By Matt Roberts
How the American Identity was built Brick by Brick
America faced trial after trial throughout the second half of the 20th century. The American people experienced everything from the Second World War all the way to Woodstock. Every adversity and cultural movement bent America into the shape that it holds today, and every protest and every battle founded the building blocks of the American Identity. These building blocks were each important in creating the structure that is now referred to as the American “Identity”, but not all of these events were as ground-shaking as the rest. The major building blocks consist of: World War II and the Zoot Suits, Consumerism and the initiation of the Cold War, the gender struggle of the 1950’s, the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, the Vietnam War, and finally the Counter Culture movement.
World War II is the largest war to date, and still holds the record for having the largest amphibious invasion ever on “D Day”. World War II involved every continent and was felt by every man and woman that was alive. America’s personal involvement in the war was delayed, but not minor. The United States did not want to enter another world war after the majority of a generation was wiped out during the First World War. The American involvement in World War II was started after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had wanted to enter World War II for a long time, but the American people wouldn’t support his plans. Pearl Harbor had a large number of the U.S. Pacific Fleet docked in it, and the Japanese bombed the ships and killed many American Naval Soldiers. The attack on Pearl Harbor was the push that allowed FDR to “get the ball rolling”. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor bombing, the United States Congress agreed to go to war. America stayed true to its past and didn’t let an attack on American soil go unnoticed.
Our involvement in World War II lasted roughly 4 years, during which we lost close to 500,000 soldiers. The European war ended shortly before the war in Japan, and the dropping of the two Atom Bombs ended the war in Japan. The Atom Bombs were developed in complete secrecy under the name “Project Manhattan”. The project resulted in the most powerful weapon that mankind had ever seen, devastating thousands in the first few seconds after the detonation. The dropping of the Atom Bomb was one of the most important moments in American history, but not the one that shaped the American Identity the most.
During WWII, there were major struggles going on in America. African-American and Latino youths were staging a subtle but important form of protest against conformity to “White America”. Minorities were beginning to decide that rather than striving to be like their white oppressors, they would create their own culture and identities. These passive protests manifested in the form of Zoot Suits.
Zoot Suits were very flamboyant suits that used significantly larger amounts of fabric then the average suits of the day. During World War II, there was a significant shortage of supplies; so there was a limit put in place on the amount of fabric that was allowed for use in garments. The Zoot Suits were brightly colored and were created to be a nice garment that would represent the ability to live a life of leisure. The Zoot Suit allowed African-Americans to develop a new identity for themselves separate from their previous identities as slaves and laborers. Before they had the Zoot Suit to separate themselves from the pack, African American men were considered to be just the same as the slaves. Minority youths were attempting to show white people that they had disposable income and time, in an effort to demonstrate the insignificance of the economic divide between races.
These passive protests did not go unnoticed, and were a major part of the early civil rights movement. The Zoot Suit Riots erupted in Los Angeles, California. White Sailors in the Navy were attacking Mexican-Americans and African-Americans. They were identified based on the suits, and were viciously attacked. The violence went on for days in Los Angeles and was based off of racial tension and clothing. Zoot Suits started riots, and were one of the beginning steps toward the civil rights movement and legal equality. They developed an entire American Identity that is now known as “Black Culture”, and yet they are still not the most important building block of the modern American Identity.
The Zoot Suits were an attempt to fight against conformity to the white majority in America, but were followed by a new wave of conformity. This new type of conformity manifested itself in American Consumerism. Consumerism was a tool of the 1950’s to make status symbols out of everything from houses to televisions. People strived to be similar to their neighbors and continually “one up” them by purchasing the latest greatest thing.
The television transformed consumerism from an abstract idea of greed to something so powerful it was almost tangible. During the routine programs of evening television, families would see commercials. These commercials were designed for specific age groups based on what the product is geared for. These new methods of advertising arrived at younger age demographics then the ads in newspapers and on billboards. Companies gained the ability to “speak” to children more directly and at much higher rates. Children and teenagers were a largely untapped market before then. Consumerism didn’t only affect America’s youth though; American adults began to make purchases to represent status.
