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An Evolution of American Democracy

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As World War II came to an end, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as two superpowers with antithetical ideologies. One focused on strengthening democracy, while the other intended on expanding communism. The Cold War was never an official war, but rather a race to see what country would dominate in geopolitical, ideological, and economical aspects. Nine presidents witnessed the expanse of the war and constructed policies that they thought, best qualified for American standards and in the campaign against communism. Many policies exceeded expectations while others fell short of approval. A favorable foreign policy embodies qualities such as tact and sensible diplomatic abilities. A favorable domestic policy incorporates the desire for a high standard of living, the public welfare, and freedom of rights. The policies the cold war presidents conceived either constituted as a success or a failure in terms of the embodiment of a sound policy.

Eisenhower easily has the best foreign and domestic policy as they are both notable in the holistic pursuit of America’s desires. Eisenhower’s domestic policy was influenced by his observations as a commanding officer in 1918. His expedition across transcontinental America led him to realize the dire need for a highway system. Eisenhower recognized a national dilemma, and the Korean War presented him with an opportunity to create the largest public works project ever attempted and still in use today. The Interstate Highway System stretches 46,876 miles, and contains 55,512 bridges and 14,756 interchanges. The Interstate Highway System spurred job growth and unified the west coast and the east coast. Eisenhower’s domestic policy essentially raised the standard of living as it spurred suburbanization. Middle class families flocked to less congested areas as they saw suburbs as a safe living environment and an excellent place to raise children. The highway system goes hand in hand with the requisites for a successful domestic policy as it helped to raise the standard of living for a majority of Americans and bettered the welfare of the working class. His foreign policy is easily named the best out of all the foreign policies as it specifically targeted the containment of communism. Through his cautious political savvy, Eisenhower intended for the commitment of U.S forces to “secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.” The doctrine fundamentally stated that any country could request economic assistance and/or aid of US military forces if another country threatened it with armed aggression. The first practical use for the doctrine was to maintain stability in Lebanon when the president, Chamile Chamoun, feared attack by his political rivals. Though it wasn’t used to directly combat communism, Eisenhower relayed the doctrine as a prime defense: America would act to protect its interests in the Middle East.

Truman ranked second as his foreign policy and domestic policy also demonstrated America’s interests in containing communism and righting internal matters. Truman’s Fair Deal was similar to that of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and focused on reimbursing the welfare of America’s majority. He implemented public housing programs, raised the minimum wage, and expanded Social Security Benefits. Truman’s Fair Deal included many more viable proposals: economic controls to halt inflation, a more progressive tax structure, increasing the minimum wage, repealing the Taft-Hartley Labor Act (regulated labor relations of enterprises engaged in interstate commerce), agricultural reform, resource development and public power, national medical insurance, expansion of Social Security benefits, federal housing programs, educational aid, and civil rights protections. Despite these numerous public welfare reforms, most were shot down by powerful interests groups like the Farm Bureau Federation and the American Medical Association. Nonetheless, Truman kept the public’s interest in mind while vying for these reforms. However, Truman’s foreign involvement brought more trouble than it did success. It had accomplished America’s goal of coming to the defense of any country fighting off communism. Truman had been antagonized since he had fired his general. General MacArthur had publicly challenged Truman’s military strategy. As a result, the American public, who so highly regarded MacArthur, came to scorn Truman. Truman’s political standing was eroded and many of his Fair Deal legislatures were rejected. Despite his downfall, Truman most definitely had America’s best interests in mind during his presidency; however his views didn’t necessarily mix with that of the public’s.

Kennedy’s presidency is ranked third, despite its ephemerality. His domestic policy resulted from James Meredith’s march. Meredith was a black man who decided to challenge the racist educational system in Mississippi. He became the first black man to attend the University of Mississippi In June 1966. Meredith started a protest which he called the ‘March against Fear’.

The March started from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi and its mission was to encourage blacks to register to vote. As a result of the march, 4,000 black Mississippians registered to vote which positively impacted JFK’s election. JFK supported the civil rights movement and saw the March as beneficial to the advancement of the movement. As for JFK’s foreign policy, his newly implemented Peace Corps was undoubtedly beneficial to America’s stand against communism. The Peace Corps did not go as far as to directly fight communism, but it did prevent communism from spreading beyond its boundaries. Kennedy inspired students from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor to petition to live and work in developing countries. These young men and women were sent abroad to help assist people in third world countries so that they would not fall under the influence of communist authorities. Kennedy’s Peace Corps methodically prevented the domino effect from occurring, one that predicted that if a country fell to communism, other nations surrounding that country would follow lead. The Peace Corps was made into an independent nation, and still exists to help struggling nations today.

