The American Century

I Jenims and hot dogs, skyscrapers and supermarkets, mass production and rock music—what do all these have in common? One thing is that they can be found today all over the world. Another is that all of them were born in the United States. The country which for most of its existence had been an importer of influences has become in the twentieth century a major exporter of them. In many areas of life, American popular tastes and attitudes have conquered the world.

You have read earlier about the part that American movies played in this process. After the Second World War the spreading of American influence was continued by a powerful new force —television. As early as 1947, around 170,000 American families had television sets flickering in their living rooms. Thousands more were waiting for sets to be delivered. Soon millions of people were organizing their activities around the programs on television that evening.


Most early American television programs were concerned with entertainment. Comedy and game shows, stories about policemen and detectives, the adventures of fictional western heroes like the Lone Ranger-all these were very popular. The main purpose of such programs was to attract large audiences of “viewers.” Manufacturing firms then paid television companies like NBC and CBS lots of money to show advertisements for their products while the programs were being broadcast, or “televised. ”

By the 1960s filmed television programs had become an important American export. Other countries found it cheaper to buy American programs than to make their own. Soon such exported programs were being watched by viewers all over the world. One of the most popular was “I Love Lucy,” a 1950s comedy series featuring a red-haired comedienne named Lucille Ball. When Lucille Ball died in April 1989. “1 Love Lucy” was still being televised. It had been seen by then in seventy-nine different countries and had become the most watched television show ever.

In music, the process of Americanization could be seen most clearly in the huge international popularity of rock. Rock began as “rock-and-roll”, a music that was first played in the 1950s. It came from the American South, and combined black blues with the country music of working class whites to produce a heavily rhythmic-“rocking”-sound that appealed especially to young people.

Many ot rock and roll’s first scars were black performers such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. But the unchallenged “King” of rock-and-roll was a young southern white named Elvis Presley. In 1956 Presley’s recordings were at the top of the American popularity list— the “hit parade”-every week from August to December. By the end of the decade he had become an international superstar.

To rock-and-roll enthusiasts, Presley came to symbolize a new culture of youth. Among other things, this culture developed its own vocabulary, ways of dressing, even hair styles. More significantly
for the future, it began to reject socially approved ideas and ways of behaving.

13y the 1970s rock-and-roll had blended with the protest songs of the 1960s to become rock, a music that was harder and less escapist. Rock became an international as well as an American phenomenon, one that millions of younger people worldwide saw as their natural cultural language. A large part of its appeal was that it symbolized opposition to officially approved ideas and standards even more strongly than its ancestor, rock-and-roll, bad done in the 1950s.

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The Americanization of popular taste and habits was not restricted to entertainment. The growing popularity of hamburgers, fried chicken and other easily prepared “fast food” spread American eating habits all over the world. Blue jeans and T-shirts Americanized the dress of people on every continent. And supermarkets Americanized the everyday experience of shopping for millions.

The first supermarkets appeared in the United States in the 1950s. With their huge variety of foods and other consumer goods, supermarkets gave shoppers a much wider range of choices. In the 1950s many Americans saw their loaded shelves and full freezers as visible proof of the superiority of the American way of organizing a nation’s economic life. Not surprisingly, when the Soviet leader Khrushchev visited the United States in 1959, one of the places he was taken to visit was a supermarket!

When supermarkets proved a commercial success in the United States they quickly spread to other prosperous countries, first in Europe and then in other parts of the world. So did another feature of

American cities in these years — groups of tall, shining buildings with outer walls of glass and metal. By the 1980s such buildings were dominating city centers all over the world. To many people they were images oflatc-twenticth-century modernity. Yet their origins can be traced back more than a hundred years to the American Midwest.

During the 1880s a number of high, narrow buildings began to rise in the center of Chicago. Similar buildings —so tall that people called them “skyscrapers” — were soon rising over other American cities. In the first half of the twentieth century they became one of the principal visual symbols of the modern United States.

Skyscrapers were the result of a need for more working and living space in places where the cost of land was very high. Instead of using a lot ot expensive space on the ground their builders used the free space of the sky New industrial techniques, and the availability of plenty of cheap steel, made it possible for them to do this.

