US History Topic 20 Summary: Contemporary America in the Digital Age

The internet was born of the technological competition of the Cold War and went public in the early 1990s.  Its far-reaching effects on both culture and commerce were immediate.  The rise of internet shopping sites like Amazon began the inexorable process of replacing brick and mortar stores, including those of large chain brands.  Apple’s iPhone replaced land lines and its iTunes slowly but steadily put record stores out of business.

Apple’s Korean rival Samsung took a large market share of phones and home appliances and Google emerged as the dominant search engine and transformed the nature of education.  Online video streaming phased out the video rental stores so popular in the last years of the 20th century.  Eventually even the great entertainment behemoth of Hollywood was forced to adapt to a new generation of digital moviegoers and challenged by rival film industries in China and India.

Email and instant messaging graduated to popular social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which created new online communities and connected people across generations and national boundaries.  By the second decade of the new millennium, Facebook alone had more than two billion regular users.  Controversies arose when its commitment to free speech led to its use by revolutionaries and extremist groups, and its advertising and marketing policies were criticized by some as invasions of privacy.

The nature of banking changed as hedge funds and derivatives surpassed traditional bank accounts and fostered an overheated housing market.  The financial crisis of 2008 was the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Unemployment gave way to underemployment and a growing disparity between rich and poor.  The mushrooming national debt was assumed in part by old adversaries like China and Russia.  Outsourcing of jobs overseas destabilized old American companies and led to lower wages and a rise in inexpensive consumer goods.

The internet forever changed the nature of politics in America.  Democrat Barack Obama garnered millions of online “Millennial” supporters in 2008, and eight years later Republican Donald Trump used Twitter to advance his views.  Suspicions that Russian hackers interfered with the 2016 election results led to a federal investigation and fueled fears of a new kind of Cold War.  Wikipedia and personal blogs gave anyone the opportunity to contribute research and opinion to the global community.  Smart phones combined photography, communication, news, financial management, and direction finding in a single handheld device.  The world was suddenly at everyone’s fingertips.

The social consequences of this technological transformation became the object of intense discussion and debate.  The new Millennial generation born in the waning years of the last century and raised on computer literacy was characterized as more tolerant but less ambitious, more informed but less literate than their predecessors.  Others disputed these claims as the misinformed musings of anachronistic thinking, much as the last generation of 19th century America had bemoaned the onset of the electric and radio age.  The young entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley were seen by many as the Edisons, Fords and Rockefellers of a new century.

The unbridled growth of the oil industry in the 20th century led to concerns over political conflict and rising global temperatures in the 21st.  Many blamed big oil for the Middle Eastern conflicts which led to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent years of fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 toppled dictators but left power vacuums where terrorist organizations could take hold.  Those same groups made use of the internet to recruit from disenfranchised communities and plan coordinated attacks on the West.  Civil war drove thousands of refugees into European countries already struggling with the challenges of emerging multicultural societies.  American leaders weighed in on different sides of the plight of refugees while our own immigration issues remained unresolved.

“Global warming” caused by pollution became the subject of intense political debate as melting polar ice and rising sea levels threatened wildlife, coastal communities, and water and food supplies worldwide.  Deforestation and desertification in Africa, Asia and Latin America reached alarming proportions.  Many saw increased trade and renewable “green” energy as the indisputable solutions to this crisis, while others dismissed these concerns as threats to job growth and national security.

As the new century unfolded, the changing nature of political conflict and economic growth created new alliances, mergers and even currencies.  The old divisions of the Cold War gave way to new divisions over natural resources and the spread of disease, false information, and cyber crime.  The struggle for civil rights was joined by new groups along multicultural and transgender lines.  It would be left to the new generation of Americans born in this century to make sense of these dramatic developments and their place as representatives of American ideals in a more connected and crowded world community.


  1. What do you think of the issue of “net neutrality?”  Should the internet remain free and unregulated?  Why or why not?
  2. How has the internet changed the nature of American society, both positively and negatively?
  3. What political, economic, and cultural influence does America have in the world today?  What should be our role in the changing world of the 21st century?

Copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.  All rights reserved.

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Discovering New Stories

Here is a photograph of Ben J. Salmon (1888-1932), one of four American Catholics who were imprisoned for their refusal to fight in World War I.  I obtained this image in 1988 from the Library of Congress during the process of writing a biography of Salmon based on my Master’s thesis at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.  I had completed writing my thesis on him in the spring of 1985 and graduated with my M.A. a few months later.  I was pleased to be awarded outstanding thesis for that year, but I never expected that anything more would come of my work on this previously unknown historical figure.

