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History of the United States

The United States is located in the middle of the North American continent, with Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. The United States ranges from the Atlantic Ocean on the nation's east coast to the Pacific Ocean bordering the west, and also includes the state of Hawaii, a series of islands located in the Pacific Ocean, the state of Alaska located in the northwestern part of the continent above the Yukon, and numerous other holdings and territories.

The first known inhabitants of modern-day United States territory are believed to have arrived over a period of several thousand years beginning sometime prior to 15,000 - 50,000 years ago by crossing Beringia into Alaska. Solid evidence of these cultures settling in what would become the US is dated to at least 14,000 years ago.

Research has revealed much about the early settlers of North America as indicated by Cyrus Thomas. Columbus' men were the first documented Old Worlders to land in the territory of the United States when they arrived in Puerto Rico during their second voyage in 1493. Juan Ponce de León, who arrived in Florida in 1513, is credited as being the first European to land in what is now the continental United States, although some evidence suggests that John Cabot might have reached what is presently New England in 1498.

In its beginnings, the United States consisted only of the Thirteen Colonies, which consisted of states occupying the same lands as when they were British colonies. American colonists fought off the British army in the American Revolutionary War of the 1770s and issued a Declaration of Independence in 1776. Seven years later, the signing of the Treaty of Paris officially recognized independence from Britain. In the nineteenth century, westward expansion of United States territory began, upon the belief of Manifest Destiny, in which the United States would occupy all the North American land east to west, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. By 1912, with the admission of Arizona to the Union, the U.S. reached that goal. The outlying states of Alaska and Hawaii were both admitted in 1959.

Ratified in 1788, the Constitution serves as the supreme American law in organizing the government; the Supreme Court is responsible for upholding Constitutional law. Many social progresses came up starting in the nineteenth century; those advancements have been widely reflected in the Constitution. Slavery was abolished in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; the following Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments respectively guaranteed citizenship for all persons naturalized within U.S. territory and voting for people of all races. In later years, civil rights were extended to women and black Americans, following effective lobbying from social activists. The Nineteenth Amendment prohibited gender discrimination in voting rights; later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in public places.

The Progressive Era marked a time of economic growth for the United States, advancing to the Roaring Twenties. However, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression, a time of economic downturn and mass unemployment. Consequently, the U.S. government established the New Deal, a series of reform programs that intended to assist those affected by the Depression. The New Deal has varied success. However, once the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, the economy quickly recovered, so much that the U.S. became a world superpower by the dawn of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the world's two superpowers, but with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, United States became the world's only superpower.

Pre-Columbian period

The earliest known inhabitants of what is now the United States are thought to have arrived in Alaska by crossing the Bering land bridge, at least 14,000 - 30,000 years ago. Some of these groups migrated south and over time spread throughout the Americas. These were the ancestors to modern Native Americans in the United States and Alaskan Native peoples, as well as all indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Many indigenous peoples were semi-nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers; others were sedentary and agricultural civilizations. Many formed new tribes or confederations in response to European colonization. Well-known groups included the Huron, Apache Tribe, Cherokee, Sioux, Delaware, Algonquin, Choctaw, Mohegan, Iroquois (which included the Mohawk nation, Oneida tribe, Seneca nation, Cayuga nation, Onondaga and later the Tuscarora tribe and Inuit. Though not as technologically advanced as the Mesoamerican civilizations further south, there were extensive pre-Columbian sedentary societies in what is now the US. The Iroquois had a politically advanced and unique social structure that was at the very least inspirational if not directly influential to the later development of the democratic United States government, a departure from the strong monarchies from which the Europeans came.

North America's Moundbuilder Culture

Mound Builder is a general term referring to the American Indians who constructed various styles of earthen mounds for burial, residential and ceremonial purposes. These included Archaic, Woodland period (Adena and Hopewell cultures), and Mississippian period Pre-Columbian cultures dating from roughly 3000 BC to the 16th century AD, and living in the Great Lakes region, the Ohio River region, and the Mississippi River region.

Mound builder cultures can be divided into roughly three eras:Archaic era Poverty Point in what is now Louisiana is a prominent example of early archaic mound builder construction (c. 2500 BC - 1000 BC). While earlier Archaic mound centers are known, Poverty Point remains one of the best-known early examples.Woodland period The Archaic period was followed by the Woodland period (c. 1000 BC). Some well-understood examples would be the Adena culture of Ohio and nearby states and the subsequent Hopewell culture known from Illinois to Ohio and renowned for their geometric earthworks. The Adena and Hopewell were not, however, the only mound building peoples during this time period. There were contemporaneous mound building cultures throughout the Eastern United States.Mississippian culture

Around 900–1450 AD the Mississippian culture developed and spread through the Eastern United States, primarily along the river valleys. The location where the Mississippian culture is first clearly developed is located in Illinois, and is referred to today as Cahokia.

