VII. The Contemporary Period, 1945–2000 > C. North America, 1946–2000
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Nov.–1946, March)
C. North America, 1946–2000
1. The United States, 1946–2000
The post–World War II era brought a plethora of changes to American life. The country claimed leadership of the “free world” and entered a sustained period of cold war with the Soviet Union and its allies. In order to combat the spread of communism, the government embarked upon an unprecedented period of peacetime military expansion. Federal support for the development of advanced military technology played a role in research development that undermined the old blue-collar sector of the economy. The increasing application of computer technology helped to transform the nation from a predominantly goods-producing society to a mainly service-producing one. The postwar baby boom (See 1943), increasing suburbanization, and the continuing spread of American consumer culture all reflected as well as reinforced these trends. Following the end of the Vietnam War, the economy deteriorated, unemployment increased, and Republicans returned to power with a firm determination to end the New Deal social welfare order. By the early 1990s, with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the nation sought to craft new policies for a post–cold war world.  1
The cold war not only influenced American foreign policy and the economy, but also helped to transform domestic social and political relations as well. The nation's aggressive posture toward communism abroad was accompanied by equally vigorous attacks on suspected Communists at home. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's investigations, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and wiretaps on the phones of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., all reflected the destructive impact of the cold war at home and abroad.  2
Beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and culminating in the March on Washington for “freedom and jobs” in 1963, civil rights emerged as the most pressing domestic issue facing the nation. By the late 1960s, the U.S. had moved to dismantle the system of Jim Crow, to enfranchise African Americans, and to address the “unfinished revolution” of full citizenship rights for African Americans. Women, Hispanics, Native Americans, and eventually gay rights and environmental activists accelerated their assault against various forms of injustice and inequality, including racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual-preference barriers. Until the late 1960s, the Democratic Party remained committed to the New Deal welfare state and helped push provisions for social services beyond the limits established during the 1930s. During the 1970s and1980s, however, the U.S. undertook a dramatic reordering of its national priorities.  3
Following the election of 1968 and the nation's defeat in and retreat from Vietnam, the U.S. entered a prolonged crisis of economic and political restructuring. This period also signaled the end of American dominance in the world economy. The U.S. experienced the painful transition from a creditor to a debtor nation, with the world's largest foreign debt and a rising foreign trade deficit that peaked at $171 billion in 1987. The nation's increasing dependence on Middle Eastern oil played a major role in the eruption of the Persian Gulf War in 1990. Beginning with Republican president Richard M. Nixon in 1968, and accelerating with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the nation turned away from its commitment to social welfare spending and undercut measures for translating civil rights laws into social practice. Dubbed “Reaganomics,” this movement caused the federal government to disband the Office of Economic Opportunity (1971), weakened support for affirmative action in Bakke v. University of California–Davis (1978), and enacted a vigorous policy of tax cuts with the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 and the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Under the Republican administrations, numerous groups—labor unions, women, racial and ethnic minorities, and environmentalists—experienced the impact of increasingly conservative policies.  4
Despite strong reactions against social programs and grassroots social movements, however, the U.S. continued to witness vigorous forms of activism during the period. The environmental movement and the gay rights movement (with intensified motivation after the outbreak of AIDS) represented important centers of activism. At the same time, African Americans increasingly channeled their efforts into the electoral arena. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson mounted important challenges to the established Democratic Party with his “Rainbow Coalition” in the elections of 1984 and 1988. With the presidential election of Democrat William “Bill” Clinton in 1992, the nation seemed prepared to reassess the desirability of Reaganomics. Yet Clinton's first year in office revealed the nation's deep resistance to social change, including the lifting of bans on gays in the military. The conservative tide of the Reagan years would turn only slowly.  5
The postwar economy. Both founded in 1944, two institutions—the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development, or World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—fueled the nation's postwar economic growth. Along with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades (GATT), a multinational trade agreement, these economic arrangements represented what became known as the Bretton Woods system of postwar economic development.  6
The baby boom generation. During these years the nation's birth rate soared. The 20 percent population growth rate in the 1950s resulted particularly from an increase in middle-class birth rates. The boom peaked in 1957. Because of their numbers, the children, called “baby boomers,” greatly influenced U.S. public, private, and cultural behaviors. Dr. Benjamin Spock published his best-selling Baby and Child Care (1946) and influenced a generation of baby boom mothers. Technological changes continued to transform American life and promote the expansion of consumerism. Consumer credit rose from $8.4 billion in 1946 to $45 billion in 1958. At the same time, the emergence of the first McDonald's restaurant in San Bernardino, Calif. (1954) and the Holiday Inn motel chain in Memphis, Tenn. (1952), signaled the rise of the fast food, vacation, and recreation industries. Although fewer than 7,000 television sets existed in the entire nation in 1947, by 1955, 66 percent of American families owned one.  7
1946, March
Winston Churchill delivered his “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Mo., which helped set the tone for the cold war.  8
The U.S. labor movement could claim a greater membership than at any other time in its history; nearly 40 percent of the labor force was unionized. A second wave of strikes hit the soft-coal mines and the railroads. Before the strikes were settled, the government had taken control of the railroads (May 17) and the coal mines (May 20). Pres. Harry Truman angered labor leaders by threatening to draft striking workers into the armed forces. Congress passed the Employment Act to initiate federal fiscal planning on a permanent basis, to ensure economic growth as well as to curb inflation.  9
June 25
The Senate passed a measure extending Selective Service until March 31, 1947. Prior to this, public pressure had brought about the hasty demobilization of close to 9 million men.  10
July 1–25
Scientists at Bikini in the Pacific demonstrated the effect of an atomic explosion in experiments detonated on warships and under water.  11
July 15
Pres. Truman signed a bill extending a credit of $3.75 billion to Great Britain.  12
Sept. 20
Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace was asked to resign following his criticism of the government's increasingly firm policy toward the Soviet Union.  13
Nov. 9
Following a futile battle with Congress to maintain price and wage controls, Pres. Truman removed virtually all controls except those on rent and some foods.  14
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.