International Influences on American Political & Social Life

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine how international events have influenced American social and political life throughout history. We will highlight notable examples from the 20th century and explore them in their historical context.

Interconnectedness in Modern World History

Some of you may have heard the common expression, ''No man is an island.'' The idea behind this statement is that one's actions impact others, and likewise, every individual is impacted by others. In modern world history, the same is true of nation-states. Especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, what takes place in one country has the potential to influence dynamics in other countries. For example, in 1989, a democratic revolution broke out in Poland and triggered the Revolutions of 1989 that swept Europe and ultimately brought about the fall of communism. What began in one single country profoundly influenced the countries surrounding it.

A crane dismantles a portion of the Berlin Wall. The fall of communism was basically triggered by a democratic revolution in Poland in 1989.

In this lesson, we will be exploring how the United States has been impacted by international events and dynamics. We'll be taking a big picture approach and we'll focus mainly on 20th-century examples. Let's go!

Anarchism in America and the First Red Scare

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, anarchism was thriving throughout the world. If you're not familiar with the term and its connotations, anarchism is an extreme political philosophy promoting the abolition of government authority, establishing in its place a society organized through voluntary cooperation. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, anarchism tended to be a radical left-wing ideology with connections to socialism and even communism.

Anarchism began in Europe in the mid- to late-19th century, but by the 20th century, it had spread throughout much of the world, including the United States. In the first quarter of the 20th century, American political and social life was profoundly impacted by anarchism. For example, in 1901, U.S. President William McKinley was assassinated by a Polish-American anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. In the years that followed, many Americans were concerned about the infiltration of European-style anarchism and other left-wing ideologies.

The Russian Revolution broke out in 1917 and resulted in the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II and the creation of the world's first communist country, the Soviet Union. The revolution sparked a civil war in which the U.S. committed troops to fight against the communists, or the ''Reds.'' At home in the United States, anti-communist sentiment reached a fever pitch, culminating in a mass hysteria known as the First Red Scare. The First Red Scare peaked between 1917 and 1921 and was characterized by the widespread fear of communist and anarchist infiltration. Politicians railed against labor movements, socialism, and any ideology associated with communism as ordinary citizens struggled with fear.

Cold War Developments

Lasting between 1945 and 1991, the Cold War was a period of intense rivalry and bitter competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Nearly every aspect of American political and social life was somehow impacted by the Cold War. During the late-1940s and early-1950s, the Second Red Scare took place. In many respects, this mass hysteria was more pronounced than the first one.

The Space Race

Cold War tension led to the Space Race, in which both the U.S. and the Soviet Union attempted to create a superior space exploration program throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The Soviets got off to an early lead, causing politicians such as John F. Kennedy to advocate for a stronger education system (particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math). By the mid-1960s, the U.S. surpassed the Soviets. In 1969, American Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon.

The Space Race profoundly impacted American culture. During the 1950s and 1960s, space toys became extremely popular with children. Astronauts attained what we might consider ''rockstar'' status. Interest in space was so ingrained into American culture that space themes were commonly depicted on stamps. Interestingly enough, the same was true in the Soviet Union.

The Space Race captured the attention of the U.S. public so much that space themes were commonly depicted on stamps.

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