United States History
Source: United States Information Agency
"WE MUST BUILD A NEW WORLD, A FAR BETTER WORLD -- ONE IN WHICH THE ETERNAL DIGNITY OF MAN IS RESPECTED." President Harry S. Truman, 1945.
CONSENSUS AND CHANGE
The United States dominated global affairs in the years immediately after World War II. Victorious in that great struggle, its homeland undamaged from
the ravages of war, the nation was confident of its mission at home and abroad. U.S. leaders wanted to maintain the democratic structure they had defended at tremendous
cost and to share the benefits of prosperity as widely as possible. For them, as for publisher Henry Luce of Time magazine, this was the "American Century."
For 20 years, most Americans remained sure of this confident approach. They accepted the need for a strong stance against the Soviet Union in the Cold
War that unfolded after 1945. They endorsed the growth of government authority and accepted the outlines of the welfare state, first formulated during the New Deal. They
enjoyed the postwar prosperity that created new levels of affluence in the United States.
But gradually some Americans began to question dominant assumptions about American life. Challenges on a variety of fronts shattered the consensus. In
the 1950s, African Americans launched a crusade, joined later by other minority groups and women, for a larger share of the American dream. In the 1960s, politically
active students protested the nation's role abroad, particularly in the corrosive war in Vietnam, and a youth counterculture challenged the status quo of American values.
Americans from many walks of life sought to establish a new equilibrium in the United States.
COLD WAR AIMS
The Cold War was the most important political issue of the early postwar period. It grew out of longstanding disagreements between the Soviet Union and
the United States. In 1918 American troops participated in the Allied intervention in Russia on behalf of anti-Bolshevik forces. American diplomatic recognition of the
Bolshevik regime did not come until 1933. Even then, suspicions persisted. During World War II, however, the two countries found themselves allied and thus ignored their
differences to counter the Nazi threat.
At the war's end, antagonisms surfaced again. The United States hoped to share with other countries its conception of liberty, equality and democracy.
With the rest of the world in turmoil, struggling with civil wars and disintegrating empires, the nation hoped to provide the stability to make peaceful reconstruction
possible. Unable to forget the specter of the Great Depression (1929-1940), America now fostered its familiar position of free trade, and sought to eliminate trade
barriers both to create markets for American agricultural and industrial products, and to ensure the ability of West European nations to export as a means to generate
economic growth and rebuild their economies. Reduced trade barriers, it was believed, would promote economic growth at home and abroad, and bolster stability with U.S.
friends and allies.
The Soviet Union had its own agenda. The Russian historical tradition of centralized, autocratic government contrasted with the American emphasis on
democracy. Marxist-Leninist ideology had been downplayed during the war but still guided Soviet policy. Devastated by the struggle in which 20 million Soviet citizens had
died, the Soviet Union was intent on rebuilding and on protecting itself from another such terrible conflict. The Soviets were particularly concerned about another
invasion of their territory from the west. Having repelled Hitler's thrust, they were determined to preclude another such attack. The Soviet Union now demanded "defensible"
borders and regimes sympathetic to its aims in Eastern Europe. But the United States had declared the restoration of independence and self-government to Poland,
Czechoslovakia and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe one of its war aims.
HARRY TRUMAN'S LEADERSHIP
Harry Truman succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt as president before the end of the war. An unpretentious man who had previously served as Democratic
senator from Missouri, then as vice president, Truman initially felt ill-prepared to govern the United States. Roosevelt had not confided in him about complex postwar
issues and he had little prior experience in international affairs. "I'm not big enough for this job," he told a former colleague.
But Truman responded quickly to new challenges. Impulsive, he proved willing to make quick decisions about the problems he faced. A sign on his White
House desk, since famous in American politics, read "The Buck Stops Here," and reflected his willingness to take responsibility for his actions. His judgments about how
to respond to the Soviet Union had an important impact on the early Cold War.
