American History in 13 Minutes

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Reading Time: 13 minutes

The history of America’s evolution as a Republic, while seemingly haphazard, actually shows an intriguing pattern. If we rewind the movie all the way back to the founding and play it in slow motion, we can see a kind of cyclic progression of distinct phases, each spanning about 25 years or so.

Let’s do a bit of historical detective work and explore these quarter-century periods:

Surviving (1650-1775)

From the founding of the 13 original English colonies up through the RevWar, just staying alive kept everyone busy. The colonists, still British subjects and under the control of the Crown, focused on economic stability and tried to assert basic civil rights without antagonizing their military minders.

Building a Republic (1775-1800)

The Declaration of Independence, the painful RevWar with England, and the building of a democratic republic dominated the lives of the newly minted American citizens. Washington, Jefferson, and other key leaders tried to keep us from getting drawn into the age-old conflicts between England, France, and Spain.

Proving Ourselves (1800-1825)

The RevWar didn’t really settle animosities between the US and British governments. While the British had their hands full in a life-and-death struggle with Napoleon’s Grande Armée across the whole of Europe, President James Madison took the opportunity to declare war.

Britain’s seizure and impressment of American sailors on the high seas gave him the provocation he needed. Madison also launched a series of attacks into Canada, hoping to drive the thinly stretched British empire out of North America and make Canada part of the US.

The British landed a modest invasion force of ships and soldiers near Baltimore, attacked Washington, and set fire to the White House. After a series of indecisive battles, Andrew Jackson’s forces defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, a few months before the Brits defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.

The Crown gave up all hope of a reconquest, the two countries signed a peace treaty, and the new Republic had truly arrived as a full-fledged nation.

Flexing Our Muscles (1825-1850)

This period saw the aggressive expansion of American territory by a series of presidents and the rise of the concept of “Manifest Destiny.” That idea held that God intended for the new Republic to spread democracy and capitalism across the whole North American continent, and that its leaders had the moral authority to do it by almost any means necessary.

A whole new set of forces, trends, and events came into play—a rapid rise in birth rates and immigration; the western movement of millions of settlers looking for new land and new opportunities; completion of the awesome 363 mile-long Erie Canal, which connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean; Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1830; the break-away of Texas, then a part of Mexico (led in 1836 by American settlers Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis of Alamo fame); the annexation and statehood of Texas in 1846; the War with Mexico and the treaty in 1846, which ceded Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming to the US; and the relocation of thousands of American Indians from their lands in the east to reservations in the west.

By the time the Civil War broke out, the American Republic stretched from coast to coast and from the Canadian border to the Caribbean.

Coming Unglued (1850-1875)

The rapid territorial expansion of the early half-century had big side-effects. For one, it fueled a fierce conflict over the issue of slavery. It raised the very divisive question of whether new states joining the Union could allow slavery.

The slavery question split the political process and the national conversation completely in two.

Practically speaking, no political actor could get away with claiming neutrality; one had to take a side. Like a speeding train with no brakes, the Republic barreled on toward partition.

When Abraham Lincoln ran for president in 1860, he vowed to end slavery completely. His campaign speeches provoked a blind rage amongst a group of southern political leaders and activists, who threatened to pull their states out of the Union if he won. By the time of his inauguration, they had formed a coalition of 13 states, which they named the Confederate States of America. They formed an interim government under the leadership of a wealthy but inexperienced slave-owner named Jefferson Davis.

Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, setting off a violent 4-year conflict that cost the lives of more than 600,000 citizen soldiers on both sides. After a long, bloody, and exhausting conflict, the Union forces finally prevailed.

For Northerners, the Civil War settled the question of slavery once and for all. The Republic could now heal its wounds and go about the task of reconstruction. But for Southerners, it didn’t settle anything.

As one of the conditions for readmission to the Union—and access to desperately needed funds to pay for reconstruction—Congress required the legislative houses of each of the rebelling states to swallow a bitter pill. They first had to ratify Lincoln’s 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery forever.

The adolescent Republic had grown to full size, it had nearly come unglued, and now its protectors tried to glue the parts back together. But the divisions never healed. Racism, both institutional and cultural, remained the dividing factor separating the Old South from the rest of the American culture for a long time.

Getting Back to Business (1875-1900)

After the Civil War, a series of presidents set about finishing the build-out of the nation-state. An authoritarian ideology seemed to descend upon the political conversation and it guided a process of social realignment. Asserting the power of government became a guiding principle of politics. We could also justifiably refer to this phase as “Going White.”

As southern governments went about immobilizing the black population, departments in Washington finished the job of forcibly relocating Indians to reservations in the West and the Interior. A federal agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, emerged as a mechanism for negotiating treaties and agreements with some 600 recognized Indian groups.

