Dissatisfaction on the part of the growing middle class with the corruption and inefficiency of politics as usual, and the failure to deal with increasingly important urban and industrial problems, led to the dynamic Progressive Movement starting in the 1890s. In every major city and state, and at the national level as well, and in education, medicine, and industry, the progressives called for the modernization and reform of decrepit institutions, the elimination of corruption in politics, and the introduction of efficiency as a criterion for change. Leading politicians from both parties, most notably Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Evans Hughes, and Robert LaFollette on the Republican side, and William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson on the Democratic side, took up the cause of progressive reform. Women became especially involved in demands for woman suffrage, prohibition, and better schools; their most prominent leader was Jane Addams of Chicago. “Muckraking” journalists such as Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Jacob Riis exposed corruption in business and government along with rampant inner city poverty. Progressives implemented anti-trust laws and regulated such industries of meat-packing, drugs, and railroads. Four new constitutional amendments – the Sixteenth through Nineteenth – resulted from progressive activism, bringing the federal income tax, direct election of Senators, prohibition, and woman suffrage. The Progressive Movement lasted through the 1920s; the most active period was 1900–18.
Main article: Progressive Era
The United States emerged as a world economic and military power after 1890. The main episode was the Spanish–American War, which began when Spain refused American demands to reform its oppressive policies in Cuba. The “splendid little war”, as one official called it, involved a series of quick American victories on land and at sea. At the Treaty of Paris peace conference the United States acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
Cuba became an independent country, under close American tutelage. Although the war itself was widely popular, the peace terms proved controversial. William Jennings Bryan led his Democratic Party in opposition to control of the Philippines, which he denounced as imperialism unbecoming to American democracy. President William McKinley defended the acquisition and was riding high as the nation had returned to prosperity and felt triumphant in the war. McKinley easily defeated Bryan in a rematch in the 1900 presidential election.
After defeating an insurrection by Filipino nationalists, the United States engaged in a large-scale program to modernize the economy of the Philippines and dramatically upgrade the public health facilities. By 1908, however, Americans lost interest in an empire and turned their international attention to the Caribbean, especially the building of the Panama Canal. In 1912 when Arizona became the final mainland state, the American Frontier came to an end. The canal opened in 1914 and increased trade with Japan and the rest of the Far East. A key innovation was the Open Door Policy, whereby the imperial powers were given equal access to Chinese business, with not one of them allowed to take control of China.
Further information: American imperialism
World War I
As World War I raged in Europe from 1914, President Woodrow Wilson took full control of foreign policy, declaring neutrality but warning Germany that resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare against American ships supplying goods to Allied nations would mean war. Germany decided to take the risk and try to win by cutting off supplies to Britain; the U.S. declared war in April 1917. American money, food, and munitions arrived quickly, but troops had to be drafted and trained; by summer 1918 American soldiers under General John J. Pershing arrived at the rate of 10,000 a day, while Germany was unable to replace its losses.
The result was Allied victory in November 1918. President Wilson demanded Germany depose the Kaiser and accept his terms, the Fourteen Points. Wilson dominated the 1919 Paris Peace Conference but Germany was treated harshly by the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles (1919) as Wilson put all his hopes in the new League of Nations. Wilson refused to compromise with Senate Republicans over the issue of Congressional power to declare war, and the Senate rejected the Treaty and the League.
The women’s suffrage movement began with the June 1848 National Convention of the Liberty Party. Presidential candidate Gerrit Smith argued for and established women’s suffrage as a party plank. One month later, his cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton joined with Lucretia Mott and other women to organize the Seneca Falls Convention, featuring the Declaration of Sentiments demanding equal rights for women, and the right to vote. Many of these activists became politically aware during the abolitionist movement. The women’s rights campaign during “first-wave feminism” was led by Stanton, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony, among many others. Stone and Paulina Wright Davis organized the prominent and influential National Women’s Rights Convention in 1850. The movement reorganized after the Civil War, gaining experienced campaigners, many of whom had worked for prohibition in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. By the end of the 19th century a few western states had granted women full voting rights, though women had made significant legal victories, gaining rights in areas such as property and child custody.