ORIGINS OF THE COLD WAR
Origins of the Cold War The Cold War developed as differences about the shape of the postwar world created suspicion and distrust between the United
States and the Soviet Union. The first such conflict occurred over Poland. Moscow demanded a government subject to Soviet influence; Washington wanted a more independent,
representative government following the Western model. The Yalta Conference of February 1945 had produced a wide-ranging agreement open to different interpretations.
Among its provisions was the promise of "free and unfettered" elections in Poland.
At his first meeting with Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov, Truman revealed his intention to stand firm on Polish self-determination,
lecturing the Soviet diplomat about the need to carry out the Yalta accords. When Molotov protested, "I have never been talked to like that in my life," Truman retorted,
"Carry out your agreements and you won't get talked to like that." Relations deteriorated from that point onward.
During the closing months of World War II, Soviet military forces occupied all of Central and Eastern Europe. Moscow used its military power to support
the efforts of the communist parties in Eastern Europe and crush the democratic parties. Communist parties beholden to Moscow quickly expanded their power and influence
in all countries of the region, culminating in the coup d'etat in Czechoslovakia in 1948.
Public statements defined the beginning of the Cold War. In 1946 Stalin declared that international peace was impossible "under the present capitalist
development of the world economy." Winston Churchill, wartime prime minister of Great Britain, delivered a dramatic speech in Fulton, Missouri, with Truman sitting on the
platform during the address. "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic," Churchill said, "an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." Britain and
the United States, he declared, had to work together to counter the Soviet threat.
Containment of the Soviet Union became American policy in the postwar years. George Kennan, a top official at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, defined the
new approach in a long telegram he sent to the State Department in 1946. He extended his analysis after he returned home in an article published under the signature "X"
in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs. Pointing to Russia's traditional sense of insecurity, Kennan argued that the Soviet Union would not soften its stance under
any circumstances. Moscow, he wrote, was "committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and
necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted." Moscow's pressure to expand its power had to be stopped through "firm and vigilant containment of
Russian expansive tendencies...."
The first significant application of the containment doctrine came in the eastern Mediterranean. Great Britain had been supporting Greece, where
communist forces threatened the ruling monarchy in a civil war, and Turkey, where the Soviet Union pressed for territorial concessions and the right to build naval bases
on the Bosporus. In 1947 Britain told the United States that it could no longer afford such aid. Quickly, the U.S. State Department devised a plan for U.S. assistance.
But support for a new interventionist policy, Senate leaders such as Arthur Vandenberg told Truman, was only possible if he was willing to start "scaring the hell out of
Truman was prepared to do so. In a statement that came to be known as the Truman Doctrine, he declared, "I believe that it must be the policy of the
United States to support free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." To that end he asked Congress to provide $400 million
for economic and military aid to Greece and Turkey, and the money was appropriated.
However, there was a price Truman himself and American society paid for his victory. To whip up American support for the policy of containment, Truman
overstated the Soviet threat to the United States. In turn, his statements inspired a wave of hysterical anti-communism throughout the country and set the stage for the
emergence of McCarthyism.
Containment also called for extensive economic aid to assist the recovery of war-torn Western Europe. With many of the region's nations economically and
politically unstable, the United States feared that local communist parties, directed by Moscow, would capitalize on their wartime record of resistance to the Nazis and
come to power. Something needed to be done, Secretary of State George Marshall noted, for "the patient is sinking while the doctors deliberate." Marshall was formerly the
highest ranking officer in the U.S. armed forces and credited as the chief organizer of the American military victory in World War II. In mid-1947 Marshall asked troubled
European nations to draw up a program "directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos." The Soviets participated in the
first planning meeting, then departed rather than share economic data on their resources and problems, and submit to Western controls on the expenditure of the aid. The
remaining 16 nations hammered out a request that finally came to $17 thousand million for a four-year period. In early 1948 Congress voted to assist European economic
recovery, dubbed the "Marshall Plan," and generally regarded as one of the most successful U.S. foreign policy initiatives in history.
Postwar Germany was divided into U.S., Soviet, British and French zones of occupation, with the former German capital of Berlin (itself divided into
four zones), near the center of the Soviet zone. The United States, Britain and France had discussed converting their zones into a single, self-governing republic. But
the Soviet Union opposed plans to unite Germany and ministerial-level four-power discussions on Germany broke down. When the Western powers announced their intention to
create a consolidated federal state from their zones, Stalin responded. On June 23, 1948, Soviet forces blockaded Berlin, cutting off all road and rail access from the
American leaders feared that losing Berlin was but a prelude to losing Germany and subsequently all of Europe. Therefore, in a successful demonstration
of Western resolve known as the Berlin Airlift, Allied air forces took to the sky, flying supplies into Berlin. U.S., French and British planes delivered nearly 2,250,000
tons of goods, including food and coal. Stalin lifted the blockade after 231 days and 277,264 flights.
Soviet domination of Eastern Europe alarmed the West. The United States led the effort to create a military alliance to complement economic efforts at
containment. In 1949 the United States and 11 other countries established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance based on the principle of collective
security. An attack against one was to be considered an attack against all, to be met by appropriate force.
The next year, the United States defined its defense aims clearly. The National Security Council (NSC) undertook a full-fledged review of American
foreign and defense policy. The resulting document, known as NSC-68, signaled a new direction in American security policy. Based on the assumption that "the Soviet Union
was engaged in a fanatical effort to seize control of all governments wherever possible," the document committed America to assist allied nations anywhere in the world
which seemed threatened by Soviet aggression. The United States proceeded to increase defense spending dramatically in response to Soviet threats against Europe and the
American, British and French presence in West Berlin.
THE COLD WAR IN ASIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
While seeking to prevent communist ideology from gaining further adherents in Europe, the United States also responded to challenges elsewhere. In China,
Americans worried about the advances of Mao Zedong and his communist party. During World War II, the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek and the communist forces
waged a civil war even as they fought the Japanese. Chiang had been a war-time ally, but even American support could not bolster a government that was hopelessly
inefficient and corrupt. Mao's forces finally seized power in 1949, and when he announced that his new regime would support the Soviet Union against the "imperialist"
United States, it appeared that communism was spreading out of control, at least in Asia.
The Korean War brought armed conflict between the United States and China. The Allies had divided Korea along the 38th parallel after liberating it from
Japan at the end of World War II. The Soviet Union accepted Japanese surrender north of the 38th parallel; the United States did the same in the south. Originally
intended as a matter of military convenience, the dividing line became more rigid as Cold War tensions escalated. Both major powers set up governments in their respective
occupation zones and continued to support them even after departing.
In June 1950 North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and attacked southward, overrunning Seoul. Truman, perceiving the North Koreans as Soviet
pawns in the global struggle, readied American forces and ordered General Douglas MacArthur to Korea. Meanwhile, the United States was able to secure a U.N. resolution
branding North Korea as an aggressor. (The Soviet Union, which could have vetoed any action had it been occupying its seat on the Security Council, was boycotting the
United Nations to protest a decision not to admit the People's Republic of China.)
The war seesawed back and forth. U.S. and Korean forces were initially pushed far to the south in an enclave around the city of Pusan. A daring
amphibious landing at Inchon, the port for the city of Seoul, drove the North Koreans back; but as fighting neared the Chinese border, China entered the war, sending
massive forces across the Yalu River. U.N. forces, largely American, retreated once again in bitter fighting and then slowly recovered and fought their way back to the
When MacArthur violated the principle of civilian control of the military by attempting to orchestrate public support for bombing China and permitting
an invasion of the mainland by Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Chinese forces, Truman charged him with insubordination and relieved him of his duties, replacing him with
General Matthew Ridgeway. The Cold War stakes were high, but the government's effort to fight a limited war caused frustration among many Americans who could not
understand the need for restraint. Truman's popularity plunged to a 24-percent approval rating, the lowest of any president since pollsters began to measure presidential
Truce talks began in July 1951. The two sides finally reached an agreement in July 1953, during the first term of Dwight Eisenhower, Truman's successor.
