itself had also been divided in half.  The problem was, the whole city of Berlin lay inside the Soviet half of Germany, and was only connected to the western Democratic-Capitalist half by a highway “corridor.” Stalin decided he wanted the whole city.  He kicked the westerners out of the city and then blockaded the road behind them.  Truman responded by saying he would not allow the Soviets to take the city, but he did not dare start World War III over it.  He calculated that if he ordered airplanes to fly in and out of the city, Stalin would then be in the unpleasant position of having to decide whether to shoot the planes down or not.  If he did, that would be an act of war, and Truman would then be defending the American military from attack rather than merely defending a foreign territory from invasion.  So he ordered that the U. S. military fly supplies in to show the people of Berlin that the Democratic-Capitalists of the West had not abandoned them.  This action was called the “Berlin Airlift.”  It won the Berliners to the side of Democratic-Capitalism.  Truman’s gamble paid off; Stalin wisely chose not to shoot down the planes.  Within a year he had lifted the blockade.  The Soviets settled for half of the city from then on, and in 1960 built a large brick wall right through the middle of the city to keep his East Germans from escaping to the other side where they could live in freedom.

The whole idea of having two competing, incompatible political-economic systems in the world made for a very tense situation.  The U. S. A. and the U. S. S. R. were not at war, but they were in competition for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world.  This ideological stand-off became known as the “Cold War.”  It was a time when the fate of the world rested in the hands of just two nations.  It lasted from 1945 to 1989, when the Soviet Union finally began to collapse.

The U. S. A. developed two international organizations to help keep the peace after World War II.  One was a political body called the United Nations (UN), which was a modified version of the League of Nations.  The most important difference between the old defunct League of Nations and the new United Nations was that the U. S. A. joined the UN and led it.  The other organization was a military alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, better known by the acronym NATO.  NATO would serve like a military backup for the Democratic-Capitalist nations in the UN.   If the UN failed to keep world peace, the U. S. A. would be prepared to respond by being already in a military alliance with the other Democratic-Capitalist nations of the West.   All nations were invited to join the UN, including the Communist nations, but NATO was only for the Democratic-Capitalist countries.  Its real purpose was to deter the Soviets and other Communist nations from attacking the non-Communist nations of the world.

Although the United Nations has been criticized over the decades as a paper tiger (a body that really has no power) it has been successful so far at preventing a “world war III” from taking place, thanks mainly to U. S. leadership.   Likewise, NATO has also proven successful so far at keeping a fairly stable balance of power in Europe and thus preventing any major wars there since 1945.  The fact that the U. S. A. joined not one, but two, new alliances after World War II shows a decisive turning point in American history.  Before World War II, the U. S. A. lived under the illusion that somehow we could remain permanently isolated from European affairs.  After making that false assumption twice in the space of 30 years before 1945, the United States was now ready to assume its rightful place as leader of the free world–and to accept the responsibility that comes with leadership.

The Truman administration also created new federal government agencies after World War II designed to keep a secret, watchful eye on the Russians and Communists around the world and to advise the President on top secret national defense issues.  One was called the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and it became the eyes and ears of the free world from the 1940s to the present.  Another was the National Security Council, which coordinated all the various agencies in the defense department, state department, and justice department to prepare for World War III.  In addition, the Truman administration restructured the U. S. military system by adding the Air Force to the existing Army, Navy, and Marines, as a separate and distinct branch of the nation’s armed forces.

1948 was a presidential election year.  Harry Truman ran for the national Democrats against the Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey and against the States’ Rights party, which was a southern offshoot of the Democratic party, led by Strom Thurmond.  Truman had been a controversial leader during his first term in office.  First of all, he had not been elected President; he had only served out FDR’s term.  Many Americans thus thought of him as a caretaker in the White House, not a real leader.  He did not have a lengthy or impressive pedigree to run on.  He had been a Missouri Congressmen during the New Deal and had helped get several of FDR’s programs passed through Congress.  Rewarding him with the Vice-Presidency in 1944 was FDR’s way of paying him back.  As President, Truman developed the reputation as a no-nonsense kind of guy.  He was the man who first made famous the adage “the buck stops here.”  He also earned the nickname “Give ‘em Hell Harry” for being such a straight-talker.  He did not mince words.  He said what was on his mind. . . always.  This made him beloved to many Americans who were tired of demagogues, but it also gained him many bitter enemies.  Most important of all, it made him tactless in diplomatic affairs.  For example, while he was dealing with his allies—particularly Joseph Stalin—in the last year of the war, Truman rubbed them the wrong way.  It was Truman’s manner that partly made Stalin so distrustful and fearful of the Americans after World War II.

Truman made several controversial decisions as President.  First was the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.  Next was his decision not to share the technology with the Soviets about how to build the atomic bomb, even though we already shared the technology with our other ally, England.  Some political leaders at the time believed (as some historians since then have argued) this was the wrong decision.  If the U. S. A. had been friendlier to the Russians after World War II, perhaps there would never have been a “Cold War.”  But we will never know.

Another controversial decision that Truman made was to desegregate the armed forces of the United States.  Truman, in fact, took a more pro-active stand on African-American civil rights issues than any president before him.  He ordered a federal government study to be done to determine what the main problems were facing black Americans in the late 1940s and to offer solutions.  The result of the study was the publication of a document called “To Secure These Rights.”  The document said that the federal government must take the responsibility for correcting the problems of racial discrimination, because neither the white American public nor the state governments would take it.  Therefore, unless the federal government changed American society for the better, change would never come.  Truman agreed, and for his espousal of this anti-racial discrimination policy, southern Democrats refused to support him in 1948.

