America: A Concise History 3e
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The Age of Affluence 1945–1960
Explain the record of American prosperity during the two decades following World War II. What were the changing roles of cities and suburbs in American society?
Assess the validity of the “fifties” as the historical norm of American life. Who were the members of the “other America” and why did they occupy this status?
Economic Powerhouse Engines of Economic Growth
The Corporate order
By the end of 1945, war-induced prosperity had made the United States the richest country in the world, a preeminence that would continue unchallenged for twenty years.
At the end of World War II, American economic hegemony abroad translated into affluence at home. The weakness of foreign competition enabled American businesses to exploit foreign markets when domestic markets were saturated or experiencing recessions. Millions of new jobs were created, consumer spending soared, and inflation was low; the nation entered a period of unprecedented affluence.
A meeting in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, established the U.S. dollar as the capitalist world’s principal reserve currency and resulted in the creation of two global institutions—the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The World Bank provided private loans for the reconstruction of war-torn Europe as well as for the development of Third World countries, and the IMF was designed to stabilize the value of currencies, thereby helping to guide the world economy after the war. U.S. economic supremacy abroad helped to boost the domestic economy, creating millions of new jobs; the fastest growing sector was white-collar jobs.
Although the percentage of blue-collar manufacturing jobs declined slightly during this period, the power of organized labor reached an all-time high.
A second linchpin of postwar prosperity was defense spending. The military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower identified in his 1961 Farewell Address had its roots in the businessgovernment partnerships of the world wars. But unlike after 1918, the massive commitment of government dollars for defense continued after 1945. As permanent mobilization took hold, science, industry, and the federal government became increasingly intertwined. According to the National Science Foundation, federal money underwrote 90 percent of the cost of research on aviation and space, 65 percent for electricity and electronics, 42 percent for scientific instruments, and 24 percent for automobiles.
The growth of this military-industrial establishment had a dramatic impact on national priorities. Between 1900 and 1930, excepting World War!, the country spent less than I percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on the military. By the early 1960s the figure had risen close to 10 percent. America's annual GDP jumped from $213 billion in 1945 to more than $500 billion in 1960; by 1970, it approached $1 trillion. To working Americans, this sustained economic growth meant a 25 percent rise in real income between 1946 and 1959. Postwar prosperity also featured low inflation.
Even so, the picture was not entirely rosy. The distribution of income remained stubbornly skewed, and poverty stubbornly hung on: one in thirteen families at the time earned less than $1,000 a year
The Corporate Order
For more than half a century, American enterprise had favored the consolidation of economic power into big corporate firms. That tendency continued and even accelerated. The classic, vertically integrated corporation of the early twentieth century served a national market. This strategy worked even better in the 1950s. when sophisticated advertising and the modern media enabled large corporations to break into hitherto resistant markets. National firms now added a new strategy of diversification. CBS. for example. hired the Hungarian inventor Peter Goldmark, who perfected color television during the 1940s, long-playing records in the 1950s, and a video recording system in the 1960s.
More revolutionary was the sudden rise of the conglomerates, giant enterprises comprised of firms in unrelated industries. Conglomeratebuilding resulted in the nation's third great merger wave (the first two had taken place in the 1890s and the 1920s). Because of their diverse holdings, conglomerates shielded themselves from instability in any single market and seemed better able to compete globally. Expansion into foreign markets also spurred corporate growth. At a time when "made in Japan" still meant shoddy workmanship. U.S. products were considered the best in the world.
In their effort to direct such giant enterprises managers placed more emphasis on planning. Companies recruited top executives who had business-school training. the ability to manage information, and skills in corporate planning, marketing, and investment. To man their bureaucracies. the postwar corporate giants required a huge supply of white-collar foot soldiers. They turned to the universities. which, fueled partly by the GI Bill, grew explosively after 1945. Climbing the corporate ladder rewarded men without hard edges-the "well adjusted." In The Lonely Crowd (1950), sociologist David Riesman contrasted the independent businessmen and professionals of earlier years with the managerial class of the postwar world. He concluded that the new corporate men were "otherdirected; more attuned to their associates than driven by their own goals.
