Return to Lecture 1 Index   Return to History 2 Main Page 

American History II


The 1950s:  Affluence and Cold War

            The Cold War and the spread of Communism in Eastern Europe, China, and Korea in the late 1940s and early 1950s prompted the United States to dramatically increase its defense spending. As more and more companies came to rely on defense contracts, the power of the military- industrial complex grew. One domestic result of this was a wave of prosperity and the growth of the middle class in the United States, and greater prosperity for blue-collar workers.

            The Truman Doctrine, put forth by President Harry Truman when he addressed Congress on March 12, 1947, essentially stated that "The United States will defend free people and their free institutions at any place at any point in the world where outside Communist aggression threatens that nation's internal stability."  In keeping with the Truman Doctrine, the United States followed a policy of "containment" when dealing with the spread of Communist regimes.  At about the same time Truman was announcing the Truman Doctrine, George Kennan published an article under the pseudonym "Mr. X" in the Foreign Affairs Quarterly.  Kennan made the following three points:

The history of Russia has been one of hostile neighbors and a constant fear of attack. It is inevitable that the Soviet Union will try to take over its neighbor states in order to provide a buffer zone.
The United States has a duty to confront Soviet aggression with "unalterable counterforce."
The United States must maintain a policy of long-term containment of Soviet aggression.
Critics of this policy pointed out that it is often difficult to determine when "containment" is required. When is revolution the "self-determination of a free people" and when is it "Communist aggression" orchestrated by the Kremlin?

            The policy of containment required the United States to take a defensive posture. Thus it had to wait for the Soviets to take the initiative, and then react to that initiative. In addition, this policy gave the President greater power. The need to respond quickly to foreign crises did not allow the President the luxury of waiting for Congress to approve military action. Recall that after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Roosevelt appeared before Congress to request a declaration of war.  Since the Truman Doctrine, many U.S. military actions, including those in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Somalia, and Bosnia have been undertaken by presidential order, although at some point congressional approval was required.

            After the Truman Doctrine, the United States was actively committed to opposing the spread of Soviet-style Communism. The first plan that put this policy to use on a large scale was the Economic Recovery Plan of 1947, known popularly as the Marshall Plan. In a commencement speech at Harvard University on June 5, 1947, George C. Marshall, former Army general and at that time Truman's Secretary of  State, proposed that American economic aid be used to rebuild the war-torn nations of Europe.  Marshall's objective was to "restore the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole." Marshall defended this point, saying that the American economy depended on open markets. Thus, rebuilding the economies of Europe would guarantee American prosperity by providing an outlet for surplus American-made goods. Marshall also believed that economic stability in Europe would translate into political stability, that Communism would have no appeal to the well-fed and fully-employed.

            Between 1948 and 1951, $13 billion in foreign aid was sent to Western European nations. West Germany benefited greatly from the plan.  Between 1947 and 1951, a period referred to as the "German miracle," its economic output increased 312%.  However, when Communism in the U.S.S.R. did not show signs of weakening, economic aid replaced military aid.

            America's drift toward military power in fighting Communism can be seen in the 1948 blockade of Berlin. After the end of World War II, the city of Berlin, like the country of Germany as a whole, was divided into a Soviet-controlled zone and three other zones controlled by Great Britain, France, and the United States.  In response to American involvement in Western Europe, the Soviet Union cut off western links to Berlin, which was located entirely within the Soviet-occupied zone.  President Truman ordered a massive, year-long airlift of medical supplies, food, clothing, and even coal for West Berliners. Eventually, the Soviets lifted the blockade.

            To some extent in retaliation, the Soviet Union sponsored Communist revolutions in Eastern-bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Hungary in 1948 and 1949. In April 1949, twelve nations of Western Europe and North America signed the North Atlantic Treaty, creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The prime goal of NATO was to coordinate the defense of Western Europe. An attack on any one of the member nations was to be treated as an attack on all, with each nation obliged to provide military support. Primary support, both militarily and monetarily, came from the United States.

