The third series of America charts the Post-War era.
Monday - Fridays 3.45pm
Omnibus - Friday 9pm
Series 3: 1 June - 12 July
Revolution and Democracy
'The Acting President'
Ronald Reagan promised what millions of conservative Americans wanted - to let them get on with their lives without interference from Washington. He had a tax- and budget-cutting agenda but was also increasing defence spending. This promised an unbalanced budget, but the President believed in 'supply-side economics' with lower tax rates encouraging greater enterprise and therefore higher tax revenues.
Reagan was prevented from pruning to prune the social security budget, from which 30 million elderly or disabled were direct beneficiaries and millions more expected to benefit when they retired. This effectively ring-fenced nearly half of government spending - making a balanced budget impossible. So the budget deficit soared from $60 billion in 1980 to $220 billion in 1986. This was mostly covered by borrowing from abroad, turning America from the world's greatest creditor nation into its largest debtor. Not only did this damage America's status, it was also a profound shift in the post-war financial system, which had relied on the export of U.S. capital to the rest of the world.
For the religious right - Reagan's presidency also proved disappointing. Keen to get him re-elected in 1984, Reagan's advisers were convinced that close identification with the religious right would alienate centrist voters, so the President made only token concessions to this group.
Reagan was duly re-elected in 1984, by an even bigger margin than in 1980. This was reward for the first-term strategy of avoiding religious controversy and concentrating on economic issues, making millions of Americans feel better off. It was also pay-back for the skilful PR campaign run by Reagan's team on behalf of 'the Great Communicator'.
Reagan and the 'Evil Empire'
The central, and unresolved, paradox of the Reagan presidency was that he was both a tough Cold War Warrior, and a would-be crusader for peace. When he entered the White House in 1981, Reagan struck an almost belligerent note, calling the Soviet Union the 'Evil Empire' and helping to usher in 'the New Cold War'. He announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), nicknamed ' Star Wars', to develop a defensive system to intercept and destroy nuclear weapons. It seemed to extend the arms race into space.
Yet Reagan was also a fervent foe of nuclear weapons. He believed that the Cold War policy of deterrence based on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was madness, and wanted to replace it with mutual survival. This came to the fore in his second term and coincided with the election of a young and dynamic reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, as Soviet leader.
The two men met in Geneva in 1985 and again in Reykjavik in 1986. They warmed to each other personally, but disagreed over Gorbachev's objections to SDI. Domestic pressures pushed both men towards agreement. The failing Soviet economy could no longer sustain the arms race. In the U.S. the Republicans lost control of the Senate, which would mean budget cuts for SDI, and Reagan needed a foreign policy success after the damage caused to his administration by the Iran-Contra scandal.
In 1987, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. agreed to cut intermediate-range nuclear weapons, the first such reduction. The following year, Reagan visited the Soviet Union for the first time.
The Information Revolution
Britain had been an early pioneer of the computer, but it was in America where the real advances happened. The development of transistor and microchip technology allowed for ever smaller computers. It was a tribute to American engineering and entrepreneurship, but government funding was also essential. Transistors were attractive to the armed forces for reliable, lightweight communications systems and computers themselves were vital to national defence. One system, SAGE, needed a vast computing system, the contract for which was won by IBM. This was a significant factor in its eventual domination of the computer industry.
The size and cost of 1960s computers meant they were still built for big business. The application of silicon chips to create microprocessors transformed the technology. The first personal computers were built in 'Silicon Valley', the high tech area around San Francisco. Apple was among many computer firms in Silicon Valley that turned the personal computer (PC) into a mass-market consumer product.
IBM belatedly brought out its own P.C. in 1981, with its software operating system from a Seattle firm called Microsoft. IBM put the imprimatur of one of the world's top corporations on the P.C. and between 1980 and 1982 sales of PCs quadrupled to 2.8 million a year. The information revolution had begun.
One sign of this revolution was in America's booming financial markets. The NASDAQ (National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations) was installed fully computerized trading in 1983. By the mid-1980s it was the world's third largest stock exchange and its competitors had to follow its computerized methods.