The election of 1948 was one of the closest in American history.  Most political pundits predicted that Truman would lose.  They believed that it was impossible for a Democrat to win the White House without the votes of southerners.  The southern States’ Rights Democrats, better known as “Dixiecrats,” had no real chance of winning either, but it was assumed that they would drain off enough votes that the Republican Dewey would win.  To everyone’s surprise, including Truman’s, the incumbent won the election.  Truman would thus serve altogether for more than 7 ½ years, from 1945 to 1953.

Truman’s second term in office was even more turbulent than his first.  The most important issue was the Korean War, which began in 1950 and lasted to the end of his term in 1953.  The Korean War was a product of the Cold War.  It resulted from the ideological difference between the Communists and the Democratic-Capitalists, both of whom wanted to own and control Korea.  This so-called “war” was not a declared war, and thus not an official war, although more than 50,000 Americans died fighting in this undeclared, unofficial war.  Technically, this conflict was a police action of the United Nations, which was led by American forces and American commanders.  To understand this conflict, we must establish the background.

To begin, Korea is a peninsula that sticks out from the northern part of China right beside Japan.  Korea is about the size of Japan, the Philippines, or Florida.  Historically, Korea had always been a territory that other nations fought over.  During World War II, Japan had taken control of it.  At the end of the war, when the U. S. A. was engaged in its Island Hopping strategy to liberate captive lands from the Japanese, we arrived in Korea from the south side at the same exact time that the Russians arrived from the north.  Thus, the same thing happened to Korea in 1945 as happened to Germany in 1945–the U. S. A. and the U. S. S. R. divided it right down the middle at the 38th Parallel.  The Soviets took the north half of Korea and set up a Communist “puppet government” there, while the Americans took the south half and set up a Democratic-Capitalist government there.  The two lived side-by-side in an uneasy peace for the next five years.  In 1950, the North Korean Communists launched an unprovoked attack on the south in an attempt to take possession of the whole peninsula.

General Douglas MacArthur, who had been presiding over Japan for the previous five years, immediately jumped over to Korea to take charge of defending the South Korean government from the Communist menace.  He called President Truman and asked for reinforcements, which Truman immediately sent.  Altogether some 5.7 million Americans would serve in Korea.  Still, despite the valiant effort, the North Koreans had too much momentum initially, and easily pushed the American and U. N. forces back.  The Americans were backed into a corner, the southeastern corner of the peninsula, where MacArthur set up a defense perimeter—called the “Pusan Perimeter”—to make a final stand.  With his back to the ocean, MacArthur decided to make a bold counter-offensive move.  He left most of his force defending the Pusan Perimeter and withdrew the rest by sea to perform a surprise flanking maneuver.  He brought this force down by ship and around the other side of the peninsula and landed it at Inchon, behind enemy lines.  This “Inchon Landing” caught the North Koreans completely off guard.  MacArthur had the enemy sandwiched in between two American forces, resulting in the capture of more than 100,000 North Koreans.

At that point, MacArthur then began driving his army north and driving back the enemy.  MacArthur did not stop at the 38th Parallel, either.  He took the battle far over that line, actually pushing the enemy all the way to the northern border of North Korea at the Yalu River.  On the other side of the river was China, which had just become a Communist nation in 1949 and was therefore an ally of North Korea.  MacArthur wanted to take his army across the Yalu River into China.  President Truman told him not to do that.  Truman did not want to start a war with China; he did not want to wake the “sleeping giant.”  MacArthur thought such a policy was absurd.  The United States had nuclear weapons, said MacArthur; if the Chinese join the war, the U. S. A. should nuke them.   Truman said nonsense.  MacArthur openly criticized his Commander-in-Chief Truman for that decision, which created a lot of tension in the chain of command.

Meanwhile, as MacArthur stalled on the banks of the Yalu, not able to cross it, the North Koreans, along with some 200,000 Chinese Communists, counter-attacked.  They drove the Americans backward, all the way to the 38th Parallel.  After 6 months of war, we were right back where we started, having gained nothing.  MacArthur pitched a conniption fit, saying “see, I told you so” to Truman.  Truman responded by relieving MacArthur of his command.  He replaced him with General Matthew Ridgeway, who did only what Truman told him to do.  What Truman told him to do was hold the line at the 38th Parallel, not to cross it, not to try to drive the enemy back, but just to “contain” the enemy.  This was the Containment policy in action.  It was like fighting for a tie rather than for a victory.   [Some historians have decided this was a good policy because it prevented a world war III, while others believe, like MacArthur said, “There is no substitute for victory.”]

Upon MacArthur’s dismissal, the old soldier retired from the U. S. Army and came back to the United States.  He returned to a hero’s welcome.  The American people praised and honored MacArthur for his leadership during World War II, in Japan after the war, and most recently in Korea.  Most Americans agreed with MacArthur that the U. S. A. should have launched an invasion of China and finished off the North Koreans once and for all.  All this adulation went to MacArthur’s head.  He was naturally egotistical anyway.  It did not take much for him to get full of himself.  He decided to run for President of the United States in 1952 on the Republican ticket.  He generated a decent amount of support in 1951, but it petered out long before the election in 1952.  Instead of the Republican party choosing MacArthur to run, it chose another World War II hero, Dwight Eisenhower.  MacArthur faded into obscurity, a bitter old man.   It would be up to Eisenhower, therefore, to end the war in Korea.

Meanwhile, as the Korean War was the major foreign affairs issue of Truman’s second term, Communism on the home front was the major domestic issue.  From 1950 to 1954, the United States experienced another “red scare” like the one we had in 1919 after World War I.  This outbreak of Communist-phobia was caused partly by legitimate threats but mainly by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin who deliberately scared Americans for his own political gain.  First, let us discuss the real threats.

