During the post-World War II era the choices Americans made in their personal lives, their domestic policies, and international relations were shaped by memories of the preceding sixteen years of depression and war. These choices began a profound reconfiguration of American society that changed the meanings of class and ethnicity and caused the emergence of a new American Dream based on the family and on a shared belief in anti-communism and in the importance of economic progress. This consensus lasted throughout the era despite growing social tensions.
II0. Shaping Postwar America
A0. Postwar Economic Uncertainty
Unemployment jumped markedly with the end of the war. However, through the GI Bill of Rights (1944) the government had begun to plan for demobilization. Furthermore, the creation of the Council of Economic Advisors (1946) reaffirmed the federal government’s responsibility for managing the economy.
B0. Postwar Strikes and the Taft-Hartley Act
Falling real income led many workers to go on strike, particularly in 1946. Public anger at the strikes and their economic repercussions led pro-business Republicans and their conservative Democratic allies in Congress to restrict the power of labor unions by passing the Taft-Hartley Act over Truman’s veto.
C0. Economic Growth
Fueled by consumer spending, the economy, after a difficult first year adjustment to peace, recovered quickly and rocketed on a twenty-five year boom.
With factories around the world in ruins, U.S. corporations expanded their global dominance, often forming huge conglomerates.
The agricultural sector contributed to economic growth with increased farm production resulting from continued mechanization and increased use of fertilizers and pesticides.
Government programs, such as the GI Bill of Rights, also fueled economic growth.
D0. Baby Boom
The baby boom was both a cause and effect of prosperity. The highest birth rate in American history increased demand for houses and schools.
People left cities and moved to the suburbs for a variety of reasons.
Suburbanization created a greater demand for houses. Contractors erected rows of houses in record times to facilitate this housing demand.
Low-interest GI mortgages and Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance helped many people afford homes.
The Highway Act of 1956 appropriated billions of dollars for the construction of a modern interstate highway system. Federal expenditures on highways made formerly isolated rural areas accessible to average Americans, a development that hastened suburbanization and promoted uniform lifestyles across the nation.
Postwar federal programs did not benefit all Americans equally. There were inequities based on both gender and race.
III0. Domestic Politics in the Cold War Era
A0. Harry S Truman and Postwar Liberalism
Truman’s legislative program was designed to maintain the federal government’s active role in guaranteeing social welfare, promoting social justice, managing the economy, and regulating the power of corporations.
Because of opposition from a coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats, Truman enjoyed few legislative successes. Public discontent caused a dramatic decline in Truman’s approval rating.
B0. 1948 Election
Republicans expressed great confidence during the election campaign, especially since the Democrats splintered at their convention. Nevertheless, Truman won.
C0. Truman’s Fair Deal
After the 1948 election, President Truman proposed civil rights legislation, national health insurance, and federal aid for education. Once again, however, little of Truman’s legislative agenda was enacted.
The Korean War sparked an inflationary spiral. The war also led to reservists and national guardsmen being called to active duty.
By 1951 Truman’s approval rating was at an all-time low of 23 percent.
D0. Eisenhower’s Dynamic Conservatism
Eisenhower recognized that dismantling New Deal and Fair Deal programs was politically impossible.
Eisenhower adopted a policy of being conservative when it comes to money and liberal when it comes to human beings.
E0. Growth of the Military Industrial Complex
Eisenhower pursued policies friendly to business and industry.
As he left the White House, Eisenhower warned the American people of the “military-industrial complex.”
The era has been labeled the era of “consensus.” Liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans occupied what has been called “the vital center.” The Cold War was seen as a battle between good and evil. Criticism of American society seemed unpatriotic.
The Soviet Union’s takeover of eastern Europe caused worry that the United States was too soft in its policy toward the Soviet Union.
B0. Espionage and Nuclear Fears
The Soviet Union was spying of the United States to obtain nuclear secrets.
The public fear of nuclear war contributed to American anticommunism.
C0. The Politics of Anticommunism
Truman used alarmist language concerning the communist threat.
Republicans used redbaiting techniques against Democratic opponents.
In 1947, Truman ordered loyalty investigations of millions of federal workers.
House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) went on the attack against Hollywood in 1947. The “Hollywood Ten” were imprisoned. Studio executives blacklisted hundreds of actors, screenwriters, and directors suspected of communist affiliations.
D0. McCarthyism and the Growing “Witch-Hunt”
When Senator Joseph McCarthy announced that communists controlled the State Department, he started the hysteria that became known as McCarthyism.
E0. Anticommunism in Congress
Congress passed the Internal Security Act in 1950 and the Communist Control Act in 1954.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated a former State Department official, Alger Hiss, for his links to communist spies.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of treason and executed in 1953.
F0. The Waning of the Red Scare
In the Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy made a crucial error by accusing the Army of harboring communists during televised Senate hearings.
V0. The Struggle for Civil Rights
A0. Growing Black Political Power
Black migrations to the North and West led to a shift in the political composition of those regions.
B0. President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights
The report of Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights shaped government policy for twenty years.
