The Tide of American History

* I just wanted to include a quick disclaimer – I don’t really believe the argument that I put forth in this paper.  My teacher asked us to take all the evidence we had seen from 100 years of history, the stuff we had been studying in class, and put it all into one central paper with one argument.  This argument seemed the easiest to prove to me.  I often find that the stuff that’s easiest to prove is the stuff that isn’t always true, however.  I will be the first to admit that this paper takes an overly simplistic view of history, and that Americans are not, in fact, obsessed with supremacy.

***

          America is obsessed with supremacy.  From 1870 to 1970, America’s quest to be the best pervaded every aspect of the country’s growth. A small segment of the population insisted that the United States be the world leader technologically, morally and even militarily. Tragically, national supremacy for a few of America’s citizens was only achieved at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of thousands of others.  Supremacy came at high cost to the regular people living in the United States, a cost that was ultimately not worth the price.

            The quest for supremacy started during the American Industrial Revolution. Companies mechanized everything to achieve maximum productivity.  Upton Sinclair provides a clear picture of the supreme mechanization of industry in the second chapter of his book, The Jungle.  His characters take a tour of the Chicago stockyards, where men and machines labor together to can meat for the populace.  As the characters watch, hogs walk themselves up a ramp, but chutes and wheels eventually take over, propelling the pigs through a marvelous, shiny death trap. Efficiency is so great that “they use everything about the hog except the squeal.”[1] To many, this was a mark of progress, of the wonderful things American engineering could achieve.

The productivity of the Industrial Revolution fed directly into the lavishness of the Gilded Age.  Diamond Jim Brady was just one of the products of this era.  He used his knowledge of industry needs to become a millionaire, and then used his money for complete frivolity.  He had a diamond ascot pin and ring that, combined, contained over fifty carats.  In addition, Jim Brady was known for his eating habits.  He would push the table back exactly four inches from his stomach, and when his stomach touched the table, he was finished.  His estimated caloric intake was over 28,000 calories a day.[2]  The mechanization of American society allowed for the lavishness of American society and for men like Jim Brady to continue their luxurious lifestyle.

Unfortunately, not all Americans were able to participate in this opulence.  Instead, most were running the machines.  For example, the immigrant family depicted in The Jungle seeks to earn their living by joining in the great age of progress. They are defeated in every way: by injury, death of disease and exposure, and corrupt officials, until the few that are left alive are forced to live off money gained from prostitution.  Real life examples of the plight of the workers exist as well, such as the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Over 140 workers died of asphyxiation when a fire started, and they could not get out of the locked and crowded sweatshop they were working in.[3]  As depicted in the movie Modern Times, starring Charley Chaplin, the worker can slip into the machine and become, not a person anymore, but a giant cog in the works of progress. The number of human lives that were fed to the industrial age in the name of advancement is a tragedy.  Although industry is important to the modern age we enjoy today, slower and more regulated growth of industry would have saved lives, provided humane working conditions, and given us a healthier future.

The quest for American Supremacy continued in the rise of cities.  In the early part of the nineteenth century, America spent time and resources making its infrastructure into the best in the world.  Roads, housing, and public transportation such as subways and trolley lines grew up around the city so rapidly that within ten years cities were almost unrecognizable.  Corporations tried to outdo each other by building the biggest and most lavish buildings America had ever seen.  The Chrysler Corporation seemed to achieve the paragon of excellence when its 1046 foot tall building was completed in 1930.  Only eleven months later, the Empire State building opened its doors at 1250 feet tall, eclipsing everything that came before.[4]  The struggle for supremacy continued.

Unfortunately, this also came at a huge cost to the poor.  Cities were growing so rapidly that government services could not keep up.  Social services were few and far between, and there was no one to help poor families.  Sickness in a family, a run in with the law, or even a funeral could wipe out a whole family’s savings and find them living on the streets.  To ease the comfort of their difficult lives, they turned to men like politician George Washington Plunkitt of the corrupt New York Tammany Hall political machine.  These men would offer a type of social network for the people in their district in exchange for votes.  In the movie The Last Hurrah, we see politician Frank Skeffington, played by Spencer Tracy, provide mourners and food at a funeral, in addition to strong arming the funeral director into charging a lower price.  Skeffington also hires a mentally retarded man when no one else will, and sends food and support to sick immigrant families in his district.[5]

Although in some ways, these politicians helped ease the plight of the working poor, they were also horribly corrupt.  Men like Plunkitt, mentioned above, would hire unqualified people for city jobs, engaged in mass amounts of graft, extortion and corruption.  Although they claimed to represent the poor they were really common crooks, stealing even from the needy people they pretended to represent.  Without these corrupt “Bosses” running the city, more of the poor might have taken advantage of the charity houses that were springing up across the city and attempting to offer help and education to immigrants in these communities.  These institutions, run by women’s groups and churches, offered help to the poor without the extortion and graft practiced by the politicians.

America did not only desire to be superior technologically, but also morally.  In 1919, the Volstead Act, prohibiting the sale of alcohol, was written into the U.S. constitution.  It was thought that this “noble experiment” would change American society for the better.  Institutions such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union made it seem like a moral imperative for Americans to support the movement toward Prohibition.  The powerful Anti-Saloon league made it politically unwise for anyone to oppose it.

Unfortunately, Prohibition was completely unsuccessful.  Instead, Americans tried for supremacy in the other direction: to be the best at debauchery.  By the time the 1920’s ended, New York had the most opulent clubs and the wildest nightlife.  Again, we can see Americans trying hard to outdo each other in the lavishness of the clubs.  “The Park Avenue Club, one of the city’s grandest nightclubs,… featured an octagonal bar and floor to ceiling mirrors.”[6]  Contrast this to the Country Club, which “featured a miniature golf course”[7], or the Marlborough House which “sported a pearl entry buzzer, silver leather banquettes, and a hammered brass ceiling,”[8] and it is easy to chart the one-upmanship happening all over New York.