After World War II, as we entered the Cold War, there was an understandable concern in the free world about the Communists getting their hands on nuclear weapons.  The U. S. A. and England were the only two countries to possess the technology to build atomic bombs at first.  But there was the possibility that through some spying and by some covert activities, the Soviets could get the technology.  This fear became justified in England first, as a German scientist named Klaus Fuchs, who had worked on the Manhattan Project, was convicted of selling top-secret information to the Soviets.  (Other spies who were later caught included Morris and Lona Cohen, Ted Hall, Kim Philby, and George Blake.)

At the same time, the federal government of the United States took two steps to deal with the fear of Communism here.  The Truman administration created the CIA in 1947 as part of the Executive Branch of the federal government.  Its job was to gather information about Communism in foreign countries.  Meanwhile, Congress created a committee to investigate possible Communist activity and spying in our midst.  It was called the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, for short.  Through the HUAC investigations, a young Republican Congressman from California named Richard Nixon distinguished himself as a Communist-catcher extraordinaire.  He managed to get a young New York City journalist named Alger Hiss convicted of spying for the Soviets.  This launched Nixon’s political career.  Nixon went from being just an unknown junior Congressmen in 1947 to suddenly the famous golden boy of the Republican party in 1949.  In 1952, Eisenhower chose Nixon as his running mate.  Nixon thus became Vice-President for the next eight years, and it all started with his investigation of home-grown Communism.

On August 29, 1949, there was a major development in the Cold War, when the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb.  The question in everyone’s mind immediately was, did the Russian scientists figure out the technology on their own, or did they have a little help from some American selling them secrets?  In 1950 and 1951, the FBI investigated a married couple named Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, both of whom had worked at Los Alamos in top-secret capacities on the Manhattan Project.  The couple was convicted of selling top-secret nuclear blueprints to the Soviets.  They were both executed.  (In later years we learned that there were actually 29 Soviet spies working at Los Alamos).


President of the United States: Dwight Eisenhower


In the midst of the stalemate in Korea, another presidential election rolled around.  The Republican party chose one World War II hero over another as its candidate.  Dwight Eisenhower was a very different kind of man than Douglas MacArthur.  Whereas MacArthur was an egotistical, melodramatic character, Eisenhower was a humble, happy sort of guy with an “awe, shucks” attitude.  Eisenhower, whose nickname was “Ike,” was very likeable.  As a matter of fact, the Republicans coined the phrase “I like Ike” as their campaign slogan in 1952.  It worked like a charm.  Eisenhower, who seemed to wear a permanent ear-to-ear grin on his face, used a potent new political weapon to get elected in 1952: television.  The T. V. had been invented in the 1930s, but had not been put into use on a nationwide scale until 1947, when the first T. V. station was opened.  Over the next five years, T. V. stations opened up all over the country, and the American people flocked to buy the new gadget called television, which was clearly an improvement over radio.  Some of the first images many Americans ever saw on their new T. V. sets were pictures of Ike grinning, shaking hands, waving to the crowds, and campaigning in 1952.  The Democratic challenger Adelai Stevenson did not use the new invention effectively.  It would not have mattered anyway.  After 20 years of Democratic Presidents, the nation was ready for a change.  And since we Americans just love to vote for war heroes for President, it would have been hard for Eisenhower to lose under any circumstances.

In the campaign of 1952, the big issue on everyone’s mind was the Korean War.  Voters wanted to know what Eisenhower would do differently than Truman had done.  Eisenhower, the former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces at D-Day in World War II, was considered a foreign policy expert, even though he had never held any political office in his life.  Eisenhower’s foreign policy advisor, who soon became his Secretary of State, was John Foster Dulles.  Dulles fashioned Eisenhower’s foreign policy in the campaign and for the next eight years as President.  Dulles and Eisenhower hinted that they might support the use of nuclear weapons to end the Korean War.  They did not come right out and say that, but they led voters to believe that.  They talked about “rolling back” Communism rather than containing it.  They talked about practicing “brinkmanship” toward the Communists, which meant that the U. S. A. should stay poised on the brink of nuclear war at all times.  Finally, they talked about “massive retaliation” against any Communist attacks like the one in Korea in 1950, which meant that the U. S. A. would respond to any attack by starting World War III.

All this tough talk in the campaign of 1952 had a notable impact on the North Koreans.  They had never feared Truman.  The Containment policy seemed soft.  But Eisenhower and his “Roll Back” policy scared them.  Soon after Eisenhower was elected President, the North Koreans came to the bargaining table and agreed to accept a permanent settlement at the 38th Parallel.  Thus, the U. S. A. ended up “containing” the Communists in Korea, after all.  No one in America complained about it.  It was certainly preferable to starting World War III.

Meanwhile, the threat of Communist spies in America seemed worse than ever.  There seemed to be Communists everywhere: hiding behind every tree and bush, lurking around every corner, just waiting to pounce on unsuspecting freedom-loving Americans.  This was the fear that led Senator Joseph McCarthy to instigate and perpetuate what most historians consider one of the most dastardly hoaxes in history on the American people (although some believe he actually did America a service by keeping the country vigilant about the threat of Communism).  McCarthy was a first-term Senator who had previously done nothing to distinguish himself and who now needed a popular issue to latch onto immediately if he wanted to be re-elected.  He saw what the Communist scare had already done for Nixon’s career, and since that was the issue already in the news, he seized it.  In 1950, he came out publicly in what otherwise would have been a routine speech that would not have received much news coverage (if any) and dropped a bombshell on the crowd.  He claimed to have in his possession a list of some 200 American citizens who worked for the State Department of the federal government who were either Communists or “pinkos” (those who were sympathetic to, and thus not opposed to, Communism).  His speech made front-page news.  McCarthy was suddenly a celebrity.

