Published on February 24, 2008
2.1 A: The Eisenhower Era Begins: 2.1 A: The Eisenhower Era Begins The Eisenhower Era Begins: The election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 signaled the beginning of a postwar era that offered a return to normalcy for many Americans. After years of economic hardship and participation in World War II, Americans in the early 1950s were anxious for a period of peace and prosperity. An immensely popular World War II hero, the smiling and confident "Ike" Eisenhower seemed to be the perfect man to lead the county toward that goal. 1950s Optimism: Americans during the 1950s were optimistic about the future. The United States had survived the Depression and then won the war. Those who had made the greatest sacrifices-the fighting men and women, and their loved ones who had waited for them to come home-were now ready to resume their everyday lives. Many veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to get college educations. They purchased homes and started families at such a rapid rate, that over the next several years America experienced an unprecedented "baby boom.” As the decade progressed, Americans prospered in many ways. People bought cars, moved to the suburbs, and began to enjoy many of the latest technological advances that America had to offer. Chief among these was one that would have a profound effect on the country's political and social life for decades to come: the television. Challenges to 1950s: Optimism However, despite this period of "good feelings" about the country, some Americans argued that Eisenhower's "peace, progress, and prosperity" had a somewhat hollow ring to it. For despite the success of many white, middle-class Americans, the 1950s was also a decade marked by military buildup and social and racial inequality. Until a cease-fire in 1953, the country's peacetime was interrupted by a three year conflict in Korea that threatened to develop into a much larger war with Communist China. In addition, the United States rushed to arm itself against the other Communist threat-the Soviet Union-marking the beginning of a nuclear arms race. As anticommunist foreign policy developed, paranoia about an internal communist threat also arose. This paranoia reached its height with a "domestic war"-McCarthyism-a period marked by wild accusations of treason, headline-making Congressional hearings, and blacklists that ruined careers and personal lives. Senator McCarthy's own downfall in 1954 brought a close to much of the fear and "witch-hunting," although aspects of it, such as the Hollywood blacklist, continued until the end of the decade. Slide3: Social Unrest: While the 1950s was a period of great technological progress, social progress was slower to arrive. African Americans, who had made some gains in attaining civil rights in the armed services during World War II, now found themselves back in a firmly segregated society. During the 1950s, the struggle for civil rights won two important victories. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously voted to outlaw school segregation. The next year, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and that incident ignited a year-long black boycott of the city's buses. These two events triggered a series of confrontations between southern civil rights advocates and various southern authorities intent on maintaining segregationist policies. And although the Supreme Court ruling was historic and the bus boycott was successful, by the decade's end much of the South still remained segregated. Women also lost some of the independence and freedom they had gained as factory and office workers during World War II. Many women lost their jobs to returning veterans, and social pressure and the media focused on women's roles as housewives, with women dependent on and sometimes subservient to men. 2.1 A: The Eisenhower Era Begins A.1B: Military Buildup and Anti-Communism: A.1B: Military Buildup and Anti-Communism The Nuclear Shadow: The return to peace following World War II was shadowed by a new focus on building international military strength, particularly through atomic weapons. The explosions of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan had ushered in the atomic age. The continued testing of atomic bombs in the South Pacific, such as this test in the Bikini Islands, assured that the atomic age was to become the dominant symbol of the postwar years. U.S. foreign policy focused on containing the threat of communism, which was seen as a danger to the American way of life. Eisenhower sought to arm the United States with atomic weapons, racing with the Soviet Union to increase military strength. Ardent Anticommunism: The arms race had a direct impact on social values in the country-including family values, social mores, spending habits, and gender roles. Young and old were taught that anticommunism was heroic. And in the 1950s, school children all over the country participated in air-raid drills in which a Soviet attack on America was simulated: at the sound of the sirens, children had to crouch under their desks until it was "all clear." Anticommunism also came to be tied to social values. Cold War and anticommunist paranoia seized upon by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s began an age of adherence to strict social behavior. The message was clear: adhering to rigid standards of social behavior was patriotic; on the other hand, promiscuity was not only immoral, it made the entire country vulnerable to the forces of communist control. 