Three years later, I signed a contract with Paulist Press to publish the story in book form.  I rewrote parts of the thesis and reviewed the galleys.  The book appeared in May 1989 (see photo of the cover below).  That summer I taught a seminar on Ben Salmon and the history of conscientious objection in America at Holden Village in Lake Chelan, Washington (you can listen here to recordings of Part 1 and Part 2). In the fall I was interviewed on a cable television show in the Bay Area, and the following year I delivered an address at Loyola University in New Orleans as the first recipient of the Pax Christi USA Book Award.

By then I was studying for a second Master’s degree at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and concerned by the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War.  Ben Salmon’s story seemed a timely one and began to garner some attention within the Catholic peace movement.  The book also attracted interest from Lutherans, Mennonites, and other Protestant groups, as well as college classes and religious periodicals.  I was even contacted by some current members of the military struggling with issues of conscience.

In retrospect, the way I discovered this story in the first place seems incredible.  In the fall of 1983 I was a young graduate student who was disturbed by the escalating nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union.  I was deeply affected by the television movie The Day After, which aired that November and depicted a nuclear attack on the American heartland.  Six months earlier, I had read the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter which condemned the arms race and called for people of conscience to work for peace.  At my college graduation in June, the commencement speaker quoted from Jonathan Schell’s landmark book The Fate of the Earth.  Schell cited scientific research that indicated only cockroaches and grass would survive a nuclear holocaust.

When I arrived at UMass/Boston that fall in search of a thesis topic, I was introduced to Dr. Gordon Zahn, a retired professor of sociology there who was still teaching part-time.  He turned out to be a major figure in the American Catholic peace movement who had been a conscientious objector in World War II and helped found Pax Christi USA after the war.  He listened to my interests and my concerns and suggested I look up Ben Salmon, a Catholic pacifist in World War I whose story had appeared in a 1942 edition of The Catholic Worker.  Zahn had read the article as a young man facing the draft and decided to follow Salmon’s example.  The 1940 Selective Service Act allowed him to complete alternative service at a labor camp in New Hampshire, an exemption denied to Salmon a generation earlier.

I began my research and discovered a treasure trove of information in the archives of the American Civil Liberties Union at Princeton University.  ACLU co-founder Roger Baldwin had taken on Salmon’s case and helped secure his release from federal custody in November 1920.  While in prison on hunger strike, Salmon had composed an extensive autobiography and theological treatise defending his position and challenging the centuries-old “just war theory” of Catholic tradition.  I ordered a copy of the material and devoured its contents.  I also managed to locate and contact three of Salmon’s four children and another World War I pacifist who had served with him in prison and later published his own memoir.

Assuming that I was done with the Salmon story after finishing my thesis, I was pleasantly surprised to receive more letters from his adult children, particularly his youngest daughter, who became a Maryknoll Sister and served for many years in Hawai’i and Nicaragua.  I also received letters from graduate students at other universities pursuing research on the Catholic peace movement and from antiwar protestors seeking to emulate Salmon in their opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the waning years of the Cold War.  One of my former roommates heard about my thesis and suggested I show it to a skiing buddy of his, a Catholic priest who happened to be on the editorial board of Paulist Press.  The rest, as they say, is history.

This was a remarkable experience in historical discovery and personal growth.  I share it with you to encourage your own interests in untold stories from history.  President Harry Truman once said “there is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”  Each book published on an historical subject is a new perspective on an old topic.  There is nothing preventing you from making your own contribution to this limitless universe of research.

Start with a subject that interests you, and keep digging until you come to a dead end.  That is usually when you can see what else needs to be explored.  There is always another aspect of a person’s life or an historical event that has not been fully presented to the public in print or digital form.  Perhaps a subject has been waiting just for you to be the person who brings it to light.

That is definitely how I feel about Ben Salmon.  In the three decades since my book’s publication, many others have unearthed more information on his life and published articles and artwork inspired by his story.  There is currently a small group of Catholic peace activists who maintain a website on Ben Salmon and raised the funds to give him a proper gravestone.  They are now petitioning the Vatican to begin the process of his beatification.  Many copies of my book are now housed in libraries across the country and around the world.  A few are available for sale online as well.

Pursue your interests.  You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.  If you have a gift or interest in history, the material is waiting somewhere for you.  Ask for help, start digging, and stick with it.  You will be pleased with the results.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.  All rights reserved.

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US History Topic 19 Summary: Popular Culture through the Decades

American cultural expression has found its place in the world through embracing diversity and dissonance.  This can be seen most dramatically in American English, which combined the mother tongue with words and idioms from indigenous, European, and African roots.  This has also been the case with American music and the visual arts.  The historic tension between the integration and exclusion of newcomers throughout American history has manifested itself in unique and enduring forms of artistic expression.  Add new technologies to this mix and you have a timeless and enduring impact on world culture and communication that cannot be measured.