Consumerism in the 1950’s was the antonym to the infrastructure change due to the Industrial Revolution. People began to move out of the city and into metropolitan areas known as “suburbs”. The suburbs held true to the conformist trend of the 1950’s because of their uniform style. The idea was, “What better way to equal your neighbor then to own an identical house?” Consumerism shaped the American Identity in the world’s eyes. The trend of Americans as greedy buyers carries all the way to the modern world. Consumerism is truly the only building block that has grown stronger every year, but it too is still not the most important subject.
During the 1950’s, as consumerism was inspiring a nation of buyers, the cold war was beginning between the United States and Soviet Russia. The United States took a strong position against Communism in all its forms and Soviet Russia was no exception. The Cold War was a war that featured competition for technological advancements and constant nuclear bomb threats. America was in a constant state of fear that the USSR was going to bomb the nation. Propaganda and tensions ran high between the countries.
The first major cold war conflict that created a noticeable scientific achievement was the “space race”. The “space race” was an unannounced competition between Soviet Russia and the United States to accomplish space travel. Russia accomplished the feat of orbit before America did, but America managed to arrive at the moon. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were the first men to arrive at the moon, and Neil Armstrong was the first and only man to set foot on the moon at the time.
The Cold War lasted decades, and only came to an end in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell. The Cold War was our least violent conflict, and ultimately created nothing but competition, tension, and fear. The Cold War changed the way entire generations thought about foreign relations and propaganda, but the Cold War is still not the most important building block to our American Identity.
Amidst the Consumerism and Cold War of the 1950’s, there was a major gender struggle involving discrimination against women. Women had been typecast as mothers and wives. The only real jobs that were available to women were called “Pink-Collar” jobs. These jobs included things such as secretary, nurse, waitress, stenographer, etc.
The gender struggle began because women began to fight for rights to equal employment opportunities. The initial source of their struggle came from WWII, during which the majority of men were overseas at war. While the men were away at war, women became the major providers and caretakers for their children. Women had taken on more responsibilities in the household and were doing more important jobs that would help the war. After men returned to the United States, women were forced back into their original roles as a support unit to men.
Comic strips of the 1950’s show the battle between the sexes constantly, as well as the change in gender balance as time progressed. Earlier in the 1950’s the comic strip titled “Blondie” always featured a wife making ditzy mistakes. Later comics that began to stretch into the 1960’s always showed a husband being dopey and under the control of his wife. This shows that as time progressed and women began to strive for equal opportunities, women began to be portrayed in a less biased light. Women’s struggle was slow and rather uneventful as far as major protests that resulted in immediate changes go, but the time spent lead to the reward of equal opportunity. Women today have equal job and educational opportunity in the United States and have secured a place that is vital to what America is today. Women in the United States shaped the country from the backbone of families during the 1950’s to anything and everything in the modern world, and yet they too are not the most important building block behind American Identity.
The next major building block in American History was the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. As women were striving for equal opportunities, African-American men and women were fighting for the right to eat at the same counters, the right to go into the same stores, the right to sit down on a bus without being forced to move when a white person shows up. African-American men and women were fighting for basic rights that all people deserve.
The fight for racial equality was slow and filled with protests and violence. The civil rights movement of the 1960’s took place mainly in the Southeastern side of the United States. Racism was not a major problem in the North, and the people of the south had not adapted much from the days of slavery. The biggest leap that was ever made in the south was the children of Little Rock, Arkansas.
The town of Little Rock, Arkansas was the first town in the south to allow black children into a white school. These 9 children were all brave enough to face the public of Little Rock. The National Guard was sent in to protect them, but the National Guard was composed of local men who were often racist themselves. These 9 children were brave enough to volunteer to risk their lives over education, and all because there was segregation between the races. These 9 children were a symbol and an example to all the African-Americans in the south.