Colonial period

After a period of exploration by people from various European countries, Spanish, Dutch, English, French, Swedish, and Portuguese settlements were established. Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot on what would one day become U.S. territory when he came to Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493, during his second voyage. In the 15th century, Europeans brought horses, cattle, and hogs to the Americas and, in turn, took back to Europe corn, potatoes, tobacco, beans, and squash.

Spanish colonization

Spanish explorers came to what is now the United States beginning with Christopher Columbus' second expedition, which reached Puerto Rico on November 19, 1493. The first confirmed landing in the continental US was by a Spaniard, Juan Ponce de León, who landed in 1513 on a lush shore he christened La Florida.

Within three decades of Ponce de León's landing, the Spanish became the first Europeans to reach the Appalachian Mountains, the Mississippi River, the Grand Canyon and the Great Plains. In 1540, De Soto undertook an extensive exploration of the present US and, in the same year, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led 2,000 Spaniards and Mexican Indians across the modern Arizona-Mexico border and traveled as far as central Kansas. Other Spanish explorers include Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, Pánfilo de Narváez, Sebastián Vizcaíno, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, Gaspar de Portolà, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Tristán de Luna y Arellano and Juan de Oñate.

The Spanish sent some settlers, creating the first permanent European settlement in the continental United States at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. Later Spanish settlements included Santa Fe, San Antonio, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Most Spanish settlements were along the California coast or the Santa Fe River in New Mexico.

French colonization

New France was the area colonized by France in North America during a period extending from the exploration of the Saint Lawrence River, by Jacques Cartier in 1534, to the cession of New France to Spain and Britain in 1763. At its peak in 1712 (before the Treaty of Utrecht), the territory of New France extended from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. The territory was divided in five colonies, each with its own administration: Canada, Acadia, Hudson Bay, Newfoundland and Louisiana.

Also during this period, French Huguenots, sailing under Jean Ribault, attempted to found a colony in what became the southeastern coast of the United States. Arriving in 1562, they established the ephemeral colony of Charlesfort on Parris Island in what is now North Carolina. When this failed most of the colonists followed René Goulaine de Laudonnière and moved south, founding the colony of Fort Caroline at the mouth of the St. Johns River in what is now Jacksonville, Florida on June 22, 1564. Fort Caroline was destroyed in 1565 by the Spanish under Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who moved in from St. Augustine, founded to the south earlier in the year.

British colonization

The strip of land along the eastern seacoast was settled primarily by English colonists in the 17th century, along with much smaller numbers of Dutch and Swedes. Colonial America was defined by a severe labor shortage that gave birth to forms of unfree labor such as slavery and indentured servitude, and by a British policy of benign neglect (salutary neglect) that permitted the development of an American spirit distinct from that of its European founders.

The first successful English colony was established in 1607, on the James River at Jamestown. It languished for decades until a new wave of settlers arrived in the late 17th century and established commercial agriculture based on tobacco. Between the late 1610s and the Revolution, the British shipped an estimated 50,000 convicts to its American colonies. One example of conflict between Native Americans and English settlers was the 1622 Powhatan uprising in Virginia, in which Native Americans had killed hundreds of English settlers. The largest conflict between Native Americans and English settlers in the 17th century was King Philip's War in New England.

The Plymouth Colony was established in 1620. The area of New England was initially settled primarily by Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. The Middle Colonies, consisting of the present-day states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, were characterized by a large degree of diversity. The first attempted English settlement south of Virginia was the Province of Carolina, with Georgia Colony the last of the Thirteen Colonies established in 1733. Several colonies were used as penal settlements from the 1620s until the American Revolution. Methodism became the prevalent religion among colonial citizens after the First Great Awakening, a religious revival led by preacher Jonathan Edwards in 1734.

Formation of the United States of America (1776–1789)

The Thirteen Colonies began a rebellion against British rule in 1775 and proclaimed their independence in 1776. They subsequently constituted the first thirteen states of the United States of America, which became a nation in 1781 with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation. The 1783 Treaty of Paris represented Great Britain's formal acknowledgement of the United States as an independent nation.

The United States defeated the Kingdom of Great Britain with help from France and Spain in the American Revolutionary War. The colonists' victory at Saratoga in 1777 led the French into an open alliance with the United States. In 1781, a combined American and French Army, acting with the support of a French fleet, captured a large British army led by General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. The surrender of General Cornwallis ended serious British efforts to find a military solution to their American problem. Seymour Martin Lipset points out that "The United States was the first major colony successfully to revolt against colonial rule. In this sense, it was the first 'new nation'.

