Read this article to learn about how USA became the only super power of the world!
The period after the end of the Second World War saw the emergence of the United States as the pre-eminent military and economic power in the world.
Every part of the world came under the purview of US interests.
The US also viewed herself as a great “moral force” in the world. Many Americans liked to think that the period in which they were living could quite legitimately be described as the “American Century”.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US became the only superpower in the world.
The Second World War had done no damage to the US economy. In fact, the problems created by the Great Depression had been overcome during the war. The post-war period was one of unprecedented economic prosperity. From 1940 to 1987, the GNP rose from about $ 100 billion to about $ 5,200 billion while the population rose from about 132 million to about 240 million. The affluence of the American people was reflected in the growth of what is usually described as “consumer culture” or “consumerism”.
There was an unprecedented growth in the production and consumption of a huge variety of consumption goods. The motor car became a symbol of this consumer culture. Every technological innovation, minor or major, made the existing product obsolete and worthless. The US was able to sustain this “consumerism” because of her own vast natural resources as well as the control she exercised over a variety of natural resources of many other parts of the world.
The growth of economy was, as in the earlier periods, accompanied by the growing centralisation of the economy. Most of the economy was controlled by a relatively small number of companies and corporations. There was tremendous increase in the growth of industries connected with armaments and a huge amount of government funds were spent for procuring defence equipment which benefited a few big corporations.
The growing “interfusion” of the military and the industry in peace time alarmed many Americans and Eisenhower, the US President, while laying down office in January 1961, warned the country against “the acquisition of unwarrantable influence … by the military-industrial complex”.
In the US, the relationship between political leaders and higher levels of government bureaucracy and the military establishment, and the corporations and big financial institutions has been closer than in most other democratic countries with capitalist economies.
Very often, the government, when faced with a deficit, resorted to cuts on expenditure in medical care and other social welfare programmes, rather than increase taxes on the corporations. During recent years, there has been a decline in the economic supremacy of the United States. From 1948 to 1952, the US had provided about $ 12 billion to the countries of Western Europe under the European Recovery Plan, popularly known as the Marshall Plan after the name of the then US Secretary of State.
This plan had helped the European economies to recover to their pre-war levels within a very short period. In the following years, the economies of West European countries developed at a very fast rate. Japan also emerged as a major economic power in the world and Japanese goods began to compete with US goods not only in the world market but also in the US domestic market.
The decline in US pre-eminence would be clear from the data on industrial production. In 1950, the US share of world industrial production was more than 60 per cent; in 1980, it was about 45 per cent. Western Europe and Japan have become the major economic rivals to the United States.
The US faith in her world supremacy had been first shaken when in 1957 the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik, its first satellite in space. This was followed three years later by the first Soviet manned flight in space.
These ‘shocks’ led to vigorous efforts in areas in which the US thought she had been surpassed by the Soviet Union. Vast resources were made available to the space research programme. The US made a great achievement when two US astronauts landed and walked on the surface of the moon in 1969.
The Cold War had a vitiating influence on life in the US for many years. There emerged in the US a “paranoiac obsession” with “godless communism”. The anti-communist and anti-radical hysteria led to branding every opinion which did not conform to the US view of the Cold War as ‘un-American” and subversive.
During the presidency of Truman (1945—52), the loyalty of government officials was investigated and thousands of people were thrown out of jobs. Thousands of school, college and university teachers were dismissed from their jobs for teaching what were considered “un-American” ideas.
Many film writers and producers were jailed and many blacklisted and debarred from employment in Hollywood for refusing to disclose their past communist connections. The anti-radical hysteria continued for some years during the presidency of Eisenhower who was elected president twice, in 1952 and 1956.
In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on charges of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, in spite of protests and appeals from all over the world. J. Robert Oppenheimer, popularly known as the father of the atom bomb (he had been the head of the US Atomic Bomb project), was denied security clearance.
He had opposed the Hydrogen Bomb project and was accused of having concealed his past connections with communists. The leader of this crusade against communism within the United States was Senator Joseph McCarthy.
