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History: North America


Admission requirements

This course is only available for students in the BA International Studies.


This lecture course presents an overview of the main historical developments in North America from 1945 to the present. Attention will be given to both domestic and foreign policy to cover the major developments with the United States during the Cold War and beyond. Although Canada and Mexico will be discussed, the emphasis of the course falls upon the United States.

The course begins with an overview of some of the central themes that are present in any consideration of US history: Freedom, Manifest Destiny, and American Exceptionalism. The course is thereafter loosely framed around two themes which are used to consider different periods and events from the 1950s to the 2000s: Freedom and Fear. Freedom is widely seen as the defining character of American life – the wish, if not the right, to live as a free individual. Yet this is always closely associated with the fear that something (e.g. the government) or somebody (e.g. the communists) is going to take this freedom away. Freedom and Fear are therefore two defining features of American life, and they provide the basic structure for this course.

Course objectives

Students will be able to understand the most important historical developments in North America since 1945 and place them in their correct context. The course focuses on the recent history of the United States, but also highlights details of the relations between Mexico, Canada, and the United States, and how these relations have changed over time. Students will learn to make connections between politics, economics, international relations, and society/culture, and to understand how the United States of today has been formed by various forces for change through history. This will involve encouraging students to investigate the historical background to today’s events, and to appreciate the value of history for making sense of the present.

Weekly Schedule

  • Week 1
    Big Ideas in American History: Freedom, Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism

  • Week 2
    Franklin Delano Roosevelt: New Deal and WW II
    Reading: American Dreams Ch. 1

  • Week 3
    The Cold War: 1945-1953
    Reading: American Dreams Chs. 2, 3

  • Week 4
    The 1950s: Freedom and Fear
    Reading: American Dreams Ch. 4

  • Week 5
    The Kennedy Myth: The Significance of JFK
    Reading: American Dreams Ch. 5
    Presentation I: Quebec Separatism

  • Week 6
    The 1960s: Freedom and Fear
    Reading: American Dreams Ch. 6
    Presentation II: The Weathermen

  • Mid-Term Exam

  • Study Week

  • Week 7
    The 1970s: Freedom and Fear
    Reading: American Dreams Chs. 7, 8
    Presentation III: Harvey Milk

  • Week 8
    Ronald Reagan and the 1980s
    Reading: American Dreams Chs. 9, 10
    Presentation IV: Roe v. Wade

  • Week 9
    1989-1991: Cold War and Gulf War
    Reading: American Dreams Ch. 11
    Presentation V: Wounded Knee

  • Week 10
    The 1990s: Freedom and Fear under Clinton
    Reading: American Dreams Chs. 12, 13
    Presentation VI: Star Wars

  • Week 11
    The 2000s: Freedom and Fear under Bush
    Reading: American Dreams Ch. 14
    Presentation VII: Zapatistas

  • Week 12
    The 2000s: Freedom and Fear under Obama
    Reading: American Dreams Ch. 15
    Presentation VIII: Carlos Slim

  • Week 13
    Study Week

  • Week 14

  • Week 15
    Final Exam


The timetable is available on the BA International Studies website.

Mode of instruction

One two hour lecture per week plus four tutorials spread out over the semester.

Attending lectures and tutorials is compulsory. If you are not able to attend a lecture or tutorial, please inform the tutor of the course. Being absent without notification can result in a lower grade or exclusion from the final exam or essay.


The purpose of the tutorials is to provide an additional learning environment alongside the lectures by enabling students to deepen their awareness of US history through group discussion and short assignments. The short assignments consist of three short papers, each one being 1000 words in length. For these, use can be made of the online source list provided as part of the course, as well as other materials provided on Blackboard.

The six tutorial sessions will be divided up as follows:

  • Session 1: Introduction to the materials, purpose, and goals of the tutorials
    Short Paper I: What is American Exceptionalism, and why is it important for understanding the United States?
    Deadline: One week before the second tutorial

  • Session 2: Discussion of the first paper, including short presentations by students on the main arguments.

  • Session 3: Group debate on the statement ‘The United States was as much to blame as the Soviet Union for the Cold War’
    Short Paper II: Do you agree that – politically, economically, and culturally – Mexico belongs more in Latin America than North America? Explain your answer. Deadline: One week before the fourth tutorial

  • Session 4: Discussion of the second paper, including short presentations by students on the main arguments.

  • Session 5: Group debate on the statement ‘There have been three female US Secretaries of State, but there will never be a female President’
    Short Paper III: Does the election of Barack Obama as US President in 2008 (and re-election in 2012) show that the battle for civil rights in the United States is won?
    Deadline: One week before the sixth tutorial

  • Session 6: Discussion of the third paper, including short presentations by students on the main arguments.

Assessment method

  • Tutorials 30%

  • Midterm Exam 30%

  • Final Exam 40%

If the final grade is insufficient (lower than a 6), there is the possibility of retaking the full 70% of the exam material, replacing both the earlier mid- and endterm grades. No resit for the tutorials is possible.


Blackboard will be used. Students are requested to register on Blackboard for this course.

Reading list

H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States since 1945 (New York, 2010)


Students are requested to register through uSis, the registration system of Leiden University for this course. General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable