First Year Exam – 20th Century Passing Answer (January 2012)

Viewing the history of the 20th Century United States through the lens of “global history” provides many key insights into many of the key themes of the supposedly “American century.” By “globalizing” American history we can see the key role international events, ideas, and personalities played in several oft-study areas – progressive reform, race relations, post-World War 2 economic change, and the move from “reform” liberalism to “right-based liberalism” in middle decade of the century. However, as helpful as this historical frame can be, it often obscures the key role particular American context played – despite key role of global events and ideas.

We gain the much insight into Progressivism by viewing it as a global, or at least “transatlantic,” movement of reform. Americans were players in this “transatlantic progressive connection” between the shores of North America and Europe, but more often than not through the 1940s junior partners. Throughout the first four decades of the 20th Century, American progressives sought to import and adapt a slew of reforms drawn from the European experience – from urban planning and renewal, to social insurance, to public housing. [Rodgers]

The history of the United States and this “transatlantic progressive connection” moved through three phases. The first was the initial exchange between Europe and the United States. This phase was largely German – as young Americans traveled to the great universities of Germany to imbibe the first stirring critiques of “Manchester economics” – and British and very much one-side, with Americans very much the students of European “social politics.” [Rodgers] This first phase of the “transatlantic progressive connection” met large resistance, despite making some head way. The pro-business and individualist culture of the United States resisted the collectivist solutions to the excesses of industrial capitalism that Progressives on both sides of the Atlantic prized. [Rodgers, McGerr] Indeed, the first American proponents of German economics, such as Richard Ely, were force to largely recant their breaks with orthodox economics to keep their jobs and those progressive reforms that didn’t sink on their way across the “transatlantic progressive connection” – such as zoning – were so transformed by the trip and the American context to be nearly unrecognizable to their European forebears. [Rodgers]

The second phase of this exchange was the Wilson Administration and the First World War. This, despite some ascendants in the Theodore Roosevelt years, brought Progressives into the center of national government for the first time. Drawn from the “transatlantic progressive connection”, a slew of progressive reforms – from the first attempts at wage and labor regulation (thrown out by the Supreme Court), the Federal Reserve, women’s suffrage, and Prohibition – were enacted in these years. [McGerr, Rodgers] The experience of “war collectivism” – where the government played a key role in organizing the war economy – was felt by both sides of the “transatlantic progressive connection,” the United States, Germany, and Britain. This progressive moment during the war, however, proved to be a false dawn in the United States. The post-war years of the 1920s saw a “return to normalcy” [McGerr] and a Red Scare that target reforms and ideas working in the “transatlantic progressive connection” as “un-American.” [Rodgers].

The final phase of the “transatlantic progressive connection’s” role in American reform was during the New Deal. The Great Depression great the political space that allowed a “logjam” of ideas built up over the “transatlantic progressive connection” to burst further. This helps explain the shear amount of reforms that the first Franklin Roosevelt term saw. Many of the tent pole achievements of the early New Deal – Social Security, the NRA, the Fair Labor act – all drew on ideas and experiences from “transatlantic progressive connection.” Indeed, FDR by calling his program “liberalism” was parallels to similar reforms achieved by British New Liberalism in the first decades of the twentieth century.  [Rodgers]. In many ways the latter New Deal and the Second World Wars marks the end of the “transatlantic progressive connection” of reform. With Europe having destroyed itself in fire during the war years, Americans began to think of themselves as now having more to teach the world than the world had to teach it. A “phoenix of exceptionalism” was on the rise in the 1940s that gained momentum as the latter half of the twentieth century progressed. [Rodgers]

Despite this “phoenix of exceptionalism” and the end of the “transatlantic progressive connection,” global issues and experiences did continue to play key role in the development American reform issues. In with the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy and then with the outbreak of World War 2 and the revelation of the horrors of the holocaust, American reformers and liberals began to rethink their commitments in the light of these issues. Seeing the dangerous role the state can play in Nazi Germany, American reforms began to abandon the more statist solutions (such as the NRA) to economic problems. The horrors of the Holocaust made Americans liberals give renewed attention to the issues of rights and liberties, especially for minorities such as African-Americans, and women) and individualism. [Brinkley] Progressives with their faith in collectivism had attacked American individualism. [Rodgers, McGerr] The early New Deal and, even during the war years, had down played the importance of rights and liberties for minority communities. New Dealers had largely accepted the racial status quo in the North and the South and allowed southerners to shape seeming “color-blind” New Deal policies, such as Social Security or G.I. Bill benefits, to protect their racial prerogatives. Indeed, state and local control of these benefits allowed whites (North and South) to exclude deserving African-Americans. [Katznelson, Sugrue] The “rights-based” liberalism, that emerged out of the War years, sought to remedy this and extend the benefits of American citizenship to all. [Brinkley] This new reformism, thus, was deeply shaped by the global experience of fascism and the Second World War.