Until the mid-19th century, most of Europe regarded American cultural expressions as little more than poor colonial imitations of old world masters.  This began to change with the writings of Cooper, Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and Emerson, and the popular songs of Stephen Foster.  During the Gilded Age, the novels of Dreiser, Cather, and Wharton began to capture the spirit of a growing and ambitious people.  The wonders offered the nation by entrepreneurs such as Edison and Ford added innovation to idealism.  America entered the 20th century as a major political and cultural player on the world stage.

Immigrant groups added their music, language, dress and cuisine to the melting pot of popular culture.  Irish, Jewish, Italian, Mexican, and Chinese influences made their way into the mainstream, first pigeonholed into stereotyped caricatures but gradually reshaping the sound, look and taste of America.  Other groups from Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, and the Middle East added later ingredients.  Native Americans left their names on the landscape, their foods on the table, and their words and beliefs on the political and cultural fabric of the nation.

Out of the sufferings and triumphs of the African American experience came vibrant new forms of popular music, from blues and ragtime and jazz to rock and roll, soul, funk, disco, rap, and hip hop.  All these sounds had immediate wide appeal and soon inspired their own clothing fashions and idiomatic slang expressions.  Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, and Michael Jackson all became national and world celebrities whose uniquely American hybrid music led to wide and unexpected democratization.  White musicians like George Gershwin, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Elvis Presley, and Madonna contributed their own popular hit tunes to this unfolding symphony.

Music and literature complemented one another.  From the traditional songs that told the story of Irish emigration to the poetic blues ballads that emerged from the black communities of the Mississippi Delta, the human experience of living in America was articulated with memorable eloquence.  African American writers Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes wove linguistic rhythms into their narratives.  Other novelists did the same.  One cannot read The Great Gatsby without hearing the vibrant sounds of the Charleston, nor The Grapes of Wrath without thinking of the poignant anthems of Woody Guthrie.

Technology indelibly changed the nature of popular culture.  From the telephone and typewriter to the film projector and electric light bulb to the radios and televisions that filled every American home, isolated communities were knit together in common lifestyle and taste.  The personal computer, cellular telephones, cable television, and satellite global positioning systems of the late 20th century, all developed in the United States, each irrevocably changed the nature of human interaction.

By the dawn of the 21st century, American form as well as content could be discerned in worldwide popular culture, especially the young of the Millennial generation.  The advent of the smart phone allowed for handheld personal access to information, imagery, and music from across the world.  Marshall McLuhan’s famous prediction of the “global village” had been created by the cultural mix and technological innovation of the American experience.


  1. Why did jazz become so popular in America and across the world?  What is it about this music that is uniquely American?
  2. How is American English different from the dialects spoken in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, South Africa, and the rest of the English speaking world?
  3. Why do some extremist groups around the world still see American popular culture as a threat?

Copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.  All rights reserved.

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US History Topic 18 Summary: Civil Rights Movements (1948-1991)

The modern civil rights movement began with Harry S. Truman’s executive order desegregating the armed forces and federal government of the United States in 1948.  This bold act from a white Southern President gave public support to America’s World War II veterans of all backgrounds and set the stage for a legal challenge to the white South’s decades old Jim Crow laws.

These local and state ordinances dated back to Reconstruction and created separate facilities for black and white from restaurants and lunch counters to theaters, libraries, swimming pools, beaches, restrooms, drinking fountains, and even cemeteries.  Many western states practiced similar discrimination against Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans.  Northern states were little better, with racial minorities crowded into substandard housing and employed in low-paying menial jobs.

Gay and lesbian Americans faced prejudice in the workplace and so-called “sodomy laws” which criminalized homosexual affection and prohibited same-sex marriage.  Americans with disabilities were prevented from participating in the fullness of public life and denied access to a mainstream education.  Americans under 18 years of age were not universally protected by child abuse laws, and Americans over 60 were unable to find work and condemned to poverty and abandonment if they retired without supportive relatives or a sufficient pension.

African Americans led the way in the great struggle for civil rights after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregated public schools in 1954.  The following year the black community of Montgomery, Alabama united in a general boycott of municipal buses, led by a charismatic young pastor named Martin Luther King.  King’s study of Gandhi in India led him to develop a similar campaign of nonviolent resistance against segregation in the South and discrimination in the North.  Later tactics included “sit-ins” at lunch counters, “freedom rides” to integrate interstate travel, and large scale marches to pressure Congress to enact civil rights legislation.

All these efforts were met with often lukewarm support in the North and outright violent resistance in the South.  The “Freedom Riders” were firebombed in Alabama in 1961.  White mobs beat federal marshals and killed a foreign journalist in 1962 when James Meredith attempted to become the first African American student to register at the University of Mississippi.  NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers was assassinated in Mississippi in 1963.  A “Freedom Summer” voter registration and educational campaign the following year was interrupted by the murder of three college volunteers.  Several white and black volunteers were killed in Selma, Alabama during a voter registration drive in 1965 led by King and black students.