2.1 C: Bomb Shelters and the Nuclear Family: 2.1 C: Bomb Shelters and the Nuclear Family Rise of Bomb Shelters: Fears of communism and nuclear war brought a new trend in the mid 1950s: family bomb shelters. The Atomic Energy Commission insisted that the deadly effects of radiation from atomic tests were exaggerated. The public was told that bomb shelters would keep them safe from atomic explosions. A political scientist named Henry Kissinger, in a book published in 1957, wrote that "With proper tactics, nuclear war need not be as destructive as it appears." To protect their families, people began to build bomb shelters, which became a symbol of family togetherness. A Los Angeles company broke ground for one of its first family "fallout shelters" in 1951. Ruth Colhoun hired the company to build her shelter, which would house her and her three daughters. The shelter, which cost $1,995, had brightly painted concrete walls, green plastic carpeting, storage space concealed by sliding doors, and a Geiger counter. For $3,000-a little higher than the average annual salary of an American worker in 1950-people could buy a shelter on a much grander scale. This larger version included a three-way radio, an air blower, a wind-up clock, a first aid kit, a Sterno stove, radiation charts, protective suits, a gas generator, a pick and shovel set ("for digging out after the blast"), and everything else needed for a family of five to spend three to five days underground. Shelters Reinforce the Nuclear Family The bomb shelter presented an image of the nuclear family in the nuclear age: isolated, enjoying an abundant lifestyle, and protected against impending doom by the wonders of modem technology. Peacetime uses for the shelters reinforced women's increasingly well-defined roles as mothers and housewives. As one woman said of the shelter, "It will make a wonderful place for the kids to play in. And it will be a good storehouse, too. I do a lot of canning and bottling." 2.1D: The Booming Economy: 2.1D: The Booming Economy An Economic Boom: Despite fears of communism and atomic war, the postwar years saw a booming economy and a consumer spending spree unparalleled in the nation's history. The term "big spender" became a common phrase during this era. The American standard of living was the highest in history, and evidence of an economic abundance was everywhere. Nearly 60 percent of all families were in the middle-class wage brackets, and the median family income had risen significantly. Federal Policies Spur Economic Growth: New domestic programs contributed greatly to the success of the postwar economy. The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of June 1944, more commonly known as the "GI Bill," allocated $13.5 billion in federal funds from 1945 to 1955 for the education of returning veterans in colleges, universities, and vocational schools. The federal government also provided loans for home building and the establishment of businesses. By the end of 1947 alone, the U.S. government had given a more than $2.5 billion to unemployed veterans, had granted more than 800,000 housing loans, and had funneled more than 6 million men into colleges and vocational schools. The Other America: While the United States was generally moving through a period of prosperity, certain sectors of society had less access to the increased wealth. Although they did not erode the social programs that were established during the 20 years of Democratic rule, Eisenhower's economic policies favored private business and the private sector over such programs. The distribution of wealth remained unequal, with the poorest fifth of families receiving 5 percent of all income, and the wealthiest fifth receiving 45 percent. The unemployed, the homeless, and minorities found little to celebrate in Eisenhower's eight years in office. In many regions, such as Appalachia in the southeast, there was widespread and persistent poverty. In 1962, following over a decade of sustained economic growth, statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted the bleak facts: 42.5 million Americans, nearly one of every four people, were poor; almost half of African Americans and more than half of Native Americans lived below the poverty line. 2.1 E: The "Baby Boom" : 2.1 E: The "Baby Boom" The Baby Boom: The booming economy of the postwar years left Americans with more money-to support larger families. Also, after the uncertainty of World War ll, the American public embraced the idea that marriage and a family were the key to happiness. A postwar poll showed that only 9 percent of Americans believed that single people could be happy. When veterans returned home at the war's end, early marriages became the norm and the U.S. birthrate increased tremendously. The increase in the birthrate during the 1950s was unprecedented. In 1940, the U.S. population stood at 132 million. During the decade of the 1930s, the population had increased just 7.2 percent. But by 1950 the