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Shaping American national identity from 1890 to 1945

The U.S. transformed from an inward-focused industrial giant in 1890 to a global powerhouse by 1945. This shift impacted American national identity, affecting beliefs about individualism, cultural identity, and global involvement. Key events like the Great Depression and World War II played pivotal roles in these changes.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In 1890, the United States was not exactly a major player on the world stage. It was an industrial behemoth, attracting immigrants from all over the world, but it was focused on its own internal growth, not foreign affairs. There was little in the way of a shared popular culture, and there was practically no government regulation of industry or the market. Compare that to the United states in 1945, which had a bustling shared national culture, a social safety net, and lots of industry regulations brought on by depression and war. And the United States was the strongest nation on earth. For a time, the world's lone atomic power. These are all enormous changes, changes in ideas about the economy, American culture, and the United States' role in the world. As a historian, I'm curious about how these changes affected American national identity during this period. National identity is a bit of a slippery thing, but it encompasses a lot of core values and beliefs in society about who counts as an American, how Americans should act, and how the United States should relate to other countries. So how can we measure just how much impact the events of the first half of the 20th century had on American national identity. First, we need to get more specific about which core beliefs around national identity we wanna track, since one of the changes we're looking at relates to the growing regulation of the American economy in this time period. One belief I think would be valuable to examine over time is individualism. This is the idea that everyone should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to earn a good living through their own hard work. This has been a pretty core American value over time, but there certainly have been moments when many have question whether it can really be achieved. Next, I'm curious about changes in American cultural identity over this period. People did a lot of moving around in the early 20th century, going from farms to cities, and from the old country to the new. So did the United States develop a shared national culture in this time period along with the advent of new communication technologies like the radio, or were cultural values in the United States fractured along lines of race, class, and ethnicity? Finally, since this is the era in which the United States grew into a world power, I'd like to look at changes in beliefs about what the proper US role in the world should be. Okay, now that we've decided which core values of national identity we wanna track, let's brain storm some of the major events that may have affected these values during this period. I encourage you to pause the video here, and think about what events you might wanna discuss related to these themes. Think about the big things that happened in this era and how they could affect ideas about individualism, culture, and the United States' role in the world. You may come up with some different things than I do, and that's okay. Remember, we're doing a high-level overview of events here, so I'm not gonna go into much depth about any of them. But if I mention something you're not familiar with, just jot it down, and you can follow up on that concept later. Okay, first, let's look at beliefs around individualism. This is really a question about whether people thought it was possible for them to earn a good living through hard work alone. In the 1890s, there were a few questions about whether industrialization and business consolidation was making it impossible for ordinary people to succeed, like the farmers who supported the Populist Party, and wanted the government to regulate railroads and alter the money supply. But they didn't get too much traction. The progressive era also introduced some regulations on business, with presidents like Teddy Roosevelt busting trusts, and reformers helping to pass laws protecting workers and consumers. The Roaring Twenties, by contrast, was an era of boundless optimism about the individual's ability to get wealthy. With lots of ordinary folks investing in the stock market, and believing that the economic boom would never end, but of course it did end, and with it, so did a lot of people's faith in individualism. Factors outside the control of any one person brought on the great depression, and people looked to the government to provide relief to citizens in a way that it had never done before. The new deal established a social safety net and a limited welfare state that would influence the American economy for decades. So looking at this period as a whole, it seems like the events of the first half of the 20th century had a pretty profound effect on the belief in American individualism. Industrialization and then the Great Depression led to a growing sense that the modern industrial economy was too large of a machine for individuals to navigate it successfully on their own. And therefore, the government had a duty to see to the welfare of its citizens. Next, let's examine American culture over this time period. Was there one shared national culture, like the melting pot analogy or were there many tensions and divisions in culture over things like ideas, race, religion, or gender roles. During this time period, migration to cities led to the development of cultural enclaves, like Little Italy, and new cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance. Those might suggest a more divided culture. On the other hand, the growing popularity of radio and cinema in the 1920s contributed to the development of a national culture where people across the country could watch the same movies, listen to the same radio shows, and root for the same sports starts. But there was also a backlash against immigrant culture and the urban modern environment with the re-emergence of the KKK, restrictions on freedom of speech, and calls for 100% Americanism during World War I, and emigration restrictions in the 1920s. However, American propaganda during World War II emphasize the diversity and inclusiveness of the United States, in contrast to Nazi racial ideology. And US culture became more accepting toward immigrants from European backgrounds. But Asian-Americans and African-Americans were so largely excluded. So the cultural transition of the United States is a bit of a mixed bag in this time period. There were both elements that brought the country together in a shared national culture, and elements that divided it based on race, ethnicity, and belief. Last, let's look at beliefs about the role of the United States in the world. Up until the Spanish-American war in 1898, the guiding US foreign policy was isolationism, staying out of world affairs. But by the turn of the 20th century, the US government was tempted to get in on the imperial game, like the great powers of Europe, and it did so with the acquisition of Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines. United States was also reluctant to get involved in World War I, and did so only very late in the war, after provocation. After World War I, the United States return to its policy of isolationism throughout the 1920s and 1930s, but the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 led the country to fully mobilize for war. After the war with Europe in ruins and growing tensions with the Soviet Union, the United States would abandon isolationism as a foreign policy, in favor of membership in the United Nations and military interventions to contain communism. So this too is a major shift from outright isolationism, to imperialism, to interventionism. The events of the first half of the 20th century, changed the core belief that the United States was better off staying out of world affairs into the belief that US involvement was crucial to maintaining order in world affairs. So given the evidence we've compiled here, which major events of the first half of the 20th century had the greatest impact on national identity? It seems like the aspects of national identity that changed the most were the belief in individualism, which transitioned into a greater acceptance of the role of government in advancing citizen's welfare, and the belief in isolationism, which transitioned into the belief that the United States should intervene in world affairs. Which events were most crucial in changing those beliefs? I would say that the Great Depression was the most influential in altering individualism, and World War II was the most influential in altering isolationism. What do you think? Would you come to the same conclusions that I have? Next, think about how you might write a thesis statement in order to answer this question using the evidence that we've gathered.