McCarthy, unfortunately, had no such list of proven Communists.  All he had was a list of people he suspected might be Communist spies because they were too friendly in their views about Communism.  But nobody else knew that.  Since he was a U. S. senator, everyone had to assume he was telling the truth.  Based on that assumption, the U. S. Senate launched a series of investigations to match those of the HUAC committee in the House of Representatives.  The star of the Senate Committee was McCarthy.  He gobbled up the chance to be in the spotlight.  He was re-elected in 1952.  He used the investigations as an opportunity to smear the names of dozens of government officials—mostly Democrats—and thus ruin their careers.  As time went on, however, McCarthy failed to produce any real solid evidence to back up his claims of their being Communist spies, and the Senate, the American public, and the national press all grew impatient.  McCarthy strung everyone along for three years by promising to release his “evidence” as soon as his investigation was over, and that should be any day now, he claimed.  But that day never came.

When McCarthy saw that his investigations had moved from front-page headline news to back-page small-print news, he introduced a new twist.  He claimed to have evidence that certain high-ranking officials in the U. S. Army were pinkos.  The Army high command was outraged and demanded immediate proof.  By this time (1953-54), the new invention of television was prominent enough that T. V. news stations picked up the story and took it directly to the American people by broadcasting McCarthy’s “Army Hearings.”  McCarthy proceeded to smear several World War II heroes, including George Marshall and his own President Dwight Eisenhower.  (Eisenhower responded by saying famously, “I refuse to get into a pissing contest with a skunk.”)  At that point, the American news media opinion-shapers concluded that McCarthy was crazy, delusional, or just a plain old liar.  Almost unanimously, the news reporters, the public, the Eisenhower administration, and Congress dropped McCarthy off of their radar screens.  The Senate even censured (publicly reprimanded and humiliated) him.  McCarthy then served out the remainder of his second term in the Senate discredited and stripped of his power.  He was not re-elected.  He soon died of complications of alcoholism. . . in obscurity. . . unmourned by most Americans.

“McCarthyism” represented an over-reaction to a perceived threat to American national security by a leading government official who used the news media to spread fear and promote his own personal agenda.  Ever since this controversial episode occurred in the 1950s, there has been a very strong effort on the part of the news media to scrutinize conservative Republicans rather than simply accept their words as fact.  McCarthyism also prompted an ideological backlash in American society away from the overly-conservative Republican “right” which opposed Communism to the overly-liberal Democratic “left” which favored living at peace and sharing the world with the Communists.   The significance of McCarthyism in American history is that it created this backlash toward liberalism, which arguably became worse in the long run than McCarthyism was to start with.  It was a major factor contributing to the rise of the 1960s counter-culture and youth rebellion, which we will discuss later.

In 1952, Eisenhower had campaigned on the idea of “rolling back” Communism, which paid dividends in the Korean dispute at the beginning of 1953.  This strategy sounded scary both to Communists abroad and to liberal Democrats here in America.  It made the old soldier Eisenhower appear to have an itchy-trigger-finger.  It forced the Soviets to engage in a “nuclear arms race” with the United States, which they could not afford.  The Soviet Union was a much poorer nation than the U. S. A., and in entering the nuclear arms race, it was forced to choose between providing “guns or butter” for its people, because it could not afford both.  In some years during the Cold War, the Soviet Union thus spent nearly half of its whole annual budget on its military.  The U. S. A., by contrast, rarely spent more than about 1/10th of its annual budget on such things, and it still managed to keep at least parity with the Soviet Union, if not keep an advantage over it, throughout the Cold War.

Although the Eisenhower-Dulles strategy proved effective in ending the Korean dispute, we will never know whether it would have proven successful in other disputes, because it was never actually implemented.  The problem was, Eisenhower talked a good game when it came to rolling back Communism, but when he had real opportunities to roll it back, he did not do so, at least not in the way the American people thought he would when they elected him.  Rather than using conventional armed forces or nuclear weapons to roll back Communism, he used the CIA to engage in covert operations aimed at removing Communist regimes (if and when he did anything at all).

In 1953, the same year that Eisenhower took the oath of office, long-time Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died.  There was a mad scramble for power among various Communist politicians in Moscow to take his place.  For more than 2 years, the Soviet leadership was in disarray.  In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev emerged as the undisputed leader of the U. S. S. R.  Khrushchev was a very different kind of leader than Stalin, who had been cold, unfriendly, and even aggressive towards the free world.  Khrushchev portrayed the image of a leader who wanted to be friendlier and more cooperative with the U. S. A. and the Democratic-Capitalist world.  He smiled more and at least talked the talk of peace better than Stalin.  He even denounced Stalin as a megalomaniac who put himself above the interests of the Communist party and the Russian people.  He consequently ordered the “de-Stalinization” of the Soviet Union.

In 1956, with the tougher-talking American President Eisenhower in office and the more peaceful-talking Soviet Premier Khrushchev in office, one of the “iron curtain” nations—Hungary—decided to try to break free of the Russians’ control by staging a revolution.  The Hungarians thought, based upon Eisenhower’s talk of “Roll Back,” upon what the CIA agents in Hungary told them, and upon American radio propaganda being beamed into the Iron Curtain, that if they started a revolution, the U. S. A. would then come to their rescue and make sure it was successful.  Ironically, the Hungarians needed no help in toppling the Communist puppet government.  They easily drove the Communists from power in Hungary.  They assumed that the U. S. A. would send in reinforcements to make sure the regime-change lasted.  Or at least that the U. S. A. would send a strong warning to Khrushchev not to intervene.  But, amazingly, the Eisenhower administration did neither.  Basically, Eisenhower ignored the situation altogether.  Khrushchev sat impatiently in the Kremlin in Moscow watching this revolution unfold and then succeed.  Then he watched even more anxiously, anticipating the same response from the U. S. A. that the Hungarians expected.  Within ten days of the revolution, however, it seemed evident to Khrushchev that Eisenhower was not going to do anything.  He then became emboldened to send in Russian tanks to Hungary and retake the nation for the Communists.  The rest of the world watched, stunned that the U. S. A. lifted not a finger to help Hungary.  (Partly the reason the U. S. A. did nothing was because there was a more serious crisis in the world at the same time that consumed everyone’s attention—the Suez crisis in which the new nation of Israel had attacked Egypt.  It is a long story which lies beyond the scope of this U. S. History course).