population was 151 million, an increase of 14.4 percent over 1940. Between 1950 and 1960 the number of people went up even faster-by 18.5 percent-to a total of more than 179 million. By the end of the 1950s, the number of U.S. mothers who had given birth to three or more children had doubled in 20 years. The "baby boom" swelled the population so fast that even expert demographers were astonished. Impact on the Economy: The baby boom helped fuel the economic growth of the 1950s. In her syndicated newspaper column, Sylvia Porter described just what the baby boom meant to the economy: "Take the 3,548,000 babies born in 1950. Bundle them into a batch, bounce them all over the beautiful land that is America. What do you get? Boom. The biggest, boomiest boom ever known in history. Just imagine how much these extra people, these new markets, will absorb-in food, in clothing, in gadgets, in housing, in services. Our factories must expand to keep pace." 2.1 F: Prefabricated housing: 2.1 F: Prefabricated housing Slide9: 2.1 F: Prefabricated housing Housing Crisis: During the immediate postwar years, America suffered a severe housing crisis. With the armed services discharging millions of veterans, and the rapid increase of the birthrate, the country simply lacked enough places for people to live. At the height of the crisis, American veterans and their families were living in converted army barracks, in trailers, and in some cases even in their cars. The federal government pushed the housing industry to increase its construction of new homes, stipulating that a large portion of them be in the low-cost housing range. But the industry's leaders would not comply. And even if they had wanted to, the slow brick-by-brick method was too expensive and too slow to solve the problem. Mass Production of Homes: The answer to the problem came in the form of assembly line prefabricated houses. These mass-produced and quite inexpensive houses were largely responsible for the growth of the American suburbs. A pioneer of the mass production of houses was William Levitt, famous for a suburb on Long Island appropriately called Levittown, where during the height of construction a home was built every 16 minutes. Many of these houses could be expanded easily in case the owners had more children. The homes were designed for the needs of the homemaker, with a kitchen near the entrance and a picture window in the living room so a mother could keep her eye on the children at all times. Appliances such as dishwashers and refrigerators were included in the price of the home. Most houses had central heating, indoor plumbing, telephones, and washing machines. Gadgets and Gizmos: Technological advances helped make home maintenance less burdensome. Consumerism encouraged the growth of a "gadget age," and people rushed to fill their new homes with new products. Tiny transistors, sanitized toilet seats, central vacuuming, vinyl flooring, push-button phones, FM stereos, washer-dryers, automatic transmissions, drive-in shopping malls, air-conditioned buses, and electric can openers were just a few inventions of the 1950s. 2.1 G: Suburban Living: 2.1 G: Suburban Living The Growth of Suburbs: Mass-produced suburban homes offered a chance for white middle-class families to live out the American dream protected from the chaos of city life. In addition, in 1951 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists encouraged the move toward suburbia by arguing in favor of depopulating the urban centers of the country to make massive atomic destruction of a huge population less possible. Thirdly, the GI Bill and other funds allocated by the Federal Housing Authority allowed veterans to buy homes more cheaply than they could rent them. As a result, between 1950 and 1970, the suburban population doubled from 36 million to 74 million. By 1960, these residential areas contained a larger portion of the nation's population than did the metropolis, the small town, or the countryside. Suburbia Boosts the Economy: The growth of suburban living was also advantageous for private business. Since the suburbs kept workers isolated from one another, they were less likely or able to organize unions or large workers' organizations. The automobile industry both profited from and contributed to suburban sprawl. As families moved farther from urban centers, workers had to depend more heavily on automobiles for commuting. A more affluent family might buy a second car so that the mother could do errands throughout the day. Roads were built to facilitate the sudden emergence of commuters. Segregation and Discrimination: However, the shift to suburban living was not available to everyone. Few minorities could afford to move to the suburbs, and in many communities segregationist housing codes kept entire neighborhoods white. In addition, the Federal Housing Administration refused to guarantee home loans to the poor, nonwhites, Jews, and other "inharmonious racial and ethnic groups.” Whites outnumbered blacks in the suburbs 35 to 1. Most suburban families lived in completely racially homogeneous environments, free from the racial conflict and social upheaval that was beginning to unfold in major cities. Suburbia Criticized: Social critics openly questioned the celebration of suburban life. They believed that suburbs isolated families and created disconnected communities. Sociologist David Riesman lamented, "the decentralization of leisure in the suburbs...as the home itself, rather than the neighborhood, becomes the chief gathering place for the family-either in the 'family room' with its games, its informality, or outdoors around the barbecue.” Other critics believed that suburbs fostered a kind of stifling conformity. To them the row after row of indistinguishable houses represented an attack upon individuality and the American spirit of freedom. 