This also came at a cost.  Prohibition did nothing to curtail the drinking of liquor, and instead allowed organized crime to run riot.  Underfunded, undertrained and underpaid Prohibition agents commonly took bribes to leave clubs alone.  On more than one occasion, when forced to act, they would shoot into crowds to stop criminals from escaping.  This usually killed innocent bystanders instead of their intended target.  In addition to corrupt officials, gangsters such as Al Capone gained huge amounts of cash and influence by smuggling bootlegged liquor throughout America.  Enforcement of the laws was also disproportionate, with poor people and immigrants facing the majority of the burden when they could not pay the bribes required by Prohibition Agents. “It is on the poor people [Prohibition] drives the hardest… Those that are rich can have what they want with no one to interfere with them.”[9]

The American quest for supremacy continued in the 1940s with the desire for military superiority.  After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, America had a vested interest in declaring war and proving to the world that they were more powerful than the Japanese military.  One of the most well-known battles of the war in the Pacific was the battle for Iwo Jima.  The decision to take this island was also motivated by the desire to show up others.  General George MacArthur had been kicked out of the Philippines years before and had declaired “I will return.”[10] Iwo Jima allowed him to fulfill this promise.  The Americans ultimately subdued Iwo Jima completely.  In addition, the battle became the defining moment for the valor of American Marines.  The photo of Marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi circulated all over the country, cementing the future of the Marines as a branch of military service for the future, and adhering the knowledge of American bravery into the consciousness of the world.[11]

Although America eventually won this battle and also the war, this too was on the backs of regular Americans.  Full of jagged rocks, caves, and the horrible smell of sulfur, Iwo Jima was a veritable hell on earth.  It took the Marines more than a month of intense battle to clear the island completely.  They suffered a 95% Casualty rate. [12]  Iwo Jima was of doubtful strategic importance to the war and was never used as it was originally intended.  To justify the extreme casualty rate, the United States military came up with a secondary purpose for the war, claiming that having a landing base on Iwo Jima saved thousands of lives by allowing planes to make emergency landings.  Robert Burrell has been able to prove in his book Ghosts of Iwo Jima that these claims are completely false, and that the loss of life on Iwo Jima was completely unnecessary.[13]

The Cold War is another era of American History marked by America’s desire to be the best.  The United States had to prove its superiority to Russia, China, and any other country falling under communist regime.  Thus the great arms race started, with America desperately worried that a missile gap was growing between Russia and America, and that we would fall behind, losing our position as the best.[14] This can be seen in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove.  The whole scenario of the movie takes place because the President has signed an order allowing others to order a nuclear attack in case a Russian nuclear first strike obliterated Washington.  The reason the order is given by Brigadier General Jack Ripper is because he wishes to demonstrate American superiority to the Russians in the first place.[15]  It is because of the American desire for omnipotence that the plot of the movie can take place at all.  Americans were far ahead of the Soviets technologically, the myth that the United States may be falling behind was clearly not true.

Although Dr. Strangelove paints a silly picture of the Cold War, the reality was much more serious.  This desire for military superiority created a state of fear for the entire American populace.  By placing Americans against Communists, fears such as those portrayed in the movie The Rack, that society had not prepared Americans to fight communist mind games, pervaded society.[16] In addition, rumors that a Soviet “doomsday bomb” seeded with cobalt would detonate and rid the world of all life were commonplace.[17]  Americans were living with the fear of death on a daily basis, and for reasons that were not very clear.

The history of America has been one of a struggle for supremacy.  America was ultimately able to achieve the ultimate authority she desired, but the costs were huge and disproportionate to the gains for society as a whole.  Any progress that depends on the lives and wellbeing of a huge swath of the population is not truly progress at all, but merely exploitation.  The history of the 1870s to the 1970s was characterized by such growth; national supremacy at the expense of individual subjugation.  As we can see from the examples presented above, America was eventually able to achieve technological, moral, and military superiority.  Hopefully in the future, leaders in America will see the damage this quest for power has done to those at the bottom, and take measures to protect its people in the future.


[1] Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, (Dover Publications, 2001), Kindle Edition, Locations 507-514

[2] Robert Slayton, lecture for “Great Issues in American History”, Chapman University, February 2, 2012

[3] Slayton, lecture for “American History”, February 2, 2012

[4] Slayton, lecture for “American History”, February 23, 2012

[5] The Last Hurrah, dir. by John Ford (1958, Columbia Pictures, DVD)

[6] Michael A. Lerner, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition In New York City,(Harvard University Press, 2008), Kindle Edition, Location 1773-77

[7] Lerner, Dry Manhattan, Location 1773-77

[8] Lerner, Dry Manhattan, Location 1773-77

[9] Lerner, Dry Manhattan, Location 1225-29

[10] Slayton, lecture for “American History”, April 19, 2012

[11] Robert Burrell, Ghosts Of Iwo Jima, (Texas A&M University Press, 2006), Page 157

[12]Slayton, lecture for “American History”, April 12, 2012

[13] Burrell, Iwo Jima

[14] Slayton, lecture for “American History”, May 10, 2012

[15] Dr. Strangelove, dir. by Stanley Kubrick (Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1964, DVD)

[16] The Rack, dir. by Arnold Laven (Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios, 1956, DVD)

[17] Slayton, lecture for “American History”, May 10, 2012

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