In the years after 1945, the United States entered what one observer called “the American Century,” a period in which the U.S. seemed to reach unprecedented achievements. In foreign policy, the U.S. achieved the “exceptional” goal of dominating global relations without seeming to build an empire. At home, corporations and labor unions constructed what many Americans agreed was an “American way” based on economic growth and a more equitable distribution of resources. Postwar social movements likewise appeared to force the U.S. to finally address its unique “American dilemma” of racial inequality. And postwar society and culture seemed to produce a new model of an “American family” that shaped the experiences of millions of citizens.
Yet at nearly the same time that this seemingly successful system emerged, it began collapsing. Fueled by conflict with the Soviet Union, the putative American commitment to democracy abroad transformed rapidly into commitment to its own economic and geopolitical power, producing intervention and conflicts across Latin America, Africa and Asia. The seemingly robust U.S. economy stalled, and agreements between labor and corporations broke under conflicting understandings of the “American Way.” Massive resistance to social movements of non-whites and women seeking egalitarianism proved the fallacy of America’s commitment to solving its “dilemmas” of inequality. And the myth of the “American family” cracked under demographic, economic, and social changes in family structure and function.
This upper-division, intensive course traces the history of the “American century” and its contradictions through the long postwar era, from the late 1930s through the early 2000s. It covers topics including the creation of a New Deal state; the effect of the Cold War on foreign and domestic politics; the development and impact of social movements among African Americans, women, religious conservatives, and gays and lesbians; the power of corporations; U.S. intervention in developing nations; the links between family and politics; the decline of Liberalism and the rise of the New Right; the new immigration; the rise of a service economy and the decline of American economic power.