The history of the United States spans from the arrival of the first hunter-gatherers nearly 15,000 years ago to the present-day.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, the United States was occupied by Native American and Inuit farmers and hunter-gatherers. The most notable of these civilizations include the Iroquois, the Cahokia mound-builders, and the Pueblo Indians in the Southwest.
These people initially migrated from Siberia across the Beringia land bridge approximately 13,000 years ago. Unfortunately, none of these peoples had a written language before the arrival of the Europeans, so comparatively little is known about their history.
In the 11th century, Viking ships led by Leif Ericsson visited Newfoundland in Canada and founded a temporary colony. They were the first Europeans to visit the New World, but they left less than a century later and had no lasting impact on the continent. It is possible that these explorers also visited Maine, but there is no evidence that they stayed there for any amount of time. There are also theories about other European, African, and Asian groups visiting the Americas before Christopher Columbus, but none of these are considered plausible except for the Norse.
The Spanish were the first to colonize the future United States in earnest. A permanent colony was established at Saint Augustine, Florida in 1519, beginning three centuries of Spanish control over Florida. Additionally, Spanish colonists from Mexico pushed into the American Southwest from the 1540s onwards, establishing missions at Santa Fe, New Mexico and along the California coast.
The Dutch were also active on the East Coast. The colony of Nieuw Amsterdam was founded in 1621 on the site of modern Manhattan after having been bought from the local Indians for the equivalent of 21 dollars. However, after a war between England and the Dutch Republic, the English took over Nieuw Amsterdam and renamed it New York after King James II, Duke of York.
The English were relatively late in colonizing North America. An English colony established in North Carolina by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1580s failed to survive, and several decades of war with Spain prevented any future ventures. Finally, a permanent colony was established at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The Plymouth Colony of 1620 and Massachusetts Bay Colony of 1630 quickly followed. By 1700 most of the Atlantic coast north of Georgia had been colonized by the English.
The New England colonies were mainly established by religious refugees, particularly Puritans. New England was organized around farming and fishing towns that held democratic town meetings. Most farms were small and family-owned, and the rocky soil prevented cash crops from growing. Religion played a central role in colonial life: Harvard University was originally founded to train ministers, and religious hysteria contributed to the Salem witch trials of 1692.
The middle colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York were primarily founded by English entrepreneurs. The soil was more fertile than in New England, and they became an early breadbasket of British North America by growing food for the sugar plantations in the West Indies. Although the farms were generally larger and more profitable than those in New England, slaves were still uncommon.
The southern colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas were arguably the most socially stratified of the English colonies. The plantation owners held most economic and political power and dominated the poor white subsistence farmers. At the bottom of the ladder were indentured servants and later African slaves. The main crops grown were tobacco, rice, and indigo.
In 1757 war erupted between the French in the Mississippi River basin and the English pushing across the Appalachians. With the help of native allies, the English were able to defeat the French and declared the Appalachians as the western boundary of the English colonies.
Deep in debt after the Seven Years' War, the British enacted new taxes on the American colonies. The first tax was known as the Stamp Act; it placed a tax on every piece of paper sold in the colonies. Widespread public resistance to this resulted in its repeal. In its place a host of new taxes, ranging from tea to sugar, were levied. Anglo-American relations, already lukewarm, soured significantly.
In 1775 British regulars marched to Lexington and Concord to disarm the local militia. When they arrived, the militia, or minutemen, were already assembled. It is unknown who fired the first shot, but the battles were a defeat for the British.
In the initial stages of the war the British got the better of the American rebels. They captured Boston and New York, although they were forced to retreat from the former after the Battle of Bunker Hill. King George III, himself of German descent, called in Hessian mercenaries to help suppress the revolt. These soldiers were ambushed and soundly defeated in the Battle of Trenton.
In 1776, the First Continental Congress, composed of delegates from most of the colonies, met in Philadelphia to produce a petition for King George III. On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was ratified, and on August 2 it was signed. Additionally, George Washington was made the general of the new Continental Army.
After the Battle of Saratoga, a heavy defeat for the British, the French decided to join the American cause. French naval support became vital in the final battle of the war, the Battle of Yorktown. British forces were trapped in Yorktown and besieged until they surrendered in 1781.
In 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed and the United States was granted independence from the British.
Articles of ConfederationEdit
The first United States government was established by the Articles of Confederation. This document created a weak federal government with few powers, and strong state governments. Unfortunately, this arrangement proved unworkable and in 1789 the Constitutional Convention, composed of many Revolutionary War veterans and others, met.
The United States Constitution created a strong federal government with three branches: the judicial, the executive, and the legislative. Each branch checked the power of the other two. The legislative branch was composed of two legislatures: the Senate, with two Senators from each state, and the House of Representatives, with representatives proportional to the population.