Cold War struggles were also occurring in the Middle East. Strategically important as a supplier of oil, the region appeared vulnerable in 1946, when
Soviet troops failed to leave Iran as promised, even after British and American forces had already withdrawn. The U.S. demanded a U.N. condemnation of Moscow's continued
troop presence. When the United States observed Soviet tanks entering the region, Washington readied for a direct clash. Confronted by U.S. resolve, the Soviets withdrew
Two years later, the United States officially recognized the new state of Israel 15 minutes after it was proclaimed -- a decision Truman made over
strong resistance from Marshall and the State Department. While cultivating close ties with Israel, the United States still sought to keep the friendship of Arab states
opposed to Israel.
EISENHOWER AND THE COLD WAR
Dwight D. Eisenhower, who assumed the presidency in 1953, was different from his predecessor. A war hero, he had a natural, homey manner that made him
widely popular. "I like Ike" was the ubiquitous campaign slogan of the time. In the postwar years, he served as army chief of staff, the president of Columbia University
and finally head of NATO before seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Although he was skillful at getting people to work together, he sought to play a
restrained public role.
Still, he shared with Truman a basic view of American foreign policy. Eisenhower, too, perceived communism as a monolithic force struggling for world
supremacy. He believed that Moscow, under leaders such as Stalin, was trying to orchestrate worldwide revolution. In his first inaugural address, he declared, "Forces of
good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history. Freedom is pitted against slavery, lightness against dark."
In office, Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, argued that containment did not go far enough to stop Soviet expansion. Rather, a
more aggressive policy of liberation was necessary, to free those subjugated by communism. But for all of the rhetoric, when democratic rebellions broke out in areas
under Soviet domination -- such as in Hungary in 1956 -- the United States stood back as Soviet forces suppressed them.
Eisenhower's basic commitment to contain communism remained, and to that end he increased American reliance on a nuclear shield. The Manhattan Project
during World War II had created the first atomic bombs. In 1950 Truman had authorized the development of a new and more powerful hydrogen weapon. Now Eisenhower, in an
effort to keep budget expenditures under control, proposed a policy of "massive retaliation." The United States, under this doctrine, was prepared to use atomic weapons
if the nation or its vital interests were attacked.
In practice, however, Eisenhower deployed U.S. military forces with great caution, resisting all suggestions to consider the use of nuclear weapons in
Indochina, where the French were ousted by Vietnamese communist forces in 1954, or in Taiwan, where the United States pledged to defend the Nationalist Chinese regime
against attack by the People's Republic of China.
In the Middle East, Eisenhower resisted the use of force when British and French forces occupied the Suez Canal and Israel invaded the Sinai in 1956,
following Egypt's nationalization of the canal. Under heavy U.S. pressure, British, French and Israeli forces withdrew from Egypt, which retained control of the canal.
THE COLD WAR AT HOME
Not only did the Cold War shape U.S. foreign policy, it also had a profound effect on domestic affairs. Americans had long feared radical subversion,
and during the Red Scare of 1919-1920, the government had attempted to remove perceived threats to American society. Even stronger efforts were made after World War II to
root out communism within the United States. Foreign events and espionage scandals contributed to the anti-communist hysteria of the period. In 1949 the Soviet Union
exploded its own atomic device, which shocked Americans into believing that the United States would be the target of a Soviet attack. In 1948 Alger Hiss, who had been an
assistant secretary of state and an adviser to Roosevelt at Yalta, was accused of being a communist spy by Whitaker Chambers, a former Soviet agent. Hiss denied the
accusation, but in 1950 he was convicted of perjury. Finally, in 1950, the government uncovered a British-American spy network that transferred to the Soviet Union
materials about the development of the atomic bomb. The capture and trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for revealing atomic secrets furthered the perception of a
domestic communist danger. Attorney General J. Howard McGrath declared there were many American communists, each bearing "the germ of death for society."
