After the Second World War, the United States experienced an uneasy and troubled transition to peace. Although the unemployment and higher education benefits of the GI Bill were intended, in part, to ease this transition by allowing veterans to be eased into civilian employment, those benefits did not affect the skyrocketing inflation rate and did not prevent a rash of strikes. Despite the fact that the Truman administration's handling of those problems led to widespread public discontent and to Republican victory in the 1946 congressional elections, to the surprise of most analysts, Truman won the presidential election of 1948. Furthermore, even though the transition to a peacetime economy was rocky at first, the economy quickly recovered and, as a result of consumer spending, increased agricultural productivity, and government programs, the United States entered an era of sustained economic growth and prosperity. One of the consequences of this prosperity was the baby boom, which fueled more economic growth.
During the 1950s, white Americans increasingly fled from the cities to the suburbs. Drawn to the suburbs by many factors, life in suburbia was often made possible by government policies that extended economic aid to families making such a move. Unfortunately, these federal policies did not benefit all Americans equally. As a result, nonwhites were often denied the opportunities offered to white Americans. Federal, state, and local expenditures on highway construction also spurred the growth of suburbia by allowing workers to live farther from their jobs in central cities. Although suburbia had its critics, most Americans seemed to prefer the lifestyle it offered.
During Truman's first elected term (1949-1953), he and the American people had to contend with the domestic consequences of the Korean War. Although the war brought prosperity, it also brought inflation and increased defense spending at the expense of the domestic programs of Truman's Fair Deal. Furthermore, both the nature and length of the Korean War led to disillusionment and discontent on the part of many Americans. These factors, coupled with reports of influence peddling in the Truman administration, caused the President's approval rating to plummet and led to a Republican triumph in the presidential and congressional elections of 1952.
Upon coming to the presidency in 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a moderate Republican, decided against attempting to dismantle New Deal and Fair Deal programs and adopted the philosophy of dynamic conservatism. Eisenhower meant by this that he was conservative when it comes to money and liberal when it comes to human beings. While Eisenhower's expansion of the Social Security System was on the liberal side of this philosophy, the increased government funding for education during his administration was, as pointed out by the authors of the text, more a reaction to Cold War pressures than from a liberal frame of reference. The pro-business nature of the Eisenhower administration and Eisenhower's belief that government should actively promote economic development may be seen in the president's tax reform program and the Atomic Energy Act. Despite Eisenhower's fiscal conservatism, the administration's activist foreign policy and three domestic economic recessions caused increased federal expenditures, decreased tax revenues, and deficit spending. As a result, Eisenhower oversaw only three balanced budgets during his eight years in office.
During this age of consensus a period in which Americans agreed on their stance against communism and their faith in economic progress many people, believing in the rightness of the American system, viewed reform and reformers in a negative light and saw conflict as the product of psychologically disturbed individuals, not as the product of societal ills. It is within this consensus context that, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States witnessed a wave of anti-Communist hysteria. The tracing of events from the Verona project to Truman's loyalty probe to the Hollywood Ten supports the view that fear of communism, long present in American society, intensified during the postwar years. Within this climate of fear and suspicion, Joseph McCarthy began his demagogic anticommunist crusade and, in the process, lent his name to a state of mind that existed before he entered the scene. McCarthyism was further sustained by events, and as Americans pointed accusing fingers at each other, public figures found it difficult to stand against McCarthy's tactics. As a result, liberals and conservatives shared in consensus on anticommunism, as can be seen in the passage of the Internal Security Act and the Communist Control Act. Moreover, since respected public figures such as President Eisenhower chose to avoid direct confrontation with Senator McCarthy, McCarthy continued to add more victims to his list of alleged subversives and continued to jeopardize freedom of speech and expression. Ultimately, McCarthyism declined, with McCarthy himself being largely responsible for his own demise.
One group that challenged the consensus mood of the age was African Americans. Under Truman, the federal government, for the first time since Reconstruction, accepted responsibility for guaranteeing equality under the law civil rights to African Americans. Furthermore, work by the NAACP and decisions by the Supreme Court resulted in slow erosion of the separate-but-equal doctrine and of black disfranchisement in the South. Then the Supreme Court?s historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka gave African Americans reason to believe that their long struggle against racism was beginning to pay off. However, white southerners reacted with hostility to that decision and actively resisted Court-ordered desegregation. This resistance led to the crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, a crisis in which Eisenhower felt compelled to use federal troops to prevent violence in the desegregation of the city's public schools. But the Little Rock crisis was merely the tip of an emerging civil rights movement, as can be seen through the discussion of the Montgomery bus boycott, the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and criticism concerning the ineffectiveness of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
The postwar economic boom also affected the family. The changes it brought included the influence of Dr. Benjamin Spock on the parent-child relationship and the conflicting and changing roles of women as more entered the labor market. While society continued to stress the importance of proper female roles, attention was also directed to the crisis of masculinity, and, therefore, to the plight of the American male.
After a discussion of the influence of the pioneering work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey in the late 1940s and early 1950s on American attitudes toward sexual behavior, we look at the emergence of a distinctive youth culture, the birth of rock n roll, the fads of the era, and the critiques of American society offered by those who criticized the conformity of the age.
Economic growth inspired by government defense spending and by the growth of a more affluent population demanding more consumer goods and larger quantities of agricultural products had a negative impact on the environment. Automobiles and factories polluted the air. Human and industrial waste polluted rivers, lakes, and streams. Pesticides endangered wildlife and humans alike, as did the waste from nuclear processing plants. Disposable products marketed as conveniences made America a throw-away society.