Labor-Management Accord For blue-collar workers. collective bargaining after World War II became for the first time the normal means for determining how their labor would be rewarded.
General Motors implacably resisted this "opening wedge" into the rights of management. The company took a 1l3-day strike, rebuffed the government's intervention, and soundly defeated the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. Having made its point, General Motors laid out the terms for a durable relationship. It would accept the UA Was its bargaining partner and guarantee GM workers an ever higher living standard. The price was that the UA W abandon its assault on the company's "right to manage."
On signing the five-year GM contract of 1950 -the Treaty of Detroit, it was called- Walter Reuther, leader of the UAW, accepted the company's terms.
In postwar Europe, America's allies were constructing welfare states. That was the preference of American unions as well . But having lost the bruising battle in Washington for national health care, they turned to the bargaining table. By the end of the 1950s, union contracts commonly provided defined benefit pension plans (supplementing Social Security), company-paid health insurance, and for two million workers, mainly in steel and auto, a guaranteed annual wage (via supplementary unemployment benefits).
In 1955, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the American Federation of Labor (AFL) merged, creating the AFLCIO, which represented over 90 percent of America’s 17.5 million union members. In exchange for fewer strikes, corporate managers often cooperated with unions, agreeing to contracts that gave workers secure, predictable, and steadily rising incomes. Consumer spending soared, and inflation was low; yet the boon was marred by periodic bouts of recession and unemployment that particularly hurt low-income and nonwhite workers.
The sum of these union gains was a new sociological phenomenon, the "affluent" worker-as evidenced by relocation to the suburbs (half of an workers by 1965), by homeownership, by increased ownership of cars and other durable goods, and, an infallible sign of rising expectations, by installment buying. For union workers, the contract became, as Reuther boasted, a passport into the middle class. The labor-management accord that generated labor's good life seemed in the 1950s to be absolutely secure. The union rivalries of the 1930s had abated. In 1955, the industrial-union and craftunion wings joined together in the AFt-CIO, representing 90 percent of the nation's 17.5 million union members.
Though impressive, the labor-management accord was never as durable as it seemed. Vulnerabilities lurked, even in the accord's heyday. For one thing, the sheltered markets -the essential conditionwere in fact quite fragile. The postwar labor-management accord. it turns out. was a transitory event. not a permanent condition of American economic life. And, in a larger sense. that was true of the postwar boom. It was a transitory event, not a permanent condition.
II. The Affluent Society
The Affiuent Society
The Suburban Explosion Americans began to leave older cities in the North and Midwest for newer ones in the South and West; there was also a major shift from city to the suburbs.
Both processes were stimulated by the dramatic growth of a car culture and the federal government’s support of housing and highway initiatives. By 1960 more Americans lived in suburbs than in cities; because few new dwellings had been built during the depression or war years, the country faced a housing shortage.
Arthur Levitt applied mass-production techniques to home construction; other developers followed suit in subdivisions all over the country, hastening the exodus from farms and cities.
Abraham, William, and Alfred Levitt
Before and after aerials showing Island Trees, New York, site of the first Levittown development.
The first Levittown sprang to life in 1947 on 1200 acres of potato fields on Long Island. To speed production and cut costs, Levitt offered just two basic house types. The scale of the project attracted national attention and made Levitt and Sons a household name. Veterans and their families applied by the thousands to rent and later buy one of Levitt’s mass-produced homes.
Many homes were financed with mortgages from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration at rates dramatically lower than those offered by private lenders demonstrating the way the federal government was entering and influencing daily life.
New suburban homes, as well as their funding, were reserved mostly for whites; some homeowners had to sign a restrictive covenant prohibiting occupation in the development by blacks, Asians, or Jews.
Although Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) ruled that restrictive covenants were illegal, the practice continued until the civil rights laws of the 1960s banned private discrimination.
