The technological progress of the 20th century is a source of great pride for Americans, who place advancements in science and technology — especially the space program — at the top of the list of American achievements. A nearly unanimous public attributes U.S. accomplishments to the Constitution, free elections and the free enterprise system.
Although agreement on the greatest failure of this era is less pronounced, when asked to judge the century, the public laments the use of force, a decline in morality and a breakdown in politics and governance.
One Giant Leap for America
When Americans look back on the 20th century, four-in-ten cite technological advances as America’s greatest achievement; another 7% mention medical breakthroughs. Overall, the single most-mentioned success is the space program. Almost one-in-five people cite the exploration of space as America’s greatest feat.
Successes in the realm of world peace — such as winning the World Wars and the Cold War — are cited by just 7% of the public. A strong economy is mentioned by 5% of Americans, the same number who see civil rights as the leading accomplishment of the century.
When asked to name the U.S. government’s greatest achievement, the public again names advances in science and technology in general and the space program more specifically — although there is less consensus here. Once more, technology is the top category (19% say so), and the space program is the single most-mentioned success (14% cite it specifically).
Substantial numbers also name international and social policies as the federal government’s greatest achievement of the century. Victories in World War II and the Cold War are cited by 12% of the public; 9% mention advances in civil rights and 6% describe safety net programs such as Social Security and welfare.
In assessing the nation’s and the government’s accomplishments, there are few differences between demographic groups. A small distinction is found, however, between the average American and better-educated and wealthier people, who are relatively more enthusiastic about America’s scientific and technological achievements.
Americans Divide over Failures
When asked to name the nation’s greatest failure of the 20th century, Americans split almost equally between war, morality and politics. The use of force tops the list of failures, with 17% of the public mentioning war. Almost as many (15%) mention moral breakdown and a decline in values. One-in-ten cite problems with politics and government.
As with evaluations of success, the public’s description of the greatest governmental failures resembles the tabulation of national failures. Again, war and politics dominate the list, with 18% mentioning war and foreign policy problems and 14% citing presidential scandals, lack of political ethics and declining trust in government. One-in-ten name a particular policy area (e.g., welfare, education or health care) as the government’s greatest misstep of the 20th century. Paradoxically, these are some of the same issues that other Americans cited as the government’s greatest achievement of the last 100 years.
Twenty-four years after the fall of Saigon, the shadow of Vietnam still looms large for America: It is the single most-often mentioned national failure, with 8% of the public specifically citing the Asian conflict. The same number list it as the U.S. government’s greatest mistake of the 20th century.
At this point, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal also casts a historic pall for a striking minority. As many Americans (8%) describe Clinton’s lack of ethics as the U.S. government’s most significant failure of the last 100 years as cite the Vietnam War.
Men and women evaluate America’s failures differently. One-in-four men name war as the nation’s greatest calamity; only one-in-ten women agree. Conversely, 18% of women say that moral breakdown is America’s greatest 20th century failure, compared to just 10% of men.
Blacks place the treatment of minorities and intolerance at the top of their list of America’s failures: 21% hold this view, compared to just 6% of whites.
Reasons for America’s Success
Although many Americans are distrustful of government, wary of the news media and disinterested in politics, they resoundingly endorse the economic and democratic systems on which the nation is grounded. When looking back on the accomplishments of the 20th century, overwhelming majorities agree that the Constitution (85%), free elections (84%), and the free enterprise system (81%) are major reasons for the success that the U.S. has enjoyed during the past 100 years. The public may be frustrated by how the system operates, but they like the design.
The public also credits a century of national achievements to the resources that have sustained these accomplishments. Over three-quarters (78%) say that abundant natural resources are key to America’s status. Over two-thirds attribute America’s achievements to human resources — the American people. Fully 71% say the cultural diversity of our people is a major reason for success; 69% say the character of the American people is key.