When Republicans were victorious in the midterm congressional elections of 1946 and appeared ready to investigate subversive activity, the president
established a Federal Employee Loyalty Program. Workers challenged about past and present associations often had little chance to fight back.
Congress, meanwhile, embarked upon its own loyalty program. In 1947 the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated the motion-picture
industry to determine whether communist sentiments were being reflected in popular films. When some writers refused to testify, they were cited for contempt and sent to
prison. In response, Hollywood capitulated and refused to hire anyone with a marginally questionable past.
But the most vigorous anti-communist warrior was Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin. He gained national attention in 1950 by
claiming that he had a list of 205 known communists in the State Department. Though McCarthy subsequently changed this figure several times and failed to substantiate any
of his charges, he struck a responsive public chord.
McCarthy gained power when the Republican Party won control of the Senate in 1952. As a committee chairman, he now had a forum for his crusade. Relying
on extensive press and television coverage, he continued to charge top-level officials with treachery. Playing on his tough reputation, he often used vulgarity to
characterize the "vile and scurrilous" objects of his attack.
But McCarthy went too far. Though polls showed half the public behind him, McCarthy overstepped himself by challenging the United States Army when one
of his assistants was drafted. Television in its infancy brought the hearings into millions of homes. Many Americans saw McCarthy's savage tactics for the first time, and
as public support began to wane, the Senate finally condemned him for his conduct.
Until then, however, McCarthy exerted enormous power in the United States. He offered scapegoats to those worried about the stalemate in Korea or about
communist gains. He heightened fears aroused by the Truman administration's own anti-communist effort and legitimized tactics that were often used against innocent people.
In short, McCarthy represented the worst domestic excesses of the Cold War.
THE POSTWAR ECONOMY: 1945-1960
As the Cold War unfolded in the decade and a half after World War II, the United States experienced phenomenal economic growth. The war brought the
return of prosperity, and in the postwar period the United States consolidated its position as the world's richest country. Gross national product, a measure of all goods
and services produced in the United States, jumped from about $200 thousand-million in 1940 to $300 thousand-million in 1950 to more than $500 thousand-million in 1960.
More and more Americans now considered themselves part of the middle class.
The growth had different sources. The automobile industry was partially responsible, as the number of automobiles produced annually quadrupled between
1946 and 1955. A housing boom, stimulated in part by easily affordable mortgages for returning servicemen, fueled the expansion. The rise in defense spending as the Cold
War escalated also played a part.
After 1945 the major corporations in America grew even larger. There had been earlier waves of mergers in the 1890s and in the 1920s; in the 1950s
another wave occurred. New conglomerates-- firms with holdings in a variety of industries -- led the way. International Telephone and Telegraph, for example, bought
Sheraton Hotels, Continental Baking, Hartford Fire Insurance, and Avis Rent-a-Car, among other companies. Smaller franchise operations like McDonald's fast-food
restaurants provided still another pattern. Large corporations also developed holdings overseas, where labor costs were often lower.
Workers found their own lives changing as industrial America changed. Fewer workers produced goods; more provided services. By 1956 a majority held
white-collar jobs, working as corporate managers, teachers, salespersons and office employees. Some firms granted a guaranteed annual wage, long-term employment contracts
and other benefits. With such changes, labor militancy was undermined and some class distinctions began to fade.
Farmers, on the other hand, faced tough times. Gains in productivity led to agricultural consolidation, as farming became a big business. Family farms,
in turn, found it difficult to compete, and more and more farmers left the land.
Other Americans moved too. In the postwar period the West and the Southwest continued to grow -- a trend that would continue through the end of the
century. Sun Belt cities like Houston, Texas; Miami, Florida; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona, expanded rapidly. Los Angeles, California, moved
ahead of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the third largest U.S. city. By 1963 California had more people than New York.