From 1950 to 1954, he is described as having “terrorized American public life” by branding many innocent people as traitors and leveling accusations even against the State Department and the military of harbouring “traitors”. He himself was disgraced in 1954 and there was a gradual decline in the hysteria even though most victims of the hysteria were not rehabilitated.
The ‘containment’ of communism remained the objective of US foreign policy for most of the period after the Second World War. The US policy in Latin America continued more or less as before and the US either sent her troops or actively aided rebels to overthrow regimes in many Latin American countries which she suspected of being leftists and, therefore, anti-American.
John F. Kennedy, who was elected US President in 1960, inaugurated a period of new dynamism in US domestic policy. However, it was during his presidency that the US began to get directly involved in the war in Vietnam, the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs took place and the confrontation on Soviet missiles in Cuba occurred.
A major peace initiative was taken in 1963 when the US President Kennedy and the Soviet Union Premier Khrushchev signed a treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in the outer space and underwater. President Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963.
The man who was believed to be his lone assassin was killed soon after while in police custody and millions of people saw this act of killing on their television screens as it took place. Later, doubts were raised about the view upheld by a judicial commission that there was only one person behind the killing of President Kennedy.
The war in Vietnam ended in the ignominious defeat of the US. The war had begun to escalate during the period when Lyndon Johnson was the US President (1963-69). It was further escalated during the presidency of Richard Nixon (1969-74).
Cambodia was bombed and the government of Cambodia was overthrown, and a pro-US government under a military general was installed there. The US had also extended the war to Laos, the third country of Indo- China.
President Nixon started the process of normalising relations with China and China was admitted to the United Nations in 1971. In 1972, Nixon went to China. The SALT talks referred to earlier were started with the Soviet Union. In 1973, the US agreed to end the war in Vietnam and to withdraw her troops.
However, the war continued for another two years and ended when the North Vietnamese troops and the troops of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam entered Saigon, the capital of the pro-US regime in South Vietnam, in April 1975, soon after the last US planes and helicopters had left the city. ,
The war in Vietnam came to an end after Nixon had resigned as president after a major scandal popularly known as the Watergate scandal. He had been re-elected president in 1972 but was soon after accused of serious charges of corruption, and of authorising planting of spying devices and stealing of files from the office of the Democratic Party. Although he claimed that he was not a crook, he was faced with the prospect of impeachment and resigned.
The US support to many unpopular regimes sometimes created problems for the US and led to acts which were illegal under US law. The US had long supported and sustained the regimes of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Jean-Claude Duvalier, commonly referred to as Papa Doc, in Haiti.
But these regimes became so unpopular that the US had to support the overthrow of these dictators. In the case of Iran, the US first took an adventurous step which ended in a fiasco and later US officials had dealings with Iran which according to her own laws were illegal.
In 1979, the Shah of Iran who was one of the most important supporters of the US in Asia fled the country following a revolution in Iran. The government of Iran asked the US to hand over the Shah, who had come to the US for treatment.
The Iranian government wanted to put the Shah on trial. On the refusal of the US, the Iranians held many Americans as hostages. In April 1980, Jimmy Carter who had become president in 1977 sent US commandos to rescue the hostages.
The commando action ended in disaster. The hostages were finally released in early 1981 when the US returned the Iranian assets in US banks which had been frozen by the US government earlier. In the 1980s, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-88), a major scandal broke out. High US officials had entered into illegal deals to support the rebels against the government of Nicaragua. These officials were believed to have entered into the illegal deals with the approval of the president.
In 1989, when George Bush was the president (1989-92), US troops were sent to Panama. General Noriega who ruled Panama was overthrown and brought to the US to stand trial on charges of drug trafficking. In 1991, supported by the troops of some other countries, the US went to war against Iraq following the occupation of Kuwait by the latter.
The war which was authorised by the United Nations led to the ending of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Through the US-led troops were victorious, Iraq was not occupied. However, the war had serious consequences for the people of Iraq.