In 1948 Truman issued an executive order proclaiming a policy of “fair employment throughout the federal establishment” and creating the Employment Board of the Civil Service Commission.
In a second executive order in 1948 Truman ended segregation in the armed forces.
C0. School Desegregation and Supreme Court Victories
African Americans benefited from court decisions in the late 1940s.
In 1954, the Supreme Court declared segregated public schools unconstitutional in Brownv.Board of Education of Topeka.
D0. White Resistance
White Citizens Councils were formed in many southern communities to resist school desegregation.
Whites determined to keep African Americans out of their neighborhood provoked a race riot in Cicero, Illinois, in 1951.
E0. Federal Authority and States’ Rights
Eisenhower objected to a federal role in civil rights, thereby tacitly encouraging resistance to integration.
When Arkansas tried to block integration of a Little Rock high school, Eisenhower intervened to force compliance.
F0. Montgomery Bus Boycott
African Americans protested segregated public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama, by staging a massive boycott of the bus system.
Martin Luther King Jr. led the bus boycott, beginning his leadership of the civil rights movement.
In 1957 Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction. This act created the United States Commission on Civil Rights, but proved to be ineffective.
VI0. Creating a Middle-Class Nation
A0. Prosperity for More Americans
The economic growth of the period was driven by consumer spending as Americans’ appetites for consumer goods increased.
Unionized workers gained wage increases after the war, and they could lead middle-class lifestyles previously reserved for the white-collar workers.
B0. The Sunbelt and Economic Growth
Postwar defense spending shifted economic development from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and Southwest, a process that began during the war years. This brought new economic prosperity to the region known as the Sunbelt.
Millions of Americans began to move to the Sunbelt to take advantage of the prosperity in the region.
C0. A New Middle-Class Culture
In 1957 for the first time a majority of families had incomes in the middle-class range. As more blue-collar workers participated in middle-class culture, the lines separating working class and middle class blurred.
D0. Whiteness and National Culture
In the 1950s, the U.S. population was more homogeneous than before or since.
In the suburbs, people of different backgrounds came together and adopted the norms of the developing national middle class.
The newest luxury item, television, fostered a shared national culture by giving Americans a shared set of experiences. Television also taught many Americans how to be middle class.
Newly prosperous Americans had a variety of consumer goods from which to choose and embraced the new consumer culture.
G0. Growth of Religion
Membership in religious congregations grew steadily in the 1950s.
VII0. Men, Women, and Youth at Midcentury
A0. Marriage and Families
Marriage at an early age was the trend in the 1950s. Most newlyweds quickly had children.
B0. Gender Roles in Fifties Families
Men and women usually had distinctive roles in families of the 1950s.
There were a number of incentives for women to stay at home, and many devoted their energies to family life.
C0. Women and Work
Although women were expected to be full-time housewives, women continued to enter the labor force. However, due to occupational segregation, full-time female workers made only 60 percent of what male full-time workers made.
D0. “The Crisis of Masculinity”
Mass-circulation magazines of the 1950s proclaimed that men faced a “crisis of masculinity.”
Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female made many Americans aware they were not alone in breaking the sexual rules of the era.
F0. Youth Culture
The music industry catered to youth, and youngsters found subtle ways to rebel against social norms. Movies were successful because of the attendance of young Americans.
VIII0. The Limits of the Middle-Class Nation
A0. Critics of Conformity
Critics condemned the new middle-class culture as a wasteland of conformity, homogeneity, and ugly consumerism.
American families became preoccupied with education, seeing success in school as a prerequisite for economic and social success. When the Soviets launched Sputnik I, education became a matter of national security.
B0. Environmental Degradation
Postwar American culture was built on massive consumption of the world’s resources.
Development led to damage to the environment, but most Americans remained oblivious to the problems.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted Americans to the dangers of DDT, one of the most damaging pesticides used by Americans.
C0. Continuing Racism
Race remained a major dividing line in American society.
D0. Poverty in an Age of Abundance
More than one out of every five Americans lived in poverty.
Most of the poor settled in cities, and African Americans made up the bulk of the urban poor.
Latin Americans immigrated to the United States in increasing numbers and often found their chances for advancement limited by discrimination.
Tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and migratory farm workers often lived in poverty.
Native Americans were the nation’s poorest people, and their lives were made worse by Eisenhower’s termination policy. Accustomed to reservation life, many had great difficulty adjusting to life in the cities.
0Integrating the Armed Forces
Students may be familiar with recent civil rights advances, but they might be less aware that significant changes occurred in the 1940s. They may or may not be surprised to find that those efforts met resistance. In 1947, as unemployment increased, many people chose a three-year “hitch” in the military to escape the bad times. Other incentives, such as the travel or the GI Bill, persuaded thousands more to enlist. This social mobility and personal improvement, however, seemed intended primarily for white Americans. John F. Buckley joined the Army Air Corps during this time in Brockton, Massachusetts.
At the recruiting office, he found out that white soldiers considered African Americans too dumb to pass any of the technical tests. Following basic training, Buckley trained as a radio operator and gunner aboard B-29 bombers. He trained with white recruits; he had white instructors. Just seventeen years old, Buckley only slowly began to wonder where all the blacks might be. He discovered later that most of them had been assigned to motor pools or kitchens. Buckley eventually joined a combat squadron—an all-white unit.
