SEATS OF POWER, SEATS OF PANTS
A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States
A SNAPSHOT OF THE 1950’S
The two realities that shaped the particular features of the 1950's (including the immediate post-war period, 1946-50) were the great economic boom of that time and the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
The American economy, fired up by unprecedented high levels of government spending during WWII, seemed launched on an ever-ascending trajectory of prosperity. Never did the American future seem more bountiful and boundless. Indeed, some commentators, noting this combination of economic strength and America’s military power after WWII, felt justified in calling this period "The American Century."
At home the economic boom had far reaching consequences. As a result of the increasing standard of living, millions of Americans moved to the suburbs, and on American TV sit-coms, this became idealized as the "American Way of Life." (For small farming towns like Sudbury these changes meant the first significant population increase since the American Revolution.) Memories of the Depression began to fade, and America appeared to be in the process of becoming a middle-class country where poverty and all class distinctions were being abolished. Amidst these "happy days" material values were celebrated, as well as being "conventional," "conformist," "normal," and having a nuclear family consisting of 2.4 children. Mom was a contented homemaker, and Dad was a stereotypical "Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" suburban commuter. Life was good, and it seemed to many citizens that capitalism had not only shown itself capable of generating prosperity but justice for all. The sky appeared cloudless. Almost.
"Almost", because there was one rather large and threatening thunder cloud and it was called "The Soviet Union." Though we had been allies with the USSR during WWII, this alliance fell apart once our common enemy, Nazi Germany, had been defeated. And so the Cold War began, so-called because it consisted mainly in a continuing state of tension between capitalist democracies (U.S. and Western Europe), organized in the military alliance called N.A.T.O., and the communist countries of the world (USSR and Eastern Europe) organized as the Warsaw Pact.
(Community North Vietnam, North Korea, and China were also allied with the Soviet Union.)
From the American point-of-view "International Communism," led by the USSR, was an expansionist force that sought to enslave free peoples. It threatened both American security and prosperity. We sought to resist communism by building up our military forces, particularly our nuclear missiles. The world became a significantly more dangerous place in the 1950's because now there were two atomic superpowers (the USSR had developed its own A-Bomb in the late '40's), and the specter of nuclear extinction faced all humankind. The next war could be the last ever. The government even encouraged Americans to dig bomb shelters in their back yards, and in school students scrambled under desks in "atomic bomb attack" drills (In places like the History book room, stores of crackers were kept "just in case.") In the main the Cold War stayed cold and tense, but occasionally, such as in the Korean War of 1950-52, the "cold" turned "hot" and we found ourselves in a shooting war.
Finally, the international Cold War found its complement in a second domestic "red scare." Laws were passed which, in effect, made membership in the American Communist Party illegal. Also Congress organized several investigatory committees, the most famous being HUAC, to find and eliminate communist influences in American life. Suspected communists were fired from the government, the media, and the schools, often without regard for due process or the "freedom of thought." The anti-communist crusades of the 50's were brought to a rolling boil by some highly publicized and still hotly debated spy cases (such as the Rosenberg case, in which suspected communists--later executed--were charged with stealing the secret of the Atomic Bomb). To some these crusades appeared essential; to others, they recalled the excesses of the Salem Witch Trials. At any rate, this aspect of the 50's was very much identified with Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin ("McCarthyism") and a rising political star from California named Richard Nixon. Suffice it to say, "McCarthyism" reinforced the conventionality of the 50's. College campuses were a place of fads, not protests. If you were a radical or a political dissenter, it was wise to remain silent and stay out of sight during this period.
After FDR died in 1945, his VP Harry Truman took over, and won reelection in 1948. Truman was a feisty fellow, who spoke his mind in a most direct manner. He called his administrative program "The Fair Deal." He supported a continuation of liberal New Deal social Policies. He was a liberal in terms of domestic policy and believed in the virtues of "Big Government" and the "welfare state." With respect to the Cold War, he was an uncompromising hardliner, opposing communism abroad and supporting most anti-communist legislation at home.
From 1952 to 1960, the President was the very popular General Dwight David ("Ike") Eisenhower, the former Supreme Allied Commander of WWII fame. He was grandfatherly in mien, and moderately conservative in politics. He played a lot of golf had a trademark smile, and two heart attacks. By the times the 50's ended, he seemed like an old man, and the country was ready for a change. Though conservative, he slowed the growth of New Deal programs but didn't attempt to dismantle them. He did not try to fundamentally change FDR's vision of the role of government. In foreign affairs, he was a staunch opponent of Russian power, and he went along with the anti-communist crusades on the homefront..
During the 50's, there was no great awareness of social problems, except perhaps the growing concern over "juvenile delinquency." TV images suggested poverty had disappeared from American life. And racism? African-Americans were largely "invisible" on TV and in life, trapped in lower wage, menial jobs, and living in inner-city ghettoes or rural backwaters. America was a segregated society, north and south. Racist thinking was so widespread that many whites experienced it more as common sense than prejudice.
But there were rumbles of distant thunder. Indeed World War II had set forces in motion which would not be denied. In 1954, the Supreme Court had ruled school segregation unconstitutional, the first major attack on the "Jim Crow" system. In 1955-6, a young minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., had led a boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. A year later, federal troops would be dispatched to Arkansas to facilitate the entry of nine black youth into Little Rock High School.
The great Civil Rights Movements was beginning, though no one could know at the time that the events above would "take root." The CRM is more a story of the 60's, but the background definitely begins in this decade.
The mainstream culture was represented by such symbols as tupperware and big gas guzzling cars with enormous fins. There was also Levittown, the prototypical suburb of identical homes. But cracks were beginning to appear in the picture window. For one thing, the "baby boom" had begun after WWII. During the 50's, these little babies were growing up into a bumper harvest of slightly restless "teenagers," a new cultural reality on the American landscape. In racist America, they began to turn on to a "black" music called Rhythm and Blues, and soon to be known as Rock and Roll.This music seemed rebellious, and parents thought it a bit obscene as well. Moreover, the music seemed to encourage teens to move certain parts of their bodies in dangerous ways. Were all teens becoming JD's?
Finally, there was another group in 50's America which challenged mainstream values. They were small in number, writers and poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who called themselves, "The Beat Generation." They listened to jazz, took drugs, took off “on the road,” had sex (often), and wrote in a manner that broke all the rules. In the conformist 50's, they were dismissed as nuts , kooks and "beatniks," but they had a great impact on American writing and helped lay the groundwork for the mass, hippie counter-culture of the 60's.
TOPICS & TERMS
The Great Economic Boom
"Father Knows Best"
"The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit"
The International Cold War
Nato, Warsaw Pact
John Foster Dulles
Berlin Blockade and Airlift
Domestic Cold War
Alger Hiss case
The "Fair Deal"
The Brown Decision
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
Crisis at Little Rock High
Race Music/ Rock & Roll
On The Road