War of 1812Edit
The War of 1812 was caused by tensions between the United Kingdom and the fledgling United States; the United States supported France in the Napoleonic Wars, and the Royal Navy continued to impress American sailors into their ranks in spite of American outrage.
In 1812, the United States declared war. The British colony of Canada repelled the American invasion, and the war descended into a stalemate. In 1814, British regulars invaded the United States and burned the White House in Washington, D.C.. In 1815, the British were heavily defeated by Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. The war ended that year, with little changing between the two countries.
In the first half of the nineteenth century a growing divide between the Northern and Southern states became apparent. The economy of the South was dependent on cotton and tobacco, and slaves were primarily used to harvest it. By contrast, the slaves were rare in the North and the economy was more diverse and industrialized.
The conflict between the North and South flared up whenever new states were added to the union. When Kansas became a state in the 1850s, it was flooded with pro- and anti-slavery activists, and it quickly became violent. When the vote was taken, Kansas narrowly became a free state.
Exploration and expansionEdit
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased millions of acres of land from France. The next year, he dispatched Merriweather Lewis and William Clark to explore this vast new territory. Their expedition hugely increased American knowledge of the West, but it only scratched the surface. Starting around 1840, large numbers of Americans traveled down the Oregon Trail to start a new life in the plains.
In 1820, President James Monroe penned the Monroe Doctrine, which warned European powers not to interfere in the affairs of the Americas. Although at times difficult to enforce, it brought all of Latin America into the American sphere of influence.
In the 1830s, the Mexican region of Tejas, which had a large American population, began to fight for its independence. It won in 1836, and Sam Houston, the president of the new republic, yielded to public sentiment and requested the United States Congress to annex the nation. The U.S. government hastily obliged and Texas became the 28th state. Seeing this action as illegal, Mexico declared war soon thereafter, in 1846. The Mexican-American War resulted in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, with United States gaining control of large areas past the Rockies, including what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, was elected President. His anti-slavery position enraged the South, and they formed the Confederate States of America and elected Jefferson Davis as their first President.
The first military action of the American Civil War took place at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Union forces held out for several weeks while the Confederates besieged them, but they were forced to surrender eventually.
The first major battle of the war was the First Battle of Bull Run. Each side expected an easy victory, and Washington, D.C. socialites came to the battlefield to observe. However, the battle turned out to be a bloody mess. The Union Army almost prevailed, but Confederate troops under the command of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson stood their ground, saving the day and earning Jackson his nickname.
Throughout 1862, smaller Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee frequently got the better of larger Union armies. However, neither side could press their advantage for long. In the Battle of Antietam, the Confederate advance into Maryland was stopped, but at the cost of thousands of lives. President Lincoln took this opportunity to declare the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the South. Of course, this proclamation was ineffectual until the government could actually enforce it.
The climactic battle of the war came in 1863. Robert E. Lee's forces were in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There, he met a large Union army under Joseph Hooker, and over the course of three days they repeatedly met and fought. At the end, thousands more were dead, but the Union had their first unequivocal victory.
In 1864 the Union was able to draw on its advantage in numbers. General William Tecumseh Sherman pillaged northern Georgia and torched Atlanta, one of the first examples of total war. The newly appointed General Ulysses S. Grant moved towards the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. The brutal Battle of Petersburg, mainly fought in trenches, sealed the Confederacy's fate.
The process of reintegrating former slaves into society proved a formidable challenge. The sharecropping system allowed slaves to be employed under their former masters while receiving a wage. However, their condition was little improved compared to slavery.
During this period, the North became increasingly industrialized while the South fell behind economically. New innovations such as the Bessemer process increased production and led to the establishment of monopolies, such as U.S. Steel under Andrew Carnegie and Standard Oil under John D. Rockefeller.
The invention of the gasoline-powered automobile by Karl Benz in the 1880s, the first practical light bulb by Thomas Edison, the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, and the airplane by the Wright Brothers in 1903 revolutionized America. Wealthy Northern towns were quick to electrify, and the automobile became a familiar sight on the roads.
Throughout the 1890s Cubans resisted Spanish rule. In 1898, the USS Maine was dispatched to Havana to protect the Americans living there. While docked at the harbor, the ship suddenly exploded, killing many American sailors. The American news media immediately blamed Spain for the attack, and the United States declared war.
American naval forces quickly got the better of Spain, winning the Battle of Manila Bay, defeated Spanish ships off the Cuban coast, and captured Guam in the Pacific. Spain quickly lost the will to fight, and forfeited Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico to the United States, as well as granting Cuba independence. This victory signaled the beginning of American power in international relations.
World War IEdit
In 1914, the Allied Powers of France, the United Kingdom, and Russia went to war with the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The United States initially remained neutral, although after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, public opinion shifted behind the Allied Powers.
