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1906 $ The Pure Food and Drug Act

The PDA, the first federal legislation of its kind, regulated the purity, content, wholesomeness and labeling of food, beverages and drugs. At the turn of the century existing state laws were poorly enforced, and numerous scandals over adulterated and spoiled food — one even involving the army — had gained national notoriety. Writers and journalists known as "muckrakers" took up the cause. Among the most famous was Upton Sinclair with his exposé novel The Jungle which chronicled the appalling practices of the meat industry. Another was Samuel H. Adams with his series "The Great American Fraud" in Colliers. Similar articles appeared in Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping.
At the center of reform was Dr. Harvey Wiley, head of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture, whose work studying the effects of preservatives on human volunteers — the famous "poison squads" — turned him into a tireless crusader for the Act. It passed on June 30 over the vigorous opposition of elements of the food, liquor and patent "medicines" industries. In 1938, it was superceded by the more comprehensive Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

1910 $ The New Nationalism: Theodore Roosevelt

Delivered one year after leaving his leaving the Presidency, and three before his campaign to regain it as an independent, Roosevelt's speech stressed the Progressive Era's theme of, as he put it, "...the conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess..". Born to wealth, Roosevelt believed wealth came with responsibilities: probity, generosity and service — qualities missing from among the nation's economic elite at the turn of the century. He also believed that wealth should be earned, and that all men (notably men) should have the same opportunity to do so. Where "special interests" stood in the way, where they acted selfishly against the good of the nation, it was the responsibility of the federal government to regulate or eliminate them. Like Wilson, and his nephew, Franklin, T. R . greatly expanded the role of government in the economy; and while many of his ideas seem seriously "left" even today, his despair over the raw materialism of his time, and his anxiety over its effect on the older values he believed in, places him among a certain class of conservatives active even today.

WORLD WAR I: 1917-1918

1917 $ The Espionage Act of 1917, H.R. 291
World War I

Passed in the midst of World War I during a period of intense public concern — some say hysteria — over spying by the Germans and the anti-war movement at home, the Act imposed fines and prison sentences on those found guilty of providing defense information to the enemy, interfering with the recruitment of soldiers, sabotage, use of the mail to advocate treason, interference with shipping and the fraudulent use of passports. Interestingly, the primary use of the Act was not against German spies, but against those who protested the war, notably Socialists and Communists, including Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, John Reed and Max Eastman. In 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg would be executed under the Act.
In 1918 Congress passed the Sedition Act which criminalized speech during the time of war which in any way denigrated the government, the Constitution, the flag or the military, or in any way encouraged or advocated resistance to the government or its policies.
The Sedition Act was repealed March 3, 1921; but, as amended in 1940 (the Smith Act) and again in 1970, the Espionage Act is still in force.


1932 $ The Commonwealth Club Speech: Franklin Roosevelt

Speaking two months before the 1932 election, which he would win, Roosevelt set the tone of his speech by stating: "The issue of government has always been whether individual men and women will have to serve some system of government or economics, or whether a system of government and economics exists to serve individual men and women." It was the system of economics — large corporations, concentrations of wealth and economic power, and the influence of business interests in government — to which Roosevelt referred. In what was still the depths of the Depression, Roosevelt underscored the power of large corporations in public life — power for what he felt was both good and evil. He likened large, ungoverned corporations to autocratic government, each pursuing private ends without regard to the public good. While calling on business leaders to exercise their public responsibility, he also expressed his belief that if they did not, it was the role of government to the protect liberties of the individual from the selfish interests of the corporation. Roosevelt's ideas followed onto similar thought from both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, though it was his administration that most fully made them a part of American law and policy: a philosophy of government and economics hotly debated today.