Computer networks had been pioneered by the military but, thanks to the P.C., were soon spinning off into American society. There were benefits in communication - electronic mail - and in the mass of information being organized by the late 1980s through the World Wide Web.
Behind the Iron Curtain this was impossible. The weakness of the consumer economy blocked P.C. development, while the computer youth culture that nurtured I.T. entrepreneurs in America. was inconceivable. So too was the information revolution in a country where information was so tightly controlled.
The P.C. and information revolutions posed economic and ideological challenges to the Soviets. Gorbachev was seriously worried that his country would not be able to take advantage of the new information age. The hope of sharing in the American-led information revolution was a major motive for forging a new relationship with America.
'Tear Down This Wall'
1989 opened with a new U.S. president, George Bush, who had served as Reagan's Vice-President. Bush did not share Reagan's utopian hopes of a revolution in international relations but had no substantive new foreign policies to offer.
The Soviet bloc started to crack in strike-ridden Poland, where free elections produced a non-communist government. In Hungary, long a semi-capitalist state, the communists started to share power. Gorbachev adhered to his new principles of non-intervention which emboldened protestors in East Germany. In November 1989, Berliners tore down the Wall dividing their city.
Bush's low key reaction disappointed many, but he was aware of the sensitivities, particularly with regards to a potential reunification of Germany. He reassured other Western European countries, and the Soviet Union, and worked with the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to achieve reunification in October 1990. Although people-power in Germany was decisive, Bush's combination of initiative and caution helped ensure international consensus.
The Cold War had came to an astonishingly peaceful end in Europe, but took a very different course in China. A gradual loosening of the command economy and a decade of rapid growth had boosted living standards but also triggered demands for democratic change. In June 1989, a student demonstration in Beijing's Tiananmen Square was brutally crushed by the Chinese government.
Since Nixon's visit in 1972, America had been trying to draw Communist China in from the cold. So Bush's response to Tiananmen was measured - he announced certain diplomatic sanctions, but in secret sent an envoy to Beijing who did not condemn Chinese actions. Bush was a pragmatist: in Germany he welcomed the fall of the Wall but kept Gorbachev onside, while in China he lamented the repression of democracy but did not let it derail U.S. foreign policy.
'A New World Order'?
In 1988, a ceasefire finally ended the bloody, eight year Iran-Iraq war. Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, was faced with vast war debts and growing internal discontent. In August 1990 he invaded neighbouring Kuwait, hoping to increase his regional power and enhance his oil revenues.
During the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. and Britain had supported Iraq to try and prevent victory for Iran. The Western outcry that greeted Saddam's invasion of Kuwait was partly anger at having been deceived. But there was also genuine concern that a small country should be brutally overwhelmed by a much larger neighbour, and concern that Saudi Arabia might be next.
Iraqi aggression was unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council. Bush went against the advice of Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by effectively promising to liberate Kuwait and military planning went ahead, although Powell and others still hoped that sanctions might persuade Saddam to withdraw. And Bush was also careful to proceed by consent, securing an additional Security Council resolution to give him legitimacy and trying to take Congress and public opinion with him.
Bush built a genuine coalition that included France, Britain and, amongst Arab states, not merely American allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia but also foes such as Syria. So when Operation 'Desert Storm' eventually began in January 1991, it was a war with unique international backing.
'Desert Storm' began with intensive Allied bombing; the ground war started five weeks later and lasted only 100 hours. Estimates of Iraqi dead range from 35,000 to 80,000, while the coalition lost 240. Memories of Vietnam had been overcome and the U.S. had found its nerve as a superpower again.
Diplomatically, the impact was less clear. Once Kuwait was liberated, Bush did not invade Iraq or seek to topple Saddam, although it was assumed that a coup in Iraq would follow his defeat. When this did not materialise, it left unfinished business for Bush's successors.
But that was in the future. In 1991, Bush could bask in the glow of 'a new world order'. And by the end of the year, he watched the demise of the 'evil empire' as the feuding republics finally broke up the Soviet Union.
Episode summaries by Victoria Kingston.