These sacrifices were not in vain, and by 1964 Congress had passed a Civil Rights Act which abolished racial discrimination in public life, and a Voting Rights Act the following year which removed poll taxes and registration discrimination.  President Lyndon B. Johnson became a powerful ally of the movement and supported King until they could not agree on American involvement in Vietnam.  Cesar Chavez organized farm workers in California and won the support of Democratic Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy until Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, two months after Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis while supporting striking sanitation workers.

Malcolm X spoke for black nationalism, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan led protests for women’s rights, and the American Indian Movement called attention to land and cultural rights.  The Black Panthers and Brown Berets armed themselves and patrolled poor urban neighborhoods to protest police brutality.  College students and their faculty supporters fought for Black Studies, Chicano Studies, and Women’s Studies in the curriculum.  Harvey Milk became the nation’s first openly gay city supervisor in San Francisco in 1978 and paid for his courage with his life.  The Gray Panthers defended the legal rights of seniors, and child advocates created a national child abuse registry.  Activists for the disabled won the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, which President George H. W. Bush signed into law in 1990.

By the 1990s, many Americans from these previously disenfranchised groups had been elected to public office and entered lucrative careers.  The nation ended the 20th century with many civil rights battles still to be fought.  At the heart of the struggle was the meaning of the Constitution’s opening reference to “We, the People.”  The effort to include everyone in the legal import of these words would continue into the new millennium.


  1. In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln said the terrible war dividing his nation was about “a new birth of freedom.”  What do you think he meant by that, and what would he think of America today?
  2. Can you think of areas in which discrimination is still practiced in America?  Are all Americans fully equal under the law?
  3. How does the background of our current political leaders match up to the profile of the American population?  Are there still large groups of citizens who are underrepresented at the federal level?

Copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.  All rights reserved.

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US History Topic 17 Summary: McCarthyism

The brutal nature of the Stalinist Soviet regime and its cruel treatment of the subject peoples of eastern Europe revived fears of a new “Red Scare” in the United States.  President Truman signed an executive order in 1947 requiring a loyalty oath of all government employees and urged Congress to allocate millions of dollars in military aid to anti-Communist forces in Greece and Turkey.  The fear of the Communist menace intensified after the Soviets successfully tested an atomic bomb in Kazakhstan in 1949.  Now there were two rival nuclear superpowers.

World War II veteran and Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy took advantage of this climate of paranoia by announcing at a speech in West Virginia in early 1950 that the U.S. Department of State had been infiltrated by scores of Communist agents.  His arguments gained strength and popular support when a respected government official named Alger Hiss was accused of Communist associations by a young California congressman named Richard Nixon and later convicted of perjury when he denied the accusation.

That same year a young government engineer named Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel were convicted of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets and sentenced to death.  McCarthy’s reputation and power grew, transforming his own Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and the House Un-American Activities Committee into virtual tribunals where anyone could be summoned to prove their loyalty.  No one was safe from McCarthy’s subpoenas.  Labor leaders, famous athletes, writers, and government workers were all called before the committees.  Hundreds were blacklisted and their careers ruined when they admitted left wing connections or refused to answer at all by invoking the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause.

Hollywood became a particular target of McCarthy’s wrath.  Many famous and successful actors, directors and screenwriters were hounded and driven out of show business.  Some fled the country and were unable to work in the industry for years.  Gay and lesbian Americans both in and out of the film industry were especially singled out as security risks as they were seen as “moral deviants” more vulnerable to Communist blackmail.

The words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in schools and works by left-leaning novelists such as John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos were banned from the curriculum.  When playwright Arthur Miller published The Crucible in 1953, which presented the Salem Witch Trials as a disturbing allegory for McCarthyism, he was hauled before the Committee and convicted of contempt for Congress.

McCarthy’s tactics created many enemies, including the pioneering television journalist Edward R. Murrow, who challenged the Senator’s ideas on his popular program See it Now.  McCarthy’s televised response backfired, as did his efforts to root out supposed Communists in the U.S. Army.  On December 2, 1954, his own fellow Senators voted overwhelmingly to censure him for his excesses, and McCarthy died a broken man three years later.

The fall of McCarthy did not end the paranoia and disregard for due process which had characterized his era.  Behind the scenes, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover continued to blackmail and intimidate and harass, compiling secret files on labor groups, civil rights leaders, and politicians.  Hoover’s obsession with discrediting antiwar groups and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1960s superseded even McCarthy’s antics in their depravity.  When Hoover finally died in 1972 during the Nixon Administration, no evidence was found of his notorious secret files.  The issue of balancing civil liberties with national security remained unresolved.


