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The United States from the World War II to the 1990s Essay

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Updated: Aug 11th, 2021

After the end of World War II, the United States dusted off the devastation brought about by the annihilation of war. Despite the triumphs achieved during the war, fear rolled down among countries as they realized the irreparable dangers of the Nuclear Age, where an atomic bomb fallout could spell a grim future for everyone. However, we all now know that the events that transpired between the World War II to the 1990s had been instrumental to pave the way for a peaceful future that we enjoy today. From the economic boom enjoyed in the 1950s, to the rise of civil rights movement in the 1960s, to the concern about the Vietnam War in 1970s, to the end of the Cold War in the 1980s and the emergence of globalization in 1990s, all of these major events have etched their mark in each decade to spell what we call the rise of the modern American civilization. Although gargantuan threats are still ominous to this very day, the lessons learned during 1950s to the 1990s have been essential to promote defense policies as well as prioritizing humanitarian causes that are beneficial for the greater good of Americans and people from the rest of the world.

WWII to 1950s – The Spark of the Cold War

After the World War II, the United States and the former U.S.S.R. became two of the world’s superpower. With each having entirely different ideological missions (capitalist democracy versus communism), U.S. and U.S.S.R. greatly influenced their own network of alliances and each maintained deadly arsenal of nuclear weapons. This silent collision of interests divided Europe, with massive military forces of the United States and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies on one side and massive forces of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies on the other. Germany itself was split, with three-quarters of the country—and three-quarters of the capital city of Berlin—occupied by the United States, Britain, and France. The remainder, surrounding West Berlin, was occupied by the Soviet Union. Crises in Berlin in 1947-1948 led to armed confrontations but not war. In 1961, the Cold War became more imminent as East Germany built the Berlin Wall separating East from West Berlin. It symbolized the division of Europe by what Winston Churchill had called the “iron curtain” (Gaddis, 1997).

At the center of the U.S. interest during the Cold War was that the Soviet Union might gain control of Western Europe — either through outright invasion or through communists’ taking power in the hapless countries of Western Europe after the war. Many Americans came to think “that desperate, war-weary peoples would find the appeal of communism irresistible”. There were widespread suspicions that Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin “intended to extend the Soviet Union’s dominion, only the United States had the economic and military might to block him” (Davidson et al., 2002). Davidson et al. (2002) also confirmed that the events in 1945 and 1946 convinced most Americans that Stalin might have hatched such plans that the Truman administration came into the conclusion that “the USSR has engaged the United States in a struggle for power, or ‘cold war’, in which our national security is at stake and from which we cannot withdraw short of national suicide.”

Also related to the spark of the Cold War was the formulation of the U.S. defense policy. In 1949, the USSR had exploded an atomic device, only four years after the USA had used them to end the war in the Pacific. Then in 1954, USSR maintained a full-scale nuclear weapon. Before 1954, the US defense policy had not fully adapted to the implications of nuclear warfare. Operational plans up to the mid-1950s treated nuclear weapons merely as very big conventional bombs, and the plans were based on all out strategic bombardment of the USSR by the combined US armed forces. No retaliation that could not be controlled by conventional air defenses was anticipated. While the USA would not willingly use these weapons, it was not realized that they could not safely be used. In this regard, the events that transpired from World War II to the 1950s are critical to the creation of a containment policy, nuclear disarmament treaties in the following decades and the eventual end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

1960s – Onwards to Civil Rights Movement

As the United States enjoyed quite an improvement in economy during the 1950s,a turmoil in its social arena had been the main focus in the 1960s era. Fact is that the civil rights movement was triggered by the Montgomery bus incident in 1955. Mrs. Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. Mrs. Parks was arrested and subsequently, she was bailed out of jail by E. D. Nixon, the Montgomery representative of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Later that evening, Nixon was struck with the idea of having Montgomery’s black citizens boycott the city’s segregated bus system.

