Without doubt, the 20th century was one of the most eventful periods in the U.S. history. It marked profound changes in the U.S. foreign affairs, economy, education, and society itself. Moreover, it was the era of the rapid development of technology, mass media and mass communication. Political and social transformations were the most robust in the period from the 1920s to the 1980s. Though the American society is often viewed as homogeneous in its reaction to these transformations, the strength of oppositional movements and organizations during this period suggests that the population was split into two antagonistic camps. While many Americans were welcoming changes, others remained loyal to traditional values and unwilling to reconcile with the new developments.
With the end of World War I, isolationism became a dominating policy in the U.S. foreign affairs. The tragic losses of the War and the common distrust of Europe urged the U.S. government to restrain from interventions into foreign affairs of other countries. The Americans severely opposed the ratification of the Versailles Treaty by their country because it would inevitably involve the US into international entanglements. In 1927, when France asked the US to join the alliance against Germany, the States refused and replied with the essentially idealistic Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed the war as a method of conflict resolution. As demonstrated by subsequent events in the world history, this document failed to persuade the major political leaders of Europe and Asia. The beginning of World War II in 1939 split the American society into two groups, interventionists and non-interventionists, with the latter being prevalent. Even in 1940 and in early 1941, the US could freely trade arms with belligerent nations due to its neutrality status. Only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt could persuade the congressmen to declare war against Germany. In 1950s, there was no consensus among the population whether the US should interfere to restrain the growth of communism in Europe and Asia. Once again, the interventionists took the upper hand as the Soviet Union development of nuclear bomb and Asian campaigns became known. The foreign policy rhetoric changed drastically and focused on the power of the US not only to defend itself, but also to influence the geopolitical set-up of the whole world. In his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy called the Americans to create a strong alliance “against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself” (101). These words foreshadowed the subsequent US involvement in arms export and Space Race, as well as the Vietnam War. Non-interventionists were defeated; however, by the end of the 1970s, the anti-war movement grew stronger and most Americans realized the US involvement in the Vietnam War was a mistake.
Another significant divisive issue for the American society was the attitude to racial and ethnic minorities. The slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished in 1865, but African Americans still suffered from segregation and manifested or concealed discrimination. In the mid-1920s, the number of Ku Klux Klan members reached its peak, and so did the extent of lynching. The “Knights” of this movement set the goal to “maintain the God given supremacy of the white race”, thus developing “the genuine spirit of the American patriotism” (Klansman’s Manual 67). The idea of white supremacy was strengthened in the 1950s as a reaction to the national prominence of the Civil Rights Movement, which demanded the equality for all members of society, regardless of their race, gender and religion. Even though African Americans were courageously fighting in World War II, it did not help to uproot the prejudice against them. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed racial segregation in public places unconstitutional, triggering much uproar and the so-called “massive resistance” of Southern states. The Southern Manifesto asserted that this decision “is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races” (93). The tension between the advocates and opponents of the equality of African Americans subsided only in the 1990s. American Indians were also oppressed: in his famous 1967 statement “We are Not Free”, Clyde Warrior resents that the tribal population is given no right to solve their problems on their own, without local or federal intermediaries (103). Due to their public activism, young Indians managed to reinforce their position in society over the next decade.
Immigration was another issue that was triggering disputes among the population from the 1920s to the 1980s. Many Americans believed that openness to immigration should remain a distinguishing feature of the U.S. society and would have no serious impact on the nation’s economy. However, the so-called nativists were afraid that the influx of cheap workforce from Europe would have a negative impact on the wages of Americans and the existing structure of society. In 1924, the Immigration Act was adopted to determine the quota of immigrants from every country who were allowed to come to the US per year. Toward the end of the 20th century, nativism transformed into the immigration reductionism, but the discussion of this policy expediency was still raging.
The turbulent 60s saw the rise of the counterculture movement that opposed to traditional political and social values of American society. New Leftist ideas became extremely popular among the middle-class population, particularly students. They were summarized in Port Huron Statement, which demanded the creation of participatory democracy, insisting that “individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life” (Hayden 109). With non-violent marches and rallies, the grown-up baby boom generation demanded sexual freedom, freedom of speech and other values that were unacceptable for conservatives and religious fundamentalists. Particularly, at that time, numerous campaigns were held by gays and lesbians, but it only led to more rigorous laws being made against homosexuals. Within the Civil Rights Movement, the fight for gender and racial equality faced ever-diminishing opposition and made the government enact the laws that prohibited discrimination and granted more civil rights to women and racial minorities.
In the US, the period from the 1920s to the 1980s is characterized by strong contradictions between different social groups regarding the US foreign policy, immigration, racial and gender equality, and culture. African Americans and American Indians were opposed to white supremacists, immigrants were opposed to nativists, and liberals were opposed to conservatives. Finally, the country entered a new era that demanded drastic changes in all spheres of life, but many people were nostalgic about the American traditional values and believed they could save them. Nonetheless, toward the end of this period, most contradictions were smoothened, and the need for changes was recognized by the majority.