An even more important form of movement led Americans out of inner cities into new suburbs, where they hoped to find affordable housing for the larger
families spawned by the postwar baby boom. Developers like William J. Levitt built new communities -- with homes that all looked alike -- using the techniques of mass
production. Levitt's houses were prefabricated, or partly assembled in a factory rather than on the final location. The homes were modest, but Levitt's methods cut costs
and allowed new owners to possess at least a part of the American dream.
As suburbs grew, businesses moved into the new areas. Large shopping centers containing a great variety of stores changed consumer patterns. The number
of these centers rose from eight at the end of World War II to 3,840 in 1960. With easy parking and convenient evening hours, customers could avoid city shopping entirely.
New highways created better access to the suburbs and its shops. The Highway Act of 1956 provided $26 thousand-million, the largest public works
expenditure in U.S. history, to build more than 64,000 kilometers of federal roads to link together all parts of the country.
Television, too, had a powerful impact on social and economic patterns. Developed in the 1930s, it was not widely marketed until after the war. In 1946
the country had fewer than 17,000 television sets. Three years later consumers were buying 250,000 sets a month, and by 1960 three-quarters of all families owned at least
one set. In the middle of the decade, the average family watched television four to five hours a day. Popular shows for children included Howdy Doody Time and The Mickey
Mouse Club; older viewers preferred situation comedies like I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best. Americans of all ages became exposed to increasingly sophisticated
advertisements for products said to be necessary for the good life.
THE FAIR DEAL
The Fair Deal was the name given to Harry Truman's domestic program. Building on Roosevelt's New Deal, Truman believed that the federal government
should guarantee economic opportunity and social stability, and he struggled to achieve those ends in the face of fierce political opposition from conservative
legislators determined to reduce the role of government.
Truman's first priority in the immediate postwar period was to make the transition to a peacetime economy. Servicemen wanted to come home quickly, but
once they arrived they faced competition for housing and employment. The G.I. Bill, passed before the end of the war, helped ease servicemen back into civilian life by
providing such benefits as guaranteed loans for home-buying and financial aid for industrial training and university education.
More troubling was labor unrest. As war production ceased, many workers found themselves without jobs. Others wanted pay increases they felt were long
overdue. In 1946, 4.6 million workers went on strike, more than ever before in American history. They challenged the automobile, steel and electrical industries. When
they took on the railroads and soft-coal mines, Truman intervened, but in so doing he alienated millions of working-class Americans.
While dealing with immediately pressing issues, Truman also provided a broader agenda for action. Less than a week after the war ended, he presented
Congress with a 21-point program, which provided for protection against unfair employment practices, a higher minimum wage, greater unemployment compensation and housing
assistance. In the next several months, he added other proposals for health insurance and atomic energy legislation. But this scattershot approach often left Truman's
Republicans were quick to attack. In the 1946 congressional elections they asked, "Had enough?" and voters responded that they had. Republicans, with
majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928, were determined to reverse the liberal direction of the Roosevelt years.
Truman fought with the Congress as it cut spending and reduced taxes. In 1948 he sought reelection, despite polls indicating that he had no chance.
After a vigorous campaign, Truman scored one of the great upsets in American politics, defeating the Republican nominee, Thomas Dewey, governor of New York. Reviving the
old New Deal coalition, Truman held on to labor, farmers and black voters, and so won another term.
When Truman finally left office in 1953, his Fair Deal was but a mixed success. In July 1948 he banned racial discrimination in federal government
hiring practices and ordered an end to segregation in the military. The minimum wage had risen, and social security programs had expanded. A housing program brought some
gains but left many needs unmet. National health insurance and aid-to-education measures never made it through Congress. Truman's preoccupation with Cold War affairs
hampered his effectiveness at home, particularly in the face of intense opposition.
Dwight Eisenhower accepted the basic framework of government responsibility established by the New Deal, but sought to limit the presidential role. He
termed his approach "dynamic conservatism" or "modern Republicanism," which meant, he explained, "conservative when it comes to money, liberal when it comes to human
beings." A critic countered that Eisenhower appeared to argue that he would "strongly recommend the building of a great many schools...but not provide the money."