Prosperity did not bring about a meaningful redistribution of income in American society during the period under study. Therefore, many Americans (about 25 percent in 1962) lived in poverty. As before, the poor congregated in urban areas. African Americans, poor whites, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans continued their movement to low-income inner-city housing, while the more affluent city residents mostly whites continued their exodus to the suburbs. Although low-interest government housing loans made life in suburbia possible for many middle-class whites, government programs such as urban renewal often hurt the urban poor. Furthermore, the trend toward bigness in American agriculture continued and presented more of a threat than ever to the family farm. The growth of agribusiness pushed many small farmers and tenant farmers off the land, which in turn swelled the ranks of the urban poor. Unfortunately, the burgeoning middle class often turned a blind eye to the poverty around them.
Korea, Eisenhower, and Affluence: 1950-1956
1946 Dr. Spock's Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care published.
1948 Bell Telephone Labs develops the transistor. Levittown opens on Long Island.
1950 McCarthy's Wheeling, West Virginia, speech. Internal Security Act.
Diner's Club introduces the credit card.
1950-53 The Korean War.
1951 Truman sacks MacArthur.
1952 First U.S. H-bomb test. McCarran-Walter Act. Publication of Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man.
1953-60 Dwight Eisenhower's presidency.
1953 Execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Stalin"s death.
CIA aids Iranian coup.
1954 Dulles announces Eisenhower's "New Look" strategy. The Suez Crisis.
French garrison at Dien Bien Phu surrenders. Geneva peace conference.
Congress adds "Under God" to Pledge of Allegiance. Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education. Army-McCarthy Hearings.
United States begins U-2 surveillance flights. Khruschev rejects DDE's
"Open Skies" initiative. AFL and CIO merge. Emmett Till's murder.
1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott.
1956 Eisenhower wins reelection. Hungarian uprising. Interstate Highway Act.
1957 Formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
1958 Test ban talks begin in Geneva.
Economic Transformation: The most notable characteristic of the 1950s was the economic boom fueled by the growing availability of consumer goods. Despite the sometimes conservative rhetoric of the Eisenhower administration, most governmental leaders came to accept the principle that the federal government had a responsibility to promote economic prosperity through its spending and taxation policies. The Cold War helped to fuel federal spending on science, technology, and transportation, all of which had a significant impact on the American economy and society.
Culture: The postwar period witnessed important changes in American culture, especially the growth of the middle class. The wide availability of consumer goods and new media such as television helped to create a society that valued economic prosperity and mass consumption. Popular images of the decade emphasize the widespread sense of conformity. As the decade progressed, however, many intellectuals came to see the society as sterile and unimaginative. Furthermore, a new youth culture emerged, demonstrating an increasing sense of alienation with America's middle-class culture and helping to lay the groundwork for the more widespread protests of the 1960s.
Demographic Change: Postwar prosperity helped to create a new generation of "baby boomers," as the end of the Great Depression and World War II made Americans more willing to start families. Inexpensive housing and dissatisfaction with urban life led to the proliferation of suburbs, while the American West grew significantly from government spending and internal migrations. Cities became increasingly populated by African Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups, who faced significant poverty even as the country as a whole prospered.
American Diversity: While white, middle-class virtues seemed to dominate the American landscape, African Americans and other groups began a struggle to achieve a greater voice in American society. The Supreme Court's decision to end segregation in schools brought civil rights into the forefront of the national consciousness, while African-American activists began a long battle against segregation with protests in Montgomery, Alabama, and elsewhere, efforts that made civil rights an issue that Americans found increasingly difficult to ignore by the end of the decade.
War and Diplomacy: The
Eisenhower administration faced growing challenges outside of Europe,
particularly in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Although Eisenhower
sought to limit American defense spending and its foreign commitments,
the Cold War had spread to most corners of the globe by the time
Eisenhower left office in 1960. The Cold War had unfortunate domestic
ramifications, as senator Joseph McCarthy capitalized on popular fears
in an effort to uncover communist influence in the government and other
arenas of American life.
Postwar America 1950s
In 1945, the United States was a far different country than it subsequently became. Nearly a third of Americans lived in poverty. A third of the country's homes had no running water, two-fifths lacked flushing toilets, and three-fifths lacked central heating. More than half of the nation's farm dwellings had no electricity. Most African Americans still lived in the South, where racial segregation in schools and public accommodations were still the law. The number of immigrants was small as a result of immigration quotas enacted during the 1920s. Shopping malls had not yet been introduced.
Following World War II, the United States began an economic boom that brought unparalleled prosperity to a majority of its citizens and raised Americans expectations, breeding a belief that most economic and social problems could be solved. Among the crucial themes of this period were the struggle for equality among women and minorities, and the backlash that these struggles evoked; the growth of the suburbs, and the shift in power from the older industrial states and cities of the Northeast and upper Midwest to the South and West; and the belief that the U.S. had the economic and military power to maintain world peace and shape the behavior of other nations.
During the early 1970s, films like American Graffiti and television shows like Happy Days portrayed the 1950s as a carefree era--a decade of tail-finned Cadillac's, collegians stuffing themselves in phone booths, and innocent tranquility and static charm. In truth, the post-World War II period was an era of intense anxiety and dynamic, creative change. During the 1950s, African Americans quickened the pace of the struggle for equality by challenging segregation in court. A new youth culture emerged with its own form of music--rock n' roll. Maverick sociologists, social critics, poets, and writers--conservatives as well as liberals--authored influential critiques of American society.
Biography of America
The Fifties (series 23)
World War II is fought to its bitter end in the Pacific and the world lives with the legacy of its final moment: the atomic bomb. Professor Miller continues the story as veterans return from the war and create new lives for themselves in the '50s. The GI Bill, Levittown, civil rights, the Cold War, and rock 'n' roll are discussed.