Eisenhower thus ended up essentially practicing “containment,” just as the Democrats favored, rather than “roll back.”  He let the Soviets keep a nation they had claimed as their own since the end of World War II.  Because of this, the Hungarian revolution did not noticeably damage U. S.–Soviet relations.  Khrushchev continued to talk nice and friendly towards the United States.

The ongoing debate about which system was superior—Communism or Democratic-Capitalism—continued.  In 1957, a major turning point in Soviet-American relations occurred, when Russian scientists launched the world’s first satellite into orbit around the earth.  They called it “Sputnik” (fellow traveler).  News of Sputnik rocked the United States back on its heels.  Americans were stunned and perplexed that the Russians had somehow gotten ahead of our own scientists in space technology.  This immediately ushered in the age of the space race (to go along with the nuclear arms race already underway).  The Eisenhower administration and Congress responded quickly to the challenge of catching up with the Soviets in space.  They created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which would essentially do for the space race what the Manhattan Project had done for the race to build the first nuclear bomb.  It brought America’s best and brightest scientists together again for a common goal, and it ensured that the United States ultimately would win the race, if indeed there could actually be a “winner” in such a race.

Thanks to NASA, the U. S. A. quickly caught up in satellite technology.  The United States beat the Soviets in becoming the first nation to launch a television satellite into space, which meant we would be the first nation to have instantaneous live coverage of news events around the world as they happened.  (For example, news coverage of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s was carried live on television.)  And, of course, the U. S. A. also beat the Soviets in putting the first man on the moon, which occurred a mere twelve years after Sputnik!

Just as important as NASA, Eisenhower and Congress also passed the National Defense in Education Act in response to Sputnik.  It raised the standards in America’s public schools in the fields of math and science.  The fear that motivated this move was that American school children were getting behind Russian school children in those fields which produced scientists and engineers.  If the U. S. A. was already behind, the least the federal government could do was try to raise the next generation of Americans with more scientific knowledge so that we did not stay permanently behind.  Thus, Sputnik was partly responsible for the type of education that American schools have provided from the 1960s through the turn of the new century. [So, in our lifetimes, the public schools have not placed much emphasis on the abstract fields of academic study like they once did—the arts and the humanities—but rather have emphasized math and science primarily.]

In 1959, the next two major developments of the Cold War occurred.  One, Eisenhower invited Khrushchev to do what had been unthinkable for Joseph Stalin: to visit and tour the United States.  Eisenhower wanted to show the Soviet Premier how much wealthier a nation the U. S. A. was than the U. S. S. R.   By doing so, he could perhaps convince Khrushchev that Democratic-Capitalism was superior to Communism in its ability to provide for the masses.  Or at least he could make Khrushchev and the Communists jealous.  Khrushchev accepted the offer and came to tour the United States.   Eisenhower showed him around Washington, D. C., took him to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and even flew him around middle-America to see how the average working-class American family lived.  Khrushchev was shocked to see how much better off the working class was in America than in Russia.  He hid his surprise, however, and when he returned to Moscow he told his people that the Americans had “staged” the whole tour and that the “real” America was not like that.  But in his heart, he knew the truth.

Two, as a result of the U. S. A. and U. S. S. R. trying to be friendly with one another, the Soviets invited the United States to set up an exhibit at an international exposition in Moscow.  The U. S. government accepted the offer and set up a Disney-type theme park which portrayed life in America.  Included in it was a model of a standard, middle-class American suburban home, full of all the latest American electrical appliances and technology.  Vice-President Richard Nixon led the American delegation in showing off the exhibit to Khrushchev and the Soviet delegation.  Interestingly, the event was captured on the television news in the Soviet Union.  As Nixon and Khrushchev walked through the exhibit, Nixon boasted of America’s great technological capabilities which put such a wonderful standard of living within reach of the American working class.  Khrushchev was insulted by Nixon’s cocky attitude and told him that neither he nor the Soviet people were impressed by such gadgets and that Communism would ultimately prevail against Democratic-Capitalism.  Nixon and Khrushchev then exchanged some choice words with one another right in front of the T. V. cameras.  Nixon even shook his finger in the face of the Soviet Premier.  Nixon got the better of the argument, which made Khrushchev look bad in front of his own people.

Even so, U. S.- Soviet relations were not noticeably damaged by the incident.  But a year later, in 1960, something happened that did damage relations severely.  Just before a planned Paris Summit between Eisenhower and Khrushchev, a major news story broke.  Khrushchev went on television and proclaimed that the Soviet Air Force had shot down an American spy plane over Siberia.  Eisenhower quickly issued a denial, saying that the U. S. A. did not have spy planes flying over Russia.  Khrushchev then fired back an “oh really?” by showing pictures of the crashed plane and its pilot, Gary Powers, who had been taken captive.  Powers, like all military personal on dangerous covert missions, was supposed to commit suicide rather than be captured by the enemy, and he was supposed to blow up his U-2 Airplane.  But Powers did not.  Thus, the Soviets captured him and held him prisoner for two years.  (He was traded for a Soviet spy in a prisoner exchange in 1962).  Eisenhower was humiliated, and the American people were dismayed by the incident.  Khrushchev retracted the invitation, and Eisenhower never went to the U. S. S. R.  The incident damaged U. S.-Soviet relations and caused the Cold War to heat-up again by the beginning of the 1960s. (Powers came home in 1962, thanks to a prisoner exchange, where he was the subject of controversy and conspiracy theories from then on.  He died in 1977.)