Many restrictions were imposed on Iraq, including restrictions on the sale of oil, which was the only export commodity available there. In 2003, Iraq was again invaded, this time on the pretext of developing weapons of mass destruction, by the US and its allies, and has since been under US occupation.
An issue which succeeding administrations in the US have had to contend with is the persistence of poverty. In the most prosperous country of the world, about 15 per cent of the population (over 30 million people) was officially classified as poor in the 1980s.
The incidence of poverty in different ‘racial’ groups reflected the continuing ‘racial’ inequality in US society. In the 1980s, about 33 per cent of African Americans, about 20 per cent Hispanics (or Spanish-speaking inhabitants and immigrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico, etc.) and 12 per cent Whites in the US were poor. Homelessness in urban areas has been another major issue.
Civil Rights Movement:
The issue which rocked the US for over a quarter century after the end of the war and continues to be a major issue is of racial equality. We have discussed the oppression of the African American people and their movement for equality in the period before the Second World War.
A powerful civil rights movement arose in the 1950s which, during the following two decades, achieved significant success. The major objectives of this movement were the ending of segregation and discrimination against the African American people, the exercise of the right to vote by them and the ending of their poverty. Even the US armed forces had been following the policy of segregation. This was ended during the presidency of Truman.
In the southern states of the US, schools, colleges and universities, buses and trains, cafes, hotels, theatres and other public places, were all segregated. Black people were not allowed to even register as voters. In 1896, the Supreme Court had legalised segregation and had put forward the doctrine of “separate but equal”. In 1954, the US Supreme Court rejected that doctrine and said: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal’ has no place.
Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”. This led to efforts by African American children to gain admission to schools which were all-White. These efforts were sought to be put down by force by governors of some states. In 1957, 17 Black children were selected for admission to a school in the town of Little Rock in Arkansas.
The governor of the state posted guards outside the school to prevent them from entering the school. The federal government was then forced to send 1000 paratroopers to Little Rock to prevent the governor and the state guards from violating the law.
These paratroopers stayed there for the entire duration of the school year. A similar development took place in 1962 when an African American student was admitted to the University of Mississippi. The most powerful leader of the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King. Deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, he launched a movement of non-violent protest against the segregation of African Americans.
The protest began in Montgomery in the state of Alabama where the African American people started a boycott of buses. The bus companies had to yield and ended segregation in buses. The movement extended to other areas and took new forms.
In restaurants, for example, ‘sit-ins’ was started. People would go to the segregated restaurants and ask to be served and on being refused, would continue to sit there. Students played a very significant role in this movement. Groups of them, both African Americans and Whites, went on what came to be called “freedom rides” to non-violently protest against racial segregation and discrimination.
A powerful movement was also launched for the registration of African Americans as voters. The participants in these movements suffered tremendous hardships and even physical injuries at the hands of police and white hoodlums. There were many killings. The famous song “We shall overcome” was the theme song of these freedom riders.
In 1963, a huge mass rally was organised near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. It was at this rally that Martin Luther King made his stirring “I have a dream” speech. In the following years, much legislation on civil rights was passed which helped in establishing civil rights as legal rights.
However, the legal rights by themselves were not very effective and the civil rights movement increasingly became a radical movement. Many civil rights leaders also became actively involved in the anti-war movement. A militant
Black movement called Black Power also began to gain ground. In 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated. The assassination sparked off race riots in many cities of the US. Martin Luther King was posthumously awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding. Similar movements have also arisen among the American Indians who number about 2 million and the Hispanics whose population is about 22 million.
New radical groups began to emerge in the US in the 1960s, mainly among the youth and the intellectuals. A major factor behind their rise was the Vietnam War which had created a powerful anti-war movement. There were anti-war demonstrations in universities. Thousands of students refused to be drafted into the army. Many fled to Canada and other countries.
There were many incidents of violence in university campuses and in many places the police resorted to the use of brute force in suppressing these demonstrations. Ir. one university, the Kent State University, four students were killed by the police. The new radical groups, later, increasingly concerned themselves with various global issues such as peace, disarmament and environmental protection.