People risked their lives and fought hard to achieve equality. Without the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, America would be missing significant amounts of the identity that it holds today without racial equality. The civil rights movement is also a movement that is never ending, because true equality can never be achieved, but always fought for. The civil rights movement is truly one of the most important moments in American History that helped to develop the American Identity, but still not quite the most important.
The civil rights movements fought for equal rights, but the Vietnam War was fought for much less tangible reasons. The Vietnam War was not technically a war, and the reasons for which it was fought have always been shrouded in mystery. The conflict was initiated because we had moved naval ships near a Vietnamese harbor, and the president released a statement that they were attacked. Congress created a law that said that the United States President could move troops around the world in the interest of protecting peace and freedom.
The Vietnam War was full of casualties and unclear on purpose, but the clear thing was that America’s youth was not happy about the draft. American Teenagers were being drafted by the thousands to go fight in Vietnam and those who either dodged the draft or ignored it were very publicly opposed to the war. The most popular song played at Woodstock was by Country Joe McDonald, titled “I’m fixin’ to die”, which was all about the war in Vietnam and what’s wrong with it. The war ended after 12 years and American troops were shipped back home to their families. The Vietnam War was a war that shaped the thought of generations. The Vietnam War has inspired some of the best examples of American cinema; it has generated some of the most heated debates on morality; yet the Vietnam War is still not the most important event in American History that built the modern American Identity.
The Counter Culture Movement of the 1960’s evolved out of the violence in the Vietnam War. America’s youth began to seek out a new way of life that involved less violence and more happiness. They wanted to reshape the way things are done on a global scale and they wanted to start off with their own towns.
The easiest event to reference that shows the mindset of the Counter Culture Movement is Woodstock. Woodstock was a music festival that involved 34 performers and 500,000 people. The festival was intended to be fenced in and charged for, but too many people arrived too soon so the fence was cut down the night before the festival began. People were sitting in the rain, standing in the mud, sleeping out in the elements, and loving every minute of it. There was a feeling of unity that came through the crowd’s lack of violence. The American Youth was demonstrating that they weren’t the same as their wild ancestors of 1950’s rock and roll riots. They were trying to evolve beyond the cultural norms of their time.
The Counter Culture Movement was all about going above and beyond where taboos were in place to hold them from reaching. One such place was the world of drugs. The Counter Culture Movement had America’s youth smoking marijuana and trying acid; all in the interest of exploring their spirituality and a higher purpose. They were experimenting and experiencing what their parents had never tried, and they were attempting to learn new things.
The Counter Culture Movement also spawned a radical sect of hippies that were known as the Yippies. Their name came from an article in the New York Times; the author stated that he needed some name that demonstrated their ideas as well as the fact that they were more than just hippies. The Yippies founder Abbie Hoffman took the name in stride and created the acronym Youth International Party. The Yippies were responsible for major political protests on social changes and massive upsets that ended in police interference. Abbie Hoffman discussed the beauty of the policeman’s attacks for their plans. He talks about the fact that the Police were hitting “us longhairs” as well as others that were in the area. Their attacks helped solidify the yippie idea that all people are equal.
The Counter Culture Movement created a sense of exploration and limitless possibilities to the American Identity. The Counter Culture Movement set in motion the waves of creativity and exploration that are prized most in the modern world of education and craftsmanship. This is why the Counter Culture Movement is the most important building block of the American Identity. The Yippies fought for social justice similarly to the civil rights movement. The Hippies fought for peace so that they could succeed where WWII, Vietnam, and The Cold War had failed. Every element of the Counter Culture Movement was constructed off of the nations earlier falters. The Counter Culture Movement tried to succeed where others failed, and they broke new ground. Their ideas are still going strong today.
 Dating back to the Revolutionary War, Americans (or the American Colonies) have never lost a battle that was staged or began upon its soil.
 The Industrial Revolution caused a major shift in population from the rural farmlands to the cities where factories were beginning to arrive.
 Short for Sub-Urban housing. Urban meaning city based, Sub meaning partially.
 Buzz Aldrin never set foot on the moon.
 These jobs included mass production of ammunition and other war supplies.
 The Tonkin Gulf