Each skyscraper was built around a framework of steel beams, or girders, which carried the weight of the building. This inner steel skeleton was constructed before the outer walls, which were added later. The walls ot the early skyscrapers were often made of stone — not for practical reasons, but to make the buildings look solid and strong.

In the 1950s architects working in the United States began to design skyscrapers wdrose steel skeletons were covered by outer walls — or “curtains” — of glass and metal. One of the earliest examples w7as Mies van der Rohe and Philipjohnson’s Seagram Building in New York, it was American buildings like this that inspired similar “glass box" office and apartment buildings in cities all over the world.

Подпись:Such buildings gave visual expression to the impact of the United States on the twentieth-century world. They were gleaming symbols of a name that some historians were giving to the century even before it reached its end. The name was “the American Century.”

Henry Kissinger

In 1938 a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy was forced to Нес from Germany with his parents in order to escape imprisonment in one of Hitler’s concen­tration camps. The family went to live in the United States where the boy got a job cleaning bristles in a shaving-brush factory. He was Clevel­and hardworking, however, and went on to become a brilliant student at Harvard University. Just over thirty years later he became the Secretary of State of the United States. 1 lis name was Henry Kissinger.

Kissinger’s rise to importance began when Richard Nixon became President in 1%9. He became Nixon’s personal adviser in all the United States’ dealings with the rest of the world. In 1973 Kissinger officially became Secretary of State, a position he held until jimmy Carter became President in 1977.

All through the early and middle 1970s Kissinger played a central part in shaping American foreign policy. He helped to form and direct the Nixon government’s policy in the later years of the Vietnam War. He prepared the way for detente with communist China. 11c worked to bring peace between the United States’ ally Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Some people believed that Kissinger’s boyhood experiences in Germany played an important part in forming his ideas about the kind of world be wanted to shape as Secretary of State. One man who knew him said:


Henry Kissinger, the man who shaped and dtreeted АтетіеЖ foreign policy for much of the 1970s.

“1 think he came out of it with a kind of burning need for order. People in these experiences have a real memory of chaos, of violence and brutality, like the world is collapsing under them. Kissinger, more than most, would probably agree that disorder is worse than injustice.”

Kissinger’s critics saw him as a showman, whose achievements were more apparent than real. His admirers believed that he was one of the most effective statesmen of the twentieth century.

By the middle of the 1980s President Reagan had increased American military strength so much that he was ready to start talking seriously about slowing down the arms race. ‘1 he Soviet Union was ready, too. In 1985 a new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had come to power there. Gorbachev believed that the huge cost of the arms race was crippling the Soviet Union’s economy and he was eager to reduce it.

In December 1987, Gorbachev traveled with his wife to the United States. There, in Washington, he and President Reagan signed the Intermediate Range

Nuclear Force (INF) treaty.

In the INF treaty both countries agreed that within three years they would destroy all their land-based medium and shorter range nuclear missiles. President Reagan gave Gorbachev a pair of cufflinks to celebrate the signing of the treaty. To symbolize their two countries turning away from war and towards peace, the cufflinks showed swords being beaten into ploughshares.

In May 1988, Gorbachev began со withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The following year brought even bigger changes. All over central and eastern Europe the communist political systems imposed by Stalin in the years after the Second World War crumbled away. While Gorbachev’s Soviet Union looked on without interfering, countries such as Hungary, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia set up multi-party systems and held free elections.

Such developments raised hopes that a new time of peaceful cooperation might now be possible between the Soviet Union and the United States. “I believe that future generations will look back to this time and see it as a turning point in world history,” the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had said after a visit to Washington in 1988. “Wc arc not in a cold war nowc”

By 1990 most people believed that she wras right.


Soviet leader, Xlikfuiil Liorhcichev, showing President Reagan Red Square during his visit to Moscow, 19S8-


An End to Cold War?