  1. Does the government have the right to question the loyalty of citizens?  Under what circumstances, and in what manner?
  2. Some recent biographies of Joseph McCarthy have portrayed him as a victim or even a hero.  Do you think he was treated unfairly by the Senate in the end?
  3. When does the government have the right to look into the private activities of its citizens?  How can this activity be conducted within the confines of the law?

Copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.  All rights reserved.

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US History Topic 16 Summary: Cold War Era

Allied victory in World War II left the United States and the Soviet Union as rival powers in Europe and the Far East.  At the 1945 Potsdam Conference, Joseph Stalin retained control of those areas of eastern Europe retaken by the Red Army.  The city of Berlin and Germany as a whole were divided into four occupied sectors.  Top Nazis who had not committed suicide were charged with crimes against humanity before an international tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany.  A similar tribunal was set up to try Japanese military leaders.  An uneasy peace settled over the ruins and refugees of war.

New alliances soon formed along ideological divides.  The U.S., Canada and western Europe created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for mutual protection, and Stalin created the Warsaw Pact.  President Truman’s Secretary of State George Marshall organized a European Recovery Program which funneled $12 billion in American aid into rebuilding the countries devastated by the war.  When the American, British and French sectors united to form a new democratic West Germany in 1948, Stalin closed off the east, including free West Berlin.  Truman averted an international incident by airlifting in supplies until the Soviets relented.

Soviet-backed Communist forces took over in China in 1949 and Korea in 1950.  Three years of fighting in Korea ended in an armistice in 1953 between Communist North and democratic South.  Meanwhile, this new “Cold War” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union spread worldwide.  The threat of nuclear annihilation led to indirect methods of warfare.  Espionage and propaganda accompanied a rampant arms race.  Extensive national infrastructures supported the transport and housing of missile systems.  Both nations launched satellites and men into space and funded extensive scientific research.

Those nations not directly under the control of the two superpowers became a dangerous “Third World” where proxy wars and “low intensity conflict” decimated local populations.  During the nearly half century of the Cold War competition, hundreds of thousands were killed in places like Korea, Vietnam, Angola, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Indonesia.  The U.S. drifted toward brutal right wing dictators in order to avoid supporting leftist regimes.  Student and labor groups staged gigantic protests against the senseless violence.

The struggle consumed the efforts of eight successive American Presidents.  Truman’s inability to fully contain Stalinist aggression led in part to General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s victory in 1952.  Eisenhower funded the growth of clandestine agencies like the CIA and tried unsuccessfully to stop Communism from taking over in Vietnam and Cuba.  John F. Kennedy funded the space race and pressured the Soviets to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba, but his assassination in November 1963 ended his efforts to withdraw from Vietnam.  Many suspected conspiracy in his death.

Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam but only succeeded in exacerbating the chaos there and ruining his own Great Society programs at home.  Exhausted and demoralized, he was replaced by Richard M. Nixon, who brokered a ceasefire in Vietnam by visiting China and Russia.  Communist victory in Saigon followed two years later after Nixon was disgraced and resigned from office.  His appointed successor Gerald Ford was unable to resume the war, and Democrat Jimmy Carter was brought down by a hostage crisis in Iran.  Anti-Communist Republican Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, vowing to continue the fight against what he called “the evil empire.”

Tensions finally eased in 1985 with the ascension of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who instituted reforms and started arms reduction negotiations with Reagan.  The severe financial costs of the arms race had created huge debts which destabilized the world economy.  A costly, futile war in Afghanistan left the Soviet people exhausted and frustrated.  When massive demonstrations for democracy broke out across eastern Europe in the 1980s, Gorbachev did not intervene.  The wall separating Berlin in 1961 was forced open by jubilant crowds in 1989.  What Winston Churchill had dubbed “the iron curtain” in 1946 collapsed at last.

Communist regimes remained in place in China, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam.  Disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 opened Russia to all the freedoms and excesses of a capitalist economy.  New technology was born out of nearly fifty years of conflict.  Satellite communications, personal computers, and the internet would launch a new world order into the 21st century.


  1. What do you think of Truman’s doctrine of “containment” in dealing with Stalin?  How would you have dealt with the situation in Europe at the end of World War II?
  2. What were the consequences of the so-called “satellite wars” in Africa, Asia, and Latin America from the 1950s to the 1980s?  What problems do those countries still face today which can be traced to the Cold War superpower conflict?
  3. How can covert agencies like the CIA perform their duties and still be held accountable to the American people?

Copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.  All rights reserved.