Side by side with the states' efforts to gain independence through armed resistance, a political union was being developed and agreed upon by them. The first step was to formally declare independence from Great Britain. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress, still meeting in Philadelphia, declared the independence of "the United States of America" in the Declaration of Independence. Although the states were still independent entities and not yet formally bound in a legal union, July 4 is celebrated as the nation's birthday. The new nation was dedicated to principles of republicanism, which emphasized civic duty and a fear of corruption and hereditary aristocracy.

The Continental Congress that convened on September 5, 1774 played an important coordinating role among the thirteen colonies in dealing with Great Britain, including the American Revolutionary War from 1775. A constitutional government, the Congress of the Confederation first became possible with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union on March 1, 1781. Samuel Huntington became the first President of the United States in Congress Assembled. However, it became apparent early on that the new constitution was inadequate for the operation of the new government and efforts soon began to improve upon it.

A series of attempts to organize a movement to outline and press reforms culminated in the Congress calling the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. The structure of the national government was profoundly changed on March 4, 1789, when the American people replaced the Articles with the Constitution. The new government reflected a radical break from the normative governmental structures of the time, favoring representative, elective government with a weak executive, rather than the existing monarchical structures common within the western traditions of the time. The system of republicanism borrowed heavily from the Enlightenment ideas and classical western philosophy: a primacy was placed upon individual liberty and upon constraining the power of government through a system of separation of powers. Additionally, the United States Bill of Rights was ratified on December 15, 1791 to guarantee individual liberties such as freedom of speech and religious practice and consisted of the first ten amendments of the Constitution. John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, whose membership was established by the Judiciary Act of 1789; the first Supreme Court session was held in New York City on February 1, 1790. In 1803, the Court case Marbury v. Madison made the Court the sole arbiter of constitutionality of federal law.

Westward expansion (1789–1849)

George Washington—a renowned hero of the American Revolutionary War, commander in chief of the Continental Army, and president of the Constitutional Convention—became the first President of the United States under the new U.S. Constitution. The Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, when settlers in the Pennsylvania counties west of the Allegheny Mountains protested against a federal tax on liquor and distilled drinks, was the first serious test of the federal government. He announced his resignation from the presidency in his farewell address, which was published in the newspaper Independent Chronicle on September 26, 1796. In his address, Washington triumphed the benefits of federal government and importance of religion and morality while warning against foreign alliances and formation of political parties. His vice president John Adams succeeded him in presidency; Adams was a member of the Federalist Party. However, the Federalists became divided after Adams sent a peace mission to France despite ongoing disputes with that nation. Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, defeated Adams for the presidency in the 1800 election.

The Louisiana Purchase, in 1803, removed the French presence from the western border of the United States and provided U.S. settlers with vast potential for expansion west of the Mississippi River. In response to continued British impressment of American sailors into the British Navy, president James Madison declared war on Britain in 1812. Slave importation from Africa became illegal beginning in 1808, despite a growing plantation system in many southern states such as North Carolina and Georgia. The United States and Britain came to a draw in the War of 1812 after bitter fighting that lasted until January 8, 1815, during the Battle of New Orleans. The Treaty of Ghent, officially ending the war, essentially resulted in the maintenance of the status quo ante bellum; however, crucially for the U.S., some Native American tribes had to sign treaties with the U.S. government in response to their losses in the war. During the later course of the war, the Federalists held the Hartford Convention in 1814 over concerns that the war would weaken New England. There, they proposed seven constitutional amendments meant to strengthen the region politically, but once the Federalists delivered them to Washington, D.C., the recent American victories in New Orleans and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent undermined the Federalists' arguments and contributed to the downfall of the party.

The Monroe Doctrine, expressed in 1823, proclaimed the United States' opinion that European powers should no longer colonize or interfere in the Americas. This was a defining moment in the foreign policy of the United States. The Monroe Doctrine was adopted in response to American and British fears over Russian and French expansion into areas of the Western Hemisphere. It was not until the Presidential Administration of Teddy Roosevelt that the Monroe Doctrine became a central tenet of American foreign policy. The Monroe Doctrine was then invoked in the Spanish-American War as well as later in the proxy wars between the United States and Soviet Union in Central America and has also essentially given developing nations in the Americas support from the United States and warned the powers in Europe to steer clear of far western affairs.

In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to negotiate treaties that exchanged Indian tribal lands in the eastern states for lands west of the Mississippi River. This established Andrew Jackson, a military hero and President, as a cunning tyrant in regards to native populations. The act resulted most notably in the forced migration of several native tribes to the West, with several thousand Indians dying en route, and the Creeks' violent opposition and eventual defeat. The Indian Removal Act also directly caused the ceding of Spanish Florida and subsequently led to the many Seminole Wars.

In its mission to end slavery, the abolitionist movement also gained a larger following of participants from both black and white races. The American Anti-Slavery Society was politically active from 1833 to 1839 for the government to abolish slavery, but Congress imposed a "gag rule" that rejected any citizen's request against slavery. William Lloyd Garrison, formerly associated with the Society, then began publication of the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator in Boston, Massachusetts in 1831, and Frederick Douglass, a black ex-slave, began writing for that newspaper around 1840 and started his own abolitionist newspaper North Star in 1847.