Around 1912 the feminist movement, which had grown sluggish, began to reawaken, putting an emphasis on its demands for equality and arguing that the corruption of American politics demanded purification by women because men could not do that job. Protests became increasingly common as suffragette Alice Paul led parades through the capital and major cities. Paul split from the large National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which favored a more moderate approach and supported the Democratic Party and Woodrow Wilson, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, and formed the more militant National Woman’s Party. Suffragists were arrested during their “Silent Sentinels” pickets at the White House, the first time such a tactic was used, and were taken as political prisoners.
The old anti-suffragist argument that only men could fight a war, and therefore only men deserve the right to vote, was refuted by the enthusiastic participation of tens of thousands of American women on the home front in World War I. Across the world, grateful nations gave women the right to vote. Furthermore, most of the Western states had already given the women the right to vote in state and national elections, and the representatives from those states, including the first woman Jeannette Rankin of Montana, demonstrated that woman suffrage was a success. The main resistance came from the south, where white leaders were worried about the threat of black women voting. Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919, and women could vote in 1920.
NAWSA became the League of Women Voters, and the National Woman’s Party began lobbying for full equality and the Equal Rights Amendment, which would pass Congress during the second wave of the women’s movement in 1972. Politicians responded to the new electorate by emphasizing issues of special interest to women, especially prohibition, child health, and world peace. The main surge of women voting came in 1928, when the big-city machines realized they needed the support of women to elect Al Smith, a Catholic from New York City. Meanwhile, Protestants mobilized women to support Prohibition and vote for Republican Herbert Hoover.
Further information: Women’s suffrage in the United States
Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression
In the 1920s the U.S. grew steadily in stature as an economic and military world power. The United States Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles imposed by its Allies on the defeated Central Powers; instead, the United States chose to pursue unilateralism. The aftershock of Russia’s October Revolution resulted in real fears of Communism in the United States, leading to a Red Scare and the deportation of aliens considered subversive.
While public health facilities grew rapidly in the Progressive Era, and hospitals and medical schools were modernized, the nation in 1918 lost 675,000 lives to the Spanish flu pandemic.
In 1920, the manufacture, sale, import and export of alcohol were prohibited by the Eighteenth Amendment, Prohibition. The result was that in cities illegal alcohol became a big business, largely controlled by racketeers. The second Ku Klux Klan grew rapidly in 1922-25, then collapsed. Immigration laws were passed to strictly limit the number of new entries. The 1920s were called the Roaring Twenties due to the great economic prosperity during this period. Jazz became popular among the younger generation, and thus the decade was also called the Jazz Age.
The Great Depression (1929–39) and the New Deal (1933–36) were decisive moments in American political, economic, and social history that reshaped the nation.
During the 1920s, the nation enjoyed widespread prosperity, albeit with a weakness in agriculture. A financial bubble was fueled by an inflated stock market, which later led to the Stock Market Crash on October 29, 1929. This, along with many other economic factors, triggered a worldwide depression known as the Great Depression. During this time, the United States experienced deflation as prices fell, unemployment soared from 3% in 1929 to 25% in 1933, farm prices fell by half, and manufacturing output plunged by one-third.
In 1932, Democratic presidential nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt promised “a New Deal for the American people”, coining the enduring label for his domestic policies. The desperate economic situation, along with the substantial Democratic victories in the 1932 elections, gave Roosevelt unusual influence over Congress in the “First Hundred Days” of his administration. He used his leverage to win rapid passage of a series of measures to create welfare programs and regulate the banking system, stock market, industry, and agriculture, along with many other government efforts to end the Great Depression and reform the American economy. The New Deal regulated much of the economy, especially the financial sector. It provided relief to the unemployed through numerous programs, such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and (for young men) the Civilian Conservation Corps. Large scale spending projects designed to provide high paying jobs and rebuild the infrastructure were under the purview of the Public Works Administration. Roosevelt turned left in 1935–36, building up labor unions through the Wagner Act. Unions became a powerful element of the merging New Deal Coalition, which won reelection for Roosevelt in 1936, 1940, and 1944 by mobilizing union members, blue collar workers, relief recipients, big city machines, ethnic, and religious groups (especially Catholics and Jews) and the white South, along with blacks in the North (where they could vote). Some of the programs were dropped in the 1940s when the conservatives regained power in Congress through the Conservative Coalition. Of special importance is the Social Security program, begun in 1935.
