Study questions for 9 May: Group 2

The Cultural History of the English-Speaking World
Study Questions for 9 May 2020
Laura Aalto-Setälä, Annika Huuskonen, Päivi Hyyryläinen, Heini Kilpi, Marjo Lehtinen and Outi Vesalainen
During this session we’ll concentrate on the United States in the 20th century.
- What is the New Deal, and why did it come about?

The New Deal was preceded by an economic crash, which happened in 1929. Banks were failing around the world, trade collapsed and the world entered an era of deflation. The national unemployment rate rose rapidly in 1930s, which caused hunger demonstrations and violent protests in major cities. The political atmosphere was tense and there were fears that a dictatorship might emerge from the growing chaos.  (Jenkins 2017, 164-166.)

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected as the president of United States. He began to take political and economic actions to improve the chaotic financial situation. The congress made enormous reforms during the “hundred days”, which is also called the New Deal. The first step was to rescue the financial system, which brought an Emergency Banking Relief Act and a Home Owners Loan Corporation to provide a longer-term security due to “bank holiday”. Another massive task was to deal the problem with unemployment and poverty. There were established countless of regulatory and supervisory agencies to provide employment. For example, there were a Federal Emergency Relief Act and a National Industrial Recovery Act to get people back to work. Huge investments were put in buildings, roads, bridges and infrastructure.  (Jenkins 2017, 167-168.)

The New Deal can be seen both, as a reform package and as a social and administrative revolution. The reforms made ran contrary to received role of government in American national life, especially in areas such as the power of the federal government and the sharing of responsibilities between Washington and the states. The New Deal laboured the national insurance programme known as Social Security and gave American workers the legal rights to organise and bargain collectively. In addition, the economic effects of the financial reforms were twofold. On the other hand, people got possession of material goods such as cars and telephones. GNP per capita rose from $615 in 1933 to $954 by 1940. On the contrary, the federal debt almost doubled from 1933 to 1939. (Jenkins 2017, 168-170.) 

The years between 1920 and 1945 changed America due the 1930s New Deal and actions. US changed from a provincial society with minimal foreign affairs to a great power with its new domestic affairs. These years shaped America towards a modern and global state. (Boyer 2012, 90.)

Boyer: American History
Jenkins: The history of the United States 

- How did the United States contribute to the Second World War? Why did the country join the war relatively late?

September 1939 was the beginning of a war between only three major European powers: Britain, France and Germany. They were followed in June 1940 by Italy, in June 1941 by Russia, and in December 1941 by Japan and the USA – though the conflict as a whole had actually began in July 1937 with war between China and Japan. 

The outbreak of full-scale conflict between Japan and China in July 1937 had little to do with the USA and its people. Neither did Germany’s pre-war actions in the 1930s. Even Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, and the declaration of war by Britain and France seemed to have little relevance to the USA. President Franklin D Roosevelt made a speech in Chicago in October 1937, when he called for the quarantine of aggressive and warlike countries, and he also publicly condemned the nature of the Nazi government in Germany. The Americans did not want America to become entangled with foreign countries and wars overseas. The slow recovery from the Great Depression, with continuing high unemployment and farm problems, seemed to demand a concentration of effort on recovery at home rather than adventures abroad.

Hitler’s armed forces unexpectedly won quick victories, knocking France out of the war. The Third Reich took control of western and central Europe; Mussolini’s Italy opened a new front against Britain in the Mediterranean. All this threatened, perhaps in a few months, to defeat the surviving Ally. Now it seemed that unless help was provided America might have to deal on its own with a German-dominated Europe. France, the Netherlands and Britain had colonies in the southeast Asia. Military resources had to be concentrated in Europe and the Mediterranean and the colonies were left without proper protection. In late September 1940 Japan sent troops into the northern French Indochina. In the second half of 1940 the US became a support for Britain, and it grew greatly in importance as a factor in world affairs. In September 1940 Germany and neutral Japan, along with Italy, signed the Tripartite Pact.

Anti-war sentiment in the United States was quite overwhelming, with a widespread sense that US involvement in the First World War had been disastrous and costly, all to benefit ungrateful allies who had largely reneged on their immense debts. Between 1939 and 1941 Roosevelt had to pursue a careful strategy, repeatedly denying that he sought foreign entanglement, while providing the British and French with as much aid and support as could be given without creating a public scandal (Jenkins 2007: 209-210). 