The Republic of Texas was annexed by president John Tyler in 1845. The U.S., using regulars and large numbers of volunteers, defeated Mexico in 1848 during the Mexican-American War. Public sentiment in the U.S. was divided as Whigs and anti-slavery forces opposed the war. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded California, New Mexico, and adjacent areas to the United States, which composed about thirty percent of former Mexican land. Westward expansion was enhanced further by the California Gold Rush following the discovery of gold in that state in 1848. Numerous "forty-niners" trekked to California in pursuit of gold; land-demanding European immigrants also contributed to the rising Western population.

Civil War era (1849–1865)

In the middle of the 19th century, white Americans of the North and South were unable to reconcile fundamental differences in their approach to government, economics, society and African American slavery. The issue of slavery in the new territories was settled by the Compromise of 1850 brokered by Whig Henry Clay and Democrat Stephen Douglas; the Compromise included admission of California as a free state and the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act to make it easier for masters to reclaim runaway slaves. In 1854, the proposed Kansas-Nebraska Act abrogated the Missouri Compromise by providing that each new state of the Union would decide its stance on slavery. After Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 Election, eleven Southern states seceded from the union between late 1860 and 1861, establishing a rebel government, the Confederate States of America, on February 8, 1861.

By 1860, there had been nearly four million slaves residing in the United States, nearly eight times as many from 1790; within the same time period cotton production in the U.S. boomed from one thousand to nearly one million per year. There were some slave rebellions - including by Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), and Nat Turner (1831) - but they all failed and led to tighter slave oversight in the south. White abolitionist John Brown tried and failed to free a group of black slaves held in Harpers Ferry, Virginia and was therefore executed for his actions. Harriet Beecher Stowe, daughter of minister Lyman Beecher, published her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The novel intended to express her views of the cruelty of slavery and sold nearly 300,000 copies during its first year of publication. Numerous slaves also escaped their masters through the Underground Railroad, a term defining secret routes where abolitionists confidentially transported runaway slaves to "free state" territory; its most famous leader was Harriet Tubman.

The Civil War began when Confederate General Pierre Beauregard opened fire upon Fort Sumter, in the Confederate state of South Carolina. Along with the northwestern portion of Virginia, four of the five northernmost "slave states" did not secede and became known as the Border States. Emboldened by Second Bull Run, the Confederacy made its first invasion of the North when General Robert E. Lee led 55,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac River into Maryland. The Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest single day in American history. At the beginning of 1864, Lincoln made General Ulysses S. Grant commander of all Union armies. General William Tecumseh Sherman marched from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Atlanta, Georgia, defeating Confederate Generals Joseph E. Johnston and John Bell Hood. Sherman's army laid waste to about 20% of the farms in Georgia in his "March to the Sea", and reached the Atlantic Ocean at Savannah in December 1864. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. Based on 1860 census figures, 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% in the North and an extraordinary 18% in the South.

Reconstruction and the rise of industrialization (1865–1890)

Reconstruction took place for most of the decade following the Civil War. During this era, the "Reconstruction Amendments" were passed to expand civil rights for black Americans. Those amendments included the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment that guaranteed citizenship for all people born or naturalized within U.S. territory, and the Fifteenth Amendment that granted the vote for all men regardless of race. While the Civil Rights Act of 1875 forbade discrimination in the service of public facilities, the Black Codes denied blacks certain privileges readily available to whites. In response to Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) emerged around the late 1860s as a white-supremacist organization opposed to black civil rights. Increasing hate-motivated violence from groups like the Klan influenced both the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1870 that classified the KKK as a terrorist group and an 1883 Supreme Court decision nullifying the Civil Rights Act of 1875; however, in the Supreme Court case United States v. Cruikshank the Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as regulating only states' decisions regarding civil rights. The case defeated any protection of blacks from terrorist attacks, as did the later case United States v. Harris. During the era, many regions of the southern U.S. were military-governed and often corrupt; Reconstruction ended after the disputed 1876 election between Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes and Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden. Hayes won the election, and the South soon re-entered the national political scene.

Following was the Gilded Age, a term that author Mark Twain used to describe the period of the late nineteenth century when there had been a dramatic expansion of American industry. Reform of the Age included the Civil Service Act, which mandated a competitive examination for applicants for government jobs. Other important legislation included the Interstate Commerce Act, which ended railroads' discrimination against small shippers, and the Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlawed monopolies in business. Twain believed that this age was corrupted by such elements as land speculators, scandalous politics, and unethical business practices. By century's end, American industrial production and per capita income exceeded those of all other world nations and ranked only behind Great Britain. In response to heavy debts and decreasing farm prices, farmers joined the Populist Party. Later, an unprecedented wave of immigration served both to provide the labor for American industry and create diverse communities in previously undeveloped areas. Abusive industrial practices led to the often violent rise of the labor movement in the United States. Influential figures of the period included John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.