Ford’s presidency is ranked fourth as his administration redeemed itself in the public eye through its heroic valor. The American public denounced quite a few of Ford’s predecessors and Ford struggles to forgive and forget. As the first unelected president, Ford decided it was time to move on from Nixon’s scandal and focus on a brighter future. He stated that the prosecution was damaging to Nixon’s health, but had made no official commitment regarding his resignation. Many wanted Nixon to be punished for his deeds, but Ford’s statement regarding commitment [pardon of Nixon] ended the issue. In addition, Ford’s leadership in America’s foreign affair portrayed him as a hero in the public’s eye. His leadership throughout the span of the affair served as a remedy for America’s recovery from Nixon’s scandal. Known as the Mayaguez Affair, a Cambodian patrol boat seized the Mayaguez, a US merchant ship, and its 38 members. The White House did not want a repeat of the USS Pueblo an American ship that was seized by North Korea for eleven months in 1968. As a result, Ford sent a full-scale military rescue unit to save the crew members. The members returned safely home, and Ford emerged as an American hero. He was lauded by the New York Times columnist Cyrus L. Sulzberger, who said that thanks to Ford’s “resolute and skillful leadership” in the crisis, “a polluting American image of lassitude, uncertainty, and pessimism” had vanished. Ford does not combat communism, but is still vital in that he vindicates America’s cynical image. Ford assuaged American negativity from Nixon’s presidency through his heroic actions that channel positivity to the American people.

Carter’s administration is ranked fifth because he, like Ford, did not contain communism. He holistically protected America’s interests. The Carter administration had to deal with an unconventional Supreme Court Case at the time. Alan Bakke, a 37 year old white male, applied for admission to medical school at the University of California at Davis. He filed suit against the University claiming that his rights had been violated as the school had accepted several less qualified minority applicants. The California Supreme Court agreed and found that the quota system explicitly discriminated against racial groups and holding that “no applicant may be rejected because of his race, in favor of another who is less qualified, as measured by standards applied without regard to race.” The medical school, ordered to shut down its quota system, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reviewed the case in 1978. The Supreme Court ruled that the medical school racially discriminated against whites because it excluded them from 16 out of 100 spots solely by virtue of their race. The fact that blacks [have] historically [had] been discriminated against more than whites was irrelevant to this case, because racial quota systems, whether applied against whites or blacks, are always “odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality.” Under Carter’s administration, this Supreme Court Case depicted that no race should face racial discrimination and serves to exist that all races can be discriminated against. As for Carter’s foreign policy, it was considered the single greatest achievement of the administration. His Camp David Agreement led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt. Carter was worried about the possibilities of Soviet-American conflicts and an embargo on Middle Eastern oil. Israel and Egypt never quite got along, but through his strategic sense, flexibility, and sensitivity, Carter was able to get President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and the Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, to sign the Framework for Peace in the Middle East and the Framework for the Conclusion of the Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel. It was the first stepping stone towards a comprehensive peace settlement between Egypt and Israel that is still going on today.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Reagan, and Bush are equally ranked sixth since none of them stooped as low as Nixon did. LBJ’s domestic policy regarded firsthand knowledge of Jim Crow and aspired towards a ‘Great Society’, one that would “end poverty and racial injustice”. His Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a response to the attack of black demonstrators in Selma, Alabama marching for voting rights. It called for a suspension of literacy rates in counties where voting rates were below a certain threshold and provided for federal registrars and marshals to enroll Black voters. The effects of this policy were immediately seen as black voter turnout tripled within four years. On the other hand, LBJ’s involvements in the Vietnam War made his popularity plummet. The U.S viewed the conflict as a result of Soviet expansion and the Communist’s desire to conquer and spread. US involvement in Vietnam escalated exponentially; by the end of LBJ’s presidency, there were around 535,000 Americans deployed in Vietnam. LBJ didn’t want the Vietnam War to turn into another ‘Korean War’, one with an indecisive outcome, yet he also didn’t want to be known as the president who lost a country to communism. America’s position in Vietnam was hotly debated by many. People who were pro war were known as Hawks and people who denounced the war were known as Doves. Most people were antiwar as the Vietnam War was the first televised war. People saw firsthand how many atrocities were committed and how many pointless battles America had fought. One such battle that made the American public condemn LBJ was the TET Offense. The North Vietnamese struck a massive blow to Americans, killing nearly 100,000 people. The TET Offense served as a catalyst to the American public and led to the credibility gap. The credibility gap was a term widely used by skeptics to question the integrity of Johnson’s administration’s policies and the statements made about the Vietnam War. The entire war severely disheartened America and led to LBJ’s demise as a distasteful president.