New growth patterns were most striking in the South and West, where inexpensive land, unorganized labor, low taxes, and warm climates beckoned; California grew the most rapidly.
Automobiles were essential to the growth of suburbs and to the development of the “Sun Belt”; the 1950s gas guzzlers became symbols of status and success.
Highways were funded by federal government programs such as the National Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956; air pollution and traffic jams soon became problems in cities.
As Americans began to drive to suburban shopping malls and supermarkets, downtown retail economy dried up, helping to precipitate the decay of the central cities.
Lower Bucks was close to population centers (Philadelphia and Trenton), improved highways (including the Pennsylvania Turnpike) and, best of all, jobs. U.S. Steel broke ground for its new Fairless Works Division along the western bank of the Delaware River in early 1951. At the time, the Fairless Works was the second largest integrated plant on the East Coast, and the 12th largest steel mill in the country.
The new suburbs combined country comforts with city conveniences. With the help of modern production and financing methods, builders like Levitt and Sons made the American dream of homeownership affordable to millions.
The Search for Security There was a reason for Congress calling the 1956 legislation creating America's modern freeway system the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. The four-lane freeways, used every day by commuters, might some day, in a nuclear war, evacuate them to safety. That captured as well as anything the underside of postwar life, when suburban living abided side by side with the shadow of annihilation.
The cold war, reaching as it did across the globe, was omnipresent at home as well. The nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union was alarming. Bomb shelters and civil defense drills provided a daily reminder of mushroom clouds. In the late 1950s, a small but growing number of citizens raised questions about radioactive fallout from above-ground bomb tests.
By the late 1950s, public concern over nuclear testing had become a high-profile issue, and new antinuclear groups such as SANE (the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy) and Physicians for Social Responsibility called for an international test ban.
After the depression, Americans yearned for security and a reaffirmation of traditional; this yearning manifested itself in a renewed national emphasis on religion and an ecumenical movement in American churches.
Church membership jumped from 49 percent of the population in 1940 to 70 percent in 1960. People flocked especially into the evangelical Protestant denominations, which benefited from a remarkable new crop of preachers. Most notable was the young Reverend Billy Graham, who made brilliant use of television, radio, and advertising to spread the Gospel. The resurgence of religion, despite its evangelical bent, had a distinctly moderate tone. An ecumenical movement bringing Catholics, Protestants, and Jews together flourished, and so did a concern for the here and now.
In 1954, the phrase “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1956 Congress added “In God We Trust” to all U.S. coins. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking embodied the trend toward the therapeutic use of religion in order to assist Americans in coping with the stresses of modern life.
Critics suggested that middle-class interest in religion stemmed not so much from a renewed spirituality as from a surging impulse toward conformity; however, the revival nonetheless spoke to Americans’ search for spiritual meaning in uncertain times.
American Life during the Baby Boom The postwar years are remembered as a time of affluence and stability, when Americans enjoyed an optimistic faith in progress and technology and a serene family-centered culture, reflected in a booming birthrate known as the baby boom and enshrined in television sitcoms such as Father Knows Best. This powerful myth has some truth to it, but does not do justice to this complex period of economic and social transformation, which included challenges to the status quo as well as conformity.
Consumer Culture In some respects, postwar consumerism seemed like a return to the 1920s-an abundance of new gadgets and appliances, more leisure time, the craze for automobiles, and new types of mass media. Yet there was a significant difference. In the 1950s, consumption became associated with citizenship. Buying things, once a sign of personal indulgence, now meant fully participating in American society and, moreover, fulfilling a social responsibility. As in the past, product makers sought to stimulate consumer demand through aggressive advertising. More money was spent in 1951 on advertising ($6.5 billion) than on primary and secondary education ($5 billion).
Consumers had more free time in which to spend their money; millions took to the interstate highways, spurring dramatic growth in motel chains, restaurants, and fast-food eateries. Perhaps the most significant hallmark of postwar consumer culture was television, which supplanted radio as the chief diffuser of popular culture; it portrayed American families as white, middleclass suburbanites, and nonwhite characters were usually servants.