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US History Topic 15 Summary: America in the Great Depression and World War II

The Stock Market Crash of 1929 wiped out billions of dollars in paper wealth and left thousands of banks and businesses bankrupt.  The ripple effects were devastating.  Millions lost their life savings.  Within a few years, a third of the American workforce was unemployed.  Families were shattered.  Hordes of men rode the rails in search of work or redemption.  Vast tent cities arose dubbed “Hoovervilles” after the Republican President whose non-interventionist approach to the crisis seemed impotent.

Hoover’s reelection bid in 1932 was squashed by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised a “New Deal” to the American people.  This took the form of a score of federal assistance programs designed to buoy the failing economy.  Banks and businesses were infused with capital.  Young men were put to work building trails, parks, roads and buildings.  The Social Security Administration was established to provide modest pensions for the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, and dependent children.

A new Securities and Exchange Commission would regulate the stock market and a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation would protect bank deposits.  When devastating wind storms combined with years of drought turned the middle of the country into a “Dust Bowl” and drove thousands of families west to find work, Roosevelt sent teams to plant new trees and subsidize struggling farmers.  Artists and writers were put to work chronicling the national travail.

The conservative justices of the U.S. Supreme Court challenged the legality of some of the New Deal programs, and Roosevelt fought back by unsuccessfully attempting to pack the court with his own appointees.  Others criticized him publicly, including radio priest Charles Coughlin and former Louisiana Governor Huey Long.  But in spite of his opponents, Roosevelt managed to grow in popularity and was reelected to a second term in 1936 and record third and fourth terms in 1940 and 1944.

Meanwhile, the Depression in America had also destroyed the fragile economies of postwar Europe, dependent as they were on American credit.  Totalitarian governments rose out of the poverty and misery in Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union.  Desperation led to dictatorship, which scapegoated minorities and fed aggressive master race theories.  Lust for power and natural resources led Japan to invade Manchuria in 1931 and mainland China a few years later.  Fascist Italy sought to regain the territories of the old Roman Empire in Africa.  Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party seized power in Germany in 1933 and systematically took back all the territories ceded to the Allies in the Treaty of Versailles.  When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Britain and France finally declared war.

As in the First World War, the United States tried to remain neutral, maintaining trade with the opposing sides and respecting freedom of the seas.  This ended abruptly with the Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i.  Now President Roosevelt called for a total war economy.  Factories were retooled to produce war materials, new shipyards opened to thousands of workers, Hollywood studios pressed into service to produce propaganda films, and celebrities recruited to sell war bonds.  Millions enlisted to fight.  By 1942, the unemployment and desperation of the Depression were gone.

American marines and sailors hopscotched the Pacific for the next four years, seizing fortified Japanese islands in bloody battles.  American soldiers joined the invasion of North Africa and moved on to Sicily and the Italian mainland.  While the Soviet Red Army drove mercilessly toward Nazi Germany in the East with U.S.-made weapons and equipment, a massive Allied invasion force landed at Normandy in France in June 1944.  The fascist government of Italy fell and Hitler was on the defensive.  Japanese garrisons in the Pacific were slaughtered when they refused to surrender and their pilots destroyed themselves in suicidal kamikaze raids on American ships.

Americans of all backgrounds fueled the war effort.  Women factory workers earned the nickname “Rosie the Riveter.”  The all-black Tuskegee Airmen protected bombers in Europe.  Navajo “code talkers” confounded the Japanese in the Pacific.  Mexican Americans earned disproportionate numbers of the Congressional Medal of Honor in combat.  And the Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team became the highest decorated unit in U.S. military history, despite the government’s disgraceful decision to lock up their families in concentration camps euphemistically called “wartime relocation centers.”

By 1945, the war was grinding to a devastating end.  Allied forces retook the Philippines and decimated the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  Tokyo was firebombed.  The Soviets took Berlin in weeks of horrific street fighting which ended with Hitler’s suicide.  American and other allied forces fought through western Germany and discovered the unspeakable evidence of Nazi death camps where Jews and other “undesirables” had been murdered in the millions.  Roosevelt died in April 1945 and was succeeded by Harry Truman, who decided to drop two new atomic bombs on Japanese cities.  On September 2, the Japanese formally surrendered.

Sixty million people had died, more than three times the number in World War I.  The world order had changed irrevocably.  America was now the greatest power on earth and faced the daunting task of rebuilding shattered nations.  But now their most powerful ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, would become an implacable enemy.


  1. Opponents of FDR claimed the “New Deal” programs represented too much government intrusion into a free market economy.  How much government spending is too much?
  2. Do you agree with President Roosevelt’s decision to stay out of the war prior to Pearl Harbor?  Would World War II’s outcome have been different had the U.S. joined the other Allies in September 1939?
  3. Many historians argue that World War II led to the civil rights movements of the postwar years.  Why do you think this is so?

Copyright (c) 2018 Torin Finney.  All rights reserved.

