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The American people during the 20th Century were governed by very different presidents. Their leadership styles were different as well as their personalities and politics. Their time in power alongside their approach to communicate with the public affected the trust the American people had in them and how they are still viewed today. The people’s trust in the presidency changed during this period due to impact during and after WW2, the Cold War, Vietnam War and the Korean War. Technological advances (space race), the eruption of nuclear weapons and culture outgrowing government changed the presidency style and therefore distrust became more apparent and spread through the American people. It could be said there was an increase on distrust but also an underlying distrust towards the presidency since the beginning.
The First World War was a war of heroism and power, the Americans were brought into the war to help fight for not only themselves but their allied countries together to end the war and friction between the countries involved. During WW2 the American people were being shown more realness of war, Pearl Harbour etc. and this affected the people’s trust towards Roosevelt’s decision to help and if it was right when they were still damaged from WW1. However, according to Robert Dallek, “He was a major transformative leader.” and he created and left America as a superpower, “able and willing to exert its influence around the globe” — because the people had lost their friends and families the war had affected the people’s trust of Roosevelt even though he couldn’t have stopped the war anyway. WW2 led into the Cold War and there became a hysterical reaction to communism and the fear of it spreading, which resulted in the red scares and people questioning what the President and government were going to do about it.
The governments solution was to join the Vietnam War and fight the communist North Vietnamese alongside the South Vietnamese, however this time period was at the height of media broadcasting, radio and television was current and speaking of the war at its most real and heightened self. People could see and hear first hand what was happening to the American troops, their brothers, fathers, sons and even though America was the biggest superpower of the world, how powerless they were against the Vietcong. This created a lot of distrust because the President (Johnson) wasn’t seeming to be doing anything and thousands of people were dying. The media used this and virtually stage managed the way the Presidents should be perceived, this created a sense of mortality, the Presidents had been seen as powerful and important but the media created images of them and shared their backgrounds with the people that showed them as more ‘normal’ and ‘human’ — trust declined because the media was showing the horrific truth and seeing no results. Nixon was known to be very paranoid and didn’t trust the press, he ignored them and this made them turn against him, they broadcasted him in a harsh light and criticised him at every turn.
However, it could be argued that there was no change in the people’s trust in the presidency because there was always distrust and opposition to the presidents. Even some of the “better presidents” such as Roosevelt, who led America and the allies to win WW2 still wasn’t trusted.
The distrust the American people had towards the the federal government reached its highest point in 1964 of 77%. The period that held the Vietnam War, civil unrest and the Watergate scandal is believed to have caused trust to fall by more than half, to 36%. By the end of the 1970s, around a quarter of Americans felt that they could trust the government at least most of the time. Some say the Watergate Scandal was the pinnacle of distrust toward the presidency. Watergate was a major political scandal that occurred in the 1970s, following a break-in at the DNC headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. Nixon’s administration’s attempted cover-up of its involvement. It created an age of journalism marked by aggressive investigative reporting and a sometimes bitter and conflictional relationship between press and political leaders.
Journalism is known as feeding public distrust toward the presidency however the damage it had done to itself was often all the people needed. The presidents during the 20th century were largely damaged by the wars, especially the Vietnam War because of it’s cause of involvement, what happened unfairly whilst they were there and how they left the war. The trust in the presidency, I believe has declined since 1917, although I believe there has always been some level of distrust and opposition, the ever-growing publicity of the 20th century showed the people what they had been blind to previously and it involved them more. Nixon’s presidency had the highest ever percentage of distrust (77%) after the watergate scandal and it is argued that from then onward, the people’s trust of the presidency never truly recovered.
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