President Harry Truman’s decision to integrate the armed services had little profound effect on Buckley. For blacks, few new opportunities opened up within the military. The only change he saw came with intramural sports. Prior to Truman’s order, all sports competition had remained strictly segregated, but by 1950 blacks and whites could play with, or perhaps against, each other. Many military men, resisting the so-called Truman Laws, developed a system of bypassing integration by creating a careful screening network. Prior to 1959, Buckley never saw a black assigned to any command position. He did see one area where leaders seemed to feel African Americans had the right qualifications. There seemed to be no reluctance to assign them to front-line combat duty in Korea.
Students undoubtedly know that the interstate highway system exists, but they may not quite understand how the roadways reveal the irony of history. President Eisenhower had several reasons for advocating the highways, among them his experience as a military commander. He had found while serving in Europe that an effective system of roads facilitated military advances and, when necessary, evacuations. He believed that the United States needed a national highway network to strengthen the country strategically.
Interstate highways produced numerous benefits, but they also made America extremely dependent on oil. Of course, automotive and truck transportation required copious amounts of fuel refined from petroleum. Much of the material used to manufacture the cars and trucks, for instance tires, belts, and insulation, also came from oil. Indeed, simply building the roads required petroleum-based products. This increased use of petroleum coincided with the decline of other transportation systems, such as the railroads, that stemmed from the interstate highways. Thus, the United States stood vulnerable if petroleum-exporting nations chose to limit oil supplies, which they did in the 1970s. The interstate highways, built to make America strong, in many ways served to make the nation weaker.
0The GI Bill of Rights
The GI Bill had profound ramifications on the United States, and students may have family members who directly benefited from the act. Despite its importance, however, students may know very little about it. Postwar demobilization traditionally meant economic problems, but after World War II the United States took steps that altered American society as much as they helped returning soldiers. The GI Bill of Rights, officially passed as the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, provided extensive benefits to veterans of the Second World War. Perhaps most famous for the educational benefits rendered, the act also created veterans’ hospitals, funded vocational rehabilitation, and gave low-interest mortgages. The educational package included tuition and living expenses for veterans attending colleges or trade schools. After the Korean War, Congress extended benefits to those veterans as well, and the Readjustment Benefits Act of 1966 included all armed forces veterans, including those who had served in peacetime.
The GI Bill also provided unemployment benefits for World War II veterans, appropriating nearly 4 billion dollars from 1944 to 1949 to nearly 9 million veterans. The education and training benefits only lasted until 1956, but they helped almost 10 million veterans. The federal policy for veterans stimulated postwar spending and brought a greater demand for goods and services. Instead of re-entering the Depression in 1946, the GI Bill helped make the United States an affluent society.
Postwar America seemed to emphasize the importance of youth, and perhaps nobody better symbolized the youth of the late 1950s and early 1960s than Elvis Presley. Surely the students have heard of Elvis, but they might not be familiar with the life story of this American pop hero. Born into a poor family in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1935, he moved with his family to Memphis thirteen years later. Elvis enjoyed singing, and he entered a variety of talent shows, but his big break came as a result of his affection for his mother. He made a 45-rpm record to give her as a birthday gift, and the technicians at the recording studio urged him to audition for the president of Sun Records, Sam Phillips.
Phillips recognized the uniqueness of Elvis—a white person influenced by the Mississippi Delta—and he signed the young man to a contract. Elvis’s early records, considered by many people to be his best, reveal the importance of rhythm and blues, gospel songs, and country music in creating what came to be known as rock ’n’ roll. Presley also added a youthful rebelliousness, exemplified by his longish hair, his lamé jackets, and, especially, his gyrating hips. Parents expressed disgust, and Ed Sullivan refused to allow Elvis to be shown on television from the waist down. Teenagers, on the other hand, loved him, and in the late 1950s he had a series of number one hits that made him the “King of Rock and Roll.”
In the 1960s, his career seemed to decline. He was drafted into the army in 1958, and he certainly created a stir at the posts at which he served in Germany, but when he returned to the United States he began a poorly conceived film career. His movies made him fabulously wealthy, but they were poorly produced and have survived almost as a caricature of Elvis rather than as any artistic statement. The British Invasion of the mid-1960s helped knock Elvis off the record charts, and the King appeared to be dead. A televised Christmas special in 1968, however, returned him to the public’s eye, and Elvis built on that show to make a remarkable come back, particularly in Las Vegas where his performances became legendary.
The legend may have been too powerful. Surrounded by a number of sycophants, and indulgent by nature, Elvis’s life degenerated into an abusive cycle of overeating, painkillers, and barbiturates. According to the record, he died of an accidental overdose of drugs at his Memphis home, Graceland, in 1977. Many people believe that the King survives, living a happier life out of the spotlight. Whether Elvis is buried at Graceland or working at a hamburger restaurant in the Midwest, the music remains, and rock ’n’ roll will never die.