Progressivism, imperialism, and World War I (1890–1918)

After the Gilded Age came the Progressive Era, whose followers called for reform over perceived industrial corruption. Viewpoints taken by progressives included greater federal regulation of anti-trust laws and the industries of meat-packing, drugs, and railroads. Four new constitutional amendments—the Sixteenth through Nineteenth—resulted from progressive activism. The era lasted from 1900 to 1918, the year marking the end of World War I.

U.S. Federal government policy, since the James Monroe Administration, had been to move the indigenous population beyond the reach of the white frontier into a series of Indian reservations. Tribes were generally forced onto small reservations as Caucasian farmers and ranchers took over their lands. In 1876, the last major Sioux war erupted when the Black Hills Gold Rush penetrated their territory.

The United States began its rise to international power in this period with substantial population and industrial growth domestically and numerous military ventures abroad, including the Spanish-American War, which began when the United States blamed the sinking of the USS Maine (ACR-1) on Spain. Also at stake were U.S. interests in acquiring Cuba, an island nation fighting for independence from Spanish occupation; Puerto Rico and the Philippines were also two former Spanish colonies seeking liberation. In December 1898, representatives of Spain and the U.S. signed the Treaty of Paris to end the war, with Cuba becoming an independent nation and Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines becoming U.S. territories. In 1900, Congress passed the Open Door Policy that at the time required China to grant equal trading access to all foreign nations.

President Woodrow Wilson declared U.S. entry into World War I in April 1917 following a yearlong neutrality policy; the U.S. had previously shown interest in world peace by participating in the Hague Conferences. American participation in the war proved essential to the Allied victory. Wilson also implemented a set of propositions titled the Fourteen Points to ensure peace, but they were denied at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Isolationist sentiment following the war also blocked the U.S. from participating in the League of Nations, an important part of the Treaty of Versailles.

Post-World War I and the Great Depression (1918–1940)

Following World War I, the U.S. grew steadily in stature as an economic and military world power. The United States Senate did not ratify the Treaty of Versailles imposed by its Allies on the defeated Central Powers; instead, the United States chose to pursue unilateralism, if not isolationism. The aftershock of Russia's October Revolution resulted in real fears of communism in the United States, leading to a three-year Red Scare and the U.S. lost 675,000 people to the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.

In 1920, the manufacture, sale, import and export of alcohol was prohibited by the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Prohibition encouraged illegal breweries and dealers to make substantial amounts of money selling alcohol illegally. The Prohibition ended in 1933, a failure. Additionally, the KKK reformed during that decade and gathered nearly 4.5 million members by 1924, and the U.S. government passed the Immigration Act of 1924 restricting foreign immigration. The 1920s, was also known as the Roaring Twenties, due to the great economic prosperity during this period. Jazz became popular among the younger generation, and therefore, it was also called the Jazz Age.

During most of the 1920s, the United States enjoyed a period of unbalanced prosperity: farm prices and wages fell, while new industries, and industrial profits grew. The boom was fueled by a rise in debt and an inflated stock market. The Hawley-Smoot Tariff, the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Dust Bowl, and the ensuing Great Depression led to government efforts to restart the economy and help its victims with Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The recovery was rapid in all areas except unemployment, which remained fairly high until 1940.

World War II (1940–1945)

As with World War I, the United States did not enter World War II until after the rest of the active Allied countries had done so. The United States's first contribution to the war was simultaneously to cut off the oil and raw material supplies desperately needed by Japan to maintain its offensive in Manchuria, and to increase military and financial aid to China. Its first contribution to the Allies came in September 1940 in the form of the Lend-Lease program with Britain.

On December 7, 1941 Japan launched a surprise attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, citing America's recent trade embargo as justification. The following day, Franklin D. Roosevelt successfully urged a joint session of Congress to declare war on Japan, calling December 7, 1941 "a date which will live in infamy". Four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 11, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States, drawing the country into a two-theater war.

Battle against Germany

Upon entering the war, the United States and its allies decided to concentrate the bulk of their efforts on fighting Hitler in Europe, while maintaining a defensive position in the Pacific until Hitler was defeated. The United States's first step was to set up a large airforce in Britain to concentrate on bombing raids into Germany itself. The American Air force relied on the B-17 Flying Fortress as its primary heavy bomber. Britain had ceased its daylight bombing raids, due to heavy casualties inflicted by the Luftwaffe. The USAAF suffered similar high losses until the introduction of the P-51 Mustang as a long range escort fighter for the bombers.