            Besides Europe, events in other parts of the globe also seemed to point to the spread of Communism. In China, the ongoing civil war between the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek and the Communists, led by Mao Tse-tung ("Mao Zedong" in the Chinese dialect currently preferred by the Chinese) was brought to conclusion in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek and some of his army took refuge on the island of Formosa (Taiwan).  The Nationalists on Taiwan established the Republic of China.  Meanwhile, Mao proclaimed mainland China the People's Republic of China. The United States recognized Chiang's Nationalist government as the rightful and official China, a policy maintained until 1979, when the United States established relations with the People's Republic of China.  American pressure forced the United Nations to do likewise.

            All of these events called for a full review of American foreign policy. President Truman created the National Security Council was first created in 1947. In 1950, it drew up a policy statement: NSC-68.  NSC-68 would remain a secret document for twenty years, but it dictated American foreign policy for decades. This policy statement viewed conflict between East and West as inevitable, but in almost paranoid terms.  Any such conflict threatened not just the United States, but also all of civilization as we know it. The paper advocated an increase in defense spending from five percent of the federal budget to 20 percent and an increase in American aid to foreign nations.

            American foreign policies of the Cold War period had an enormous impact domestically, influencing the Second Red Scare and McCarthyism. But this era was also marked by other things. Incomes began to rise as the United States ran factories three shifts a day, seven days a week to meet the pent up demand of Americans for consumer goods as well as the demands of a war-torn Europe. Americans who had lived through first the Depression and then World War II were weary of sacrifice and ready for less ascetic lifestyles.

            The 1950s are often represented by symbols. The "American Dream" came to mean a single-family home in the suburbs, job security in a large corporation, and a new car every few years. The ranch house and gas-guzzling automobiles with a lot of chrome, tail fins, and other ornaments became standard elements of achievement, as did colored appliances and bathroom fixtures (in golds, greens, pinks, blues, etc.). Having a television set was also a mark of success by the mid-1950s.

            In large part, the "American Dream" was supported by the rapidly expanding military-industrial complex.  Defense spending was increased as a means of standing up to Communism after the "fall" of China and the Korean War. Companies never before involved with the military came to see the Department of Defense as their best customer because the Defense Department bought everything-construction materials, office furniture and supplies, home furnishings for base housing, medical supplies and equipment, etc., as well as ships, airplanes, and weapons. By the mid-1950s, there were over 40,000 defense contractors working for the government. By the 1960s, more than half of all government expenditures went to the military.  By the 1970s, the Department of Defense had more economic assets than the nation's 75 largest corporations.. With so many people depending directly on companies supported by the Department of Defense, a number of social critics charged that the U.S. was geared up to be a permanent wartime economy. (Indeed, in the 1960s, the Defense Department officially defined "peace" as "permanent pre-hostility.") When an economic recession struck in 1956 and 1957, President Eisenhower responded by allocating more money to defense, not by supporting public works projects as Roosevelt had done. However, at the end of his term, Eisenhower himself warned that the growing relationship between defense contractors and the federal government actually posed a threat. In this 1961 farewell address, he coined the term "military-industrial complex." But his warnings were lost on many.

            Americans seemed to wonder why they should worry when the economy was going full blast.  Americans, who made up only six percent of the total world population produced and consumed fully one-third of the world's goods and services.  During the decade of the 1950s, the Gross National Product (GNP), the total dollar value all goods and services produced in the United States, increased by 51%.  This growth was caused in part by defense spending, but also in part by a much larger domestic market for consumer goods. Soldiers returning from World War II and then Korea were eager to spend money and have children. During the decade of the 1950s, 29 million new Americans were born. The birth rate of the U.S. was comparable to that of a country like India. To meet the consumer demands of this increasing population, American industry expanded at an amazing pace, turning out new cars, clothing, and a host of other consumer items.