Despite all the interest in Communism in the early 1950s, there were other issues and developments worth noting during this time.  The most important was the fact that, after World War II, the United States entered a period of unprecedented economic growth.  The prosperity of the 1950s in fact eclipsed that of the 1920s.  More Americans had more money than ever before.  They also had better jobs, more educational opportunities, more leisure time, and more of a chance to live the “American Dream” than ever before.  Also, there were more new gadgets, inventions, and technologies available than ever before, all of which made life easier and more comfortable than earlier generations.  Air conditioning for the southern summer and electric heating for the northern winters, for instance, became common features in all but the poorest American households in the 1950s.

Television revolutionized American life in the 1950s.  It forever changed the news media.  It made reports of crime, violence, warfare, racial discrimination, political lies, economic corruption, and all other “bad things” that usually make up the news, suddenly seem up-close and personal, rather than distant and meaningless like so much news coverage had previously been.  T. V. also revolutionized education.  In many ways, children learned as much or more on a daily basis by watching television as they learned in their schools.   T. V. brought the whole world—with all its fascinating sights, sounds, people, places, and cultures—into the American home.  Needless to say, T. V. revolutionized entertainment.  Most American families began to arrange their living room furniture around the T. V. and plan their evening family time around it as well.  Television was thus an important development in American history.

There were other equally important developments in the 1950s.  One was the rise of the interstate highway system.  Before World War II, automobiles were still second to trains as the main form of cross-country transportation.  Partly this was due to the fact that the United States did not yet have an adequate national network of highways, and partly because the highways we did have were not high quality.  They were narrow and dangerous, especially since cars were so wide in those days.  Eisenhower envisioned a whole new system of national transportation that would make the roads safe, fast, and convenient.  Most of all, it would enhance national security by speeding up the movement of people and cargo over long distances.  The result of this vision was the “Eisenhower Interstate Highway System” which we still have today.

As automobile traffic increased in the 1950s, the railroads gradually declined in importance.  Some visionary and enterprising businessmen could see the change coming before it actually got here.  They began building hotels and restaurants not near train stations as they used to be but near the main automobile thoroughfares.  The result was the “strips” that we still have today in all American cities and large towns.  Among the most successful businesses along these strips in the 1950s were those which were not unique, individual establishments, but those which were part of a chain–“franchise” businesses, in other words.  Two of the first such businesses in American history were among the most successful, which is clearly still the case today.  In the restaurant business, “McDonald’s” of Los Angeles was the first.  It set the standard by which all other “fast food” chains would be measured.  In the hotel business, “Holiday Inn” of Memphis set the standard.

The improvements in automobile transportation also led to the growth of suburbs in America in the 1950s.  Better roads and cars made it possible for workers to live outside the big cities and drive into the city to work each day.  But the real driving force behind the rise of suburban America was not “driving” itself, but “flight”—white flight, to be specific.  The increase in the number of African Americans in the big cities in the first half of the 20th Century had reached a crescendo by the end of World War II.  Many white city dwellers did not want black neighbors.  As blacks moved into formerly all-white neighborhoods, whites moved out, which drove real estate values down, leading most non-racist whites to follow suit for financial reasons.  Essentially, in the 1950s, white Americans surrendered their cities to minorities, preferring to recreate their idyllic American Dream on the “crabgrass frontier” of suburbia. (One important result of this movement is that most of the USA’s biggest cities have become dominated by black residents who elect Democrats to run them.)

Another major development of the 1950s was the invention of Rock and Roll music.  It developed as a result of white musicians and singers imitating black musicians and singers.  Previously, white music was very artistically confining.  It was very innocent-sounding.  It was tightly structured to conform to conventional standards.  Black music seemed exactly the opposite.  There were no restrictions about what it was “supposed” to sound like.  Therefore, it was wilder, more experimental, more sensual, and more “soulful.”  White musicians could not help but be envious of their black counterparts who did not have to live within the box of musical confinement.  White young people also liked the soulful “rhythm and blues” of black artists, but they were prohibited from listening to it generally because of the racial segregation and cultural separation that existed in America at the time.  As a result, white entertainers such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bill Haley and the Comets, began playing and singing black music as an alternative.  “Rock and Roll”–a term coined by a radio disc jockey in Cleveland, Ohio, named Alan Freed–was thus born.  It would quickly grow, evolve, and within a decade become the new “normal” or “standard” music of America.

Another development of the 1950s was the social acceptance/legalization of pornography.  The law about pornography was unclear prior to the 1950s, mainly because no one had pushed the boundaries to see what they could get away with.  In 1953 Hugh Hefner of Chicago began publishing Playboy magazine.  His first covergirl/centerfold was Marilyn Monroe.  He sold it only from newsstands at first, not by subscription, because he did not want to take on the U. S. Post Office in court.  In 1957 the Supreme Court case Roth v. United States clarified the law, saying indeed it was illegal to use the U. S. Mail to send and receive pornographic material.  Not until 1973 was this ruling overturned.  Thereafter, the pornography business exploded as men bought nudy-mags anonymously and received them in the mail.  