Reagan was well liked due to his charismatic appeal but didn’t benefit America’s economic condition at all. Reagan firmly believed in a free market where “growth, prosperity, and ultimately human fulfillment, are created from the bottom up, not the government down.” As a result of his beliefs, he lobbied Congress to enact many tax cuts and drastically scaled back government spending. This meant that federal funding for many social services were cut, already tight restrictions on Medicaid were increased, reduced federal subsidies for low-income housing, cut spending on food stamps, and reduced federal aid to education. In addition, the tax cuts also reduced spending on the government itself. Reagan promised not only to reduce taxes and cut spending, but to balance the federal budget. He never did any of those things in his presidency. What he succeeded in was contributing to the largest budget deficits in American history and tripling the national debt during his eight years in office. As a result of his trickle-down economics, an increased disparity between the rich and the poor appeared as the nation’s private wealth increased by 31%. On the other hand, Reagan’s foreign policy was quite successful. Reagan’s INF treaty was the first US-Soviet accord of any kind to provide for destruction of nuclear weapons and was the first to provide onsite monitoring of this action by representatives of the two countries. The INF treaty of 1987 ensured that both superpowers would mutually assure an end to the war. The treaty led to the destruction of 859 US missiles and 1,836 Soviet missiles. This was about 4% of the nuclear arsenals of both superpowers. Reagan’s foreign policy worked in America’s favor, but his economic policy exacerbated many underlying issues.

Bush’s administration faced a similar dilemma to that of Reagan’s. He had an excellent foreign policy, but an unsuccessful domestic one. Bush’s “No New Taxes” Pledge was a result of the nation’s budget debt, $2.8 trillion. This situation restricted Bush’s ability to enact domestic programs, so he stressed “a limited agenda,” that included volunteerism, education reform, and anti-drug efforts. However he could not keep from producing tax increases, as he thought they might be necessary to solve the deficit problem. Many conservative Republicans felt betrayed when Bush agreed to raise taxes. In addition, Bush proposed a plan to save the collapsing Savings and Loans industry. This turned out to be a major loss as it ended up costing taxpayers more than $100 billion. The industry’s collapse and the government bailout only added to the predicament the administration confronted. On the other hand, Bush took control of America’s foreign affairs and successfully steered it towards a viable future. On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded its neighbor Kuwait. The invasion violated international law, and the Bush administration did not want Iraq to control Kuwait’s oil resources. The US, Britain, and the USSR strongly condemned Iraq for its actions, and it marked the unprecedented cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Persian Gulf War helped restore the morale of the U.S. military and dampened memories of the Vietnam War. It also showed the possibility of what Bush referred to as the “New World Order,” breaking down Cold War alliances and using peaceful nations to stand united against rogue states. Despite his wins abroad, Bush’s domestic polices resulted in recession and increased unemployment along with the federal deficit.

Lastly, there’s Nixon. He too tried to unsuccessfully combat America’s economy. Yet, he also had a successful foreign policy which led to amiable relations with the Soviet Union. However, his rank is due to his scandal. Nixon’s domestic policy was influenced by his political goals and did not repair the economy at all. He had little understanding of the concepts behind economics, yet he knew the political stakes in the economy. His wage price controls simply masked the inflammatory effects of the administration’s spending spree and unemployment rose to 6%. After he left office, America’s economy was left in shambles. Inflation climbed to 12.1%, oil prices rose as a result of the Arab oil boycott, and the stock market was on the verge of crashing. Nixon’s economic policies were outright terrible, but only because he had to deal with the unprecedented problem of stagflation, inflammation and stagnation. Nixon’s foreign policy was much better as it halted tensions between America and other communist countries. Nixon wanted the international super powers to balance each other. Detente was created to form a US-Soviet relationship based on the recognition of each superpower’s legitimate security interests. Nixon also improved America’s relations with China as he wanted to form a Sino-American axis to block Soviet advances in Asia. The USSR feared improving relations between America and China, so this led it to better its relations with America. Detente did not end competition between Soviet Russia and America, but established a process for managing it and paved the road for future pacts which sought to reduce and eliminate terms. Despite calling truce between the USSR and the USA, Nixon fell from grace as a result of his scandal. It increased the credibility gap between the nation and the president and tarnished Nixon’s reputation.

From the beginning of the Cold War to the end, America and the USSR had traveled together on an odyssey of instability. All the Cold War presidents endeavored to succeed in terms of their foreign and domestic policies. Nearly 30 years since the end of the war, America still struggles to diplomatically manage international matters. Present day America should take care to retain international goodwill with heed to these previous leaders, as the past guides our actions in the present.

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