A Century of Change in America, 1917-2017

By Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet / 03.18.2018
Professor Emeritus of History
Southern Oregon College

What were those moments, and when where those developments—the ones that now seem—on reflection– to have changed everything? The ones in my lifetime, I mean, that started as World War I approached an end? Let’s just start with Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.

It is clear that Herbert Hoover, our food czar at the time, saw to it that Europe from Belgium to Russia didn’t starve at war’s end.

Woodrow Wilson was over his head as he tried to end wars and organize nations, but we grudgingly worked with the innovative League of Nations.

For several years we survived a bad post-war period of civil liberties endangerment. We enacted Prohibition without thinking enough about America. We saw to it that women finally got the vote. That first action was an error; the second, it turned out, inadequate to make women truly “equal.”

Secretary of Commerce Hoover managed to get American industry standardized, including nuts and bolts and radio frequencies. Fish hatcheries were developed. All this was well worth doing!

Lindy’s (Charles A. Lindburgh’s) nonstop flight alone across the Atlantic, of course, expanded the perspectives of Americans considerably. Travel by aircraft became acceptable. A Prosperity Decade for whites, complete with illusions was much noted. Unanticipated, came the great Stock Market Crash of October 29, 1929. Since I was a newspaper boy called to deliver some special editions, I remember the headlines. Then in quick order came the consensus end of Prohibition, the general use of radio as a focus of home life, and the sudden recognition of the USSR.

The failure to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt in Bayfront Park, Miami is virtually forgotten. The delivery on radio of his “The only thing to fear is fear itself,” the speech of March 4, 1933 (written by Professor Raymond Moley) is still remembered. FDR’s arrival with NRA and AAA, PWA, and WPA and the Social Security venture, with Frances Perkins as a key player, were major matters.

The Roosevelt effort to “pack the Supreme Court” (on behalf of the Executive Branch) in 1937 impressed and repelled this junior in college, (who was taking Constitutional Law about then). The next event on this list might be the assumptions about the Presidency changed by that FDR reelection to a Third Term. Some worried about it.

Sending out The Four Freedoms concept from one country at war (Britain) and another one at still at peace (the U.S.) was dramatic but the implications too little comprehended. Nearly a year passed before the attack on Pearl Harbor that sad Sunday, December 7, 1941 accompanied by the instantaneous realization of immediate war with Germany by mutual consent of combatants with quite different goals planned for mankind.

Announcement of success by our fleet at Midway in 1942 meant to observant Americans in and out of uniform that the War in the Pacific would end someday with the U. S. the winner.

D-Day in Europe, June 25, 1944, and the final end against Germany was followed by many months of hard fighting against a dedicated Japan, since we were still deeply in war, whatever the euphoria in Europe and Britain (victory overlooked the USSR as a major winner).

The American use of the A-Bombs on August 6 and 9, 1945 brought a sudden and unexpected victory over Japan, and a staggering surprise to all but a tiny few in uniform. The amazement within Japan was equally great. Its national mind was consumed by atomic bomb casualties, but the unsought conversion to a democratic homeland was astounding. The planet was clearly facing a New Age. America had unlimited power, for that day, but the certainty of two-ocean safety for our homeland was gone.

The first day of official life for the new United Nations with a new charter, June 26, 1945, offered an initiation of hope for mankind. At the same time, there was a dilution of our independence as declared July 4, 1776 and achieved after the Revolutionary War with the Constitution. Some decisions henceforth would be made with the UN having a role.

The long run survival of that old Europe, postwar, devastated or not, seemed guaranteed with announcement of the Marshall Plan by the United States on June 7, 1947, and the astonishing fact that we lived up to what we promised.

The revelation by the USSR that it had created an H-Bomb awakened thinking American people to the absolute necessity to come out ahead in the suddenly created, not necessarily “Cold War,” with the Soviet Union. Brainy individuals among us comprehended the new enemy; fuzzy thinkers dreamed for too long that “Communism was the wave of the Future” as millions on the old Russian landscape starved.

Many technological advances in this era are memorable. (The automobile went through many changes and dramatic improvements.) Television, “TV,” with its spread in the years adjacent to (before and after) 1950, and developments like round to rectangular screens, remotes, and color, and the spread of channels and networks, all tended to obscure its blockbusting effect on the minds of mankind. Some minds were affected much of the waking day.

Machinery related to life within the home came gradually. Dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers, and vacuum cleaners— all changed home maintenance and duties forever. Screening and double pane glass for some windows, and insulation with many uses modified life in ways that became “the norm” rather than the exception. The new “civilization” modified farm life forever.

The USSR’s Sputnik as the 1950s ended was a wake-up call to Americans that much in our nation’s casual lethargy on space matters would not be acceptable in the future. The moon landing on July 20, 1969, climaxed a decade of amazing discoveries by some of the best among us.

Announcement that the Cuban Missile Crisis was at an end, that the Soviets would remove all missiles from Castro’s Cuba, and that we were (after all) “still here” brought a sense of relief to thinking people everywhere (while salvaging JFK’s earlier and thoughtless Bay of Pigs failure).