“They talk about who lost and who won. Human reason won. Mankind won.” These words were spoken by the Soviet leader, Khrushchev, after the Cuban Missile Crists of 1962. President Kennedy felt the same. Both men knew that for ten days they had been close to bringing death to millions of people. They began working harder to make such dangerous situations less likely.

In August 1963, the United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty agreeing to stop testing new nuclear weapons in the atmosphere or under water. They also set up a special telephone link between Washington and Moscow. On this “hotline” American and Soviet leaders could talk directly to one another. In future any dangerous crisis would be dealt with more quickly and with less risk of misunderstanding.

The hotline proved its value in 1967. War broke out between Israel and Egypt. The United States was friendly with Israel, and the Soviet Union with Egypt. But both took great care not to let these friendships drag them into fighting one another.

By then Kennedy was dead and Khrushchev had been removed from power. But new American and Russian leaders went on trying to reduce tension. Even the long and bloody war in Vietnam was not allowed to interfere with “detente,” as these moves were called.

The Chinese communist leader, Mao Zedong, attacked detente. He accused Soviet leaders of “revisionism” —that is, of altering some of communism’s most important ideas. He declared that the only way to deal with American capitalism was to be ready to fight it to the death. But a lot of the arguing about whether Russians or Chinese were the best communists was just a smoke-screen biding the real quarrel between them, which was about land. The Chinese claimed that almost one million square miles of the Soviet Union were rightfully theirs’. Big armies watched and sometimes fought on the long frontier between the two countries.

The enmity between China and the Soviet Union had important effects on both countries’ relations with the United States in the early 1970s. Detente between the Soviet Union and the United States went on.

And detente between the United States and China began.

In May 1972, President Nixon flew to Moscow to sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) with the Russians. The idea of SALT was to slow down the arms race. It was intended to save both countries money as well as to make war between them less likely. Each agreed how many missiles of various types the other should have, how many submarines to fire them from, and so on.

The first sign that China, too, was interested in detente with the United Scatcs came in 1970. For years the Chinese government had made it very difficult for anyone from western countries to visit China. But in 1970 it invited an American table – tennis team to play there. The American government, correctly, took this as a hint that the Chinese wanted to settle some of their differences with the United States.

The man behind the Chinese move was Zhou Enlai, China’s Prime Minister. Zhou believed that China needed friends on the international scene, especially while the Soviet Union was so unfriendly. He persuaded Mao Zedong to try to end the twenty – ycar-old feud with the United States.

President Nixon’s adviser, Henry Kissinger, flew to China for secret meetings with Zhou. Late in 1971 the United States agreed to communist China joining the United Nations, something it had vetoed for


President ‘ixoti with Zhou Enlai in (‘hitw, 1972.

years. In February 1972, Nixon flew to China to meet Mao. Mao was still suspicious of the Americans. But in the years that followed China and the United States made important agreements on trade and other matters, especially after Mao’s death in 1976.

As China and the United States became more friendly, tension grew again between Russians and Americans. Russians still feared that the United States wanted to wipe out communism. Americans still feared that the Soviet Union wanted to conquer the world. American fears grew7 stronger when Russian soldiers marched into the Soviet Union’s neighbor, Afghanistan, in December 1979. Because of the Soviet action, Congress refused to renew the SALT agreement.

Both the Soviet Union and the United States had continued to develop new and more deadly nuclear missiles during the years of detente. Attempts were made to slow down this arms race. But neither side would stop while it felt that the other was ahead. In the early 1980s, detente looked dead.

Kennedy’s Peace Corps

In their rivalry with the Soviet Union, American governments never forgot the lesson of the Marshall Plan. They knew that communism is often most attractive to the people of countries where food is short and life is hard. From the 1950s onwards, therefore, they spent millions of dollars on modernizing farms, constructing power stations and building roads in countries as far apart as Turkey and Colombia, Pakistan and Chile. The idea of this “foreign aid” was to give poor people all over the world better lives, partly out of a genuine desire to help them but partly also to win new friends and supporters for the United States.

Foreign aid did not always take the shape of food, machines or money. Sometimes human skills were sent, in the form of teachers and technical experts. Soon after John F. Kennedy became President he started a new scheme of this kind when he set up an organization called the Peace Corps.

The idea of the Peace Corps was to use the enthusiasm and the skills of young Americans to help the people of “underdeveloped”-that is poor-nations to help themselves. All members of the Peace Corps were volunteers, who agreed to work for twro years in the poor countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Some Americans disliked the scheme. They said that the idea of sending immature young Americans to show the people of distant lands how to live was both naive and arrogant. But others thought the scheme worthwhile and ex­citing. “These kids represent something many of us thought had disappeared from America,” said a New York psychologist, “ — the old frontier spirit.”

Whoever was right, the Peace Corps achieved at least one thing —for a while it gave a human face to the bare financial statistics of American foreign aid.

American Hispanics

In 1950 the population of the United States included fewer than four million resident “Ilis – panics”-rhat is, people originating from Spanish­speaking countries. By the mid 1980s this number had increased to 17.6 million and was still rising fast. In some parts of the United States, especially in the South and West, it became more common to hear Spanish being spoken on the streets than English.


Illegal immigrants caught by U. S. border officials.

Reformers accused the United States of helping to keep these groups of wealthy tyrants in power. There was some truth in this. The American government often seemed more concerned with suppressing communism in Latin America than with improving conditions of life there. In 1954, for example, the American secret service (the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA) encouraged the overthrow of a reforming government in Guatemala. When Guatemala’s deposed President asked the United Nations to look into this, the Americans used their Security Council veto to prevent an investigation.

About 60 percent of the United States’ resident I lispanics came originally from Mexico. The remainder came from other Latin American countries, such as Cuba and Colombia. The newcomers’ usual reasons for coming were the same as those of earlier immigrants from Europe – to escape from poverty or political persecution in their homelands.

The increase in the number of Hispanics was partly the result of an important change in the American immigration system. The old immi­gration laws, which dated back to the 1920s, had favored Europeans. But in 1965 a new law said that what would count in the future was who applied first.

The result was a big increase in immigration from non-European countries. By the 1980s the United States was officially accepting 270,000 newcomers a year. Forty percent of these were coming from Asia and another forty percent from Latin America.

Many other immigrants entered the United States without permission. In 1985 the government estimated that the country had between two and ten million of these illegal immigrants, half a million of whom had arrived in the previous year. Many were Hispanics, who had waded across the shallow Rio Grande River that formed the border between the United States and Mexico. For obvious reasons, people who entered the United States in this way were called “wetbacks.”

In later years American governments went on interfering in Latin American affairs. Sometimes they interfered openly, sometimes in more secret ways.

In 1965 President Johnson sent 22,000 American marines to the Dominican Republic to stop a leader he distrusted from regaining power. In 1973 CIA agents helped generals in Chile to overthrow President Allendc. Allcnde was sympathetic towards communist ideas and had nationalized some American-owned mining companies.

Actions like these help to explain why many Latin Americans continued to dislike their North

American neighbor. All over Latin America, it seemed, the United States was propping up oppressive and unpopular governments.

This was not the whole truth, of course. American dealings with Latin America had a more positive and humanitarian side. During their earlier occupations of countries such as Cuba and Nicaragua the Americans had built hospitals, supplied towns with pure water and wiped out killer diseases like malaria and yellow fever. In the early 1960s President Kennedy continued this tradition.

In 1961 Kennedy set up an organization called the Alliance for Progress. The United States gave millions of dollars to improve the lives of Latin America’s poor. The money was used to build roads, homes and schools, and to improve water-supply and sanitation systems. The Alliance also advanced money to peasant farmers, so that they could buy more land. Kennedy hoped that aiding Latin America like this would enable governments there to make enough improvements to stop people Irom turning to communism.

But the generals running much of Latin America continued to rely more on guns than on reforms to keep power. Despite the generosity of schemes like the Alliance for Progress, many people saw little basic difference between the attitude of the United States towards Latin America and the attitude of the Soviet Union towards eastern Europe. In one way or another, both superpowers seemed determined to protect their own interests by controlling their smaller neighbors.


Young US. volunteers building a clinic in Lima, Peru.