Eisenhower's first priority was to balance the budget after years of deficits. He wanted to cut spending, cut taxes and maintain the value of the dollar.
Republicans were willing to risk unemployment to keep inflation in check. Reluctant to stimulate the economy too much, they saw the country suffer three recessions in
In other areas, the administration transferred control of offshore oil lands from the federal government to the states. It also favored private
development of energy sources rather than the public approach the Democrats had initiated. In everything the Eisenhower administration undertook, its orientation was
sympathetic to business.
Eisenhower's inclination to play a modest role in public often led to legislative stalemate. Still, he was active behind the scenes pushing his favorite
programs. And he was one of the few presidents who left office as popular as when he entered it.
THE CULTURE OF THE 1950s
During the 1950s, a sense of uniformity pervaded American society. Conformity was common, as young and old alike followed group norms rather than
striking out on their own. Though men and women had been forced into new employment patterns during World War II, once the war was over, traditional roles were reaffirmed.
Men expected to be the breadwinners; women, even when they worked, assumed their proper place was at home. Sociologist David Riesman observed the importance of peer-group
expectations in his influential book, The Lonely Crowd. He called this new society "other-directed," and maintained that such societies lead to stability as well as
conformity. Television contributed to the homogenizing trend by providing young and old with a shared experience reflecting accepted social patterns.
But not all Americans conformed to such cultural norms. A number of writers, members of the so-called "beat generation," rebelled against conventional
values. Stressing spontaneity and spirituality, they asserted intuition over reason, Eastern mysticism over Western institutionalized religion. The "beats" went out of
their way to challenge the patterns of respectability and shock the rest of the culture.
Their literary work displayed their sense of freedom. Jack Kerouac typed his best-selling novel On the Road on a 75-meter roll of paper. Lacking
accepted punctuation and paragraph structure, the book glorified the possibilities of the free life. Poet Allen Ginsberg gained similar notoriety for his poem "Howl," a
scathing critique of modern, mechanized civilization. When police charged that it was obscene and seized the published version, Ginsberg won national acclaim with a
successful court challenge.
Musicians and artists rebelled as well. Tennessee singer Elvis Presley popularized black music in the form of rock and roll, and shocked more staid
Americans with his ducktail haircut and undulating hips. In addition, Elvis and other rock and roll singers demonstrated that there was a white audience for black music,
thus testifying to the increasing integration of American culture. Painters like Jackson Pollock discarded easels and laid out gigantic canvases on the floor, then
applied paint, sand and other materials in wild splashes of color. All of these artists and authors, whatever the medium, provided models for the wider and more deeply
felt social revolution of the 1960s.
ORIGINS OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
African Americans became increasingly restive in the postwar years. During the war they had challenged discrimination in the military services and in
the work force, and they had made limited gains. Millions of blacks had left southern farms for northern cities, where they hoped to find better jobs. They found instead
crowded conditions in urban slums. Now, black servicemen returned home, intent on rejecting second-class citizenship, as other blacks began to argue that the time was
ripe for racial equality.
Jackie Robinson dramatized the racial question in 1947 when he broke baseball's color line and began playing in the major leagues. A member of the
Brooklyn Dodgers, he often faced trouble with opponents and teammates as well. But an outstanding first season led to his acceptance and eased the way for other black
players, who now left the Negro leagues to which they had been confined.
Government officials, and many other Americans, discovered the connection between racial problems and Cold War politics. As the leader of the free world,
the United States sought support in Africa and Asia. Discrimination at home impeded the effort to win friends in other parts of the world.
Harry Truman supported the civil rights movement. He believed in political equality, though not in social equality, and recognized the growing
importance of the black urban vote. When apprised in 1946 of lynchings and other forms of mob violence still practiced in the South, he appointed a committee on civil
rights to investigate discrimination based on race and religion. The report, issued the next year, documented blacks' second-class status in American life. It asserted
the need for the federal government to secure the rights guaranteed to all citizens.