In 1917 Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, and the United States was antagonized into war. American "doughboys" first saw combat in the Battle of Belleau Wood, and they quickly made a difference. By 1918 Allied troops were pushing into Germany proper and the navy had mutinied. On November 11, 1918, Germany surrendered.
The 1920s were an economic boom in the United States. Many consumer products, such as refrigerators, radios, and televisions became widely available. Women gained greater social freedoms, including the right to vote.
On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, plunging the United States into an economic depression. The incumbent President, Herbert Hoover, tried to allow the economy fix itself, but this proved ineffective. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected into office. Immediately, he began a series of policies known as the New Deal. He increased government spending, subsidized many industries, provided a safety net for unemployed workers, and founded Social Security. Initially the economy improved, but in 1937 it crashed again.
World War IIEdit
World War II erupted due to the aggressive expansionist policies of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini, and Imperial Japan under Hideki Tojo. Although initially appeased by the other European powers, the invasion of Poland beginning on September 1, 1939, proved to be too much. France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The United States remained neutral.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a surprise attack against Pearl Harbor. The U.S. Pacific Fleet was heavily damaged and more than 2,000 sailors and airmen lost their lives. However, all of the U.S. aircraft carriers escaped damage.
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese captured Singapore and Hong Kong from the British, the Dutch East Indies from the Netherlands, French Indochina from France, and the Philippines from the United States. Japan's next target was Papua New Guinea, which would serve as a stepping stone to Australia and New Zealand.
Elite Japanese troops advanced overland on the Kodoka Trail, but they were forced to turn back by Australian soldiers. Later in 1942, the Battle of Coral Sea pushed the Japanese out of the immediate vicinity of Australia. The Japanese then concentrated on capturing the chains of islands leading across the Pacific to Hawaii and the U.S. mainland.
One of the most important islands was Midway, at the end of the Hawaiian archipelago. The Japanese admiral Isoroku Yamamoto began planning an attack. However, the United States was able to decrypt his secret messages and learn of the attack. They immediately dispatched all available carriers to Midway.
In early summer 1942, the two nations' fleets met in the Battle of Midway. The American air arm devastated the Japanese carriers and forced the fleet to turn back. Overall, the Japanese lost 4 aircraft carriers while the United States only lost 1. Japan would never again have the advantage in numbers.
In 1943, the island-hopping strategy of the United States came to the forefront. Islands with strong defensive positions were skipped over and isolated, until they were forced to surrender without a fight. However, some islands, like Guadalcanal, had to be taken by force.
In 1944, the final great naval battle of the Pacific front occurred. The Battle of Leyte Gulf took place in the Philippines as the United States was trying to reconquer them. The Japanese fleet was once again heavily damaged. After this battle, suicide bombers known as kamikazes were deployed against U.S. ships.
In 1945, the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa were captured. The vicinity of these islands to the main Japanese archipelago allowed large-scale bombing runs to happen without major resistance. Despite the massive civilian casualties, the increasing fatalistic Japanese government refused to surrender. In response, in August 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, completely destroying the cities and killing tens if not hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Japanese signed the unconditional surrender treaty on September 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri.
The first actions of the European front involving the United States took place in North Africa. Allied control of this area was secured with the Battle of El-Alamein in 1942. This gave the Allies a stepping stone to Sicily and then on to Italy. By 1944, Italy had been fully invaded and had switched to the Allied side. However, the northern part of the country remained under German control.
At the same time, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada were preparing for a mainland invasion. On June 6, 1944, a day known as D-Day, 144,000 Allied troops landed on 5 beaches in Normandy. They quickly secured a beachhead and began to push inland. By the fall they controlled most of France and the Low Countries. In October 1944, Germany launched a major counterattack that was initially successful, but Allied air power managed to put it down.
At the beginning of 1945, Germany was in dire straits. The Soviet Union was advanced rapidly across Poland and into Germany proper, while the United States and the United Kingdom were poised to strike the western side. By April 1945, the Soviets were in Berlin. Adolf Hitler committed suicide, and in May Germany surrendered unconditionally.
After World War II, two dominant superpowers became apparent. The communist Soviet Union and the capitalist United States each built up extensive spheres of influence. The Soviet Union controlled most of Eastern Europe under the Warsaw Pact, while the United States was allied with most of Western Europe under the North American Treaty Organization, or NATO.
In 1949, Soviet-allied East Germany cut off all supply routes to the city of Berlin, which it completely surrounded. In response, NATO orchestrated an airlift which succeeded in supplying the city. East Germany quickly backed off. It was also in 1949 when the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb, known as Joe-1 in the West.
In Asia, the Korean Peninsula had been divided into two parts, Soviet-aligned North Korea and U.S.-aligned South Korea. In 1950, North Korea launched a surprise attack against South Korea in order to regain the entire peninsula. U.S. reinforcements from Japan were unable to halt the advance, and by the end of 1950 they were confined to a small area known as the Pusan Perimeter.