This phase included a long running effort to indoctrinate native groups with the values and norms of the white culture, using such practices as separating young children from their families and putting them in boarding schools. Their minders forbid them to speak their native languages; required them to wear European-style clothes and hairstyles; and encouraged them to abandon their native religions in favor of Christianity.

Through the last decades of the century, Washington politicians argued and made deals about the numbers of immigrants the Republic might admit from various countries. Chinese immigrants, previously used as laborers during the build-out of the great railway lines, became an unwelcome nuisance. The unapologetically named Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 stopped all Chinese from entering the country.

During this period, American leaders also dabbled in colonialism, although on a small scale. Having acquired the islands of Guam and Puerto Rico as spoils of the Spanish-American War,  they shortly thereafter acquired American Samoa. Those properties remain US protectorates to this day. The purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 had already put a new group of native peoples under supervision of the federal government, a number of tribes referred to collectively as Eskimos.

Perhaps the most impressive new jewel in the American imperial crown came with the annexation of Hawaii in 1898.

While blacks, Indians, Hawaiians, Eskimos, immigrants, and the working stiffs grappled with their own survival issues, a new social class began to materialize: the nouveau riche. The booming economy, fueled by the new factories of the industrial age, produced a growing subculture of millionaires, some known as the “robber barons.”

They spent their money lavishly, building luxurious mansions, entertaining ostentatiously, and vacationing abroad in the new style of luxury steamship travel. Mark Twain referred to this new period in American life as the Gilded Age, meaning that the vulgar display of wealth concealed a lack of aesthetic sensibility and respect for subtlety.

Becoming a Real Country (1900-1925)

During the last few years of the 1800s and well into the new century, Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt influenced the developing Republic in a number of ways. A dramatic personality gifted with a keen intellect, TR projected a hyper-masculine style of leadership. He had made it his personal mission, even before his accession to the presidency, to position the US as a first-tier country worthy of respect among the great nations.

Teddy saw his ambition fulfilled in three big adventures: 1) starring in the Spanish-American war, which kicked the tottering Spanish empire out of the western hemisphere after a slam-dunk little war in Cuba; 2) building a world class deep-water navy; and 3) coercing the government of Colombia to give up land for the construction of the Panama Canal, which the US operated profitably under a 100-year lease agreement. Teddy often expressed his personal philosophy of foreign relations as, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

The First World War, a.k.a. the “Great War,” a.k.a. the “Unnecessary War,” broke out during Woodrow Wilson’s first term in 1914, when a catastrophic series of political aberrations triggered an interlocking set of war alliances. At the time, neither Wilson nor the American public wanted any part of a European war and Wilson limited the country’s role to selling weapons and ammunition to Britain and France.

By 1917, however, German atrocities had moved Wilson’s thinking and public opinion toward war. Two big provocations tipped opinion against Germany and in favor of war. First, a German submarine sank the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915 with 123 Americans onboard, setting off a humanitarian outrage.

Second, in 1917 a bizarre incident referred to as the Zimmerman Telegram caper pretty well forced the issue. British cryptographers deciphered a telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to his counterpart in Mexico, proposing to offer a deal to the Mexican government. If Mexico would join with Germany and help defeat the United States, Mexico would get back the western states lost during the old territorial wars.

The US declared war in early 1917 and by the time of the Armistice in late 1918 had participated for less than two years. The country’s full commitment, however, and the strong performance of American troops, signaled to the other nations that the US had indeed arrived as a world power.

The planning for post-war operations included a new and provocative concept: a League of Nations that would bring together the allied countries into an association that could ensure cooperation and a coordinated defense against possible future threats from Germany or other belligerent countries.

Wilson staked his political future on this venture and promoted it vigorously. Ironically, although he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, his own Senate stabbed him in the back and voted not to ratify the treaty. Without the US, the League staggered on in a weakened state and died during WW2.

Learning to Suffer (1925-1950)

Following the relatively painless recovery from WW1, the period known as the Roaring Twenties brought a short-lived phase of prosperity, self-indulgent consumption, and an optimistic sense of limitless possibilities. Then it all came crashing down with the Great Depression. A massive economic collapse, triggered by greed and reckless gambling in New York’s powerful new financial industry; the astonishing crash of the Wall Street stock exchanges in 1929; and unforgivable bumbling by government overseers, plunged the economy and the society into chaos.

A massive slowdown in the economic machinery caused an unprecedented number of bankruptcies and drove unemployment to levels never before seen. Many people lost their jobs, homes, cars, and savings. Caught flat-footed, President Herbert Hoover and his administration fumbled the ball for almost two years.

Unemployment continued to soar, prices and profits collapsed along with falling consumer demand, and banks closed their doors, unable to meet the demands of panicked depositors who wanted their cash. Poverty, homelessness, bread lines, and long lines of men hoping for work became a familiar sight.

Thousands of homeless encampments, dubbed “Hoovervilles,” sprang up under bridges, along rivers, in public parks, and in back streets and alleys.

The crisis soon spread to other countries, especially those with financial systems closely linked to the Wall Street empire. What began as an American catastrophe soon metastasized into a world-wide downturn.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the presidency in 1932 and set about trying to revive an economy that many perceived as near death. He launched a massive program of public assistance aimed at creating jobs, putting money in Americans’ pockets, and restoring the economic tempo. His New Deal for the American people spanned across two consecutive presidential terms, from 1933 through 1939. His reforms began to take hold, economic activity began to recover, and more and more people started going back to work.

Historians generally credit FDR’s emergency measures with helping the country climb out of the Depression, but some also assert that the coming of the Second World War clinched the revival. Hitler’s great adventure began in 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland, but the US sat out the early phase of the war until December 7, 1941. On that day the Japanese bombing of the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii forced Roosevelt’s hand.

Until the Japanese attack, FDR had resisted getting the US involved in what many political leaders, journalists, and citizens saw as another round of the never-ending European wars. He did, however, authorize American firms to sell military weapons and war materiel to the Allies. That decision led to a rapid and far-reaching industrial mobilization that brought the country back to full employment.

Americans still got a good education in enduring hardship, however. The immense commitment to exporting weapons, supplies, and food to the Allies— and later providing them to American troops fighting in Europe and Asia—led to chronic shortages.

The US government rationed everyday necessities like milk, eggs, bacon, butter, coffee, chocolate, and gasoline as well as basic materials like paper, rubber, aluminum, and steel. Ration books and coupons became a familiar part of everyday life. Spam, a cheap canned-meat product, became a familiar part of life.

After the German surrender in April of 1945 and the Japanese surrender in August of the same year, the phenomenal post-war recovery got fully underway.

The destructive impact of the war had never reached the American mainland, so our infrastructure remained mostly intact. Industrial capacity also remained strong. The US lost far fewer soldiers in the war than any of the major Allied countries, so the medical and human costs never added up to the appalling levels the others experienced. Those factors gave the US a big head start and an economic advantage that endured for decades.

Amplifying Everything (1950-1975)

The arrival of television in American homes in the early 1950s touched off an explosive phase of cultural change that continues to this day. America began its transition to an electronic culture. That one phenomenon caused or catalyzed many of the big changes that made this the most turbulent period in the life of the Republic. TV became the great amplifier, detecting and exaggerating differences in all parts of society.

The list of social, economic, and political changes that came with the new frenetic culture runs long:

  • Rock ’n Roll music captured the energies of the teen generation. Music and movies became part of the cultural language and collective awareness.
  • Flamboyant entertainers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles galvanized the popular culture. American music and Hollywood films became one of our most significant exports, extending a kind of cultural colonialism into many other countries.
  • The ever-present Cold War and the frightening nuclear stand-off with the Soviet Union weighed heavily on the minds of Americans and eroded their sense of security.
  • The invention of a reliable female contraceptive, “The Pill,” in 1960 changed reproductive rights and attitudes for a generation of women. A powerful feminist movement began to find its voice.
  • The Cuban revolution in 1960, led by Fidel Castro, and his alliance with the Soviet Union, precipitated the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which brought the two Cold War powers nose to nose with nuclear disaster.
  • The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 devastated the nation and brought Lyndon Johnson to the White House just as the Vietnam conflict began to spiral out of control. The war ultimately sank his plans for the Great Society.
  • An unprecedented anti-war movement, especially among young people, opposed the Vietnam presence and called for the end of the draft. College campuses became hotbeds of student activism. Sit-ins and campus riots made hot news stories.
  • Civil rights activism, led by charismatic figures like Martin Luther King, convulsed the cultures of the Old South and made Northerners uncomfortably aware of the lingering injustices.
  • Environmental activists began to warn about the accumulating effects on the Earth’s ecosystem due to mass industrialization and unsustainable practices of resource extraction. Books like Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962; The Population Bomb by Paul and Anne Ehrlich in 1968; and Future Shock by Alvin Toffler in 1970 captured public attention and gave impetus to a gradually developing consciousness of the finiteness of the planet’s resources.
  • A hedonistic subculture of drugs and sexual self-indulgence, whose disciples rejected traditional American values and priorities, found voice in mob scenes like the Woodstock music festival in 1969.
  • The Space Race with the Soviet Union and the American triumph with the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 boosted national pride.
  • The disastrous failure of the Vietnam adventure and the ignominious pull-out of US forces in 1973 shattered the cherished illusion of America’s military invincibility.
  • China became a recognized player on the world stage when the UN General Assembly voted to expel Taiwan in 1971 and give the membership to mainland China. President Richard Nixon stunned western leaders the following year when he went to China to meet with Mao Tze-Tung. That meeting and visits by later presidents led to reduced tensions and a new trade relationship between the countries.
  • A series of scandals and episodes of corruption, especially the Watergate scandal that drove President Richard Nixon from office in 1975, dominated the national conversation and caused many Americans to lose their faith in government and public institutions.
  • The intense drama of TV news, played out every evening in living rooms across the country, made Americans hyper-sensitive to a whole range of social, political, and economic issues around the world. TV coverage of the Vietnam conflict brought the disturbing reality of war into their homes.

Losing Our Best Enemy (1975-2000)

In the post-Vietnam era, a series of presidents wrestled with the question of America’s role on the world stage. The Cold War; membership in the UN and NATO; and international commerce all pulled Americans deeper into the global drama. The country became ever more entangled economically, politically, and socially, to a degree the Founders could never have imagined.

Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 and immediately confronted the Soviet Union’s leaders in a very public and dramatic exchange of threats. By 1985, however, a new and unusual Soviet leader emerged. Mikhail Gorbachev, a self-declared reformer, offered a dialogue with Reagan that evolved into a respectful relationship. A long and difficult series of negotiations eventually led to the end of the Cold War and the ungluing of the Soviet empire.

Gorbachev’s quasi-democratic vision, unfortunately, didn’t survive the unwinding of the empire. The Soviet Union crashed out in 1991. All of the satellite states broke free from its orbit, leaving Russia as the only surviving relic of the old order and in a crippled state, militarily and economically.

Seeking the Elusive “New World Order” (2000-Now)

The astonishing fall of the USSR set the Washington policymaking industry into a frenzy of speculation, argument, and advocacy. The bipolar power struggle that had pitted the US and its allies against the USSR for four decades had collapsed. What arrangement might replace it and how could America’s leaders get the one they wanted?

Think-tanks, university professors, and free-lance policy wonks all rushed to offer their recipes for a “new world order.” Three main theories emerged:

  • A unipolar situation with the US at the center, overshadowing all other countries and regions, militarily and economically.
  • A bipolar situation with the US in head-to-head economic competition with the newly powerful European Union.
  • A tripolar situation with a three-way power dance involving the US, the European Union, and a potential Asian power bloc that some predicted would emerge, probably dominated by China.

A highly vocal clan of Washington policy merchants, referred to by political scholars as neo-conservatives, or “neo-cons,” aggressively preached the notion of a window of opportunity for the unipolar option—unchallenged US world leadership. They adopted the concept of “American exceptionalism” as their rallying cry and mantra, sounding a not-so-faint echo of the old doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

President Bush paid little attention to the neo-con pitch at first, but circumstances soon turned his head around.

Less than a year into his presidency, the surprise terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a.k.a. the 9-11 tragedy, forced him and his advisors to think about another sphere of power and influence—the Middle East. He began to listen to the policy hawks, especially his VP Dick Cheney, and finally bought into the unipolar doctrine.

US military units, aided by British forces, immediately invaded Afghanistan, where intelligence sources had reported that the 9-11 mastermind Osama bin Laden had his base of operations. The mission to find and capture him never panned out but it turned into a long, fruitless, and mind-bogglingly expensive military operation in that wasteland, one that has stretched on for more than 19 years as of this writing.

A second venture, even more catastrophic, mounted a “regime change” invasion to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Bush and Cheney used questionable intelligence data to support the claim that Saddam had sponsored the 9-11 attacks. They assured the American public of a quick and easy operation. Iraq’s oppressed people, longing for liberation from his brutal regime, would welcome US forces—a Christian army invading an Islamic country—as heroes and friends.

It didn’t work out that way. Having destroyed the Iraqi army—and overseen Saddam’s hanging by an interim Iraqi leadership—US forces drifted into the unenviable role of trying to reconstruct a failed state. As of this writing, US forces still operate in various parts of Iraq, trying to quell sporadic uprisings against a weak and ineffectual puppet government.

So much for the New World Order.

Bush’s successor Barack Obama showed little interest in world dominance. Meanwhile, the EU nations had become more organized, more self-assertive, and less likely to look to the US for leadership. With the rapid rise of the Asian tiger economies—China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore—the tripolar model won out.

Facing the Midlife Crisis (2020-Onward)

Americans and their leaders seem more confused, conflicted, and uncertain about the role of their Republic in world affairs than perhaps ever before in their history.

We’ve grown up. We began as a little cluster of colonies struggling to survive on a patch of land on the coast of a huge unexplored continent. We grew and developed through a difficult adolescence into a fledgling empire; we took our place in the community of nations; we endured wars, economic strife, and internal turmoil just as the other great nations had; and we advanced to adulthood, finally achieving the status of a primary center of power and influence.

And now we seem to have arrived at middle age.

Just as we humans tend to come to a point of self-awareness and self-questioning somewhere along our personal roads, nations come to a point of self-identity. We’ve arrived as a Republic; where do we go from here?


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