A final development of the 1950s was the beginning of the civil rights movement.  Although black Americans had always wanted their civil rights during the Jim Crow era, few had been willing to risk their lives by speaking out on the issue.  In the 1950s, however, that began to change.  The first real catalyst for that change was the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which required the integration of all public K-12 schools in America.  Then in 1955, the Montgomery (Alabama) Bus Boycott became the first major case in which black citizens successfully challenged state law and local custom to integrate a public transportation system.  This boycott brought a young Baptist pastor named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., into the national spotlight as the new spokesman for black Americans as a whole.  A few other civil rights issues made national news in the late 1950s, as well, but it would not really be until 1960 that a real mass “movement” for black civil rights got underway.  (For more information about this important topic, take the Black History class.)


The Election of 1960 and America’s New Frontier 


After eight fairly successful and prosperous years in office, Eisenhower’s term came to an end on a sour note with the Gary Powers affair.  Were it not for that incident, there is a good possibility that Ike’s Vice-President Richard Nixon would have won the White House in 1960.  Nixon ran against a young, less experienced Democratic challenger named Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.  Looking at the two candidates’ resumes, one would have expected Nixon to win anyway.  Nixon’s credentials looked considerably more impressive than Kennedy’s.  For eight years, Nixon had been the Vice-President in one of the most popular Presidential administrations in American history.  During that time, he had stood toe-to-toe with Nikita Khrushchev and backed him down in front of his own people.  Indeed, Nixon had proven himself to be the most formidable “cold warrior” of the early Cold War years, having served with distinction on HUAC and having secured the conviction of a communist spy.  Besides his experience in national politics, Nixon had other advantages as well.  His background made him seem like a great American success story.  He hailed from California, which was the second most populated state in the Union at that time, and he could expect to carry that state in the electoral college.  He was born into a strictly-religious Quaker family.  His father grew oranges for a living, among holding other jobs.  Nixon also had many relatives in Ohio, another important state to carry.  He had attended law school at Duke University in North Carolina, so he had a southern connection.  His first job as an attorney was in New York City, so he had connections there as well.  Nixon was truly a national and even international candidate.

Kennedy, by contrast, was the son of a millionaire and career politician named Joseph Kennedy.  So, he was not exactly a self-made man like Nixon.  He was also a Catholic.  No Catholic had ever won the presidency of the United States before, mainly because of the Protestant majority’s anti-Catholic bias.   So, his religion was a strike against him in this campaign.  Kennedy also lacked the experience of Nixon in high public office.  He had served in the House of Representatives for six years and in the Senate for one term, during which time he did not particularly distinguish himself.  He did have two great distinctions, however.  One, he had been something of a hero in the U. S. Navy during World War II.  When a Japanese ship sank his boat the PT-109, he helped rescue several of his fellow sailors from drowning.  His other great distinction came with the publication of a book he wrote in 1959 called Profiles in Courage, which won him the Pulitzer Prize. Yet, some critics alleged that his father’s influence essentially “bought” the prize for him, so the award was tainted in the public perception.

Based upon all these reasons, it seemed that Nixon should have been able to capture the nation’s highest office easily in 1960, but that did not happen because there was a wildcard thrown into the campaign: television.  The candidates agreed to hold a series of televised debates.  This was the first time in American history that television would play a more crucial role in a presidential election than the candidates themselves played.  At the time of the first debate, Nixon was ill.  He had caught a severe cold, which left him feverish, sweaty, pale, medicated, and possibly a little disoriented.  First impressions are lasting impressions.  When Nixon answered his questions, he seemed unsure of himself.  He did not make eye contact with the camera, and he did not portray the image of leadership necessary to become a President.  Kennedy was exactly the opposite.  He seemed perfectly at ease in front of the camera.  He was tanned, rested, and ready to go, as they say.  He was relaxed enough that he even managed to crack a couple of jokes during the debate.  He smiled a lot.  He seemed confident, like he had a real command of the issues.  Besides, he was just naturally good-looking anyway.  He looked more like a Hollywood movie star than a U. S. senator.  In the end, this first debate made the difference in who won the election.  Kennedy’s ratings increased dramatically after the first debate, Nixon’s decreased, and Nixon was not able to overcome that effect in the three subsequent debates.

When the votes were counted in the election of 1960, Kennedy had won by one of the narrowest margins in American history.  It was so narrow, in fact, that Nixon could have demanded a recount, and he had reason to do so.  There was evidence that Kennedy had carried the state of Illinois because of fraud on the part of Democrats in Chicago.  But Nixon chose not to contest the results.  He considered the idea of challenging the results to be un-American and unpatriotic.  He believed it would be best for the country, if not for himself, to let it go.  He did.

John F. Kennedy thus became the new President—the youngest elected in American history up to that time—with the slogan the “New Frontier.” [Teddy Roosevelt was younger when he became President upon the death of McKinley, but he was not elected until 3 ½ years later.]  Kennedy had campaigned mainly on Cold War issues.  His idea for dealing with Communism was called “Flexible Response.”  Whereas Truman had called for “Containment,” and Eisenhower had called for “Roll Back,” Kennedy called for a strategy in which the U. S. A. would handle each situation uniquely, as circumstances warranted.  Essentially, his policy was non-committal, which was a good idea, because it left plenty of wiggle room in our diplomacy with the Soviets.  His other foreign policy issues included a promise to win the space race by putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.  He also formulated an idea to make the U. S. A. look like a kinder, gentler, imperialist superpower by creating a new organization called the Peace Corps.  The Peace Corps was designed to be the vehicle by which the U. S. A. would educate the people of poor, backward, third-world countries, thus winning them (hopefully) to the side of Democratic-Capitalism.  The Peace Corps advertised for volunteers to go overseas and work in the deplorably poverty-stricken nations of the world (without pay).  The only benefit volunteers would receive would be knowing they were doing something important to make the world a better place.  Television ads called the Peace Corps “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”  But while Kennedy was putting a happy face on international relations, he was meanwhile beefing up the U. S. military by creating a new Army Special Forces unit commonly called the “Green Beret.”  Its job would be to go into third-world countries, especially those where there was a serious Communist threat, and train the people in military tactics to fight off Communist aggression.  (This soon became a major issue in Vietnam.)