1933 $ The Securities Act of 1933 [PDF]

A direct response to the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression, the Securities Act was the first federal regulation of the securities industry. It required registration of all securities for sale in the United States — a process which required the disclosure of information regarding the company selling the stock, its management and the securities themselves. It also imposed significant penalties for fraud or misinformation. By making securities and corporate information reliable and available equally to all investors, the act broadened investment in the nation's economy and significantly contributed to its emergence as the world's preeminent economic power by the end of World War II.
It was followed in 1934 by the Security and Exchange Act which created the Security and Exchange Commission to regulate the securities market, and in 1940 by the Investment Company Act which regulated companies, such as mutual funds, who trade in securities, and the Investment Advisors Act which set rules for companies and individuals selling investment advice. Finally, in 2002 the Sarbanes-Oxley Act strengthened corporate disclosure laws and added regulation of the related accounting industry.
The Laws That Govern the Securities Industry [The Securities and Exchange Commission]
Securities Laws, Rules, Regulation and Information [SECLaw.com, VGIS Communicaions]

1935 $ The National Labor Relations Act (The Wagner Act) [PDF]

Often called America's labor Magna Carta, the act grew out of Congress' concern over a wave of labor violence during the early '30s. Mass strikes were met by employer resistance often backed up by local police and state militias. In order to establish peace, Congress decided to enforced the rights of unions to organize and bargain with employers. Resistance to the act was carried all the way to the Supreme Court where it was upheld as constitutional in NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp in 1937.

National Labor Relations Act [OurDocuments.gov; National Archive & Records Administration]
National Labor Relations Act [The Reader's Companion to American History; Houghton-Mifflin]

1938 $ Fair Labor Standards Act [PDF]

The FLSA, as the first federal legislation to do so, established the 40-hour work week, mandated over-time pay, set a minimum wage at twenty cents per hour (rising to forty), and both limited and regulated child labor in the interests of their health and education. Sponsored by New York Senator, Robert Wagner, it was the culmination of reformist goals dating back to the years before World War I, and had many early advocates, including Eleanor Roosevelt. The FLSA was also meant to address the problem of poverty and unemployment during the Depression. By raising wages and making overtime more expensive for employers, it was hoped the Act would both guarantee a reasonable living for workers and force employers to spread available work around a larger pool of workers. Much amended since its creation, it has remained popular among workers and their representatives while continually drawing criticism from the business community.

Fair Labor Standards: The law as it stands today, from Cornell's Legal Information Institute.
Compliance Assistance: An official explanation of the Act from the Department of Labor.
Fair Labor Standards Act (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001)
Fair Labor Standards: The Act and proposed changes as viewed by the Economic Policy Institute.
How Fair Are the Fair Labor Standards?: James Bovard's 1994 article reprinted by the Cato Institute.

WORLD WAR II: 1941-1945

1941 $ Roosevelt's War Message Against Japan
World War II

Delivered the day after Japan's December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, this is the "day that will infamy" speech with which Roosevelt requested a declaration of war from Congress.

1942 $ Executive Order 9066
World War II

Issued February 19 by Franklin Roosevelt, the order authorized the Secretary of War, or a designated general, to create military areas within the United States and to control the movement of persons within them, including removing them entirely. Order 9066 was the legal foundation for the exclusion and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and set the stage for the notorious Supreme Court decisions, Hirabayashi v. United States and Korematsu v. United States

1945 $ The Yalta Agreement
World War II
Cold War

Signed February 11 by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, the Yalta Agreement outlined the plans of the major allies for ending the war, and for its immediate aftermath. Since its signing, Yalta has been condemned as a sell-out to Stalin and the Soviet Union, allowing Soviet control over Poland and Eastern Europe, as well as handing over significant territory and unwarranted influence in the Far East. Undoubtedly, Yalta set the boundaries of the Cold War from Eastern Europe to Korea; but did they need to be where they were? Was Roosevelt naïve in his dealings with Stalin? Were Churchill's "percentages" an anachronistic, and unfortunate, by-product of his ingrained imperialism? Or were both men simply working with what they knew of the world at the time, in the context of the pressing need to end the war? Links follow the document.

1945 $ Truman's Hiroshima Announcement
World War II

Truman's August 6 statement announced the bombing of Hiroshima.