According to Loevy (1990), the major accomplishment of the Montgomery bus boycott was that it turned a non-violent demonstration for racial integration into a national news story. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was elected to lead the bus boycott. Montgomery’s forty thousand blacks stayed off the city buses for more than a year, vowing not to return until the buses were totally desegregated (p. 22). The emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the mid-1950s was a key event in the escalating fight for civil rights. Through the experience gained during the Montgomery bus boycott, King learned that the northern and western United States were most likely to press for civil rights reform when a dramatic instance of racial segregation was presented on the news media, particularly television (Branch, 1988).

Two of the massive racial protests in the 1960s brought about by the Montgomery bus incident in produced major civil rights bills. The impetus for Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which banned racial discrimination in public places) occurred following brutal white suppression of racial demonstrations led by Dr. King in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963. An equally brutal reaction to a voting rights march led by King in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 produced the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in which gave the U.S. Government the power to register blacks to vote in southern states (Loevy,1990).

It was President Lyndon Johnson had worked assiduously for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Only months after its adoption he added muscle to the demand for nondiscrimination by issuing Executive Order 11246. The racism that had infected federal employment (and also the work forces of private firms with which the federal government did business) was no longer to be tolerated. The words of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave specificity and concreteness to the constitutional guarantee of “the equal protection of the laws.” In employment, in education, in all spheres of public accommodation, there was to be from that time forward no official favoritism for one race or ethnic group at the expense of others. The intentions of the members of the Congress in adopting this law were clearly and emphatically expressed (Cohen & Sterba, 2003, p. 10). This is why, to this very day, that American society learned to frown upon all sorts of racial preference and discrimination.

1970s – Vietnam Consequence

When more than half a million American troops were sent to intervene in Vietnam’s civil war, there was a widespread dissent in United States and campaigns were outright to denounce the US government’s military campaigns in Southeast Asia. Though war is a decision that is entered into by governments, public opinion plays a significant role in its execution. By 1971, the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam had surpassed 50,000, and antiwar sentiment became very strong. As war was occurring in Vietnam, bloody protests sparked also sparked in the United States.

Vietnam War was a relatively young man’s war, with the average age of soldiers serving in Vietnam was 19 (Davidson et al., 2002). The wages of death and survival of these soldiers are also complicated. In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), he featured his experiences in the Vietnam War and how he struggled to fight the feeling of isolation after returning home from the war. Instead of forgetting the occurrences during the Vietnam War, O’Brien faced to confront the ghosts of his terrible experiences during the war. His life is caught up in the web of his past experiences as he seeks solace to get rid of his unfavorable traumas that haunt him after the extreme experiences he encountered in Vietnam. He still feels the chaos even it is thirty years later. He wanted to get rid of denial, but his memory of the terrible experiences still traumatizes him greatly.

Because of the war, US also suffered poverty because war’s annual cost soared to more than $50 billion a year as it fueled a rising inflation. This is why in 1973, the Congress passed the War Powers Act, which required the president to consult with Congress about military action and prohibited spending in Southeast Asia for more U.S. military action. Coupled with congressional cuts in aid to South Vietnam, the president’s war powers were severely limited (Walsh, 2007). Many people felt that the involvement of Americans in the Vietnam War was a losing battle both in the battleground and at home. In the 11 years of the US involvement in Vietnam, it did not only bring humiliation to the US as it failed to gain control of a small nation but also it brought a tremendous detriment in social and economic costs in its very homeland.

1980s – Cold War Fizzles Out

The silent conflict of United States and Soviet Union finally eased out in the 1980s. With the democratic reform that swept across Eastern Europe, this ended the four decades of communist rule and Soviet domination of the region. Germans, divided since World War II, dismantled the Berlin Wall, which long had been the symbol of Soviet-American confrontation and reunified their country. Nationalist groups within the Soviet Union demanded greater autonomy and Premier Mikhail Gorbachev desperately worked to reform a disintegrating economy and to hold the Soviet state together. With the Soviet Union no longer a threat, Americans felt less a sense of triumph than an uncertainty about the role of the United States in a less predictable and perhaps less stable world (Hess 2001, p. 153). The United States and Russia initiated to end the Cold War and agreed to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. In 1991, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (or START) concluded and surpassed the limits negotiated in earlier SALT talks. By June 1992 US President Bush and Russia’s Boris Yeltsin had agreed to even sharper cuts.

However, American foreign policy had been defined by the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its communist allies. Not just America’s relations with the rest of the world, but also its domestic political and social life were shaped by the overriding national imperative of containing the expansion of communism. But the end of the Cold War made it more difficult to articulate what exactly constituted the American national interest. With the terrorist attacks of September 2001, Singh (2003) argued that a new era was ushered into being, although most of the contours of US policy were in fact unchanged by the tragedy. Not least, the fundamental predicament for America since 1945 – whether to accept a role as global policeman while being castigated abroad as a global bully remained inescapable (p. 263).

1990s – Globalization

The trend of globalization has become one of the most critical factors that determine the path for changes that occur in many economies worldwide in the 1990s. It had triggered enormous changes in various sectors in society and had pressured everyone to ride the waves of change that globalization has brought about. As a concept, McGrew (1992) captured the complexity of the current view of globalization in a concise and balanced way. He defined globalization as “the multiplicity of linkages and interconnections between the states and societies which make up the modern world system… it describes the process by which events, decisions, and activities in one part of the world can come to have significant consequences for individuals and communities in quite distant parts of the globe” (p. 23).

United States entered into several trade agreements to ease out doing business around the world, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Also, US became more intertwined to a global community via the Internet. The rise of the Internet also built new economies and opportunities. The revolution in microchip technologies contributed substantially to the economic expansion of the 1990s. In 1998, e-commerce alone generated some 482,000 jobs (Davidson et al., 2002).

However, globalization is not without criticism. Lobeda (2006) argued that the growth theory in globalization failed to take into account distribution of wealth and income. For instance, economists point to a 22.2 percent growth in average household worth in the United States from 1983 to 1998. Yet the number of homeless people increased, more and more people were unable to obtain healthcare, and many citizens experienced severe economic insecurity and job loss. The growth indicators don’t spell out that the wealthiest one percent experienced skyrocketing increases in income, while middle- and lower-income families saw their incomes shrink. So while the average household wealth increased, the median household net worth decreased by 10 percent in the same period.


Clearly, the era of post World War II to the 1990s had been very colorful that it is full of triumphs and failures. Triumphs because of all the achievements gained within this period that led to improve American society as a whole. Failures, on the other hand, will remain as lessons learned to never be repeated again in the future. What lies ahead might be threatening, because of the rise of technology, terrorism and other new innovations that might have an impact in our future. But, with a renewed thought as one nation of multicultural origins, American people will stand against any force as United States as nation had been strengthened by its recent experiences.


Branch, T. (1988). Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Cohen, C., & Sterba, J. P. (2003). Affirmative Action and Racial Preference: A Debate. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gaddis, J.L. (1997). We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lobeda, C.M. (2006). Globalization Is Harmful to Society. In L.I. Gerdes (ed.), Globalization. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.

Loevy, R.D. (1990). To End All Segregation: The Politics of the Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.

McGrew, A.G. 91992). Conceptualizing Global Politics. In A.G. McGrew, and P.G. Lewis (eds), Global Politics: Globalization and the Nation-State. Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 1-28.

O’Brien, T. (1990). The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books.

Singh, R. (2003). American Government and Politics : A Concise Introduction.London: Sage Publications, Incorporated, 2003.

Walsh, K.T. (2007, May 14). Echoes From an Earlier Conflict. U.S. News & World Report. 142(17): 47-49.

West, J., Davidson, W.F. Gienapp, C.L., Heyrman, M.L., and Stoff, M.B. (2002). Nation of Nations: A Concise Narrative of the American Republic – Vol. 2, 3rd ed. NY: The McGraw-Hill Companies.

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