The Cold War had many causes, but the fundamental causes were the fact that the United States and the Soviet Unions were by far the two most powerful countries in the world during the Cold War years (Chafe 2009: 117), and the fact that the two believed each other’s existence to be anathema to the other: that either capitalism or communism would need to be a new world order.
The United State’s strategy during the Cold War shifted slightly, but also remained surprisingly constant. One of the pillars of this strategy was not ever involving the United States in direct confrontation with the Soviet Union: there was a very real fear that any direct confrontation between the two would lead to a nuclear war. There was, however, also a policy in place to never give ground throughout the Cold War, meaning that there were frequent proxy conflicts throughout the world in order for either country gain an ideological advantage. These included proxy conflicts in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea as the best known examples. The United States also engaged in huge industrial efforts, to force the Soviet Union to match them – things like the Space Program and the Interstate highway system.
These proxy conflicts, however, also caused many problems for the United States. Arming the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, for instance, led to those same arms later being used against America, while the proxy conflicts in Vietnam significantly reduced America’s attachment to fighting wars and reduced national moral. Furthermore, America supported essentially any regime that would aid in the fight against Communism, regardless of the consequences. This included the rather dictatorial Shah of Iran, who was then overthrown by a revolution that included a huge amount of Anti-American sentiment. To this day America has to deal with a dangerous and Anti-American regime because of its habit of supporting dictators who had political moods that aligned with what the United States wanted during the Cold War. These are two types of blowback: one in which the US government faced international pressure because of its international intervention, and one in which its own populace raised against it in attempts to change the course of foreign intervention. The latter kind set rise to all sorts of things, including the Kent State riots, while also giving further impetus to the civil rights movements.
The Cold War was the defining conflict that shaped America throughout the 20th century. It had an impact on every part of American life, from people who went off to wars to everyday American who lived under the threat of the bomb. Though it has ended, its shadow on American politics lingers to the present day.
US foreign policy in the interwar years was dominated by two principles: the Monroe doctrine, which indicated that the United States had a sphere of influence over the Americas that no other country could influence, and a significant policy of isolationism on the international stage. This was not complete isolationism, as the United States still had significant trading partners, but military isolationism was relatively extreme. Examples of this isolationism include America’s failure to join the League of Nations, which doomed the enterprise from the start. It was understandable that the United States wanted to be so isolationist, considering the history of European squabbles that could so easily engulf the young country if it were to get involved.
The Civil Rights movement was a movement, led by Black people from the South of the United States, to end oppression based on race and to gain basic liberties enjoyed by people of other races. Its roots can be traced back to the civil war, after which it was officially illegal to bar people from voting on the basis of race. Many Southern States, however, put together a series of laws and acts of intimidation that still prevented blacks from enjoying equal rights and protections. Lynching still occurred, it was still illegal for a black person and a white person to marry in many states, and Jim Crow segregation, forcing black people to eat at different parts of restaurants, theatres, use different entrances and ride on different parts of the bus were all in full swing. To combat this, American leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. organized (usually) non-violent protests against the oppression, such as sit-ins, marches and so forth. The movement had a number of white supporters, but they took a back seat to black leaders on these issues. This movement achieved a major victory with the passing of the civil rights bill.
In the 1960s and 70s there were many groups that protested their oppression, but the most prominent were groups focusing on racial and gendered oppression. In this era black people and women consistently still had more limited earning potential than anyone else in the country, less access to education, and less access to jobs once they completed their education, along with being faced with huge amounts of stereotyping and other forms of social oppression throughout life. This led to groups who sought to fight back in a variety of ways. These included highly organized groups, such as the Black Panthers, who sought to resist racism though armed resistance, to less organized feminist groups on university campuses who none-the-less were active in fighting oppression.
The United States suffered significant social, political and economic decline in the 1970s. These occurred on several fronts: the United States faced a bloody and costly disgrace by losing the Vietnam War, and eventually abandoning that mission. Richard Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal, further hurting America’ perception of its political leaders. In 1973 the United States got a first taste of its dependence on foreign oil when the OPEC countries ceased exports in a power play, and in the late 1970s another energy emergency occurred. All of this was further worsened by the fact that the United States was undergoing a slow economic decline, with high inflation driving down values of savings and houses, and costs spiraling upwards. Finally, the American manufacturing industry lost a great deal of ground in this decade, further worsening America’s economic position.
Chafe, W (2003). The Rise and Fall of the American Century. New York: Oxford UP.