            Nothing did more to increase productivity than "automation,"  the use of electronic mechanisms to run complex industrial operations. Automation made its greatest long-term impact with the introduction of the computer. Many blue-collar workers began to fear they would lose their jobs to machinery and newly developed industrial robots. While they were right to be frightened, computerization and robotics were too expensive to have the impact in the 1950s and early 1960s that they wold have by the mid-1970s. White-collar professionals, on the other hand, gained from automation. Job growth was increasingly for college graduates, not for unskilled or semi-skilled blue-collar workers, even skilled labor. Much of this new technology owed its rise to corporate and university research and development departments. The connections between research done at major state and private universities and the military-industrial complex would make campuses a strategic place for protest in the 1960s.

            During the 1950s, the real weekly earnings of factory workers increased by fully 50 percent. The traditional "pyramid" of income distribution began to look more like a "diamond" with a growing middle class. The middle class expanded to about 40 percent of the total population. The growth of the middle class could be seen in things like education and housing. The year 1960 marked the first time in U.S. history that a majority (more than half) of high-school aged people actually graduated from high school.  Aided by the GI Bill, college enrollments during the 1950s and 1960s also increased. Owning one's own home also became a reality, as the availability of housing increased and veterans could secure low-interest mortgages.  By 1960, 25 percent of all housing available had been built during the 1950s.

            Overall, this booming economy was brief.  In the past, Americans had longed for long-lasting things like houses and cars.  Now, there seemed to be an obsession with collecting stuff.  This is best demonstrated in the growing youth culture in which the latest fad lasted only weeks or months, although older people also began to emulate their teen-aged sons and daughters, trying out jeans, hula hoops, frisbees, and surfboards. For the first time, teenagers became major consumers.  They supported the popular music industry, especially the new "rock and roll."  New industries were geared essentially at youth, and not without reason.  By 1960, America's teenagers spent $22 billion a year on consumer items. To put this in perspective, $22 billion a year was double the gross national product of Austria.

            The biggest consumer revolution was the growth of the television industry. The technology for television had existed since the late 1920s, but television sets were not mass produced until after World War II. In 1946, there were only17,000 television sets in the nation, and most of these were in the East. By 1949, 250,000 sets were purchased every month. By 1953, two-thirds of American homes had at least one TV. (At the time, there were only three television networks and no cables, satellite dishes, etc.)

            The new television industry had a significant influence on how political campaigns were run. The presidential election of 1952 was the first time that a candidate for president made use of television advertising. Republican candidate Dwight E. Eisenhower used 15- and 30-second spots produced by professional advertising firms; Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson followed suit. By the 1960 presidential campaign, television had become so central to people's lives, that many people attributed Nixon's loss to John F. Kennedy on Nixon's poor appearance during the televised presidential debates. By 1968, Larry King was writing that presidents were not made, but rather sold to the public just like soap and other products.

            The growing impact of television and the rise of youth culture would lead many critics to charge that America was becoming "homogenized"-people were becoming indistinguishable from each other.  One are in which they saw this homogenization in the growth of non-denominational churches.  Even while the phrase "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, the phrase "In God We Trust" was put on currency, and the public school day still began with prayer and/or Bible reading, real spirituality seemed to be disappearing from American society.  Church attendance began a decline inthe 1950s that was not reversed until the mid-1970s.

        By 1960, slightly more than 30 percent of Americans, or 55 million out of 180 million, lived in suburbs. Stereotypical images of suburbia supported the view that America was becoming homogenized: Levittown and other suburbs of nearly identical houses; stay-at-home wives and mothers who provided the basis for televison characters such as those on Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Donna Reed Show; corporate slaves who provided the models for the fathers on those shows who always came home with a briefcase full of work to do, barbecues in every backyard, etc. (Today, only 14 percent of the population lives in single-family, two-parent homes in suburbia where a never-divorced the couple raises its own biological children.)

            If all this were true, than there was no more perfect politician for this time than President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He came to practice "the politics of tranquility" -- a new style that was quite different from the social activism of Roosevelt and Truman. That style created the impression that Eisenhower was a "do nothing" president.  This decade of tranquility was followed by the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who presided over a decade of confrontation.

 Return to Lecture 1 Index   Return to History 2 Main Page