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Continuity and change in the postwar era

The period from 1945 to 1980 reshaped American identity significantly. The Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, and 1960s protests expanded inclusivity and social freedom, but also reduced confidence in government and global role. Despite cultural shifts, the American Dream remained a common pursuit.

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Video transcript

- [Woman] The era from 1945 to 1980 was action packed, to say the least. During this period, the United States experienced the baby boom, the Civil Rights Movement, the tumultuous 1960s, and the quagmire of Vietnam. This era was also riddled with contradictions. A sense of optimism in the future and a conviction that American economic prosperity was endless was tempered by fears of nuclear annihilation and a war on poverty. A foreign policy based on democracy and anti-communism, abroad, was undermined by the suppression of civil rights and civil liberties, at home. Material comforts and Leave It To Beaver visions of suburbia clashed with growing calls for young people to tune in, turn on, and drop out. Would the generation that fought World War II even recognize the generation that protested Vietnam? That's the question I'd like to explore, in this video, taking a high-level look at the impact the events of the postwar era had on reshaping American national identity. How much did American national identity change, and how much did it stay the same, over this time period? To answer this question, first, we have to define what we mean by American national identity. In other videos, we've looked at a few aspects of American identity as core ideological beliefs about things like who counts as an American, whether the United States is exceptional, or whether it's possible for anyone to succeed, so long as they work hard enough. So if we're trying to track continuity and change in American identity, over the period from 1945 to 1980, what might be a few beliefs we should trace, over time? I encourage you to pause the video and see if you can come up with a couple, based on your knowledge of the events in this time period. Some big events that jump out to me are the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, as well as the protests of the 1960s. So with that in mind, the core beliefs I'd like to look at are ideas about the United States' role in the world, who counts as an American citizen, and the country's cultural values. You might have come up with a totally different set of beliefs, which is great. Try out this same process I'm about to model, using the beliefs that you've chosen. Now that we've got a few aspects of national identity we wanna track, let's compare each of them at the beginning of this period to the end of this period. Remember, we're doing a super, high-level overview, here. So I'm not gonna take a whole lot of time to explain events in detail. But if something comes up that you're unfamiliar with, just make a note, and you can look it up when you've got time. All right, let's see what changed and what stayed the same, over this period, in beliefs about the United States' role in the world. In 1945, the United States emerged as a world superpower, having abandoned isolationism as a foreign policy. Instead, the United States became a leading member of the United Nations and the NATO defensive pact. The U.S. government was determined to contain the spread of communism and the influence of the Soviet Union through providing military and financial support to nations fighting communism, which would lead to American military engagements in Korea and Vietnam. The United States also had a lot of confidence in its economic role in the world as the only country whose industrial might hadn't been compromised by World War II bombings. Immediately after the war, the United States was the world's leading exporter of steel, cars, consumer goods, and oil. How does that compare to beliefs about America's proper role in the world in 1980? Well, the United States was still a world superpower at the end of this era. And it was still pursuing anti-communism as a foreign policy. But in the 1970s, the Cold War entered a period of detente, a relaxation of tensions and increase in cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union. You could see this as the U.S. government accepting peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union. This approach will change when Ronald Reagan comes into office in 1981. But the period of detente lasted until the end of the 1970s. The Vietnam War shook American confidence in its interventionist foreign policy. After the war, there was more reluctance to commit U.S. troops, abroad, in what's been called Vietnam Syndrome. Likewise, the Nixon Doctrine called for U.S. allies to take primary responsibility for their own defense. Lastly, U.S. economic world dominance was threatened, in the late 1970s, as well, as Japanese and German automobile makers began competing internationally. And the energy-dependent United States found that its energy needs were increasingly tied to the oil exporting countries of the Middle East. So in terms of what changed and what stayed the same, from the beginning to the end of the postwar era, I would say that although the United States remained a world superpower, committed to supporting its allies and opposing the spread of communism, by the end of the 1970s, the country looked to establish some limits to its intervention in world affairs. Next, let's look at how beliefs about citizenship changed during this period. After the shared experience of G.I.s in World War II, European immigrants who had been looked upon as dangerous others, in the 1920s and 1930s, were accepted as U.S. citizens and categorized as simply white, not Polish or Irish or Russian. But African American soldiers, who had served in segregated units during the war, weren't afforded the same courtesy. Despite Truman's executive order desegregating the military in 1948, black veterans encountered racial discrimination after the war, along with difficulty accessing the government subsidies for education and home loans that white G.I.s took advantage of. The immigration restrictions that set national origin quotas in the 1920s were still largely intact, although the Chinese Exclusion Act had been repealed during the war as China was a U.S. ally. Chinese Americans were then eligible to become U.S. citizens. However, the new quota for Chinese immigrants was just 105 individuals per year. What were the beliefs around citizenship at the end of the postwar era? A lot changed during this time period, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, Supreme Court decisions like Brown versus Board of Education, and legislation like the the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the end of the '60s, African Americans were able to access more citizenship rights than they ever had, before. And, in 1965, Congress repealed the old national origin quotas and passed new immigration laws, allowing Asians to enter the country as well as prioritizing family reunification and the entrance of skilled immigrants. But in the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a backlash against the civil rights policies set by the Supreme Court, in the Johnson administration. With many conservatives arguing that the federal intervention to advance civil rights had gone too far, and with some left-leaning organizations arguing that it hadn't gone far enough, to address issues like housing and job discrimination, looking at the changes and continuities in beliefs about citizenship over this period, I'd say there was an enormous expansion, over time, in who was considered a citizen or eligible to become a citizen of the United States. But there was also a growing antagonism toward the federal government intervening on behalf of civil rights. Last, let's look at American cultural values, at the beginning and end of the postwar era. In the years after the war, there was an emphasis on domesticity and family life. And women were expected to give up their war time jobs and seek fulfillment through motherhood and consumption. The United States began a postwar economic boom that looked virtually unstoppable. In fact, the American standard of living doubled in the 25 years after World War II. There was also a lot of pressure for Americans to conform to a homogenous, mass culture, idealizing the white, suburban, nuclear family. Fear of communist infiltrators led to witch hunts, like McCarthyism. But few people people questioned the wisdom of the U.S. government or authority figures, in general. Compare that to the end of this period, after the tumult of the 1960s had turned American culture on its head. In the 1960s and 1970s, the sexual revolution and women's rights movement challenged the idealized, nuclear family, allowing for a more permissive sexual culture and the advancement of women in jobs and education. Starting as early as the 1950s, the Beat Generation began to question the emptiness of the single-minded pursuit of wealth that was the American Dream. In the 1960s, students began to protest the draft and the military industrial complex, more generally, wondering what the United States was even doing in Vietnam. They vowed not to trust anyone over 30. By the 1970s, public confidence in the U.S. government was also at an all-time low, after revelations about presidential misdeeds exposed by the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal. To add insult to injury, the endless economic boom finally seemed to be at an end, by the 1970s, with deindustrialization and stagflation, increasing prices and unemployment. So it seems like American cultural values changed a great deal, from 1945 to 1980, from a culture of suburban conformity to one of greater personal freedom but also greater cynicism. But it is important to note that the people of the United States didn't fully reject the premise of the American Dream. Despite the counterculture of the 1960s, by the 1970s, most people were still looking for a good job and hoping to buy a nice home. If we return to our question, then, how much did the events of the postwar era reshape American identity? I think we can respond that they reshaped it quite a bit. The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the protest movements of the 1960s led to a U.S. national identity that was considerably more inclusive and socially free, but also a good deal less confident about its government or its role in the world. To see how these forces played out, in the next stage of U.S. history, we'll have to look to the 1980s.