1946 $ George Kennan's "Long Telegram" and "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" (the "X Article") (1947)
Cold War

Kennan's "Long Telegram" from Moscow and his later article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" (published in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym, "X"), argued that the post-war Soviet Union was inherently both territorially expansionist and hostile to the United States and the West. He further argued that compromise with such a system as Communism was impossible, and that the policy of the United States should be one of "containment", i.e., using every means short of direct conflict to check Soviet expansion in the world. He also urged the United States to set an example of prosperity and freedom to counter Communism's allure. In large part, Kennan's ideas provided the basis for American conduct of the Cold War for the next forty years, though not without significant alterations and criticism.

1947 $ The Truman Doctrine
Cold War

Set within the context of growing tensions between the Soviet Union and the West, as outlined by men like George Kennan and Dean Acheson, the doctrine came about as Britain announced it could no longer support the Greek government in its Marxist-inspired civil war. Truman, fearing the loss of not only Greece and Turkey to the Soviet Union, but countries as far east as Iran and India, immediately took his case for U.S. intervention to Congress, asking for $400 million dollars in aid. The Republican Congress was willing to back the Democratic President's plan on condition he communicate the severity of the situation to the American people. The result was the speech above. The Truman Doctrine's commitment to protect "free peoples" from internal and external aggression set an official imprimatur on the policy of containment, and provided the rationale for American intervention wherever it felt its interests threatened. While Truman originally intended intervention to be primarily economic, the trajectory of Vietnam — where Truman began American involvement with monetary aid to its French colonizers — underscores the gradual evolution of economic to later military commitments.

1947 $ The Marshall Plan Speech
Cold War

Delivered June 5 at Harvard's Commencement, Secretary of State George C. Marshall's speech announced the Truman administration's intent to fund the economic recovery of post-war Western Europe. This was not simply a matter of altruism, but an extension of the Truman Doctrine. Coming in the first years of the Cold War, the Economic Recovery Program, as the plan was officially known, reflected American concerns that economic instability would lead to political instability, providing an opportunity for the Soviet Union to do in the West what it had already accomplished in the East. Moreover, Europe had to be restored as a trading partner for the United States. Both points were hinted at in Marshall's speech. By its end in 1951, after the transfer of $13.3 billion, the ERP was generally considered to have been a success — though not by all. The links include critics from both the Left and Right.

1950 $ NSC68 [pdf]
Cold War

This document, prepared for President Truman in January of 1950, outlines what is essentially a blueprint for the Cold War. It contains a risk analysis of the then current world situation, a comparison of the Soviet Union with the United States and the West (including their beliefs and values, which makes for interesting reading), an analysis of their respective goals, strengths and weaknesses, and recommendations for the future of the conflict.

THE KOREAN WAR: 1950-1953

1954 $ The Domino Theory

The Domino Theory, referred to in an April 7 speech by then President Dwight D. Eisenhower, expressed the fear that a Communist Victory in Vietnam — where the French colonialists were quickly losing their hold — would bring about the fall of all of Southeast Asia, even threatening Australia and New Zealand. This rationale had first been used in 1947 by President Truman to justify aid to Greece in order to save it and Turkey from internal Communist threat. Eisenhower used it to directly aid the government of South Vietnam after the French defeat and ouster at Dien Bien Phu just one month after Eisenhower's news conference, and the theory formed the basis for the escalation into direct intervention and war in Southast Asia under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

1956 $ The Federal-Aid Highways Act

Building on failed attempts to create a federal highway system dating back to 1916, the 1956 Act envisioned a complete and uniform system of multi-laned, limited access highways crisscrossing the nation linking major metropolitan areas. Unlike its predecessors — interrupted by two world wars and the Depression — the 1956 Act came at a time of relative national prosperity that allowed the Federal government to fund 90% of the costs. This same prosperity, in the form of increasing automobile ownership and road congestion, also heightened the need for an overhaul of the highway system. Its passage was further aided by the enormous interest of then president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose experiences in both World Wars and his encounter with the German autobahn, convinced him of the great strategic value of such a system. Like the building of the transcontinental railroad, the modern freeway system transformed almost every aspect of America; indeed, The Wall Street Journal named the passage of this act the most important business event in U.S. history.LINKS

