Twentieth Century US History — Final


Were the Sixties an important turning point in U.S. history?  How?  Consider the impact of the events of the 1960s on U.S. politics and domestic policy, U.S. involvement overseas, and American culture and social relationships.  In what ways did these developments mark new directions in the nation’s history and in what ways did they continue older trends?  Make clear, general arguments, but use specific examples to back them up.


The 1960s were a tumultuous time of great change for the United States. The civil rights movement was at full strength, the conservative movement had just begun its revival, and college students across the country were protesting the Vietnam War and accompanying draft. Not all of these movements began in the sixties, but they did converge in a unique way, and their impacts cause both ripples and tidal waves in the United States (and the world) today. Understanding these movements, their origins, and their results is important to understanding the United States today.

I. Vietnam


The war in Vietnam has cast a shadow over American politics for 40 years. It began as a series of aid shipments to the French (who claimed the land as a colony), but then the French gave up. The United States decided to intervene militarily because of its containment policy and fears generated by the domino theory; this involvement was originally limited to a few thousand military advisors, but as the anti-communist South Korean government failed to gain victory American troop commitments rose until by 1969 there were 553,000 US soldiers in Vietnam.

The anti-war movement’s most important members were college students, thanks to their idealism and their fear of the draft. But it was not confined solely to these students; while he is remembered for his contribution to civil rights and non-violent resistance, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke passionately on the issues of war and Vietnam. Protestors ranged from communists, to hippies and pacifists motivated by idealism, to draft-dodgers and others motivated by fear of combat. While initial protests were generally peaceful, as the movement grew in size (but not in impact) it became more radical. Additionally, this and other campus protests began melding together civil rights activists, hippies, and pacifists in what is perhaps the truest melting pot the United States has ever experienced.


Vietnam stands as the only full defeat the United States military has suffered since its emergence as a great power in the beginning of the 20th Century. Its lessons are legion, yet often forgotten, misunderstood, or ignored. I will take the United States’ roles in the First Gulf War and the Iraq War as examples of the different lessons people have learned.

During the First Gulf War, President Bush decided not to get sucked into an ongoing one-sided war and to destroy the enemy (the invading Iraqis) with overwhelming force; to that end he immediately built up a force of over 850,000 troops from different countries (the USA was the largest contributor with roughly 575,000) with which to push Iraq out of Kuwait. When that was done, there was an enormous impetus for him to continue the war to Baghdad and institute regime change in Iraq, but he refused since it would have “incurred incalculable human and political costs… We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq.” The troop buildup began on August 7th, 1990 and the United States began removing its forces from the arena en masse on March 10th, 1991. President Bush learned not avoid occupying another country without need, to avoid small but ineffective troop deployments, to win the battle of “hearts and minds” both at home and where you’re fighting, and to keep wars as short as possible.

During the Second Gulf War, led by President George W. Bush’s administration, the United States invaded another country with the express purpose of regime change. Employing a new “rapid-response” military model, the invasion force consisted of 300,000 troops (of which 250,000 were from the United States) tasked with overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime and instituting democracy in Iraq. Major combat operations began March 20th, 2003 and we are still in Iraq today. There is an active insurgency in the region, which is killing US troops at a faster rate than Saddam Hussein’s military was capable of, and while there is a government in Iraq it is unstable and prone to sectarian conflict. These unfortunate circumstances came about because the new administration learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam. President George W. Bush attempted to keep the war short and commit as few troops as possible in order to avoid another Vietnam, but neglected to realize that overthrowing a government and rebuilding was by nature a long-term commitment. He also forgot that Vietnam did not start out large-scale, the problem with the war was that it was “sold” as a small-scale commitment and gradually escalated.

Additionally, President Bill Clinton (serving between the two Bushes) also learned some lessons from Vietnam: namely, to avoid commitment. While President Clinton used the United States’ power to effectively intervene around the world, he rarely committed ground forces and always felt free to pull them out if he thought there was too much danger for the potential gain. Hopefully we as a nation will be able to learn our lesson from these three Presidents and Vietnam in order to avoid such disasters and apply our power effectively in the future. But whether we will or not, Vietnam has cast such a large shadow that it alone would justify calling the 1960s a turning point in US history.

II. Revival of the Conservative Movement

Although leftist thinking had dominated the country’s social discourse since the Great Depression, conservative and libertarian thinking rebounded during the 1960s. It began as rhetoric against communists, and slowly spread as more people were included under the banner of “communists” and as more groups were blamed for the country’s problems. The movement grew from small grass roots efforts in places like Orange County and culminated in Ronald Reagan’s election as President of the United States.