The new prosperity of the 1950s was aided by a dramatic increase in consumer credit, which enabled families to stretch their incomes; between 1946 and 1958 short-term consumer credit rose from $8.4 billion to almost $45 billion.
The Diners Club introduced the first credit card in 1950, followed by the American Express card and Bank Americard in 1959; by the 1970s, the credit card had revolutionized personal and family finances.
Aggressive advertising by corporations contributed to the massive increase in consumer spending.
Advertising heavily promoted the appliances that began to fill the suburban kitchen. In 1946 automatic washing machines replaced the old machines with hand-cranked wringers, and clothes dryers also came on the market. TV's leap to cultural prominence was swift and overpowering. There were only 7,000 sets in American homes in 1947, yet a year later the CBS and NBC radio networks began offering regular programming, and by 1950 Americans owned 7.3 million TV sets. Ten years later, 87 percent of American homes had at least one television set.
The Federal Communications Commissioner called television “a vast wasteland”; however, its images of postwar family life and society fit with the social expectations of many Americans.
What Americans saw on television, besides the omnipresent commercials, was an overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon world of nuclear families, suburban homes, and middle-class life.
"Father Knows Best" (1954) -
The Baby Boom
Postwar family demographics changed from previous years: marriages were remarkably stable, there was a drop in the average age at marriage, and the birthrate shot up; the American population rose dramatically from 140 million in 1945 to 179 million in 1960, and to 203 million in 1970.
The baby boom prompted a major expansion in the nation’s education system, and babies’ consumer needs helped to fuel the economy.
To keep all those baby boom children healthy and happy, middle-class parents increasingly relied on the advice of experts. Dr. Benjamin Spock's bestselling Baby and Child Care sold a million copies a year after its publication in 1946. Spock urged mothers to abandon the rigid feeding and baby care schedules of an earlier generation. Coupled with national defense expenditures, family spending on consumer goods fueled unparalleled prosperity and economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s.
Contradictions in Women’s Lives Parents of baby boomers were expected to adhere to rigid gender roles as a way of maintaining the family and undergirding the social order. Men were expected to conform to an idea that emphasized their role as responsible breadwinners, while women were advised that their proper place was in the home.
. Endorsing what Betty Friedan called the "feminine mystique" - the ideal that "the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity" - psychologists pronounced motherhood the only "normal" female sex role and berated mothers who worked outside the home.
Many working-class women embraced their new roles as housewives, while at the height of the postwar period more than a third of women held jobs outside the home and coincided with a dramatic rise in the number of older, married, middle-class women who took jobs. Women justified their jobs as an extension of their family responsibilities, enabling their families to enjoy more of the fruits of the consumer -culture.
Working women still bore full responsibility for child care and household management allowing families and society to avoid facing the social implications of their new roles, departing significantly from the cultural stereotypes.
Youth Culture and Challenges to Conformity The emergence of a mass youth culture had its roots in the democratization of education and the increasing purchasing power of teenagers. America’s youth were eager to escape suburban conformity, and they became a distinct new market that advertisers eagerly exploited.
What really defined this generation’s youth culture was its music; the rock ’n’ roll that teens were attracted to in the 1950s was seen by white adults as an invitation to racemixing, sexual promiscuity, and juvenile delinquency. In major cities, gay men and women founded gay rights organizations, but many gays were still perceived as a threat to mainstream sexual and cultural norms and therefore remained closeted.
Postwar artists,musicians, and writers expressed their alienation from mainstream society through intensely personal, introspective art forms. Jackson Pollock and other painters rejected the social realism of the 1930s for an unconventional style that became known as abstract expressionism, which captured the chaotic atmosphere of the nuclear age.
A similar trend developed in jazz, as black musicians originated a hard-driving improvisational style known as “bebop.” The Beats were a group of writers and poets who were both literary innovators and outspoken social critics of middle-class conformity, corporate capitalism, and suburban materialism, who inspired a new generation of rebels in the 1960s.
