Judging the events of the current unfolding century, people now often ask "What has happened to America? Can she sustain like this?". They refer to the muddling wars in the Middle East whose gains have been rendered irrelevant with America's retreat from Afghanistan in August of last year, the several domestic crises gripping America such as the opioid crisis and rising inner city crime, the rise of a hostile China, and the ever-expanding political split the country is experiencing as people once united increasingly become divided over political and ideological differences. Certainly, from these observations, it seems as if America as a country is coming to an end.
This, however, is not a new sentiment for the United States. Several times in the past the public predicted that America would not survive the tides of time, and several times the public was proved wrong. Even the phenomena occurring at this moment that prompt people to assume such outcome have been seen before. In fact, there are two periods of time in the history of the United States where America's existence has been threatened by a similar multitude of factors as what is occurring in the present.
The antebellum and the Civil War era is one such time. If current-day political polarization is viewed as a threat to American stability, then one comfort is (at least for the moment) that it has not escalated into a full-blown civil strife, spanning four years, creating an organized rebellious state, and causing over a million casualties. Similarly, the political topics that exacerbated this domestic split and the political topics driving today's discourse are similar as well. Then, the expansion of slavery and its moral and racial implications gripped both the public and Washington in a fray of increasingly tense debate, of which Bleeding Kansas and other assorted incidents, leading to the Civil War, were a product of. Such hyped conversations about racial discrepancies once again fill the political spectrum, and once again, the ensuing nationwide conflict, while unrivaled in intensity by other politically motivated actions in the United States, is dwarfed by its predecessor from one and a half centuries ago, where a mass feud over the extent of human freedom resulted in an even bloodier war.
The other period of chaos was only half a century ago: the 1960's and the 1970's. Here, the connection between the past and the present is much more defined than the antebellum period to the modern era. Today's war in the Middle East and yesterday's war in Vietnam bear striking similarities. Both were justified in the name of spreading democracy while also embodying the deeper motive to protect America's foreign interests, both dragged on for years on end without prevail, and both eventually ended in a hastened and confused withdraw by the United States. The Vietnam War was not the only battleground of futility for America, however. Pro-Soviet governments established in Chile and Angola around the same period of time expanded the Soviet Union's influence in crucial Cold War political fronts(1)(2), which, along with the defeat in Vietnam, weakened America's international standing. Race relations were also directly in the spotlight with the climax of the civil rights movement, which, together with the dissent about the military draft, ignited massive national protests that often turned violent. Continued economic turmoil, first from the oil shock in 1973 that marked the point where America became an importer of oil, then by rocketing inflation rates averaging 10% in 1974(3), reinforced this American regression from the world stage. Just as pubic trust in the government is currently at an all time low, the 1970's saw such a decline in all demographics to a point not seen previously(4) especially after the Watergate scandal.
In the midst of both of these time periods, there existed doubt about the future of the United States, both from within and from the world. As the Civil War progressed and the Confederacy gained ground in its initial stages, many a European aristocrat proclaimed that the American experiment of popular government had failed, egged on by European monarchs wishing to retain their power(5). In the era of the Vietnam War, the general sentiment of the public viewed America as a collapsing power, with all the worst circumstances to happen to a global hegemon manifesting themselves in the second half of the 1970's further persuading them to believe this image. Yet, we stand here, in this brand new year, being able to witness the United States having survived to now as a unified country. The Confederacy, nor Jim Crow, nor slavery, nor the Soviet Union exist anymore. America overcame those previous struggles, but now she must face uncannily similar ones today.
As 2021 becomes 2022, it is best to keep these comparisons in mind as a reminder that America has survived such great times of strife before. However unpredictable the 2020's might have gone so far, the lessons of the past remind us that America has faced, and won, against all expectations multiple times. There is, thus, little reason to expect otherwise in the situation she faces today, that the United States will meet her end. Instead of frantically preparing for Armageddon or dejectedly submitting to the worst, try and interpret the future in reasonable terms. There are no guarantees that nothing catastrophic will occur; there never are, and the past can never be a perfect indicator of present or future events, but it is the best and only tool available to us to foresee the path of time. In short, despite all the current rhetoric claiming America's demise, realistically comparing the present to other similar time periods in the past reveals that it is not as likely as how it is portrayed, and thus, we shall enter 2022 and act with that thought in mind.
5: Don H. Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (2014), pp. 8 (quote), 69–70, 70-74.