Global issues played a key role in post-war race relations as well. The Cold War struggle against communism, and thus the need to be a true “bastion” of democracy, gave great traction to racial liberals in the post- War years. Soviet attacks on American hypocrisy and American needs to appeal to African, South American, and Asian nations left Jim Crow an “albatross” around the neck of American Cold War efforts. [Klarman, Rosenberg] Indeed, the post-colonial of Africans and Asian struggle to overthrow European imperialism and its legacy lent additional energy and inspiration to efforts to end the racial régime of the United States. [Klarman] Indeed, the experience of World War 2, and their service in the war, created additional militancy of among many African-Americans veterans – who returned home and demanded the rights they were nominally fighting for and the benefits given to white veterans. African-American veterans would be on the forefront of the post-War freedom struggle. [Katznelson, Klarman]

Looking at things in a “global” perspective sheds new light on another important post-War theme – economic change and the divestment of American cities. The United States’ global commitments, the increasing capital mobility in the post-War years, and globalization all devastated the manufacturing base of the United States in the post-War years. This was present from the very beginning of the post-War world, no the 1970s and 1980s as commonly seen. The Marshall Plan and other American efforts to rebuild the European and Japanese economy, in order to create a pro-capitalist anti-Soviet economic bloc, succeeded all too well. Rebuilt with US loans and protected by Euro-Japanese governments, these industries were rebuilt to great success in the post-War years. Which allowed the Euro-Japanese, even as early as the late 1950s, to “dump” manufactured imports into the American economy – which devastated the manufacturing base of the United States. This was made worse by another American post-War and Cold War commitment: to be the bastion of “free trade.” Thus, the Federal government refused to practice a linked government-capital-labor “industrial policy,” as in Europe and Japan, which may have protected American manufacturing industries. [Stein] This created more economic and social devastation when linked with another post-War economic development – the divestment in America’s traditional urban centers. The New Deal development of the south and west – with programs like the TVA and rural electrification – along with 1950s highway construction shifted the manufacturing base of the country from the “rust belt” to the “sun belt.” [Sugrue] This, alone, created economic hardship among working class women and men (especially African-Americans) but was made worse in when it linked up, in the 1960s and 1970s, with globalization. American companies began, at first, to invest in Europe and Japanese factories and later to Central/South America and southeast Asia. This flight of manufacturing jobs, which began in the 1950s and accelerated through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980, linked with import dumping of foreign manufactures gives America’s economic crises of the second half of the twentieth century a central global element. [Stein, Sugrue]

We have gained much, in the discussion above, by foregrounding the global elements of many key themes of twentieth century American history. However, such an intellectual move can obscure as much as it can explain. Even Daniel Rodgers, a proponent of a “global view” of there ever was one, is forced to admit (at least occasionally) that American context of progressivism in the United States had an important, perhaps key, role. Reforms that sailed across the “transatlantic progressive connection” had to ride against the tough winds of American culture and politics to make it across. The culture, especially early, that 20th century Americans inherited from the 19th century was one that stressed individualism and was very pro-business. America’s cultural heroes of the early twentieth century were, more often than not, businessmen. The “collectivist” and “associationalist” answers offered by to the cultural, economic, and social problems wrought by industrial capitalism had to struggle mightily with this political culture. [McGerr, Rodgers] Thus, even when progressive reforms successfully crossed the Atlantic, the form they emerged was, often, radically different. Take public housing, for example. American reformers attempted to draw on the British example of public housing for betterment of the “respectable” working classes. This not what emerged in the American context – following America’s long history of “poor relief,” public housing the United States was only given to the “truly” poor. This created a stigma towards public housing that reformers in the American context have struggled with ever since the Progressive Era. [Rodgers]

Another important American context that can be lost in a “global” frame of American history is the continuing importance of American federalism and localities to culture, politics, and economics. For example, American federalism helped fuel an culture of competition and damage any attempt at an “industrial policy” or unified business policies towards economic problems. Various states competed with each other, and the federal government, to provide tax incentives and other public policies to promote economic growth in their locality. This created a hodgepodge of regional competition and was extremely difficult, even for the New Deal, to overcome. [Colin Gordon, New Deals] Race relations were in, many ways, largely local as well. For example, key federal programs (Social Security, the ADC, housing monies etc.) were nominally color blind but were administered on the local and state level. This allowed local elites to shape policies that did not change the local social, especially racial, structure. [Sugrue, Katznelson] In the South, for example, welfare was administered in a way to deny African-Americans benefits they deserved. [Katznelson] In the North, for example, federal housing monies and loans were administered to protect white property and homeowners and deny African-Americans access to the same privileges in housing as whites. [Sugrue]

Thus the local, American, context played a key role in the development of the twentieth century history of the United States. As should be clear, I hope, from the above a “global” frame has much to tell us about many of the themes of the “American century.” From racial relations, to Progressivism, and economic change, global events (the World Wars), ideas (the “transatlantic progressive connection”), and trends (globalization of economics) played a key, often central, role in American history. This should not, however, cause us to forget or obscure the importance of the “American” context of American history. Local conditions continued shape American history (in things like economics and race relations) as much as global conditions and events. Thus while after surveying so much of this history it is impossible, I feel, to say America is “exceptional” or impervious to foreign influence it would be a mistake to go entirely in the other direction. We must not forget in our search for the global to forget the particularity of American history.


Author: Roy Rogers

I am currently a PhD candidate in American History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). My undergraduate education was at Shepherd University (Political Science & History) and I received an MA in History from George Mason University. As a historian, my research interests include early American history, the early American republic (1780 to 1830), political history, religious history, and gender history. I live in Brooklyn with my girlfriend and our cat.

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