World War II
In the Depression years, the United States remained focused on domestic concerns while democracy declined across the world and many countries fell under the control of dictators. Imperial Japan asserted dominance in East Asia and in the Pacific. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy militarized too and threatened conquests, while Britain and France attempted appeasement to avert another war in Europe. US legislation in the Neutrality Acts sought to avoid foreign conflicts; however, policy clashed with increasing anti-Nazi feelings following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 that started World War II. Roosevelt positioned the US as the “Arsenal of Democracy“, pledging full-scale financial and munitions support for the Allies – but no military personnel. Japan tried to neutralize America’s power in the Pacific by attacking Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which catalyzed American support to enter the war and seek revenge.
The main contributions of the US to the Allied war effort comprised money, industrial output, food, petroleum, technological innovation, and (especially 1944–45), military personnel. Much of the focus in Washington was maximizing the economic output of the nation. The overall result was a dramatic increase in GDP, the export of vast quantities of supplies to the Allies and to American forces overseas, the end of unemployment, and a rise in civilian consumption even as 40% of the GDP went to the war effort. This was achieved by tens of millions of workers moving from low-productivity occupations to high efficiency jobs, improvements in productivity through better technology and management, and the move into the active labor force of students, retired people, housewives, and the unemployed, and an increase in hours worked.
It was exhausting; leisure activities declined sharply. People tolerated the extra work because of patriotism, the pay, and the confidence that it was only “for the duration”, and life would return to normal as soon as the war was won. Most durable goods became unavailable, and meat, clothing, and gasoline were tightly rationed. In industrial areas housing was in short supply as people doubled up and lived in cramped quarters. Prices and wages were controlled, and Americans saved a high portion of their incomes, which led to renewed growth after the war instead of a return to depression.
The Allies – the US, Britain, and the Soviet Union, China, as well as Poland, Canada and other countries – fought the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. The Allies saw Germany as the main threat and gave highest priority to Europe. The US dominated the war against Japan and stopped Japanese expansion in the Pacific in 1942. After losing Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines to the Japanese, and drawing the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942), the American Navy inflicted a decisive blow at Midway (June 1942). American ground forces assisted in the North African Campaign that eventually concluded with the collapse of Mussolini’s fascist government in 1943, as Italy switched to the Allied side. A more significant European front was opened on D-Day, June 6, 1944, in which American and Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied France from Britain.
On the home front, mobilization of the US economy was managed by Roosevelt’s War Production Board. The wartime production boom led to full employment, wiping out this vestige of the Great Depression. Indeed, labor shortages encouraged industry to look for new sources of workers, finding new roles for women and blacks.
However, the fervor also inspired anti-Japanese sentiment, which was handled by removing everyone of Japanese descent from the West Coast war zone. Research and development took flight as well, best seen in the Manhattan Project, a secret effort to harness nuclear fission to produce highly destructive atomic bombs.
The Allies pushed the Germans out of France but faced an unexpected counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge in December. The final German effort failed, and, as Allied armies in East and West were converging on Berlin, the Nazis hurriedly tried to kill the last remaining Jews. The western front stopped short, leaving Berlin to the Soviets as the Nazi regime formally capitulated in May 1945, ending the war in Europe. Over in the Pacific, the US implemented an island hopping strategy toward Tokyo, establishing airfields for bombing runs against mainland Japan from the Mariana Islands and achieving hard-fought victories at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. Bloodied at Okinawa, the U.S. prepared to invade Japan’s home islands when B-29s dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing the empire’s surrender in a matter of days and thus ending World War II. The US occupied Japan (and part of Germany), sending Douglas MacArthur to restructure the Japanese economy and political system along American lines. During the war, Roosevelt coined the term “Four Powers” to refer four major Allies of World War II, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and China, which later became the foundation of the United Nations Security Council.
Though the nation lost more than 400,000 military personnel, the mainland prospered untouched by the devastation of war that inflicted a heavy toll on Europe and Asia.
Participation in postwar foreign affairs marked the end of predominant American isolationism. The awesome threat of nuclear weapons inspired both optimism and fear. Nuclear weapons were never used after 1945, as both sides drew back from the brink and a “long peace” characterized the Cold War years, starting with the Truman Doctrine in May 22, 1947. There were, however, regional wars in Korea and Vietnam.