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Badges promoting campaign of Barack Obama The third series of America charts the Post-War era.

Monday - Fridays 3.45pm
Omnibus - Friday 9pm
Series 3: 1 June - 10 July

Pride and Prejudice

Sole Superpower, Edgy Americans

The demise of the Soviet Union left the U.S. as the only superpower Domestically, Bill Clinton's victory in the 1992 presidential election marked a generational shift from the men of World War Two to the 'Baby Boomers', but the Clinton years saw an increasingly vicious ideological conflict. The end of the Cold War did not seem to make America content, but increasingly edgy.

In his first years, Clinton made a dramatic and unsuccessful attempt to reform the U.S. health care system. His problems became more acute in 1994 when the Republicans regained the Senate and won control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

The 1996 presidential election proved that Clinton was indeed 'the Comeback Kid', his re-election campaign boosted by a tide of economic recovery. However, the Republicans retained control of Congress.

Clinton's Achilles Heel proved to be a sexual one. The Monica Lewinsky affair surfaced in 1998 and months of sordid scandal reflected badly on everyone: the President was exposed as an adulterer and liar but the Republicans overreached themselves in their attempt to destroy him.

Meanwhile, the stock market was booming, as I.T. stocks soared and ordinary Americans bought shares. The 'dot com' bubble burst in 2001 and the market shifted to housing. The boom was also stimulated by loosening financial regulation, removing barriers between commercial and investment banks. Banks took increasing risks, and interest rates were kept low, fuelling the no-questions-asked credit boom. Here were the seeds of future crisis.

The 2000 presidential election was one of the most controversial ever, with the candidates - Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore - embodying America's culture wars. The decisive state was Florida, where the contested result was taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It voted five to four to overturn the Florida Supreme Court's decision to require a state-wide recount. Gore protested but conceded defeat.

Multiculturalism or Disintegration?

Immigration was one of the most sensitive issues in early 20th century America, but quotas in the 1920s, the 1930s depression and a world war slowed the tide. A new Immigration Act in 1965 changed the terms, allowing immigration on the basis of skills and relationship to those already in the country. There was a dramatic in immigration, climbing to 9 million in the 1990s. By the end of the century, over 10% of the U.S. population were foreign-born.

Most of these new immigrants came not from Europe, but from Asia and especially from Latin America. By 2000, one-eighth of the U.S. population was of Hispanic origin, the majority Mexican, but including many Puerto Ricans. There were also big immigrant populations from Chinese, Filipino, Japanese and Korean backgrounds.

Those who took a positive view of these developments praised the new 'multiculturalism'. But immigration also provoked angry reactions, particularly in Texas and California, with high numbers of Hispanic immigrants. In 1994, there were attempts in California to deny public education and social services to illegal immigrants. This was eventually reversed, but it encouraged similar moves in other states. A related concern was the growth of Spanish as a semi-official language in some areas and the proliferation of other languages in government publications. By 2000, at least 20 states had passed legislation making English their official language.

The underlying issue was whether the U.S. could maintain unity. Multiculturalism's critics believed it was a recipe for social disintegration. Political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that multiculturalism could topple Western values. For him, Mexican immigration posed a threat to American coherence, but on a global scale the clash of civilizations that mattered was that of Muslims against the West. This was soon to hit home.

'America is Under Attack'

George W. Bush had been in the White House for less than eight months when, on 11 September 2001, America was attacked at the heart of its finance and government. Two hijacked planes destroyed New York's World Trade Center, another ploughed into the Pentagon and a fourth, finally forced down by passengers, was en route for the White House. 3,000 people were killed.

Bush had not found his first months in office easy. He seemed to have no firm domestic agenda and, overseas, he was more cautious than the Clinton Administration, with its messy peace-keeping operations in Africa and the Balkans. Bush's verbal gaffes were notorious and it was assumed that he was controlled by his advisers. In reality, Bush was his own man; nothing could have prepared any president for 9/11.

It was soon clear that the 9/11 attacks had been conducted by al-Qaeda - a collection of radical Islamic cells headed by Osama bin Laden and sheltered by the fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Cynically, one might say that in September 2001 the Bush Administration needed a focus and an enemy, after the demise of the Soviet Union. That does not do justice to the searing effect of 9/11 on American opinion and on the President himself.

Iraq and the 'Axis of Evil'

Despite al Qaeda's obvious connections to Afghanistan, it was Saddam Hussein's Iraq that became the Bush administration's prime target after 9/11. Since the first Gulf War, Saddam had clung on to power, and resisted all attempts to remove his chemical weapons; there was also evidence he was developing nuclear weapons.

The neo-conservatives ('neo-cons'), who filled most of the senior foreign policy jobs in Bush's administration, saw the Middle East as America's prime battleground, with Iraq as enemy number one. They wanted to democratise the region on American lines and believed that the U.S. should act decisively without worrying about the UN or historic allies in Europe. The new 'war on terror' was their opportunity.

By Christmas 2001, a US-led campaign had removed the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, although Osama bin Laden escaped. Bush now widened the 'War on Terror', identifying North Korea, Iran and Iraq as part of an 'axis of evil'. The momentum for war in Iraq was building. The main resistance came from Secretary of State Colin Powell, who persuaded Bush to work with the U.N. for a period. Finally losing patience, in March 2003 the U.S. invaded Iraq with British support. Baghdad fell quickly and in May, Bush declared mission accomplished. Lack of post-war planning created a power vacuum which was filled by rival insurgent groups; without police and security services, Iraq descended into anarchy.

The long and bloody war and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction did not prevent Bush's re-election but, for most of his second presidency, he was a lame duck. A troop 'surge' in 2007 and a reduction in violence allowed the Americans to start withdrawing troops. The focus shifted to finding a plausible exit strategy from a war that had cost 4,150 American lives and over $800 billion by the end of Bush's presidency. The lowest estimates for Iraqi dead range from 100,000-150,000. The real total is probably far higher.

'To Shape An Uncertain Destiny'

No US election is routine but 2008 was truly epic, with the candidates personifying some of the great themes of America's past. The Republican candidate, Vietnam veteran John McCain embodied the imperial tradition of modern America. His running mate Sarah Palin represented evangelical and libertarian conservative American values.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton stood for a different kind of liberty, rooted in 1970s feminism. Her younger opponent, Barack Obama, was an African American, embodying the multicultural nation that America was becoming, as intermixing gradually renders meaningless the great divide between white and non-white that has colour-coded US history.

Obama was different from earlier generations of black activists, who still railed against the racism of white America. His strategy was more inclusive, and his ability to reach out to all Americans ultimately helped him win. His campaign also harnessed the power of the internet with great success.

By November 2008, the US economy was mired in its worst crisis for 75 years. The major culprits were irresponsible bankers, who deregulation had allowed to build up complex financial empires with little scrutiny. Bankers lent to everyone, building up the notorious 'toxic' assets, especially mortgages, that eventually poisoned the whole system.

Profligate bankers were symptomatic of a deeper problem. For most of the 20th century, the U.S. had been the world's greatest manufacturer, exporting goods and capital globally. But the Reagan years set Americans on a different course, buying on credit and failing to save. Investment from the Middle East, India and China now funded America; U.S. hegemony was founded on foreign credit. The global crash of 2008 raised the question of whether such an empire could endure.

But little of this registered in January 2009, when Barack Obama took the oath of office as America's first black president. Whatever the fate of his presidency, he has already booked his place in history. That day is a good place to draw this account of America's saga to a close.

Episode summaries by Victoria Kingston.

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