Roosevelt moved cautiously; there would be a Presidential election in November 1940, and as he was running for an unprecedented third term it could be an uphill fight. He pledged to keep the US out of direct involvement in the war. In September 1940 Roosevelt had provided 50 obsolete American destroyers to Britain. In the winter of 1940–41 he declared that America would be an “Arsenal of Democracy”, and he succeeded by March 1941 in putting through Congress Lend-Lease legislation, providing arms to Britain without direct payment. In August Roosevelt and Churchill staged a spectacular summit aboard warships off Newfoundland; they issued the Atlantic charter, a joint declaration opposing acts of international aggression and openly condemning Hitler and Nazism. From September the president ordered that the US Navy began escorting British convoys.To deter Japan from occupying more Asian territory or entering the war on Germany’s side, Washington made use of powerful economic sanctions. In July 1941 the Japanese moved military forces into southern Indochina, and in response Washington froze Japanese assets and, along with the British and Dutch, cut off oil exports to Japan. Negotiations in Washington with Japanese diplomats continued, but in the end civilian and military leaders in Tokyo decided to seize direct control of British and Dutch resources in southeast Asia, especially the oil. Japan decided to mount pre-emptive attacks, against both the Philippines and the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

The neutral USA entered World War II when a Japanese fleet launched a big surprise air raid against its Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu Hawaii on 7 December 1941. After the U.S. declared war on Japan, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S.

By the end of the war, more than 12 million American soldiers had joined or were drafted into the military. The end of the war would send the U.S. into a Cold War due to concessions made to the Russians in exchange for their aid in defeating the Japanese. Communist Russia and the United States would be at odds with each other until the downfall of the USSR in 1989.

America and WW2: when, how and why did the US get involved, and why they didn’t enter sooner? (2019) History Extra. The official website for BBC History Magazine. Retrieved from: 3.5.2020

Jenkins, Philip. A History of the United States. Palgrave MacMillan 2007.

Kelly, M. (2019) America and World War II. ThoughtCo. Retrieved from: 3.5.2020

- What was the country like under the Reagan administration? 

The 1980s in the US was a decade of greater hostility to government intervention, labour organising and social welfare; it showed more sympathy for the concerns of the religious Right and commitment to the defence and aerospace industries. Southern voters found the conservative New Right and its expression in the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan. New politics was based on “God and Country, Flag and Family”. Reagan was elected twice as a president of the USA, in 1980 and 1984.

In the Reagan era, the country moved into the information age with firms like IBM, Apple and Microsoft. The stock market boomed and the employment figures seemed good. The truth was though, because many of these jobs were low-paid service positions and often lacking the permanence, that the official unemployment rate rose to almost 10 per cent in 1982-1983. 

Country’s foreign policy during the Reagan era was mainly focused on problems caused by the Soviet Union and its puppets all over the world. The USA assisted militant anti-communist forces around the world; for example in Angola, Cambodia and Afghanistan. Because of this development, the US Defence Department budget rose from $136 billion in 1980 to $244 billion in 1985. At the same time, from 1980 to 1985, the total public debt doubled and in 1987 USA recorded expenditures in excess of $1 trillion.

Money was also being spent on a new generation of nuclear missiles and weapons. On top of that, Reagan announced the start of a programme of space-based missile defence which caused panic among the Soviet leaders. The programme was referred to as “Star Wars” since the technological development of the missiles seemed so incredible. Over the course of 10 years, the government spent up to $30 billion on developing the concept. Confrontations took place also closer to home in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala. The Reagan government helped to support military establishments in many Central American and Caribbean countries. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in those wars.

The Reagan administration wanted to challenge Communism also in the Middle East. This intervention with fundamentalist Islamic forces, which started originally as a sideshow in the larger east-west struggle, would develop into something much more serious in the later years.

In November 1986 a scandal called the Iran-Contra Affair came to light which originated from the Reagan administration illegally having being sold weapons to Iran to release some American hostages in Lebanon. Some of that money was diverted to fund the Contras in Nicaragua, which were breaking the fundamental human rights in their country. Despite of this scandal, Reagan managed to end his term on schedule avoiding the political meltdown. 

It is hard to assess the legacy the Reagan administration left. On the one hand, they took full credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the other, the world won’t ever know, what would have happened if the US had maintained a more passive role in the relations with the Communist world. What the Reagan era did though was to reduce the nervousness of the Americans about overseas commitments and military interventions. The effect, which has made the USA the military superpower it still is today.

Source: Jenkins: The history of the United States p.216-219, 221


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