The American army's first ground action was fighting alongside the British and Australian armies in North Africa. By May 1943, the British 8th Army had expelled the Germans from North Africa and the Allies controlled this vital link until the end of the war. The American navy also played an active role in the Atlantic protecting the convoys bringing vital American war material to Britain. By midway through 1943, the Allies were fighting the war from Britain with unbroken supply lines, while at the same time Hitler's armies were very much on the back foot, with heavy bombing taking its toll on production.

By early 1944, a planned invasion of Western Europe was underway. What followed on June 6, 1944, was Operation Overlord, or D-Day. The largest war armada ever assembled landed on the beaches of Normandy and began the penetration of Western Europe that eventually overthrew Hitler and Nazi Germany. Following the landing at Normandy, the Americans contributed greatly to the outcome of the war, with dogged fighting in the Battle of the Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge resulting in Allied victories against the Germans. The battles took a heavy toll on the Americans, who lost 19,000 men during the Battle of the Bulge alone. The allied bombing raids on Germany increased to unprecedented levels after the D-Day invasion, with over 70% of all bombs dropped on Germany occurring after this date. On April 30, 1945, with Berlin completely overrun with Russian forces and his country in tatters, Adolf Hitler committed suicide. On May 8, 1945, the war with Germany was over, following its unconditional surrender to the Allied forces.

Battle against Japan

Due to the United States commitment to defeating Hitler in Europe, the first years of the war against Japan was largely a defensive battle with the United States Navy attempting to prevent the Japanese Navy from asserting dominance of the Pacific region. Initially, Japan won the majority of its battles in a short period of time. Japan quickly defeated and created military bases in Guam, Thailand, Malaya, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Burma. This was done virtually unopposed and with quicker speed than that of the German Blitzkrieg during the early stages of the war. This was important for Japan, as it had only 10% of the homeland industrial production capacity of the United States.

The turning point of the war was the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Following this, the Americans began fighting towards China where they could build an airbase suitable to commence bombing of mainland Japan with its B-29 Superfortress fleet. The Americans began by selecting smaller, lesser defended islands as targets as opposed to attacking the major Japanese strongholds. During this period, they inadvertently triggered what would become their most comprehensive victory in the entire war.

The Pacific war became the largest naval conflict in history. The American Navy emerged victorious after at one point being stretched to almost breaking point with almost complete destruction of the Japanese Navy. The American forces were then poised for an invasion of the Japanese mainland, to force the Japanese into unconditional surrender. On April 12, 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died and Vice President Harry S. Truman was sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States. The decision to use nuclear weapons to end the conflict has been one of the most controversial decisions of the war. Supporters of the use of the bombs argue that an invasion would have cost enormous numbers of lives, while opponents argue that the large number of civilian casualties resulting from the bombings were still unjustified. The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. On August 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally.

Cold War beginnings and the Civil Rights Movement (1945–1964)

Following World War II, the United States emerged as one of the two dominant superpowers. The U.S. Senate, on December 4, 1945, approved U.S. participation in the United Nations (UN), which marked a turn away from the traditional isolationism of the U.S. and toward more international involvement. The post-war era in the United States was defined internationally by the beginning of the Cold War, in which the United States and the Soviet Union attempted to expand their influence at the expense of the other, checked by each side's massive nuclear arsenal and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. The result was a series of conflicts during this period including the Korean War and the tense nuclear showdown of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Within the United States, the Cold War prompted concerns about Communist influence, and also resulted in government efforts to encourage math and science toward efforts like the space race.

In the decades after World War II, the United States became a global influence in economic, political, military, cultural and technological affairs. At the center of middle-class culture since the 1950s has been a growing obsession with consumer goods.

John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960. Known for his charisma, he is so far the only Roman Catholic to be President. The Kennedy's brought a new life and vigor to the atmosphere of the White House. During his time in office, the Cold War reached its height with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.

Meanwhile, the American people completed their great migration from the farms into the cities and experienced a period of sustained economic expansion. At the same time, institutionalized racism across the United States, but especially in the American South, was increasingly challenged by the growing Civil Rights movement and African American leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. During the 1960s, the Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation between Whites and Blacks came to an end.

Cold War (1964–1980)

The Cold War continued through the 1960s and 1970s, and the United States entered the Vietnam War, whose growing unpopularity fed already existing social movements, including those among women, minorities and young people. President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society social programs and the judicial activism of the Warren Court added to the wide range of social reform during the 1960s and 1970s. Feminism and the environmental movement became political forces, and progress continued toward civil rights for all Americans. The Counterculture Revolution swept through the nation and much of the western world in the late sixties, dividing the already hostile environment but also bringing forth more liberated social views.

In the early 1970s, Johnson's successor, President Richard Nixon was forced by Congress to bring the Vietnam War to a close, and the American-backed South Vietnamese government subsequently collapsed. The war had cost the lives of 58,000 American troops and millions of Vietnamese. The OPEC oil embargo and slowing economic growth led to a period of stagflation. Nixon's own administration was brought to an ignominious close with the political scandal of Watergate.

