Learning is an integral part to anyone’s amelioration, and it occurs mainly when someone is or does something incorrect. This idea of learning can adapt to any idea, small or big, and the only differentiation is the people it affects. Of course, learning can arise at almost any moment, but the harshness of being incorrect can realize learning in a more swift manner. Almost everyone has heard the cliché “You learn from your mistakes”, but how true is it in the real world, and more specifically, how have mistakes affected American society as a whole?

Paramount to answering the big question, it is vital to quantify what a mistake really is. Now, according to Dictionary.com, the definition for mistake is “An act or judgement that is misguided or wrong”(Simpson), and that is not the correct way to view that word in a large scale idea such as America. In this large scale that is America and its people’s values, the word mistake should be scalar to that as well, in the sense that a mistake is not only caused by poor reasoning or carelessness, but it is also simply an unexpected outcome. Being a superpower like America is, we often set the precedent for new economic orders and political structures, and a certain amount of trial and error comes with that. It is not becoming to say that all mistakes are from doing something wrong, it should also be the wrong effect of doing something right.

A long term mistake that arose in the history of The United States was the Great Depression. With over 20 percent of people out of a job and no sign of change for a decade to come, everything had seemed hopeless. Of course, this is not because of the wrongdoing of anyone, but rather a mistake caused by many different people and many different natural crises across many different countries in many different continents. The Great Depression was prompted by drought, reduced inter-regional trade, bank failures, and much more.  The hardships created by these people’s unintended effects changed American values as we know it to this day. Due to the depression, many new policies were implemented from presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and these policies changed people’s values. These values were changed due to the need of the government’s aid during and after the depression, so that another one would not occur. Jerry D. Marx really hits this point in his article American Social Policy in the Great Depression and World War II. In this article, he explains the reasoning for why these values didn’t change optionally, but they were bound to happen once the depression hit in 1929. The reasoning for this is that “Americans who had grown up promoting the ideology of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ and the stigma of poor relief were now standing in line for relief …  the American belief, as earlier expressed by President Franklin Pierce to Dorothea Dix, was that the federal government should not be involved in providing poor relief. But now the size of this national crisis required a national solution … As the crisis deepened, progressive leaders and average Americans increasingly demanded that the federal government take greater responsibility in relieving and preventing poverty” (Marx para. 4). The value that changes here is that Americans grew more dependent on the government for aid, and the sense of Social Darwinism was lost within becoming increasingly dependent. As the times get hard and the people weak, sometimes there is no choice except changing perspective and policy.

Likewise to this changing of American Values towards the government, a similar change happened in the Vietnam War. From the Gulf of Tonkin to the war at home, many lies and deceptions caused a distrust in the government that is still seen today. The effect of these lies and deceptions can be shown in a diploma thesis by Zuzana Hodbod’ová, in which she explains the fallacies in the Vietnam War and the negative response by Americans. She illustrates how writers viewed the war, which would influence the people’s vision of the war, that “There existed the broad agreement among early writers that the Vietnam War represented a colossal mistake for the United States, and that U.S. statecraft was beleaguered repeatedly by deficiencies, gross errors, misperceptions, miscalculations, and by significant interpretative differences” (Hodbod’ová 31). Indeed, the yearning for containment that the United States had was too much to stay ethical, which caused the problems of the Vietnam War. The faltering of making ethical decisions by the government in the Vietnam War caused the value change in Americans of trusting the government, and it created a more cynical view of American government. Another example of how American values changed with the Vietnam War is explained again in Hodbod’ová’s thesis. Now, it is shown that even in a time of cynicism, there is a development on unity within all American people of all races, stating “Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own … fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills” (qtd in Hodbod’ová 41). In the quote, it shows that even though America is separated with those drafted and those not, those who are black and those who are white, and those who are rich and those who are poor, a unified country is created out of a common idea that is detesting the Vietnam War. Even in one fault in America’s ginormous history, it can be seen that multiple values change, and some are changed permanently.

Slavery was one of the biggest pieces of history that the United States had, and not all of it was necessarily bad. It caused a Civil War between two halves of our country, and that mistake caused Americans to reevaluate their values and that reevaluation is still in place today. The value change that appeared from the Civil War and slavery in general can be shown in Avidit Acharya et. al’s article The Political Legacy of American Slavery. In this article, three assistant professors from Stanford and Harvard explain how slavery has survived in prejudices and malpractice in the south to this day. One way they show the effects of different concentrations of slavery is with inequality, and “Within the United States, O’Connell (2012) demonstrates that areas of the American South that had high numbers of slaves have greater economic inequality between blacks and whites today. Similarly, Lagerlöf (2005) and Nunn (2008) find a negative relationship between the prevalence of slavery and income in the American South, and Mitchener and McLean (2003) find a negative relationship between slavery and modern-day labor productivity” (Acharya et al. 623). This passage is evidence of the fact that American values change based on how “bad” certain areas faltered in terms of the amount of slaves in the 19th century, and it is just one of the ways slavery changed people’s values in America. Another example from The Political Legacy of American Slavery is that slavery created violence and an acclimation to black discrimination, and increasingly so once it was removed, that “The prevalence of slavery, coupled with the shock of its removal, created strong incentives for Black Belt whites to try to preserve both their political and economic power by promoting racially targeted violence, anti-black norms, and, to the extent legally possible, racist institutions. These reinforced racial and political beliefs about black subjugation within the Southern Black Belts, which, via institutional path dependence and intergenerational socialization, have persisted to the present day” (Acharya et al. 632). These possible consequences that would arise from African Americans getting greater political autonomy were too large for the white plantation owners from the time, which is why they had to resort to violence to keep African Americans subordinated to whites. The introduction of slavery (a fault by the United States) created a tight-knit sense of this subordination, which introduced this tradition of African Americans being second class citizens that can still be seen today. Had this mistake not been in the United States, perhaps this country would have more equality today.

