Interpreting Recent History
Miller: I asked our historians to look at the history of recent times in light of the 20th century as a whole.
America in 1900 was seen as a confident place. It was a place where crisis was seen as an opportunity. And it was a nation -- we were a nation known for making things. We were a nation known for our ceaseless change; the material change; the changing nationalities; it's a country in constant turmoil. But we seemed to have this confidence that we could solve these kinds of -- any problem that presented itself.
What kind of country are we now? How have we changed? This has been a raucous century, an unbelievable century.
Brinkley: I think people would find that democracy has prevailed in this century in very many fundamental ways. It's been a bloody century. I mean, we've had to fight the Kaiser; we've had to fight Nazism, totalitarianism, communism. And at the end of the century, democracy -- or American-style democracy -- seems to be stronger and more vigorous than ever.
At the same time, it's been the century of a struggle to bring more people into that democracy. I think the women's rights movement, the right to vote in 1920, and on and on for equal rights, equal pay, has been pronounced and that's something positive. And I think in civil rights, there have been extraordinary breakthroughs, beginning in 1950s, and into the '60s with the signing of the Civil Rights Acts with Lyndon Johnson, that people could start seeing our democratic experiment is moving forward, that more people are taking part in it.
Martin: I think there's this extraordinary momentum in the '50s and the '60s where through Civil Rights and through a whole range of social movements, people felt they could take control over their lives, and that they could form movements and make change.
And I think a lot of it goes to where do you think you can make change. If change needs to be made, can it be made in the political system? I think a lot of people feel that the political system is corrupt; it goes to whoever has the most money.
And it strikes me that that is very important. You know, where in their own lives people think they can make a difference.
Scharff: I think Waldo's point about people trying to make change in the '50s and '60s -- the pace of social life has sped up so much, as a consequence of information revolution, as a consequence of transformation of the working and family lives of everyone, that people now, I think, are making those changes while coping with enormous change.
Since the 1970s we've had an incredible revolution in family life in this country. Most children under the age of five in the United States have mothers who work, and in the 1970s that wasn't true. That was an enormous revolution in terms of who's available in the work force, in terms of what the landscape looks like. It changes everything.
Maier: It changed so dramatically, I suspect it's very difficult to imagine, for young people, how much it was assumed that a woman would stay at home, with her children, in the '50s, and even the '60s. People who were going the other direction were swimming against the stream.
Miller: It's a huge change. When you think, in 1900, in the garment industry in New York, women worked, but Italian women that worked in that industry were single Italian women. The minute they married, as much as they needed the money, they went home.
Maier: And think of how difficult it was for school teachers. You could teach when you were single, but as soon as you married you lost your job.
Scharff: So, a lot of those school teachers didn't tell. They didn't tell. They kept their marriages secret through the Depression, because they were the first ones fired. Now, you wouldn't think that a woman would have to quit her job when she's married, and in fact mostly you want to keep your job, so that if you can have that kind of ideal two-income family that will bring the benefits of the mushrooming consumer economy home to your entire family.
If you look at the fact that the fastest growing family type in the United States by the end of the 20th century was a single woman and her children, and that those were families disproportionately below the poverty line -- then you have a problem that maybe the government ought to do something about.
Masur: But this is also one of the themes, I think, of this century, if you take the long look, that's changed dramatically. I mean, Americans have always had an on- again, off-again relationship with respect to the role that they think government should play in their lives. And when you think about the striking transformation in the last quarter of this century, where the argument has been that government is too big; let's get government off of the backs of the people; let's return power back to the states; the kind of new states rights, the kind of new federalism that has taken place, marks a tremendous shift at the end of the century from earlier in the century, when of course, during the Great Depression, during other periods, the whole idea was that that was the role of government. It was the responsibility of government to play an integral role in people's lives. I think this is a crucial theme for the sweep of the century.
Martin: I think that one of the functions of government is to make life for those at the bottom better. And I don't think you can think about a federal government just sort of like making sure that the pot doesn't boil over. I think the government has to have some sort of a way to deal and to sustain, to support, and to make life better for those at the bottom.
It strikes me that if you don't deal with the kinds of issues that inequality produces, then this society won't continue to exist. I don't think that just because we're wealthy and we are dominant, that we will always be.
Maier: What do you mean, continue to exist? I mean, we're going to disappear?
Martin: Continue to exist as sort of the dominant power that will always control everything. You know, empires rise and fall, and I don't see any reason to think that the United States will always be dominant. And it strikes me that what you have to deal with are the core issues undermining the democracy.
Brinkley: There are foreign policy issues, and I think that what you're saying's true. But from 1945 to, really, 2000, the key was dealing with the external world, dealing with the Soviet Union. We're in the middle of a Cold War. All that money you're talking about, who should get it from the federal government, well, three-quarters of it was going to fight the Cold War, it was going to the military in the United States.
Masur: But this is part of the problem that Waldo is talking about. When we have on the one hand this ideal of democracy, and on the other hand this dissonance, this tension with the realities of growing inequality -- I mean, the statistics about inequality in America at the end of the 20th century are staggering. I mean, it's just growing and growing and growing.
You talk about people being alienated and disaffected from the political system -- well, when you're poor and you have a system that no longer is providing -- or an ideology that no longer says it's the responsibility of government to help you, we're back to that old individualism: Do you have to help yourself? And by what means can you help yourself?
Martin: Well, my friends, self-help is the capitalism of fools. If you don't have the wherewithal to help yourself, how are you going to help yourself?
Miller: I think with history, you get a perspective on things that can affect public policy. For example, poverty is different today than it was in 1900. There were more opportunities for unskilled people. And there was a transportation system in the city to take unskilled people from ghetto to factory. And today you take a large city; there's a tremendous concentration of minorities in that large city; the jobs have moved to the suburbs. In a typical city like Detroit, a third of the black households in Detroit do not have cars. There's no way to get to those jobs.
Martin: But I think the question, when you talk about all these urban -- who's in these cities, it strikes me that any of the major cities, L.A., places like that -- these are fundamentally third world cities. You're talking about cities where the population, as we go forward, are sort of like ringed by white and increasingly diverse suburbs, but they're functionally third world countries.
Brinkley: Los Angeles is not a third world city.
Martin: I think it functionally is.
Brinkley: I don't think so. I think it's one of the capitals of the world.
Martin: It is, but I think when you talk about the people who constitute the population...
Miller: What is powering LA in the direction that you're talking about? You've got to understand what caused it to become what it is -- if you're going to continue it or stop it.
Martin: We're talking about patterns of immigration. And since 1965 you've had enormous shifts in terms of communities of colors and population streams of color: Asians, Latin Americans, Africans coming to this country, really transforming a lot of population centers. And it strikes --
Miller: What does this have to do with the history thing?
Martin: It has everything to do with it, because I think one of the problems that we confront as we go toward wherever we're going, is who we are. And it strikes me that we are no longer who we thought we were.
Brinkley: We are a multicultural society. If we haven't melted into the melting pot metaphor, we're certainly interacting in different ways. The influx of Asian immigrants, and Hispanic immigrants, to the point that in the 21st century, you're going to have an America that's close to 50% non-white, which is I think something that's quite extraordinary.
Martin: In the '50s you could represent this nation as white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and male. And we can no longer think about ourselves like that. What we are has been created on the back of a lot of oppression, a lot of difficult times for a lot of working people, poor people, and people of color, and women. And what I think we need to do is focus on the struggle, at least as part of a dual narrative.
It strikes me that you can't just have America triumphant. That you also have to have sort of like what has informed that triumph.