The Other America
International and Domestic Migration to
With jobs and financial resources flowing to the suburbs, urban newcomers inherited a declining economy and a decaying environment—the “Other America.” The War Brides Act, the Displaced Persons Act, the McCarran-Walter Act, and the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act all helped to create an influx of immigrants into American cities.
The federal government welcomed Mexican labor under its bracero program but deported those who stayed illegally; 4 million Mexicans were deported during “Operation Wetback.” Residents of Puerto Rico had been American citizens since 1917, so they were not subject to immigration laws; they became America’s first group to immigrate by air. Cuban refugees were the third largest group of Spanish-speaking immigrants; the Cuban refugee community turned Miami into a cosmopolitan, bilingual city almost overnight.
Internal migration from rural areas brought large numbers of people to the cities, especially African Americans, after the introduction of innovations like the mechanical cotton picker, which reduced southern demand for labor. By 1960, about half of the nation’s black population was living outside the South, compared with only 23 percent before World War II. After the 1953 “Termination” programs, many Indians settled together in poor urban neighborhoods alongside other nonwhite groups; many found it difficult to adjust to an urban environment and culture.
The Urban Crisis Between 1950 and 1960, the nation’s twelve largest cities lost 3.6 million whites and gained 4.5 million nonwhites. As affluent whites left the cities, urban tax revenues shrank, leading to the decay of services and infrastructure; growing racial fears accelerated “white flight” to the suburbs in the 1960s.
In the inner cities, housing continued to be a crucial problem; urban renewal produced grim high-rise housing projects that destroyed community bonds and created anonymous open areas that were vulnerable to crime. Postwar urban areas increasingly became places of last resort for America’s poor; once there, they faced unemployment, racial hostilities, and institutional barriers to mobility.
Two separate Americas emerged: a largely white society in the suburbs and an inner city populated by blacks, Latinos, and other disadvantaged groups. In the turbulent decade to come, the contrast between suburban affluence and the “other America,” would spawn growing demands for social change that the nation’s leaders in the 1960s could not ignore.
In 1962, the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal (author of An American Dilemma, a pioneering book about the country's race relations) wondered whether shrinking economic opportunity in the United States might not trap the unemployed and underemployed at the bottom of society.
Myrdal's term underclass-referring to a population permanently mired in poverty and dependencywould figure centrally in future American debates about social policy.
The Emerging Civil Rights Struggle
Civil Rights under Truman Truman offered support for civil rights not only because he wanted to solidify the Democrats’ hold on African American voters but also because he was concerned about America’s image abroad.
Lacking a popular mandate on civil rights, Truman turned to executive action; he appointed the National Civil Rights Commission in 1946, ordered the Justice Department to prepare a brief for Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), which ruled against discrimination in home buying, and signed an executive order to desegregate the army in 1948.
The Kraemers were a white couple who owned a residence in a Missouri neighborhood governed by a restrictive covenant. This was a private agreement that prevented blacks from owning property in the Kraemers' subdivision. The Shelleys were a black couple who moved into the Kraemers neighborhood. The Kraemers went to court to enforce the restrictive covenant against the Shelleys. Question Presented Does the enforcement of a racially restrictive covenant violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment? Conclusion State courts could not constitutionally prevent the sale of real property to blacks even if that property is covered by a racially restrictive covenant. Standing alone, racially restrictive covenants violate no rights. However, their enforcement by state court injunctions constitute state action in violation of the 14th Amendment.
Southern conservatives blocked Truman’s proposals for a federal anti-lynching law, federal protection of voting rights, and a federal agency to guarantee equal employment opportunity.
In 1946 he appointed a National Civil Rights Commission, whose 1947 report called for robust federal action On behalf of civil rights. In 1948, under pressure from A. Phillip Randolph's Committee against Jim Crow in Military Service, Truman signed an executive order desegregating the armed forces.