The North Koreans were unable to break this perimeter, and U.S. and other nation's troops kept pouring in. By 1951 they had pushed back the North Koreans to almost the Chinese border at the Yalu River. China, also communist and an ally of North Korea, entered the war. The surge of hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops overwhelmed the South Korean and American forces, and they were pushed back to the original border. After 1952, this front line stabilized, and in 1953 an armistice was signed, neither side having gained anything.
In 1959, the Soviet Union launched a satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. It was the first man-made object to enter space. The potential application of space-launch technology to nuclear missiles prompting a Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In 1961, the Soviet Union put Yuri Gagarin into space, and brought him back again alive. He became the first man to enter space, and the first man to orbit the Earth. The United States didn't put Alan Shephard into space until 1962. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
As the 1960s went on the United States quickly caught up and surpassed the Soviet Union. In 1969, U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon. Several more moon missions were launched by the United States in the 1970s, but the moon has not been visited by humans since. After the moon landing, the United States and the Soviet Union entered a period of cooperation in space that persists to this day.
The next major conflict in the Cold War also took place in Asia. After winning independence from France in 1954, Vietnam was divided into a communist North Vietnam and a U.S.-backed South Vietnam by the Geneva Conference. Starting in 1959 border clashes between the two Vietnams erupted into war. American military advisors were dispatched to the region in the early 1960s.
In 1963, several U.S. ships allegedly took fire in the Gulf of Tonkin. In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized full-scale military action in Southeast Asia. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were sent to assist South Vietnam.
Although the U.S. forces nearly always got the better of the regular North Vietnamese military, the Viet Minh, the Viet Cong guerrillas proved a much more formidable challenge. As casualties racked up, public opinion increasingly turned against the war. In 1968, on the Vietnamese holiday of Tet, a massive offensive was launched by the North Vietnamese. Although it was successfully repelled, the U.S. military lost public support for the war.
Beginning in 1969, U.S. troops were strategically withdrawn from Vietnam. In 1973, this process was complete, and a ceasefire was signed between North and South Vietnam. However, in 1975, North Vietnam launched an invasion of South Vietnam. Without U.S. support, South Vietnam was unable to resist and fell. Vietnam was reunified under a communist government.
The 1970s were an economic low point for the United States. Beginning in 1973, the members of OPEC refused to sell oil to the United States, resulting in a gasoline shortage. Increasing competition from other nations led to the decline of U.S. industry, and industrial cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland became poor and derelict.
In 1979, the Iranian Revolution erupted and members of the U.S. embassy in Tehran were taken hostage. A failed rescue attempt led to the deaths of U.S. servicemen, and the hostages weren't released until nearly 400 days later. This event signaled the rise of anti-Americanism in the Middle East.
Reagan era and fall of the Soviet UnionEdit
At the beginning of the 1980s, the United States was still in an economic recession. It peaked in 1983, but subsided and the second half of the decade was marked with economic growth. Successful military actions in Grenada and Panama increased American confidence.
At the same time, the Soviet Union was in serious decline. The Soviet war in Afghanistan was draining resources, and a series of ineffectual leaders had died and been replaced in quick succession. Additionally, Saudi Arabia stepped up oil production, which cut into the main source of Soviet revenue.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took power, and he implemented limited democratic reforms. These galvanized nationalist movements in the Baltic states and the Caucasus, and the Soviet Union quickly split into 11 different nations.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States remained the world's only superpower. The threat of Japan to the U.S. economy died down, and after decolonization the traditional European powers were shells of their former selves.
In 1990, Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded the small, oil-rich nation of Kuwait. The U.S. immediately assembled a coalition to liberate Kuwait. Beginning in early 1991, in under 100 hours the Iraqi forces were defeated and forced to retreat. In response, Kurds and Marsh Arabs revolted against Iraq, but they were brutally put down due to the failure of the coalition to completely destroy the Iraqi army.
War on TerrorEdit
On September 11, 2001, terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda crashed commercial airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Another airliner crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers revolted against the terrorists.
In November, the United States invaded Afghanistan in an effort to locate Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks, as well as expel the Taliban. Kabul, the capital, was quickly secured and fighting moved to the isolated valleys where the Taliban took shelter.
In 2002, the United States began pressuring Saddam Hussein's Iraq to give up their weapons of mass destruction. In March of 2003, the United States, along with a coalition of allied nations, invaded Iraq. U.S. airstrikes quickly destroyed the Iraqi air force and allowed coalition aircraft to operate with impunity. Iraq's considerable tank armies were disabled by A-10 Warthogs, and most of the Iraqi army quickly deserted. Once Iraq was secured, it became apparent that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
However, the invasion prompted an explosion in violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites. The U.S. was forced to play a policing role between the various sects, and was unable to fully withdraw until 2011. The United States remains engaged in Afghanistan.