Digital History

The Past Three Decades: Years of Crisis - Years of Triumph

Entering a New Century Previous
Digital History ID 3376



For the United States, the 20th century ended on a note of triumph. As the 21st century began, the United States was without a doubt the strongest, wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth. It possessed the world's most productive economy and the mightiest armed forces; it dominated global manufacturing and trade; it held an unchallenged lead in invention, science, and technology. Its popular culture was dominant across much of the globe.

Its greatest rival, the Soviet Union, had disintegrated. Another, Japan, had been mired for a decade by economic stagnation. A third, Germany, was preoccupied with the stresses of reunification. The United States seemed to be leading the way to a new economy built around the Internet and the global distribution of finance, manufacturing, and entertainment.

Few would have imagined the United States’ success 40, 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. In the late 1960s, a third of the world had embraced communism and another third was non-aligned. The United States faced ideological challenges from the Cuban Revolution, Maoist China, and North Vietnam. The United States also confronted a new and unsettling set of cultural challenges: the youth revolt; the sexual revolution; women's liberation; the civil rights struggles of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and gays; and the environmental and consumer movements.

During the 1970s, the country faced a severe crisis of confidence deepened by a sense of economic and military decline and political scandal. Watergate, economic stagnation, mounting inflation, energy crisis, foreign competition and the loss of industrial jobs, the defeat in Vietnam, the impact of Iranian hostage crisis--all contributed to a sense of national decline.

By 1980, the sense of American pre-eminence had faded. Other countries saved more, invested more, worked harder, and increased the productivity of their industries faster than did America--a shocking recognition that American economic competitiveness had declined. In the U.S., real wages had fallen since 1973; families required two incomes, instead of one, to maintain a middle class standard of living.

Foreign trade overshadowed goods exported by the U.S. Foreign countries, especially Germany and Japan, dominated the most profitable, technologically-advanced fields, namely, consumer electronics, luxury automobiles, and machine tools. The United States remained preeminent in exporting farm products and timber, areas of trade that Americans used to associate with poor Third World countries.

Economic decline was accompanied by a deep sense of social decay. There was a mounting recognition that the United States’ level of crime and violence was the highest in the industrialized world. Not even the presidency was untouched by this epidemic of violence. Between 1963 and 1981, four presidents were the targets of assassins' bullets.

Other signs of social breakdown also evoked alarm. By the 1980s, half of all marriages ended in divorce--the highest rate in the Western world. The United States’ rates of drug use, juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancy, and teen suicide were also the industrial world’s highest.

As recently as the late 1980s, the country was once again mired in recession and awash in a vast sea of private and public indebtedness. The national debt and federal deficit stood at record levels. Corporate takeovers and bankruptcies were also at a high level. The country owed more than $2 trillion in debt; and foreigners had acquired many of America's most famous corporations and pieces of real estate. Indeed, foreign ownership of American factories, real estate, and stocks and bonds was actually greater than American ownership of foreign assets.

But as a result of the longest post-war economic boom, the upsurge in stock prices, falling energy prices, a dramatic decline in unemployment, and the proliferation of new communication and computer technologies, Americans came to see themselves once again standing astride the world like a colossus.

How long that euphoria will last remains an open question.

It is possible to look at the events since the late 1980s from contrasting perspectives. Optimists can point to a process of democratization, of “people’s power,” that occurred on a global scale. From China’s Tiananmen Square (where student protesters erected a model of the Statute of Liberty), to the Philippines, Indonesia, and Eastern Europe, American ideals of freedom and human rights seemed to be spreading across the world. The 1990s witnessed the abolition of apartheid in South Africa; the weakening of clerical tyranny in Iran; the overthrow of dictatorship in Indonesia; the liberation of East Timor; and the peaceful resolution to conflict in Northern Ireland. The prospects for peace in the Middle East never appeared greater until renewed tensions erupted in 2000.

Over the same period, ecological conscious grew and new standards of women’s rights and human rights spread. War crimes tribunals and truth-and-reconciliation commissions were established to address past abuses of power.

But pessimists could also point to certain troubling indicators of future trouble. On the world scene, there is concern over the spread of diseases like AIDS, the threat of global warming, and the world’s heavy reliance on non-renewable sources of energy. Especially worrisome are the violence and disorder that is rooted in intense ethnic conflicts and the breakdown of nation states, especially in Africa.

At home, too, there are many sources of concern. In the U.S., areas of unease include the declining rates of participation in elections; the growing gap in the distribution of wealth; the increasing stresses that beset many families; and the pervading deep racial tensions that still plague the nation’s cities. The level of health and education in our country is another source of anxiety. The nation’s infant death rate lags behind that of 19 other nations and is twice as high as Japan’s. Meanwhile, test scores reveal that America's school children lag behind those in other advanced societies in almost every branch of learning mathematics, natural sciences, foreign languages, geography, mathematics, and the natural sciences. Pessimists also point to our society’s heavy reliance on prisons to address many social problems and a coarsening of popular culture.

The study of history cannot help us foresee the future. But it can remind us how far we have come and how far we have to go. It can also help us remember that change is inevitable and that the future is not preordained. History reminds us that we got to where we are, not through a chain of inevitabilities, but through a sequence of choices, actions, and struggles.

In 1859, Abraham Lincoln gave an address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society. At that time, Lincoln could not have imagined that he would soon become president of the United States and would hold office during a great civil war that would lead to the abolition of slavery; however, the speech contained a piece of wisdom that we would do well to recall as we enter into the future. He said:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, 'And this, too, shall pass away.' How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction.

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