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US History Topic 14 Summary: Roaring Twenties

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 left the United States as the premier financial power in the world, and Wall Street bankers took advantage of the burden of debt imposed on both Germany and the former Allies.  An unregulated stock market allowed for 10% margin buying and backroom insider trading.  Working class and middle class alike purchased stock in large numbers, many of them for the first time.  A burgeoning advertising industry assisted by the spread of radio and film fueled rapid economic growth.  Banks offered easy credit and loans but did not insure their deposits, preferring to invest them in speculative pools.

Republican President Warren Harding promised a “return to normalcy” in 1921, and his successors Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover continued his laissez-faire economic policies at home and isolationist foreign policy abroad.  Congress passed the Volstead Act to strengthen the 18th Amendment, but the new law prohibiting the sale, manufacture, transportation and distribution of alcoholic beverages proved impossible to enforce.  Bribery and corruption created a nationwide black market of illegal distilleries, “speakeasy” clubs, and organized crime.  The temperance groups and churches who had worked for decades to get the Amendment through Congress now watched in frustration as legislated morality created rampant lawlessness.

The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote and set the tone for a decade of experimentation and empowerment.  “Flappers” flaunted mores of fashion and deportment and film and stage celebrities became powerful public figures.  Women entered the workforce and were elected to public office.  New consumer goods like vacuum cleaners, electric lights, refrigerators, telephones, automobiles, and washing machines raised the standard of living for most Americans.

The Ku Klux Klan grew on anti-immigrant sentiment and the fear of modernity to a membership of more than four million.  They marched openly in the nation’s capital in their robes and hoods and controlled the legislatures of several states until one of their leaders was convicted of manslaughter in 1925.  The African American community of Harlem in New York City proclaimed pride in “the new Negro” and called national attention to black artists, writers, and especially musicians.  The powerful and innovative sounds of jazz soon ruled the city, the nation, and the world.

Intrepid explorers flew across the Atlantic and the South Pole for the first time and swam across the English Channel.  The Jazz Singer and Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie added sound to film.  The automobile transformed the landscape of the nation with paved roads, service stations, traffic lights, and roadside advertising.  Skyscrapers arose in the nation’s cities.  Writers of the “lost generation” disillusioned by the aftermath of war produced a canon of American literary classics, most notably F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in 1925.  Composer George Gershwin offered the decade’s anthem in Rhapsody in Blue.

Science and religion clashed in the famous “Monkey Trial” of 1925, in which a Tennessee teacher was convicted of teaching Darwin in public school.  Al Capone created a bootlegging empire in Chicago that controlled the mayor and the police force until he was brought down on federal tax evasion.  All across the country, young journalists chronicled the birth pangs of a new popular culture.

The overheated stock market finally collapsed in October of 1929, bringing the joy ride of the jazz age to a crashing halt.  Millions lost their life savings and thousands of banks and businesses failed.  The frenetic roar of the 1920s gave way to the grim silence of the Great Depression.


  1. Does the government have the right to legislate morality?  Can you think of a contemporary parallel to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s?
  2. Many have compared the financial crisis of 2008 to the stock market crash of 1929.  Can you see any behavior in today’s society which could lead to another economic disaster?
  3. Al Capone argued that he was not a criminal, but a businessman providing supply to meet a popular demand.  Who is the Capone of today’s America?

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US History Topic 13 Summary: The Red Scare

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia terrified the West.  Expeditionary forces from many nations, including the United States, were sent to strength anti-revolutionary White Russian forces in the years following the end of the World War.  Communist groups sought to make headway in the exhausted and shattered nations of Europe after the war, particularly in Germany.  The Bolsheviks were not invited to the peace talks in Paris.  All western governments universally hoped that Communism would soon die a natural death.

Many labor and radical groups in the United States supported the political and economic changes in Russia and hoped for more justice for the working classes in America.  Women worked for less pay than men and could not vote until 1920.  African Americans still suffered in segregated substandard housing and were stifled in their participation in public life by racist Jim Crow laws.  Unions were not legal and were often infiltrated and raided by police.

President Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer was charged with policing the nation.  In the years immediately following the peace, he focused his efforts on preventing “Red agitation” from spreading through the American economy.  Union meetings were raided and radical leaders arrested.  Many of those born overseas, most notably anarchist Emma Goldman, were unceremoniously jailed and deported.  Palmer’s young protege, J. Edgar Hoover of what became the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was given free rein to target “agitators” and curtail their activities.  He used this license to begin a fifty-year career of blackmail and intimidation.

Congress passed new immigration laws in the early 1920s which were based on racial quotas.  The result was a restriction on the number of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, long suspected to be the breeding ground of anarchy and revolution.  Jews, Slavs, and Italians were particularly singled out, and those Americans of these backgrounds were discriminated against in the workplace and at the polls.  The Sacco and Vanzetti trial and executions highlighted the anti-immigrant sentiment of the era.  Racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan added immigrants and Jews to their long list of enemies.