Kennedy’s most notable domestic issue was the civil rights movement, and he had to be careful not to espouse a more liberal, progressive view on that issue than most white voters were prepared for.  He promised only to be more like Harry Truman on the issue than Dwight Eisenhower.   That is, he would not oppose civil rights reforms and would be willing to sign into law any civil rights bill that Congress laid on his desk.  He would never get the chance to sign a new civil rights law, but he would have many opportunities to support the movement.  Yet, he would not prove to be quite the crusader for civil rights that black Americans were hoping for.  We will detail his civil rights record in a later lesson.

The first major issue of the Kennedy administration occurred in 1961.  It was the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  Here is the background: Cuba had been an American protectorate in the early 20th Century.  In the 1950s, Cuba was practically just an extension of Florida; it was a popular tourist and vacation resort for wealthy Americans.  In 1959, however, a young radical Marxist named Fidel Castro led a revolution to overthrow the American puppet government in Cuba and replace it with a sovereign, independent government that was beholden to no one.  When he did that, the Eisenhower administration responded by sending in CIA agents to try to “roll back” the Castro regime.  The CIA and Eisenhower planned an invasion of Cuba using pro-American Cuban exiles from the old Cuban government.  They had not yet completed their plans for the invasion by the time Eisenhower’s term was over in 1960, so they left the plan on the table for the new President.  On Kennedy’s first day in office in 1961, he received the customary national security briefing and learned of the planned invasion.  He reasoned that Eisenhower, the general who had planned the D-Day invasion of Nazi Europe in 1944, should be able to plan a successful invasion of a minor nation like Cuba.  Besides, the CIA had already implemented similar plans in Hungary, Iran, and Guatemala successfully.  So Kennedy ordered the CIA to carry out the invasion.

The problem was that the invasion was poorly planned.  It called for about 1,000 Cuban exiles to wade ashore on the south side of Cuba, catch Castro’s men off guard, assassinate Castro himself, and restore the old pro-American government.  The plan failed.  They did not catch Castro’s men off guard.  Instead, Castro’s men were waiting for them, as if they knew about the plan in advance.  The exiles were rounded up and held prisoner.  Then Castro went to the international news media and screamed invectives at the U. S. A. and at Kennedy for being so stupid and arrogant as to think they could topple his government that easily.  President Kennedy had no choice but to take full responsibility for the failure.  He publicly admitted that the Bay of Pigs invasion was a mistake.  Less than three months into his presidency, he looked like a foolish young man who did not have the skills to preside over the world’s most powerful nation.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco also had an even more important consequence.  It provoked Fidel Castro, who previously wanted only an independent, sovereign Cuba, to jump into bed with Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Communists.  Thus, rather than the U. S. A. rolling back Communism, we actually created a Communist nation in Cuba by a foreign policy blunder.

In 1962, about a year and a half after the Bay of Pigs foul-up, the new Castro-Khrushchev alliance caused one of the most serious threats and one of the most scary  moments in the history of the world: the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Castro had asked Khrushchev to send military support to Cuba to prevent any future attempts by the U. S. A. to overthrow his regime.  Khrushchev not only did so, but he also ordered the construction of nuclear missile launching pads on the island of Cuba.  Meanwhile, American spy planes flew over Cuba and took photographs of the island.  Through these aerial pictures, the CIA discovered the nuclear facilities and immediately informed President Kennedy of the imminent danger to the U. S. A.  Kennedy gave a strong response.  He contacted Khrushchev and warned him to remove the nuclear launching pads or else.  Kennedy essentially threatened to do what Eisenhower had promised to do for eight years: roll back Communism by massive retaliation and brinkmanship; that is, he told Khrushchev that if he did not remove the facilities at once, the U. S. A. would blow the island of Cuba off the map.  Khrushchev initially ignored the warning, which caused tremendous alarm in the United States.

JFK also sent a naval blockade to completely surround Cuba.  He refused to allow the Soviets to import any more weapons onto the island.  Khrushchev had, in fact, already ordered Soviet ships to move more nuclear weapons to Cuba before the blockade began.  This caused a very tense situation.  When the ships approached the island and ran into the naval blockade they had to make the decision whether to try to run it or turn around.  After this missile crisis had lingered on for 13 days while the fearful world watched, Khrushchev finally caved under the pressure.  He ordered the ships to turn around, and he ordered the dismantling of the nuclear launching pads.  In exchange, he demanded that JFK promise never to attempt another invasion of Cuba.  JFK agreed, and the showdown was over.

JFK’s approval ratings, which had been the lowest of any American president in history after the Bay of Pigs debacle, rocketed up after the missile crisis.  It seemed that he and Khrushchev had stood toe-to-toe like two heavyweight boxers in the ring, engaging in a staring contest, and he had forced the Russian leader to blink.  Kennedy suddenly seemed strong and competent, the exact opposite of how he appeared a year earlier.  Another important result of the Cuban Missile Crisis was that the White House in Washington, D. C., and the Soviet Kremlin in Moscow agreed to install a “hot line” telephone link with one another, which would allow instantaneous communication between the President and the Soviet Premier in future crises.  Hopefully, with more immediate and personal communication, they could prevent any future crises from escalating as the Cuban crisis had done.



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