Under the Bush administration, one change altered the Iraq War and Americans’ values forever. With a need for competition in the defense contracts of the United States, he made the terms of these contracts to be more suitable for small businesses, and that change ended up being a mistake. Three Miami born marijuana enthusiasts capitalize on this change, and eventually make the United States government seem incompetent by 2008. Guy Lawson, the writer of War Dogs, is a book that digs deeper than anything else on the story, and shows this using court cases, confidential documents, and statements from those involved: Efraim Diveroli, David Packouz, Alex Podrizki, and Ralph Merrill. The heart of the mistake here is that “The US government had used a string of brokers like Packouz and Diveroli and Podrizki to insulate it from the dirty work of arms dealing in the Balkans–the kickbacks and bribes and double dealing” (Lawson xix). This corruption of the US government does not stop there, as “‘The fact of the matter was that the Army kept ordering, using, recording, and paying for the ammo for months after the raid on AEY’s [The arms company of Diveroli, Packouz, and Podrizki] offices and it found the e-mails about Chinese rounds’ … ‘The Department of Defense was happy and satisfied with the materiel, and they were very reluctant to terminate the contract’” (Lawson 227). These malpractices that the US tried to cover up after the fact presented Americans everywhere with a question: is the United States government reputable and trustworthy? This new quandary for the American people created a new value of doubt and questioning for what the United States does, and if it is truly lawful and ethical. Even today, almost ten years later, “There is no requirement for the Army to check watch lists designed to prevent the US government from dealing with brokers suspected of being illegal gun runners. The United States continues to exploit this legal black hole, supplying arms to allies–however temporary or dubious in nature–with virtually no oversight or legal constraint” (Lawson 236). Is this truly used to incite competition for defensive weapons, or just to get around the law?

In all of these examples, there is yet to be shown the worst kind of mistake; an intentional one. The government does something ethically and morally wrong to have personal gain in ways such as support and money. These mistakes can be shown in The Dictator’s Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. In their book, two professors set out to prove how shockingly similar the United States is in comparison to a dictatorship. One of the ways this is shown is with how the United States deals with allies. It is shown that “With the end of the Cold War, the United States no longer needed Doe’s [dictator of Liberia] assistance, and in 1989 the US government cut off his future aid” (Bueno de Mesquita 47). Here, it is evident of the fact that the United States does not care for their allies, but only cares about what they do for the US–meaning that they get cut off when they are not needed. In examples such as this happening around the world with the United States, it creates resentment of those who came from that country, possibly leading to terrorism and violence.  This would end up changing the majority of American’s beliefs of other countries to be of harshness and violence. In Liberia and the rest of West Africa, this has happened. Following the aid given (and taken) by the US, some individuals believed that traditional Islam was tainted by Western influences, prompting a terrorist group.  An article by Walter Gam Nkwi shows how this created a terrorist group, and “Thus, their objective is to do away with westernization because of the strong believe that westernization had adulterated classical Islam. Whether this is right or wrong remains a matter of conjecture” (Nkwi 84). The westernization is because of aid given by the United States, and the terrorist groups that were created after this changed Americans values by making them think less of West African society. Another example from The Dictator’s Handbook is with democratization, and “The big problem with democratizing overseas continues to lie with we, the people. In most cases we seem to prefer that foreign nations do what we want, not what they want” (Bueno de Mesquita 248). This problem that is so heavily stressed shows us how something with good intentions can create bad results. In the first gulf war,  “… the goal was to promote stability in the Middle East and restore the reliable, undisrupted flow of oil” (Bueno de Mesquita 238), but instead, since the United States wanted Iraq to do what we want, it was too much change for Iraqis to handle, creating terrorist organizations today such as ISIS from that resentment of the United States. This changed American values with prejudices against Muslims and those from the Middle East. There were times when the United States does something wrong intentionally, and other times when it was not intentional. However, they net the same results of terrorist organizations which change American values with prejudice and hate.

America tends to change more when something wrong happens then when it goes perfectly. This is because of the awful feeling of a mistake and the abhor to do it again, but more often than not it will happen again. Many of the topics discussed here are repetitions of similar outcomes with different intentions, such as with America giving aid to different countries. These mistakes made by a superpower such as America will continue to shape world political policies and individual values for decades to come.


Acharya Avidit, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen. “The Political Legacy of American Slavery.” University of Chicago, vol. 78, no. 3, July 2016, pp. 621+, https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/msen/files/slavery.pdf. Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.

Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, and Alastair Smith. The Dictator’s Handbook. New York, Public Affairs.

Hodbod’ová, Zuzana. “The Vietnam War, Public Opinion and American Culture.” Masaryk University, 16 Apr. 2008, pp. 31-42. Accessed 17 Oct. 2017.

Lawson, Guy. War Dogs. New York, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2015, pp. xix-236.

Marx, Jerry D. “American Social Policy in the Great Depression and World War II.” https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu, edited by John E. Hansan, VCU, 12 Jan. 2011, https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/american-social-policy-in-the-great-depression-and-wwii/. Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.

Nkwi, Walter G. “Terrorism in West African History: a 21st Century Appeal.” Brazilian Journal of Strategy & International Relations, vol. 4, no. 8, July 2015, pp. 78-99. Accessed 22 Oct. 2017.

Simpson, John, and Edmund Weiner. “mistake.” OED, edited by Robert Burchfield, Oxford Dictionary. Accessed 23 Oct. 2017.

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