USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Introduction to United States from the First World War to the Great Depression

World War I represented a turning point in the history of the United States. For sure, the United States had been growing in power and influence throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century and in the first decade and a half of the twentieth, but it was only at the end of the war that the United States could claim the status of first among nations in terms of military and economic power. In some sense, this great power status should not come as a surprise. The United States had been gaining ground on the European powers since its independence in 1776 and especially since the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865. The next phase of American history witnessed the following important trends:

1) Nationalism: An increased sense of American nationalism based on the construction of a common American cultural identity. This was largely a product of the dramatically expanded state educational sphere and the assertion of American power abroad. American nationalism connected to issues of race, leading to the continuation of ideas about white nationalism that carried over both from the institutions and culture of southern slavery (reconstituted as Jim Crow) and from the racist ideology that permeated the north.

2) Economic growth: A rapid expansion of the American economy, industrially, financially, and agriculturally occurred in the United States from the Civil War to WWI. This expansion moved the United States from one of the world’s largest economies to far and away largest and most productive national economy in the world, far outpacing both Great Britain and Germany, its closest rivals. With this massive economic growth, however, came increased concentration of capital and growing tensions between the capitalist and managerial classes on the one hand and the laboring classes on the other. In addition, as with national, economic growth and the concentration of wealth had stark racial dynamics.

3) Imperialism: The years around the turn of the century witnessed the assertion of American power abroad. This was the era of Teddy Roosevelt and American imperialist expansion in Latin American and Asia. This “imperialism” did not always take a direct military form. More often, it was economic imperialism, as in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

4) Immigration: a massive wave of immigration hit the United States in the decades after the Civil War, bringing millions of new (working age) people into the country. This immigration was a critical piece of the American puzzle. Without it, economic expansion to the degree that the United States experienced would not have been impossible. Without new, cheap sources of labor, wages would have risen quickly, putting a check on industrial production. The great infrastructural projects, like the building of the world’s largest railway system, would not have been possible had not the U.S. labor force been given such a powerful re-enforcement.

5) Progressivism: the birth of U.S. progressive movement was in many ways a direct result of the huge social changes brought about by the triple forces of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. People, especially the growing middle class, realized that without changes to the social fabric, large-scale social problems would threaten the entire country. As a result, organizations (mostly non-governmental) were created to advocate for certain causes: prohibition, workers’ rights, women’s rights, food safety, urban renewal, poverty relief, education reform, and minority rights. Progressive reformers were motivated by many different sets of ideals, whether they be religious, communist, anarchist, or scientific.

6) Racial Terror: In the years after the U.S. Civil War and lasting through the 1930s (and up to this very day) the structures of slavery were replaced by regimes of white terror, which systematically oppressed black communities in the United States through socioeconomic, political, cultural, and violent means. At the same time, the black communities in the country were constantly pushing back against racist power structures with legal movements like the founding of the NAACP, cultural movements like the Harlem Renaissance, educational movements like the founding of black colleges and universities, and political movements that fought for economic and political rights. W.E.B. Dubois got it right when he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line."

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