End of the Cold War (1980–1991)

Ronald Reagan produced a major realignment with his 1980 and 1984 landslides. In 1980, the Reagan coalition was possible because of Democratic losses in most social-economic groups. "Reagan Democrats" were those who usually voted Democratic, but were attracted by Reagan's policies, personality and leadership, notably his social conservatism and hawkish foreign policy. Widely regarded as a hard-line conservative, Reagan downsized government taxation, spending, and regulation. Early during the Reagan administration, unemployment and business failures soon entered rates close to Depression-era levels; by 1982, the unemployment rate was 9.7 percent, and nearly 17,000 businesses failed. Gigantic budget deficits prevented any implementation of social programs. These trends reversed around 1983, when the inflation rate decreased from 11 to 2 percent, the unemployment rate decreased to 7.5 percent, and the economic growth rate increased from 4.5 to 7.2 percent.

In 1986, the Iran-Contra affair began after Reagan sold arms to Iran for the nation to free American hostages that it was holding to fund the Contras, although one of the Boland Amendments signed by Reagan in 1984 prohibited the U.S. government from offering any assistance to them. Hearings on the issue were held in early 1987, ending with the convictions of such figures as Oliver North and John Poindexter.

Reagan took a hard line against the Soviet Union, teaming up with friend and ally Margaret Thatcher, the British premier, against the "Evil Empire". However, he succeeded in growing the military budget and launching a costly and complicated missile defense system called the Strategic Defense Initiative (dubbed "Star Wars"), hoping to intimidate the Soviets. Though it was never fully developed or deployed, the research and technologies of SDI paved the way for some anti-ballistic missile systems of today. Gorbachev tried to save Communism in Russia first by ending the expensive arms race with America, then in 1989 by shedding the East European empire. Communism finally collapsed in Russia in 1991, ending the US-Soviet Cold War.

1991–present

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States emerged as the world's sole remaining superpower and continued to involve itself in military action overseas, including the 1991 Gulf War. Following his election in 1992, President Bill Clinton oversaw unprecedented gains in securities values, a side effect of the digital revolution and new business opportunities created by the Internet (see Internet bubble). The 1990s, saw one of the longest periods, of economic expansion. Under Clinton an attempt to universalize health care, led by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton failed after almost two years of work on the controversial plan.

In 1993, Ramzi Yousef, a Kuwaiti national, planted explosives in the underground garage of One World Trade Center and detonated them, killing six people and injuring thousands, in what would become the beginning of an age of terrorism. Yousef would be subsequently captured. In 1995, a domestic terrorist bombing at the federal building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people.

During the 1990s, the United States and allied nations found themselves under attack from Islamist terrorist groups, chiefly Al-Qaida. The regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq proved a continuing problem for the UN and Iraq’s neighbors in its refusal to account for previously known stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, its violations of UN resolutions, and its support for terrorism against Israel and other countries. After the 1991 Gulf War, the US, French, and British militaries began patrolling the Iraqi no-fly zones to protect Iraq’s Kurdish minority and Shi’ite Arab population – both of which suffered attacks from the Hussein regime before and after the 1991 Gulf War – in Iraq’s northern and southern regions, respectively. In the aftermath of Operation Desert Fox during December 1998, Iraq announced that it would no longer respect the no-fly zones and resumed its efforts in shooting down Allied aircraft.

The 1993 World Trade Center bombing by Al-Qaida was the first of many terrorist attacks upon Americans during the same period. Later that year in the Battle of Mogadishu, Al-Qaida militants took part in an assault upon US forces in Somalia, killing 19 Marines. President Clinton subsequently withdrew US combat forces from Somalia (there originally to support UN relief efforts), a move described by Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden as evidence of American weakness. These attacks were followed by others including the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, and the 1998 United States embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. Next came the 2000 millennium attack plots which included an attempted bombing of Los Angeles International Airport, followed by the USS Cole bombing in Yemen in October 2000, which the government associated with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network.

US responses to these attacks included limited Cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan (August 1998), which failed to stop Al-Qaida’s leaders and their Taliban supporters. Also in 1998, President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act which called for regime change in Iraq on the basis of Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, oppression of Iraqi citizens and attacks upon other Middle Eastern countries.

In 1998, Clinton was impeached for charges of perjury and obstruction of justice that arose from an inappropriate sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and a sexual harassment lawsuit from Paula Jones. He was the second president to have been impeached. The House of Representatives voted 228 to 206 on December 19 to impeach Clinton, but on February 12, 1999, the Senate voted 55 to 45 to acquit Clinton of the charges.