Challenging Segregation Legal segregation of the races still governed southern society in the early 1950s; whites and blacks were segregated in restaurants, waiting rooms and toilets at bus and train stations, and all forms of public transportation were rigidly segregated, with even drinking fountains being labeled “White” and “Colored.”
“Whites Only” Waiting Room
A black man is ordered out of a “whites only” waiting room. Separate facilities for blacks and whites were maintained throughout the South from the end of the 19th century until the 1960s.
" A rest stop for Greyhound bus passengers on the way from Louisville, Kentucky to Nashville, Tennessee, with separate accommodatio ns for colored passengers."
With Dwight Eisenhower as president, civil rights no longer had a champion in the White House. In the meantime, however, NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie had been preparing the legal ground in a series of test cases challenging racial discrimination, and in 1954 they hit pay dirt.
The first significant civil rights victory came in 1954. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the Supreme Court overturned the long-standing “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).
A landmark civil rights case. the Brown v. Board of Education decision involved Linda Brown. a black pupil in Topeka. Kansas. who had been forced to attend a distant segregated school rather than the nearby white elementary school. The NAACP's chief counsel. Thurgood Marshall. argued that such segregation, mandated by the Topeka Board of Education, was unconstitutional because it denied Linda Brown the "equal protection of the laws" guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
In a unanimous decision on May 17. 1954. the Supreme Court agreed. overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson.
Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.
Over the next several years, the Supreme Court used the Brown case to overturn segregation in public recreation areas, transportation, and housing. In the Southern Manifesto of 1956, southern members of Congress denounced the Brown decision as an abuse of judicial power and encouraged their constituents to defy the ruling; White Citizens’ Councils in the South sprouted up dedicated to blocking school integration and other civil rights measures and the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) swelled.
President Eisenhower accepted the Brown decision as the law of the land. but he thought it was a mistake and was not happy about committing federal power to enforce it.
A crisis in Little Rock. Arkansas, finally forced his hand. In September 1957, nine black students attempted to enroll at the all-white Central High School. Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to bar them. Then the mob took over. Every day the nine students had to run a gauntlet of angry whites chanting "Go back to the jungle." As the vicious scenes played out on television night after night, Eisenhower acted. He sent 1,000 federal troops to Little Rock and nationalized the Arkansas National Guard, ordering them to protect the black students. Eisenhower thus became the first president since Reconstruction to use federal troops to enforce the rights of blacks.
President Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock to insure the safety of the "Little Rock Nine" and that the rulings of the Supreme Court were upheld. The Brown decision validated the NAACP's legal strategy, but white resistance also revealed that winning in court was not enough. Prompted by one small act of defiance, southern black leaders embraced nonviolent protest.
Little Rock Police work to keep protesters behind barricades at Central High on Sept. 27, 1957.
Students wait beside Arkansas National Guard troops blocking their admission to Little Rock Central High.
Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat to a white person prompted the 381-day 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, which ended only when the Supreme Court declared bus segregation unconstitutional.
Once the die was cast, the black community turned for leadership to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the recently appointed pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Street Baptist Church. The son of a prominent black minister in Atlanta, King embraced the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi (learned from Thoreau), whose campaigns of passive resistance had led to India's independence from Britain in 1947.
After Rosa Parks' arrest. King endorsed a plan by a local black women's organization to boycott Montgomery's bus system until it was integrated. Once the die was cast, the black community turned for leadership to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the recently appointed pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Street Baptist Church.
The Montgomery bus boycott catapulted King to national prominence. In 1957, along with the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) , based in Atlanta. The black church, long the center of African American social and cultural life, now lent its moral and organizational strength to the civil rights movement.
The battle for civil rights entered a new phase in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February I, 1960, when four black college students took seats at the "whites-only" lunch counter at the local Woolworth's. They were determined to "sit in" until they were served. Although they were arrested, the sit-in tactic workedthe Woolworth's lunch counter was desegregated-and sit-ins quickly spread to other southern cities. The victories so far had been limited, but the groundwork was laid for a civil rights offensive that would transform the nation's race relations.