In addition, despite Americans’ increasing skepticism about press practices, more than two-thirds of the public (69%) credits national success to freedom of the press. A similar majority also gives credit to divine sources: 65% say God’s will is a major reason for American success.
Significantly fewer people see geographic isolation or institutional characteristics as fundamental explanations for America’s 20th century achievements. Just over half (53%) agree that being separated by oceans on both coasts has been crucial; even fewer credit the two party system (49%).
Explanations that deal with specific religious values or the role of religion in American politics receive only lukewarm endorsement. Just 41% say that Judeo-Christian beliefs are a major reason for American success; the same number credit the separation of church and state.
Finally, the public is loathe to ascribe more than passing influence to accident: Only one-quarter say good luck is a major reason for America’s success in the 20th century.
A Consensus View
The overwhelming endorsement given to the building blocks of democracy and capitalism is shared by all Americans, regardless of age, race or gender. However, some groups express more enthusiasm than others.
For example, although the Constitution receives resounding support as a key to American success, African Americans are slightly more temperate in their analysis: 86% of whites name it a major reason, 72% of blacks agree. And, while 89% of those with college degrees endorse free elections as a prime reason for American success, 81% of those with only a high school degree concur.
Of the three top reasons, some of the greatest differences between groups are in their evaluations of the free enterprise system, which draws relatively less support from blacks, women and Americans under age 35, although majorities of each group still label it a major reason. Three-quarters (74%) of 18-34 year-olds label the free enterprise system a major reason, compared to 84% of those age 35 and up. Two-thirds of blacks see it as key, compared to 83% of whites; three-quarters (77%) of women see it as essential, compared to 85% of men. Black women are the least enthusiastic: just 58% endorse the free enterprise system as a major reason, compared to 79% of black men.
Americans divide most sharply, however, on the credit they give divine intent. Blacks place God’s will near the top of all explanations for America’s success in the 20th century — fully 82% of African Americans say it is a major reason, compared to 63% of whites. Women are also more supportive about the role of God: 72% say it is key, compared to 58% of men. Again, African American women stand out: 91% credit God’s will, compared to 70% of African American men, 69% of white women and 57% of white men.
The college educated, the wealthy and the young express greater reservations about the influence of God on America’s success. For example, just under half (48%) of college graduates credit God’s will, compared to 70% of those without college degrees. And, while 74% of senior citizens say that God’s will is a major reason for American success, just 59% of adults under age 35 agree.
The differences between younger and older Americans is not limited to their evaluation of God’s will or the free enterprise system. Americans age 65 and older often part company with younger generations in much of their analysis of the reasons for America’s success.
Seniors are especially enthusiastic about the importance of the two-party system and geographic isolation — two prominent theories of an earlier era. Fully 61% of those ages 65 and older say that being separated on both coasts has been key, compared to just over half of younger adults. Just as many seniors (62%) endorse the role of the two-party system, a reason that finds only moderate support (45%) among those under 55.
As the most ethnically and racially diverse age group, young adults express slightly more support for the importance of the cultural diversity of the American people as an explanation of national success. Three-quarters of 18-34 year-olds name it a major reason, compared to 64% of those 65 and older.
Seculars Stand Out
Secular Americans, who do not affiliate with any religion, also differ from others in their evaluation of various reasons for American success in the 20th century. Not surprisingly, seculars are much less supportive of the significance of religious influences — just 31% say God’s will is a key component of success and only 16% say the same of Judeo-Christian beliefs, compared to 65% and 41%, respectively, of the public overall.
Less predictable, however, is seculars’ weaker endorsement of several civic institutions. On average, 84% of the public cites free elections as key to America’s success, compared to 74% of seculars. Similarly, while 69% of the public credits freedom of the press and 49% credits the two-party system, just 60% and 33%, respectively, of seculars agree. Instead, seculars give disproportionate credit to the cultural diversity of the American people: 83% say it is critical, compared to 71% overall.