Assassination of admired John F. Kennedy, totally unexpected, was (given the primacy of his heroic image) total shock, but life continued, though idealism suffered a real blow.

Passage of the first Civil Rights Bill by an atypical Congress pushed by a determined President Johnson, meant that America would be different for minorities beginning soon. Would the hard-won change prove a portent? Would it last into the future? The decade was marked by the dramatic rise of a preacher-leader in Atlanta, Georgia, named Martin Luther King, Jr. Nationally influential in the 60’s, his unexpected assassination in 1968 was a blow to racial change.

Passage in the Congress of amazing and assorted new legislation during the LBJ Presidency meant vast (and unexpected) changes were enroute to America. “Free enterprise” was about to be changed by the spread and acceptance of federal funding and controls that affected the arts and humanities, and medical research, and led to the birth of new programs like Medicare, and Medicaid. America was about to be different for generations to come.

Computers, a device once enormous and limited in distribution to institutions and companies, spread worldwide as size, shape, portability, and attachments capable of printing and gaming added to utility and pleasure alike.

Gradually in the 21st century, amazing all in the youthful age group, came the portable telephone in its many forms, from simple communication to services rivaling office computers. Youngsters once alone on sidewalks were, astonishingly, actually accompanied by near or distant talkers on their phones. Meanwhile, young and old were linked almost at all times. It was a revolution in human affairs.

Great events occurring in administrations from President Nixon to President Trump warrant making this article far longer, but I am unwilling and unable to go there. Environmentalism was born as the ‘60s became the ‘70s, but lacked unanimity. One staggering event, years later, must and will be featured: The election of President Barack Obama was in its meaning and significance a blockbuster for the land founded by Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln. It was astonishingly symbolic for Americans and the watching world alike (though stubbornly resisted sub-rosa).

Political figures, generals, and special interests led this “peace-loving” nation into a variety of wars at several levels long after the end of World War II. The Korean and Vietnam Wars, with their sad endings, would be waged without the national determination of the recent world war (with its “rationing” and “priorities”). While “containment” as a goal was partially achieved, there was enormous sacrifice.

The Middle East, a place where others fought or contended for generations without bringing problems to resolution, became a sore spot in the new century. Christians everywhere resisted more or less the vast challenges of aggressive Islam (in some form). There developed a defined need to crush dictators the American public had never heard of, with “oil” in the background. Staggering energy went into all this, as congressional declarations of war were often bypassed, and much of our public failed to understand what, if any, purposes were being served in Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere.

The tragedy of the virtually accidental ascendency of a politically inexperienced businessman, Donald J. Trump, with amateurism in administration (especially staffing) and the destruction of the infrastructure of the federal government throughout the District of Columbia and worldwide, bordered on the tragic. The first year of “Trump” was not to be forgotten for its amateurish assumption of power. Some Americans hoped their conditions of employment would improve, while others were dumbfounded, even bitter, as thoughtful people nationwide endured what was an initial year of incompetence. The president’s approval sank in response to his Twitter outbursts and many brief comments that would forever be regarded as degrading to the American form of government.

The taunting of nuclear-armed North Korea, a small place damned with a totally irresponsible government, portended possible disaster in the Pacific theater. There was an almost casual interaction by a crippled and untested team of American diplomats throughout 2017. Would China rise to the challenge and provide real help?

Vast changes in American education should have been bringing concern. Changes accompanying the spread of new metal and glass gadgets and the vast domination of minds by innumerable new handheld things were upsetting. As the 2020s gradually approached, such devices were conquering, often helpfully, while many worried about their impact.

Americans in the new century behaved in the way they had in earlier decades. The Depression had been ameliorated somewhat with alcoholic drinks. The agonies of World War II were eased a bit with very cheap air mail, providing the rapid and dependable passage of news to and from loved ones. TV helped get the public through the Korean and Vietnam Wars to an extent, while at the same time making them more real. M*A*S*H was popular during and long after the latter imbroglio as it brought a certain reality to living rooms. Was marijuana moving toward acceptance? For over half a century, reality had been impossible for the bulk of Americans to face without pleasant modification.

Uncertain about the future—but not yet defeated (at least permanently)—were former constants: American idealism, love of working within a chosen profession, worshiping the Infinite in one of its worthy forms, and charitable giving. The years ahead for us all, though many were wounded and damaged in spirit, still gave us reasons for hope.

Shall we proceed to strive, to live, with an attitude that says, essentially, that the best of our past is not going to be surrendered? May we continue our best efforts to mold children, youths, and adults to accept and live their lives in the best of “old ways”? A good deal of what is quite new to America is inauspicious.

At a time when much of the world was shuddering over explosions caused by powder tightly packed and hidden on individuals or in vehicles then blowing up, our own people have abruptly become aware of the power of barreled, rapid-fire, rifles to change the status quo of neighborhoods, cities, even the whole country. Will reaction to the younger generation among us have a dramatic effect? What, down the road, are we going to wish we had done when we could have?

Concentration on sturdy and dependable leadership ought to have a payoff. By all means let’s continue to cultivate the desire and the ability to educate and train the very best of all sexes and races among us to take over, mold, and preserve a sound America for the future.

Originally published by History News Network, reprinted with permission.