United States

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Rule of Law

1910-1914: The distinctive American tradition of an active independent judiciary is well established, along with a more recent concern with industrial monopolies. In 1912 New Mexico and Arizona become the 47th and 48th states, and Alaska a territory. The next year, the 17th Amendment to the constitution comes into force, providing for the direct election of U.S. senators.

1915-1919: In the run-up to war, concerns veer toward defense and military "preparedness." The 1916 National Defense Act expands the army and creates the territorial National Guard. After the United States enters the war, an Espionage Act comes into force. In 1918 a broader Sedition Act is passed that will be used against socialists and antiwar activists. Fear of communism grows.

1920-1927: Constitutional amendments ban alcohol manufacture and sale and give women the right to vote. A "red scare" mounts; anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti are executed in Massachusetts despite protests that their trial was unfair. In 1924 Native Americans become full citizens. The same year, Harding administration scandals come to light; one involves fraud in management of oil reserves at Teapot Dome.

1928-1934: Organized crime has taken over the liquor business, a source of street lore but also one of wealth for violent syndicates. In 1931 gangster Al Capone of Chicago is finally jailed for tax evasion. Gang wealth shows both the impracticality of Prohibition and its economic cost, and contributes to its repeal. In 1933 newly inaugurated President Roosevelt escapes an assassination attempt in Miami.

1935-1939: Frustrated with frequent challenges to his laws, Roosevelt launches an attempt to reform the judiciary and, in particular, expand the membership of the Supreme Court. The plan is roundly criticized and rapidly fails. In his long tenure in office, however, Roosevelt appoints Felix Frankfurter and numerous other justices who will mark the court for decades.

1940-1945: Onset of war brings the Alien Registration Act and rules to root out "subversives." The mass internment of Japanese in remote camps contrasts with the freedom afforded German- and Italian-Americans. The CIA's predecessor the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) is formed in 1942. The House Un-American Activities Committee begins to accuse suspected subversives and communists.

1946-1952: Anticommunism spreads. Leaders of the Communist Party are put on trial. Senator Joseph McCarthy gains prominence with accusations of subversion among government employees. The Internal Security Act of 1950 is passed over President Truman's veto. That year, Puerto Rican nationalists attempt to assassinate Truman. One is killed; Truman later commutes the other's death sentence to life imprisonment.

1953-1956: The anticommunist witch-hunt culminates in the McCarthy congressional hearings in 1953-54, which end with the senator disavowed and reprimanded. But the accusations have ruined careers, with many in public service, universities, and the media blacklisted. Convicted traitors Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are executed. The 1956 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott turns the spotlight on civil rights.

1957-1960: Resistance to school desegregation turns violent as Southern states are forced to implement the 1954 "Brown v. The Board of Education" Supreme Court decision. Eisenhower must send federal troops to Little Rock to uphold the law when the governor refuses admittance to nine black students. Civil Rights Acts are passed in 1957 and 1960, but many Southern whites and local political remain hostile.

1961-1964: Kennedy's assassination is blamed on Lee Harvey Oswald, who is in turn murdered while in custody. Doubts linger on whether Oswald acted alone. Northern "freedom riders," many white, flow south to support the civil rights movement, encountering violence and in some cases death. Martin Luther King supports nonviolence, but Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" doctrine gains acceptance.

1965-1968: President Johnson's Great Society program includes the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which scraps remaining voting obstacles for black voters, such as literacy tests. But violent resistance endures to civil rights. In early 1968 King and Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy are assassinated. Violent dissent grows in the inner cities as an outgrowth of the "counterculture."

1969-1971: Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas resigns in an ethics scandal, and two successive Nixon nominees are defeated in confirmation hearings. Justice Warren Burger and Harry Blackmun join the court. In 1971 the classified "Pentagon Papers" are published despite legal injunctions. They reveal the secret roots of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

1972-1975: The Watergate break-in is quickly linked to the Nixon reelection campaign. Evidence soon emerges of a cover-up, setting in motion Washington's most severe scandal in memory. Nixon aides are indicted, and the president must resign. Meanwhile in 1973 Vice President Spiro Agnew has resigned in a separate scandal.

1976-1980: Watergate has discredited politicians and set new terms and precedents for accountability. CIA involvement in various covert or illegal acts around the world is revealed. President Carter pardons most Vietnam draft evaders. He and his brother are cleared of wrongdoing in a loans controversy.

1981-1985: An assassination attempt seriously wounds President Reagan; the gunman, John Hinckley, is later found insane and confined to a psychiatric hospital. The Equal Rights Amendment fails to secure ratification. Anti-American terrorism crests, particularly in the Middle East. More than 200 Marines are killed by a car bomb at their compound in Beirut, Lebanon.

1986-1989: William Rehnquist becomes Supreme Court Chief Justice; Antonin Scalia joins the bench. Another appointee, Robert Bork, is rejected in the Senate over his constitutional outlook. Attorney General Ed Meese resigns over ethics charges. The Iran-Contra affair, in which the U.S. covertly sold Iran arms to illegally fund Nicaraguan rebels, is investigated and leads to charges and resignations.

1990-1993: The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a landmark in equal treatment and access for the disabled in every area of life. Clarence Thomas joins the Supreme Court after bitter hearings over sexual harassment allegations. A Supreme Court case reaffirms the "Roe v. Wade" abortion rights decision. A bombing at New York's World Trade Center kills six; it is linked to dissident Islamists.

1994-1999: A series of controversies dog the Clinton administration, and the Republican Congress appoints special prosecutors to investigate. The gravest scandal involves the president's liaison with an intern, Monica Lewinsky. Clinton's denials prove false, and the matter escalates to impeachment proceedings. He survives, but his stature and legacy are tarnished.

2000: The election of George W. Bush hinges on results in the state of Florida, which are contested in state and federal courts. Partial recounts are ordered, but opinions differ on the standards to employ. The election is settled only after a month of controversy, when the U.S. Supreme Court finds in Bush's favor. In the process, a range of serious flaws to election procedures are uncovered.

2001: The September 11, 2001, attack by hijacked aircraft piloted by Islamist dissidents on New York and Washington kills almost 3,000 and summons the U.S. to improve public security. The ensuing antiterrorist campaign and Afghanistan war raise questions of imprisonment and trial procedures for suspected terrorists. Congress approves new measures to ensure "homeland security."

2002-2003: Concern with terrorism is pervasive. Anthrax-laced mail arrives at government offices. Surveillance and controls intensify at strategic locations and in daily life. A new Cabinet department of Homeland Security is set up, regrouping many existing agencies. Critics warn of threats to fundamental civil liberties as legislation like the Patriot Act expands the government's investigative powers.

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Categories: Overview | Political | Economic | Social | Environmental | Rule of Law | Trade Policy | Money
Graphs: Growth | Income | Inflation | Unemployment | Well-being | Trade Volume | Trade (CAB) | Debt

Related: Video | LinksView all categories for years from to | See Full Report | Print