2.1 H: Women's Roles: 2.1 H: Women's Roles Women's Jobs Lost to Returning GIs: In the immediate postwar years, many women faced setbacks from their wartime progress in the workforce. During World War II, women had streamed into the defense industry and assumed many types of jobs previously held by men. To encourage women to join the war effort, the federal government had provided child care and good wages. By 1945, 60 percent of women in the United States were employed-75 percent of them were married and 33 percent had children under 14 years of age. At the end of the war, however, most of these women lost their jobs to returning GIs, and women's average weekly pay dropped by 26 percent. Now women were pushed to step aside, become homemakers, and care for larger families. Media Reinforcement of Gender Roles: The renewed emphasis on traditional roles for women was reflected in the media. A 1945 Photoplay magazine encouraged women to "think about men's problems for a minute. They spend their lives fighting a competitive world. They may fight sitting behind a mahogany desk, or they might fight in a lesser job. They need to escape the doubts the best of them entertain about themselves. So they seek a girl who soothes their ego because, attractive enough to have other men, she chooses them instead.” In addition to exhorting women to dote on their husbands, articles in women's magazines focused on women's primary roles as wives and mothers. They carried such headlines as "How to Snare a Man," "Don't Be Afraid to Marry Young," "Have Babies While You're Young," "Birth: The Crowning Moment of My Life," "Give Us Back the Victorian Mothers of Seven to Ten Children," and "Should I Stop Work When I Marry?” Popular rhetoric suggested that "a woman's place is in the home.” Other working women, particularly nonwhite and poor women, did not have the luxury of becoming full-time housewives. They remained in the workforce and received lower pay than their white counterparts. Drop in Female College Enrollment: While some women fought to retain the freedoms working outside the home had brought them, many others abandoned their careers to bear four, five, and six children. The percentage of women in the American college population during the 1950s-35 percent-was actually lower than the prewar figure of 40 percent. By the late 1950s nearly two thirds of matriculating women dropped out before graduation, compared with half the men. While many women left college either to take on menial jobs to help put their husbands through school or to begin bearing children, others left because they had not found spouses. 2.11: America Takes to the Road: 2.11: America Takes to the Road Automobile as Status Symbols: The prosperity of the 1950s magnified America's love affair with the automobile, which reached new heights during the postwar years. For the first time in memory, people had time on their hands and some money to spend. Also, suburban living required transportation-but owning a car became more than just a matter of a convenience. It became a status symbol, too, a new part of the American dream. Chrome, Fins, and Fancy Fenders Cars: In the 1950s were bigger and more powerful than ever before. Auto manufacturers used such terms as "Dyna Flow" and "Power Flight" to describe the feeling a driver would have handling one of their new creations. Radical new designs were promoted as major improvements in performance. Huge tailfins supposedly "added stability at high speeds"; wraparound windshields increased visibility. Other features, such as oversize bumpers, didn't really add anything, but they were fashionable. The auto industry was also making improvements that really did matter. Seat belts were added, although they were considered "extras"-meaning the consumer had to pay extra for them. Cars were stronger, thanks to all-steel construction, and many engines and transmissions performed more efficiently. Impact on Family Life: By the end of the 1950s, cars had changed America's way of life. Housewives were no longer stuck at home; they now had the freedom to run errands in just a matter of minutes. Women often became the family driver, shuttling their husbands back and forth from the train station, and driving their children to and from school. Teenagers began to get their drivers' licenses, and borrow the family car for a date or a night out with their friends. Soon, so many young people were doing just that that drive-in movies and diners sprang up in towns everywhere. Construction, Traffic Jams, and Pollution: By the mid 1950s, there were more than 50 million car registrations, causing the U.S. government to devote billions of dollars to a massive federal highway construction plan that would continue for many years. Mass transit systems were abandoned throughout the country as Americans relied more and more on the shiny cocoon of their very own automobiles. Ribbons of superhighways promoted the harried pace of construction in the suburbs. Over time, solitary drivers waited in long traffic jams to get to jobs that years before were within the reach of a brisk walk, a short drive, or a subway token. Already, by the late 1940s, newspaper articles appeared on the "smaze" or "smog" problem created by an over reliance on bigger and more powerful automobiles. 