Truman responded by sending a 10-point civil rights program to Congress. When Southern Democrats, angry about a stronger civil rights stance, left the
party in 1948, Truman issued an executive order barring discrimination in federal employment, ordered equal treatment in the armed forces and appointed a committee to
work toward an end to military segregation. The last military restrictions ended during the Korean War.
Blacks in the South enjoyed few, if any, civil and political rights. More than 1 million black soldiers fought in World War II, but those who came from
the South could not vote. Blacks who tried to register faced the likelihood of beatings, loss of job, loss of credit or eviction from their land. Lynchings still
occurred, and Jim Crow laws enforced segregation of the races in street cars, trains, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, recreational facilities and employment.
Blacks took matters into their own hands. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was determined to overturn the judicial
doctrine, established in the court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, that segregation of black and white students in schools was constitutional if facilities were
"separate but equal." That decree had been used for decades to sanction rigid segregation in the South, where facilities were seldom, if ever, equal.
Blacks achieved their goal of overturning Plessy in 1954 when the Supreme Court -- presided over by an Eisenhower appointee, Chief Justice Earl Warren
-- handed down its Brown v. Board of Education ruling. The Court declared unanimously that "separate facilities are inherently unequal," and decreed that the "separate
but equal" doctrine could no longer be used in public schools. A year later, the Supreme Court demanded that local school boards move "with all deliberate speed" to
implement the decision.
Eisenhower, although sympathetic to the needs of the South as it faced a major transition, nonetheless acted quickly to see that the law was upheld. He
ordered the desegregation of Washington, D.C., schools to serve as a model for the rest of the country, and sought to end discrimination in other areas as well.
He faced a major crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Just before implementation of a desegregation plan calling for the admission of nine black
students to a previously all-white high school, the governor declared that violence threatened, and posted Arkansas National Guardsmen to keep peace by turning the black
students away. When a federal court ordered the troops to leave, the students came to school, only to encounter belligerent taunts. As mobs became hostile, the black
Eisenhower responded by placing the National Guardsmen under federal command and calling them back to Little Rock. He was reluctant to do so because
federal troops had not been used to protect black rights since the end of Reconstruction, but he knew he had no choice. And so desegregation began with soldiers standing
in classrooms to ensure the rule of law.
Another milestone in the civil rights movement occurred in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black seamstress who was also
secretary of the state chapter of the NAACP, sat down in the front of a bus in a section reserved by law and custom for whites. Ordered to move to the back, she refused.
Police came and arrested her for violating the segregation statutes. Black leaders, who had been waiting for just such a case, organized a boycott of the bus system.
Martin Luther King Jr., a young minister of the Baptist church where the blacks met, became a spokesman for the protest. "There comes a time," he said, "when people get
tired...of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression." King was arrested, as he would be again and again, but blacks in Montgomery sustained the boycott and cut
gross bus revenue by 65 percent. About a year later, the Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation, like school segregation, was unconstitutional. The boycott ended. The
civil rights movement had won an important victory -- and discovered its most powerful, thoughtful and eloquent leader in Martin Luther King Jr.
African Americans also sought to secure their voting rights. Although the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the right to vote, many
states had found ways -- whether by a poll ("head") tax or a literacy test -- to circumvent the law. Eisenhower, working with Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson,
lent his support to a congressional effort to guarantee the vote. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first such measure in 82 years, marked a step forward, as it
authorized federal intervention in cases where blacks were denied the chance to vote. Yet loopholes remained, and so activists pushed successfully for the Civil Rights
Act of 1960, which provided stiffer penalties for interfering with voting, but still stopped short of authorizing federal officials to register blacks.
Relying on the efforts of black Americans themselves, the civil rights movement gained momentum in the postwar years. Working through the Supreme Court and through Congress, civil rights supporters created the groundwork for an even more extensive movement in the 1960s.
NOTE: The information regarding the United States on this page is re-published from United States Information Agency. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of United States History information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about American History should be addressed to the United States Information Agency