Section 6: Recent History

The twentieth century saw America face many challenges, both abroad and close to home. The United States led the free world in defeating totalitarian forces, especially communism and Nazism, which each sought to dominate the individual and define his or her worth by membership in a collective. That was not the only struggle for freedom: closer to home, reformers worked to make America true to the language of the Declaration of Independence in assuring its guarantee of liberty to all Americans. 

Section 6: Recent History

Study Guide

For most of its history, the United States tended to follow George Washington’s advice to remain detached from military involvement far from American shores, but this slowly changed over the course of the 20th century, in which the US engaged in five wars. Both World War I and II began without US involvement, but attacks on American ships in the case of World War I, and on Pearl Harbor in World War II, eventually pulled America into these broader conflicts. World War II resulted in the defeat of the authoritarian regimes in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and the rise of the Soviet Union.

Although the United States avoided direct armed conflict with the totalitarian communist Soviet Union during the 20th century, it did participate in both the Korean War and Vietnam War, each of which sought to minimize the spread of communist dictatorship. Finally, in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, America and its allies foiled the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s efforts to capture Kuwait.

Section 6.1 - WWI, the Depression and WWII

President Woodrow Wilson long sought to avoid World War I, instead preferring to focus on his efforts to remake the American government in line with his progressive political views. However, German sinking of American civilian ships and an effort to convince Mexico to attack America in exchange for recapturing the southwest forced his hand.

While these provocations convinced almost all Americans of the need for war, many of the ensuing actions President Wilson took during World War I proved controversial. For example, his government aggressively prosecuted critics of the war, arguing freedom of speech did not protect such opposition. Wilson also sought to use the victory in the war to remake the world political order, such as through the development of a League of Nations and redrawing of national borders.

Franklin Roosevelt, the only president not to follow George Washington’s example of serving at most two elected terms, was president during two of the most trying times in American history. He was elected president midway through the Great Depression, the longest recession in modern history, which began with the Great Crash of the stock market in 1929.

During Roosevelt’s presidency, the size and scope of the federal government grew significantly, which initially created conflict with a Supreme Court that argued these changes exceeded the Constitution. As World War II destabilized the world and American involvement looked increasingly likely, Americans seeking continuity in leadership re-elected Roosevelt. Roosevelt was thus also president during almost all of World War II, before dying in its final months. 

America’s military involvement in World War II began when imperial Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. The United States declared war in response, and soon found itself fighting not just Japan but the other totalitarian members of the Axis Powers, particularly Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy.  America and the Allies would defeat these Axis Powers, with first Italy, then Germany and finally Japan, surrendering.

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

- Dwight Eisenhower, before the D-Day Landing (1944)

WWII's influence on America

Section 6.2 The Cold War

As President in the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower helped guide the country during the beginning of its Cold War against the totalitarian communists of the Soviet Union. He also helped enforce the Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection of laws in defending the movement for the civil rights of black Americans. But Eisenhower is arguably even more famous for what he did before becoming president: then-General Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander during World War II.

Although the United States of America and the Soviet Union did not directly war with one another, the second half of the twentieth century was marked by a Cold War between the two powers and their allies, which often played out as actual wars, such as in Korea and Vietnam. The Soviet Union, formally the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, sought to expand its collectivist and totalitarian vision across the world, most prominently in assisting the conversion of China into a communist nation. 

In order to prevent this and defend values such as political freedom, constitutionalism, civil liberties, and representative government under free and fair elections, the United States of America led a coalition of other free countries, such as Great Britain, in fighting communism. Many of these countries joined a defense pact called NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Several participated in the Korean and Vietnam wars, which sought to keep those nations from becoming communist. President Harry Truman led America’s efforts against communism in the beginning of the Cold War, while Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush helped defeat communism near the end of the Cold War.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, which symbolized communist control, was a key moment of the Cold War, but the Cold War finally ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

A side effect of the Cold War was that it served as an additional spur to technological change and innovation that had already marked the century. Building on early twentieth century innovations such as Thomas Edison’s light bulb or Orville and Wilbur Wright’s development of the airplane, American scientists, seeking to defeat the Soviet Union in the “space race”, succeeded in arguably the most significant technological achievement of the century: the July 20,  1969 landing of NASA astronauts on the moon with the Apollo 11 mission.

Section 6.3 - The Civil Rights Movement

Although the 14th Amendment guaranteed the equal protection of the laws for all and the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right of non-white American citizens to vote, these amendments soon ceased to be enforced in protecting the rights of black Americans. The most important consequence of this failure to implement the Constitution was the development of the Jim Crow regime of racial segregation and discrimination in the South, starting in the 1880s, although other forms of racial discrimination existed throughout other parts of the country as well. Civil rights activists built a movement seeking to guarantee these constitutional rights and legal equality, and though the movement’s influence grew slowly, by the 1950s the civil rights movement was achieving important progress in its effort to end racial discrimination. 

The most important civil rights activist was Martin Luther King, Jr., a Christian minister who fought for civil rights and equality via speeches, writings, non-violent protests, and civil disobedience in the 1950s and 1960s. Most famously, in his “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, King argued that denying civil rights to non-white Americans violated both the Christian values of most of his American listeners as well as both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He argued the Declaration and Constitution had given a “promissory note” to black Americans to participate in freedom and equality and looked forward to the day that people would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” King’s activism helped achieve the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to finally enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments and protect the rights of Americans of all races. He was later assassinated for his efforts and beliefs by James Earl Ray in 1968.   

Section 6.4 - Conflict in the Mideast

In 1990, Saddam Hussein, the dictator of Iraq, invaded neighboring Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush organized a coalition to expel the Iraqi military.

On September 11, 2001, the Al-Qaeda terrorist group led by Osama Bin Laden hijacked several airplanes to attack the United States, killing over 3,000 Americans. These Islamist terrorists crashed two of them into the World Trade Center in New York and a third into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth aircraft crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the American passengers fought back and attempted to recapture the plane from the hijackers. 

These attacks led to the war in Afghanistan and against Al-Qaeda more broadly, in which the United States and its allies sought to prevent further terrorism by destroying the Al-Qaeda network and its allies.

Section 6.5 - Native Americans

As with other historic nations in the world, different Native American peoples have spoken a variety of languages and organized their societies differently. Some practiced pastoral agriculture, others were more itinerant hunters. Some organized themselves in smaller communities; others formed larger confederations, together making war and peace with Europeans and one another. Some wrote constitutions organizing their societies. 

Many of these tribes retain land over which they are sovereign, many of which are called reservations. There are now almost 600 federally recognized Native American tribes. Among the larger tribes today are the Cherokee and Choctaw in the South, the Sioux and Chippewa in the Midwest, the Iroquois in the northeast, the Blackfeet in the Rocky Mountain states, and the Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo in the Southwest. Although they were initially denied citizenship, as of 1924, all Native Americans are full citizens of the United States.

Section 6: Recent History

Flash Cards

Section 6: Recent History


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Geography and Holidays