The conservative movement of the 1960s had its base in successful whites who had become successful in government-funded private industries like defense. Being generally first-generation rich citizens, they thought they didn’t need the government’s help and that anybody who was willing to work could pull themselves up by their bootstraps; they were a growing backlash against the New Deal. Many were conservative Protestants who thought the state was eroding faith in God and replacing it with faith in government, destroying the private family, and valuing destructive moral freedom over social order.

Both groups were able to direct their anger and discontent into campaigning. While Barry Goldwater, their first major figurehead, was not elected, he did make enough waves to stake out a place for the conservatives in the Republican Party and his campaign melded together the groups they would use later on in becoming successful. And Ronald Reagan, new conservative darling, was able to use Californians’ anger at the Berkeley student protests and LA race riots to become a governor with remarkably widespread support. His campaign provided a model that Richard Nixon used nationally to become President.

With these two elections, conservatism moved out of the fringes and became a widespread, legitimate organization that was no longer dismissed as paranoid by the media and academia. Its grassroots methods remain similar today, and have given the Republican Party a hugely successful campaign strategy for both President and Congress. The government shapes the country, and the 1960s conservative movement continues to shape our government today. For this reason too, the 1960s were a turning point in America.

III. Civil Rights

Largely thanks to the experience of black soldiers during foreign wars, African Americans asserted their equality ever more strongly during this decade of change. Having experienced a desegregated life in Europe and having fought equally with whites in Korea and Vietnam, black Americans were beginning to demand equality at home. Their claims were made in a multitude of ways: through legal channels by the NAACP, through peaceful protests and civil disobedience by Martin Luther King Jr. and the groups associated with him, and through scare tactics, violence, and aggression by the Black Panthers and other black nationalist groups.

While specific battles were very important to the movement, it was also fought in terms of foreign policy: the United States held itself out to third-world countries as the epitome of freedom and a showcase of democracy, yet within its borders blacks were less free than whites. The hypocrisy damaged the USA’s credibility abroad, and so desegregation and equality were necessary to win the fight against communism. This was one of the many ways in which the movements of the 1960s converged and fueled each other.

Thanks to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, African Americans today are more free and equal than they have ever been. Legal segregation doesn’t exist any more, and while there is still inequality, affirmative action and similar programs are working to close the gap. The movement removed the United States’ worst domestic flaw and paved the way for including blacks at every level of society. This movement was a great turning point in America.


The 1960s changed the course of American history in a multitude of ways. The domestic face of the country changed as the government (sometimes forcibly) integrated blacks and whites. Vietnam left scars on our military and collective conscience that still influence us today and show no signs of fading. And the conservative movement has provided our Presidents for 28 of the 40 years since. Whatever you think of the changes wrought during the 1960s, there is no denying they took place and influence us today.


What is the most significant, interesting, and/or surprising thing that you learned in this course this semester?  Please discuss it fully.


The most surprising thing I learned in the course this semester was the extent of the Iran-Contra scandal under President Reagan. While I had heard of the scandal before, it was not clear in my mind and I had not realized its seriousness or academic controversy.

The Contras were a loose coalition of resistance fighters against the communist Sandistan government of Nicaragua in the 1980s. Because of domino theory and containment, Reagan felt obliged to support them in overthrowing the Nicaraguan government and did so when he came into office in 1981. The Congress felt differently, however, and passed the Boland Amendment in 1982, which forbade spending federal money to help the Contras or providing military assistance in overthrowing the Sandinista government.

In 1983, Hezbollah took 30 people (six of them Americans) hostage. President Reagan wanted to avoid a public relations disaster and sought a way to retrieve them, and somebody in his administration had an idea. First, Iran had a lot of influence in Hezbollah. Second, Iran was engaged in a war with Iraq. Third, we want to give the Contras money. A brilliant plan was hatched to sell weapons to Iran (originally by way of Israel, but later directly and for immense private profit) in exchange for the release of the hostages. The money earned could then be used to support the Contras. The entire plan remained secret until journalists exposed it in late 1986.

What I find most fascinating about this affair is the controversy it has in the academic community. I find the scandal to be pretty much completely unconstitutional and immensely frightening because it uses private funds for secret government programs, made private individuals money off of illegal arms sales, and circumvented a law passed by Congress. But I also know liberal professors who argue that Reagan was well within his Constitutional bounds to take these actions, and the debate is an intriguing one.