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The United States - Historical Background

As new states and territories were added, a continual question arose as to whether these new areas would be "slave states" or not. The southern sections of the country backed slavery while most northern states repudiated it. In 1850, the "Great Compromise" established guidelines for the establishment of slavery in new territories. Far from being a compromise solution, the guidelines only caused more confusion and resentment. Northern abolitionists saw slavery as a moral issue while southern slave owners (only 4 percent of the south's population) saw it as an economic issue since cheap labor made plantations feasible. The north wanted a "federal" solution while the south held fast to "states' rights" as a defense. Fiery debates in Congress and limited skirmishes would soon give way to full-scale civil war.

In April of 1861, one month after Lincoln took office as president, South Carolinian troops fired on a federal installation in Charleston harbor. This act of violence came in the wake of earlier acts of secession by the southern states begun back in December of 1860. Eleven states, now called the Confederate States of America, declared war on the much more populous and industrialized North. The Civil War was bitterly fought and over 500,000 Americans died in the struggle. The confederates were not only defeated but the whole of the south was laid waste. While the north had fought against slavery, the south, where over 90 percent of the forces did not even own slaves, fought for its very existence.

Slaves had been "emancipated" by executive order in 1863, and in 1865 an amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery in the United States. The postwar years, known as the Reconstruction, saw the assassination of Lincoln and the rise of industrialism. Manufacturing techniques honed by the necessities of war were now turned to commercial purposes. Inventions like the telephone, the electric light, barbed wire, the phonograph, and the skyscraper all made the end of the 19th century prosperous for the United States. They also presaged its emergence as a world power.

In 1898, the U.S. defeated Spain in a war fought over Spain's rule in Cuba, just off the Florida coast. Part of the fruits of victory were the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Almost overnight, the United States found itself with far-flung colonies and economic interests. When Teddy Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901, he looked toward further expansion (Panama Canal, Dominican Republic). He set about fully establishing the United States as the dominant power in North and South America. His actions and the earlier statement of the Monroe Doctrine let it be known that, within this hemisphere, nothing would happen without U.S. approval.

As Europe rushed toward war in 1914, the U.S. remained isolated, intent on expanding its already massive industrial base. Unable to prevent its commerce from being affected by German submarine attacks, the Americans entered the war in 1917. The combination of America's fresh, plentiful manpower and a seemingly bottomless industrial sector gave the Allies the ability to finally end the costly stalemate the war had become. With Germany and her allies defeated, the U.S. president Woodrow Wilson now attempted to exert political and diplomatic power to bring about an amiable peace. Although he did manage to get the League of Nations started, most of his other plans were shelved and Europe began a slow walk toward its next conflict.

The prosperity of the postwar years (The Roaring Twenties) soon gave way to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Germany, still seething from the humiliation pressed upon it at the end of World War I, now rearmed under Hitler. The 1939 attack on Poland that ignited World War II found the U.S. once again willing to sit on the sidelines and willing to sell goods to whoever had the money. Though begged by Britain repeatedly to assist, the U.S. did not actively become engaged in the war until the end of 1941 when its navy was attacked by the German ally, Japan.

Once again, America's industrial might and technological superiority allowed the Allied Powers to win. The advent of atomic weapons and their use by the U.S. against Japan brought a dramatic end to a truly global conflict. At war's end, the United States found itself to be the only functioning major economy in the world. This time, with no allies strong enough to deter it, the United States set about to rebuild friend and foe alike. Japan, Germany, the U.S.S.R., France, Great Britain, and a host of other countries received massive amounts of financial and technological aid. Soon, however, the Soviets acquired atomic weapons and the American monopoly on power ceased. The communists and the capitalists of the world now split into very separate camps to wage the "Cold War" of ideological sparring and proxy conflicts among the lesser powers.

First in Korea and then in Vietnam, the United States lead multinational forces to fight off communist expansion. Korea was fought to a stalemate, while in Vietnam the U.S. suffered a political, if not a military, defeat in 1975. Several smaller conflicts brought in direct American involvement in the 1970s and 1980s but mostly Washington just "supported" other nations and "freedom fighters" in a variety of anti-totalitarian struggles.

When communism and the Soviet Union began to crumble in the early 1990s, America soon found itself once again alone in the role of "superpower" on the world stage. In 1991, having assembled another, but more massive, allied force, the U.S. waged the Gulf War to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait and to secure the world's oil supplies. With "free markets" as the rallying cry for a New World Order, America was poised for an economic breakthrough.

In the 1980s, the U.S. had been chastised for its stalled economy and "outmoded" systems. According to critics, Japan was to be the new economic leader. By the 21st century, the U.S. could hope to be only a distant rival to the Pacific Economies. Instead the Japanese economy tanked in the early 1990s while U.S. companies revamped, retuned, and refueled their businesses. The U.S. economy blossomed as never before and the world of Internet, e-commerce, stock options, instant billionaires, and corporate casual became the new role model for the rest of the world. Still firmly atop the political and economic leadership pile, the U.S. is attempting to be both world policeman and global banker simultaneously. Barring major changes, the Pacific Century seems another century away.

Much of the "dot com" boom collapsed in 2000, putting a damper on the U.S. and the global economy. In 2001 the terrorist attack on U.S. cast further doubts but Washington responded quickly and decisively on the domestic front to qualm fears. The ensuing invasion of Afghanistan led by the U.S. did much to calm global concerns over terrorist anarchy. In 2003, the U.S., along with British assistance, invaded Iraq without U.N. support. This set off international concerns about American unilateralism and U.N. functionality that may take decades to resolve.


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