Confronting Decline: The Resilience of the U.S. Conception of America's Role in the World, 1968-1975

Center, Seth, Department of History, University of Virginia
Leffler, Melvyn, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation explores how declinist fear that emerged in the late 1960s impacted the ideas underpinning the United States' role in the world. It examines how policymakers, politicians, intellectuals, and the American people grappled with the prospect of defeat in Vietnam, strategic parity with the Soviet Union, and ideological demoralization resulting from perceived failures in the "American Way of Life." It demonstrates that a new transformationalist vision characterized by the rejection of power politics, the embrace of transnational thinking, and neoisolationism gained intellectual and public acceptability, and influenced how the United States projected its image abroad. Yet, the dissertation also shows how the fear of national decline produced a backlash against new thinking that actually strengthened inherited ideological and strategic concepts. In domestic political culture, a "silent majority" of the American people had no desire to abandon myths embedded in the national identity. In national security policy, military and civilian officials were convinced that decline portended a new era of danger abroad as the perception and reality of U.S. power ebbed. The currents of change were most apparent to contemporary observers and presaged a post-Cold War/post-American Century world, but the resilience of inherited ideas was the most salient feature of the era.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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