The boom economy of the 1920s with its easy credit and myriad of new consumer goods soon provided Americans of all backgrounds with a new focus for their attention and cooled the fear of imminent Communist revolution.  Harry M. Daugherty replaced Palmer as the new Attorney General under President Warren G. Harding and relaxed some of Palmer’s policies, even securing Presidential pardons for Socialist leader Eugene Debs and other radicals.

Lenin died in Russia in 1924 and was succeeded by Stalin, and postwar governments in western Europe maintained the fragile peace and worked on paying off their war debts.  Soon most Americans, including the working classes, were thinking more about stocks and speakeasies than Socialism.  The jazz age, with all its excitement and excesses, had captured the national imagination.


  1. Does the federal government have the right to monitor and detain its citizens based on their political beliefs?  If so, under what circumstances?
  2. What aspects of Communism do you think are particularly frightening to most Americans?
  3. Which workers’ rights should be protected by the federal government?  Which, if any, should be denied?

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US History Topic 12 Summary: America in World War I

The First World War broke out in Europe after the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.  Imperial rivalries, militaristic escalation, nationalism, and a web of inextricable alliances all contributed to the inevitable cataclysm that would eventually claim the lives of millions.

Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected to the White House in 1912 on a platform of progressive reform after Theodore Roosevelt came out of retirement to split the Republican vote.  Wilson was reelected in 1916 promising to keep America out of the war in Europe.  By this time millions had been killed and wounded by terrible new weapons such as machine guns, flame throwers, aerial bombardment, and poison gas.  Wilson was determined to maintain a position of strict neutrality while Wall Street profited from the sale of arms and securities to the belligerent powers on both sides.

When German submarines sank the passenger liner Lusitania in May 1915 and then began unrestricted warfare on American shipping, public outrage called for retaliation.  Wilson still hesitated until British code breakers discovered a German plot to solicit military alliance with Mexico in exchange for returning the former Mexican lands of the American Southwest lost in 1848.  Wilson went before Congress to demand a declaration of war in order to “make the world safe for democracy.”  Congress obliged on April 6, 1917, convinced by the President that “the right is more precious than peace.”

Selling the war effort to the American people proved more difficult than anticipated.  Many German Americans did not relish the idea of fighting their kinfolk, and Irish Americans hated Britain.  The growing labor movement generally opposed the war, particularly the Socialist Party and the radical Industrial Workers of the World.  Wilson appointed George Creel to head a Committee for Public Information to promote war aims through propaganda posters and films.  Silent movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were enlisted to sell war bonds.

Congress passed a Sedition Act to punish war critics and an Espionage Act to prevent sabotage, but the measures proved draconian and many innocent people were targeted, especially labor activists and Americans of German ancestry.  A Conscription Act did not provide exemption on the grounds of conscience, and pacifists were given the grim choice of noncombatant military service or prison.  African Americans were allowed to enlist only in segregated units and faced horrific hostility near their camps in the South.  Anti-war newspapers were shut down and their editors arrested.

General John Pershing was appointed to lead the American Expeditionary Force in France, but logistical delays and disputes among Allied commanders prevented most U.S. troops from participating in the action until the last months of the war.  Marines fought at Belleau Wood and American soldiers in the Argonne Forest.  By the time the Germans signed an armistice on November 11, 1918, more than 50,000 Americans had been killed, the worst losses since the Civil War but far fewer than the other Allied powers.

Wilson sailed to Paris to supervise the peace negotiations and was at first welcomed with open arms by all parties, including Germany.  His Fourteen Points supporting self-determination and freedom of the seas were sabotaged by French vindictiveness and British imperial ambitions.  In the end, he only succeeded in getting a weakened League of Nations which was ultimately rejected by Congress when he returned.

The Treaty of Versailles signed on June 28, 1919, the fifth anniversary of the assassination that started the war, was severe in its punishment of Germany and sowed the seeds of future resentment.  Wilson suffered a stroke and barely managed to complete his term.  American veterans returned home to victory parades but not to federal aid in finding work.  Black veterans were viciously attacked by racist mobs.  America had become the world’s creditor, but there was no guarantee that the exhausted antagonists could ever repay their debts.

Two Constitutional Amendments emerged from the war:  the 18th prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages, and the 19th guaranteeing women the right to vote.  Both would set the tone of the raucous decade that followed.


  1. Does the government have the right to restrict the rights of its citizens in time of war?  Explain your answer.
  2. Should the United States have entered the war at its beginning instead of at its end?  Why or why not?
  3. Do you think a conscription (military draft) law is necessary in America?  If so, under what circumstances?

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