1957 $ Joint Resolution on the Middle East (the Eisenhower Doctrine)
Cold War

On July 27, 1956 the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdul Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal, ending British and French control. The latter two countries, withdrawn by the end of October, issued an ultimatum to Egypt and immediately began air attacks. Tensions rose; the Soviet Union threatened bombing of British and French cities and Israel invaded Gaza. President Eisenhower, who had opposed the British and French attempt to retake the canal, pressured both into a cease-fire, effectively confirming Nasser's action and ending all British and French influence in the Mideast. Fearing the resulting vacuum would be filled by the Soviet Union, Eisenhower sought from Congress the authority to provide economic and military assistance to friendly governments in the area. Despite his seeming backing of Nasser and the nascent Arab nationalism he represented, Eisenhower recoiled from Nasser's too close association with both the Soviet Union and Communist China. This had the effect of channeling American aid to conservative Arab governments, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the then Kingdom of Iraq. The Eisenhower Doctrine represents America's first official venture into the Mid-East, and set parameters for that relationship still in effect today.

1961 $ John F. Kennedy Inaugural

Contains Kennedy's phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you..."

1962 $ The Port Huron Statement [pdf]

Conceived at a winter, 1961, meeting of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the document was completed the following June in Port Huron. Authorship is shared among the sixty participants, the most famous of whom was Tom Hayden. A manifesto of a "New Left", it was intended to steer a course between Soviet Marxism and what it considered an American liberalism hampered by the Democratic Party's ties to conservative Dixiecrats. Its populist-progressive programs touched on social and political change from labor and civil rights to foreign policy and economic development. It sought to create a new American radicalism based on equality, opportunity and meaningful participation at all levels of society within the context of America's own ideals. At its heart was the contrast between the ideals of liberal democracy and the realities of the nation and the nation's place in the world.

Parts are dated — discussions of the Dixiecrats and the Cold War (though its suggestions for American foreign policy might seem resonant even now) — while others may have been written yesterday — for example, those on healthcare, poverty, the minimum wage, and the place and influence of corporations in politics and public life. There are also calls for things the Left no longer advocate, such as the industrialization of the Third World and the expansion of nuclear energy; and there is finally the glaring omission of the environment, an issue on which the Statement is silent.

The Statement is not only an artifact of a particular point of view at a parrticular time — the student Left before the Vietnam War turned it bitter, cynical and violent — but it is also an important benchmark of the extent to which the nation has solved the problems articulated in 1962, and to which the populist Left has participated in those solutions.

1963 $ A Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King jr. [pdf]
Civil Rights

The letter — a response to the white clergy of Birmingham who criticized King for bringing unrest to the city — is a succinct justification of the entire Civil Rights Movement as King saw it: its causes, goals and methods. In it, he describes the condition of Negroes in America, extols the value — and the responsibilities — of nonviolent action, expresses his disappointment with white moderates and the white churches, highlights the tensions within the black community, and explains the difference between just and unjust laws, as well as that between what he called the "negative peace" of injustice and the "positive peace" of human dignity. The letter is a profound example of the interdependence of faith and action, and a statement of the responsibilities of humans to each other before God.

1963 $ Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" Speech
Civil Rights

Delivered August 28 at Lincoln Memorial, the speech became the defining statement of that summer's March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event intended to bring national attention to the civil rights movement and to pending civil rights legislation, which at the time was held up in Congress. At first intending only a recitation of injustices against African-Americans, King was persuaded to speak of his own vision of human freedom and equality; a vision wherein all would fall short of those goals unless all gained them. In articulating his own dream, King defined the aspirations of an entire movement, and cemented his own place as its leader.

THE VIETNAM WAR: 1964-1973

1964 $ The Great Society Speech

President Lyndon Johnson's speech, delivered at the University of Michigan, outlined the philosophy behind his creation of a host of social and cultural programs intended to lift the economic, social and cultural welfare of the nation. Chief among these were Medicare and Medicaid; but other parts of the Great Society included Project Head Start, the Food Stamp Program, the Job Corps, The National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Office of Economic Opportunity. Johnson's "War on Poverty" also included, for the first time, federal subsidies to education and housing. Underfunded, often misdirected and only unevenly successful, the programs that underlay the Great Society began as, and remain, touchstones in the debate on the role of government in solving social and economic problems.