2.1 J: The Rise of Television: 2.1 J: The Rise of Television The Emergence of Television: Along with postwar prosperity came technological progress, most notably in the form of the television. In the 1950s, televisions sold at a rate of more than 5 million a year, until by the end of the decade, 88 percent of American families had at least one television set. By 1959, the average U.S. family spent six hours per day sitting in front of the television. In 1954, a previously prepared frozen meal, the "TV dinner," was invented so that people would no longer have to tear themselves away from the television to cook or eat meals. When television first became popular, most of the shows had their roots in old vaudeville or slapstick comedy. Many early TV programs had their beginnings as radio shows. Famous radio personalities such as Jack Benny, Red Skelton, George Bums, and Gracie Allen transferred their successful radio programs to television. TV's Golden Age: Early TV was unique in one way: much of it was done live. Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows featured 90 minutes of live song, dance, and comedy every Saturday night. Live dramatic programs were as popular as comedy and variety shows. This kind of programming was called "serious" television. Each week a different cast was featured in a different play on live theater programs. These early TV dramas served as a valuable training ground for many writers and directors. Critically acclaimed dramas such as "Marty," "Requiem for a Heavyweight," and "Days of Wine and Roses," were created by young writers and directors, who in later years went on to write and direct many famous Hollywood films. Stereotypes Reinforced: As the 1950s wore on, television became the prime form of family entertainment. Many shows depicted happy suburban families, well insulated from economic and cultural strife. Popular family situation comedies included I Love Lucy, Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best. While these shows depicted some Americans' ideal lifestyle, they also reinforced social stereotypes of men's and women's roles. For example, in most family shows, the man was the head of the house and his job in the outside world was unspecified. The woman was often portrayed as dependent on and intellectually inferior to her husband. In addition, the people in the family comedies were white and middle class, leaving invisible many other Americans who benefited less from the prosperity of the age. Slide14: 2.1 K: Elvis Presley-King of Rock and Roll The Rock and Roll Explosion: Amidst the rhetoric of the strict conservative morality of the 1950s, a 21-year-old truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi, burst upon the American music scene and practically created a new teenage religion: rock and roll. His name was Elvis Presley, and with his wailing voice, tight pants, and sexually suggestive hip movements, he created millions of teenage fans, while outraging millions of their parents. When he appeared on the most popular TV variety show of the time-the "Ed Sullivan Show"-the host ordered Presley's performance to be shown only from the waist up, because his dance moves were thought to be unfit for a family viewing audience. Presley's detractors called him "lewd," and the more "lewd" he was, the more teenagers loved him. He had a constant stream of million-selling records, such as "Heartbreak Hotel," "Don't Be Cruel “and” Love Me Tender.” In the late 1950s, he began making movies. His millions of fans flocked to see them. By 1960, Elvis had sold $120 million worth of records, sheet music, movie tickets, and merchandise. African-American Roots: The rock and roll music that Elvis made famous was a blend of the rhythm and blues that African-American artists had been playing for years. Elvis was later criticized for taking much of his music from African-American artists without crediting them, and without paying some of the writers any substantive royalties for the music he made famous with white audiences. Presley's hit tune "Hound Dog," for example, had originally been performed by the black singer Big Mama Thornton, but Thornton received little credit or money for her contribution. Nevertheless, Presley had also brought rhythm and blues music to a wider American audience, eventually opening the door for musical successes for African-American artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. To his millions of fans in the 1950s, Presley had created a wild, different kind of music, and had even spawned an entire generation of dark-haired, guitar-strumming, hip moving rock singers. To them, Elvis was "the King" of rock and roll.