The presidential election in 2000 between George W. Bush (R) and Al Gore (D) was one of the closest in the U.S. history, and helped lay the seeds for political polarization to come. Although Bush won the majority of electoral votes, Gore won the majority of the popular vote. In the days following Election Day, the state of Florida entered dispute over the counting of votes due to technical issues over certain Democratic votes in some counties. The Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore was decided on December 12, 2000, ending the recount with a 5-4 vote and certifying Bush as president.

At the beginning of the new millennium, the United States found itself attacked by Islamic terrorism, with the September 11, 2001 attacks in which 19 extremists hijacked four transcontinental airliners and intentionally crashed two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. The passengers on the fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, revolted causing the plane to crash into a field in Somerset County, PA. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, that plane was intended to hit the US Capitol Building in Washington. The twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed, destroying the entire complex. The United States soon found large amounts of evidence that suggested that a terrorist group, al-Qaeda, spearheaded by Osama bin Laden, was responsible for the attacks.

In response to the attacks, under the administration of President George W. Bush, the United States (with the military support of NATO and the political support of some of the international community) launched Operation Enduring Freedom which overthrew the Taliban regime which had protected and harbored bin Laden and al-Qaeda. With the support of large bipartisan majorities, the US Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002. With a coalition of other countries including Britain, Spain, Australia, Japan and Poland, in March 2003 President Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom which led to the overthrow and capture of Saddam Hussein. Using the language of 1998 Iraq Liberation Act and the Clinton Administration, the reasons cited by the Bush administration for the invasion included the spreading of democracy, the elimination of weapons of mass destruction (a key demand of the UN as well, though later investigations found parts of the intelligence reports to be inaccurate) and the liberation of the Iraqi people. This second invasion fueled protest marches in many parts of the world.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded parts of the city of New Orleans and heavily damaged other areas of the gulf coast, including major damage to the Mississippi coast. The preparation and the response of the government were criticized as ineffective and slow.

By 2006, rising prices saw Americans become increasingly conscious of the nation's extreme dependence on steady supplies of inexpensive petroleum for energy, with President Bush admitting a U.S. "addiction" to oil. The possibility of serious economic disruption, should conflict overseas or declining production interrupt the flow, could not be ignored, given the instability in the Middle East and other oil-producing regions of the world. Many proposals and pilot projects for replacement energy sources, from ethanol to wind power and solar power, received more capital funding and were pursued more seriously in the 2000s than in previous decades. The 2006 midterm elections saw Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi become Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and the highest ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.

In addition to military efforts abroad, in the aftermath of 9/11 the Bush Administration increased domestic efforts to prevent future attacks. A new cabinet level agency called the United States Department of Homeland Security was created to lead and coordinate federal counterterrorism activities. The USA PATRIOT Act removed legal restrictions on information sharing between federal law enforcement and intelligence services and allowed for the investigation of suspected terrorists using means similar to those in place for other types of criminals. A new Terrorist Finance Tracking Program monitored the movements of terrorist’s financial resources but was discontinued after being revealed by The New York Times. Telecommunication usage by known and suspected terrorists was studied through the NSA electronic surveillance program.

Since 9/11, Islamic extremists made various attempts to attack the US homeland, with varying levels of organization and skill. For example, in 2001 vigilant passengers aboard a transatlantic flight to Miami prevented Richard Reid (shoe bomber) from detonating an explosive device. Other terrorist plots have been stopped by federal agencies using new legal powers and investigative tools, sometimes in cooperation with foreign governments. Such thwarted attacks include a plan to crash airplanes into the U.S. Bank Tower (aka Library Tower) in Los Angeles; the 2003 plot by Iyman Faris to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City; the 2004 Financial buildings plot which targeted the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings in Washington, DC, the New York Stock Exchange and other financial institutions; the 2004 Columbus Shopping Mall Bombing Plot; the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot which was to involve liquid explosives; the 2006 Sears Tower plot; the 2007 Fort Dix attack plot; and the 2007 John F. Kennedy International Airport attack plot.

After months of brutal violence against Iraqi civilians by Sunni and Shi’ite terrorist groups and militias -- including Al-Qaeda in Iraq –- in January 2007 President Bush presented a new strategy for Operation Iraqi Freedom based upon Counter-insurgency theories and tactics developed by General David Petraeus. The Iraq War troop surge of 2007 was part of this "new way forward and has been credited by some with a dramatic decrease in violence and an increase in political and communal reconciliation in Iraq.

As of 2008, debates continue over abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and the ongoing war in Iraq. A new Congressional majority promised to withdraw US forces from Iraq, however Congress continues to fund efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In the area of foreign policy, the U.S. maintains ongoing talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, as well as with Israel and the Palestinian Authority over a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the Palestinian-Israeli talks began in 2007, an effort spearheaded by United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The George W. Bush administration has also stepped up rhetoric implicating Iran and more recently Syria in the development of weapons of mass destruction.

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