1964 $ The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The 1964 Act was one part of a series of civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 established the Civil Rights Commisssion, made coercion of voters by civil officials illegal in Federal elections and established qualifications for Federal jurors. A similar act in 1960 again addressed voting rights and attempted to federalize a rash of crimes involving the burning and dynamiting of black schools and churches in the South. The 1964 act again addressed the right to vote, but went much further. It strengthened the Civil Rights Commission; ended segregation in public accommodations; ended federal funding to segregated schools; and barred racial discrimination by any company doing business with the Federal government. Essentially, it gave the Federal government the power to end segregation in the South.

1964 $ Barry Goldwater's Speech Accepting the 1964 Republican Presidential Nomination

Declaring that "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice", Goldwater's speech gave voice to a kind of Conservatism — virulently anti-communist, highly individualistic, economically laissz-faire and hostile to government — that had disappeared from among the leadership of the Republican party since the New Deal and the post-war "liberal consensus". The speech was a direct attack on the legacy of early 20th century Progressivism, the New Deal and Johnson's Great Society (see above). His decisive defeat in the '64 election suggested to everyone that Goldwater's brand of Republicanism was a dead end. It was not. True believers, among them Ronald Reagan (see below), eventually made the Conservative agenda synonymous with Republicanism, culminating with Reagan's own election in 1980.

1964 $ Johnson Message to Congress on Gulf of Tonkin Incident / Gulf of Tonkin Resolution

On August 2, 1964 three North Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked the destroyer USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, possibly mistaking it for a South Vietnamese vessel. The attack was easily repulsed. Two days later, a second attack was reported. This second attack — about which controversy continues as to whether it happened at all — provided the basis for Johnson's message to Congress and for Congress' resolution to grant Johnson the authority to further involve the United States in the conflict without a formal declaration of war. On March 8 the following year, American combat troops landed in Vietnam. The Resolution was revoked in January, 1971 after President Nixon's invasion of Cambodia. It was replaced by the War Powers Act of 1973.

1964 $ A Time For Choosing: Ronald Reagan's Stump Speech for the 1964 Goldwater Campaign

Televised October 27, the speech was more than just a follow-on to the Goldwater campaign; in fact, Reagan had been giving it before the campaign had even heard of it. The words, then, were his own, and reflected his abiding belief in the fundamental antagonism between the individual and the state; that there was nothing the state could do for the individual that the individual, acting in a free market, could not do better for himself; and his fear that the heirs of the New Deal — the people he called "a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital" — had created a government so large and pervasive as to threaten the establishment of Socialism and extinguish individual freedom. In short, only lacking a reference to religion, A Time For Choosing was a succinct early public statement of modern Conservative political philosophy.

1965 $ Why Are We in Vietnam?: President Lyndon Johnson's Address at Johns Hopkins University

Johnson's speech, delivered in April, had two main objectives: to explain his policy in Southeast Asia to the American people; and to offer the North Vietnamese an idea of what peace would mean for them if only they would accept it. It was given as he was gradually ratcheting up America's involvement in the war; a process which he hoped would be enough to bring the North Vietnamese to the peace table, but not so much as to alienate the American public. In the end, both the speech and the policy failed, leaving what Johnson believed was no choice but military victory and growing involvement in the war.

1965 $ The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The significance of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was its extension of Federal election laws — essentially the guarantees of the 15th Amendment of the Constitution and the above civil rights legislation — to state and local elections. The Act essentially federalized elections throughout the nation, and brought enormous numbers of African-Americans to the polls. The law was challenged, but consistently upheld by the Courts. It was readopted and strengthened in 1970, 1975 and 1982.

1973 $ The War Powers Resolution

Also known incorrectly as The War Powers Act, the WPR was passed, over President Nixon's veto, in reaction to the Vietnam War and the broad executive powers used by both Presidents Johnson and NIxon to begin and extend that conflict. The Act was intended to circumscribe the war-making powers of the President and to bring Congress into the process of such decision-making. Its value remains a matter of controversy (as the attached links suggest) as Congress has never seriously used it to challenge the power of the president to commit the nation to conflict; and presidents, intending such a commitment, usually find their way around it.