On January 5, 2014—the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty—the New York Times asked a panel of opinion leaders a simple question: “Does the U.S. Need Another War on Poverty?” While the answers varied, all the invited debaters accepted the martial premise of the question—that a war on poverty had been fought and that eliminating poverty was, without a doubt, a “fight,” or a “battle.”
Yet the debate over the manner—martial or not—by which the federal government and public policy has dealt with the issue of poverty in the United States is still very much an open-ended one.
The evolution and development of the postwar American welfare state is a story not only of a number of “wars,” or individual political initiatives, against poverty, but also about the growth of institutions within and outside government that seek to address, alleviate, and eliminate poverty and its concomitant social ills. It is a complex and at times messy story, interwoven with the wider historical trajectory of this period: civil rights, the rise and fall of a “Cold War consensus,” the emergence of a counterculture, the Vietnam War, the credibility gap, the rise of conservatism, the end of “welfare,” and the emergence of compassionate conservatism. Mirroring the broader organization of the American political system, with a relatively weak center of power and delegated authority and decision-making in fifty states, the welfare model has developed and grown over decades. Policies viewed in one era as unmitigated failures have instead over time evolved and become part of the fabric of the welfare state.
Gentrification is one of the most controversial issues in American cities today. But it also remains one of the least understood. Few agree on how to define it or whether it is boon or curse for cities. Gentrification has changed over time and has a history dating back to the early 20th century. Historically, gentrification has had a smaller demographic impact on American cities than suburbanization or immigration. But since the late 1970s, gentrification has dramatically reshaped cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. Furthermore, districts such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, New York City’s Greenwich Village, and Georgetown in Washington DC have had an outsized influence on the political, cultural, and architectural history of cities. Gentrification thus must be examined alongside suburbanization as one of the major historical trends shaping the 20th-century American metropolis.
Mass transit has been part of the urban scene in the United States since the early 19th century. Regular steam ferry service began in New York City in the early 1810s and horse-drawn omnibuses plied city streets starting in the late 1820s. Expanding networks of horse railways emerged by the mid-19th century. The electric streetcar became the dominant mass transit vehicle a half century later. During this era, mass transit had a significant impact on American urban development. Mass transit’s importance in the lives of most Americans started to decline with the growth of automobile ownership in the 1920s, except for a temporary rise in transit ridership during World War II. In the 1960s, congressional subsidies began to reinvigorate mass transit and heavy-rail systems opened in several cities, followed by light rail systems in several others in the next decades. Today concerns about environmental sustainability and urban revitalization have stimulated renewed interest in the benefits of mass transit.
By serving travelers and commerce, roads and streets unite people and foster economic growth. But as they develop, roads and streets also disrupt old patterns, upset balances of power, and isolate some as they serve others. The consequent disagreements leave historical records documenting social struggles that might otherwise be overlooked. For long-distance travel in America before the middle of the 20th century, roads were generally poor alternatives, resorted to when superior means of travel, such as river and coastal vessels, canal boats, or railroads were unavailable. Most roads were unpaved, unmarked, and vulnerable to the effects of weather. Before the railroads, for travelers willing to pay the toll, rare turnpikes and plank roads could be much better. Even in towns, unpaved streets were common until the late 19th century, and persisted into the 20th. In the late 19th century, rapid urban growth, rural free delivery of the mails, and finally the proliferation of electric railways and bicycling contributed to growing pressure for better roads and streets. After 1910, the spread of the automobile accelerated the trend, but only with great controversy, especially in cities. Partly in response to the controversy, advocates of the automobile organized to promote state and county motor highways funded substantially by gasoline taxes; such roads were intended primarily for motor vehicles. In the 1950s, massive federal funds accelerated the trend; by then, motor vehicles were the primary transportation mode for both long and short distances. The consequences have been controversial, and alternatives have been attracting growing interest.
Racism and xenophobia, but also resilience and community building, characterize the return of thousands of Japanese Americans, or Nikkei, to the West Coast after World War II. Although the specific histories of different regions shaped the resettlement experiences for Japanese Americans, Los Angeles provides an instructive case study. For generations, the City of Angels has been home to one of the nation’s largest and most diverse Nikkei communities and the ways in which Japanese Americans rebuilt their lives and institutions resonate with the resettlement experience elsewhere.
Before World War II, greater Los Angeles was home to a vibrant Japanese American population. First generation immigrants, or Issei, and their American-born children, the Nisei, forged dynamic social, economic, cultural, and spiritual institutions out of various racial exclusions. World War II uprooted the community as Japanese Americans left behind their farms, businesses, and homes. In the best instances, they were able to entrust their property to neighbors or other sympathetic individuals. More often, the uncertainty of their future led Japanese Americans to sell off their property, far below the market price. Upon the war’s end, thousands of Japanese Americans returned to Los Angeles, often to financial ruin.
Upon their arrival in the Los Angeles area, Japanese Americans continued to face deep-seated prejudice, all the more accentuated by an overall dearth of housing. Without a place to live, they sought refuge in communal hostels set up in pre-war institutions that survived the war such as a variety of Christian and Buddhist churches. Meanwhile, others found housing in temporary trailer camps set up by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), and later administered by the Federal Public Housing Authority (FPHA), in areas such as Burbank, Sun Valley, Hawthorne, Santa Monica, and Long Beach. Although some local religious groups and others welcomed the returnees, white homeowners, who viewed the settlement of Japanese Americans as a threat to their property values, often mobilized to protest the construction of these camps. The last of these camps closed in 1956, demonstrating the hardship some Japanese Americans still faced in integrating back into society. Even when the returnees were able to leave the camps, they still faced racially restrictive housing covenants and, when those practices were ruled unconstitutional, exclusionary lending. Although new suburban enclaves of Japanese Americans eventually developed in areas such as Gardena, West Los Angeles, and Pacoima by the 1960s, the pathway to those destinations was far from easy. Ultimately, the resettlement of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles after their mass incarceration during World War II took place within the intertwined contexts of lingering anti-Japanese racism, Cold War politics, and the suburbanization of Southern California.
Housing in America has long stood as a symbol of the nation’s political values and a measure of its economic health. In the 18th century, a farmhouse represented Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a nation of independent property owners; in the mid-20th century, the suburban house was seen as an emblem of an expanding middle class. Alongside those well-known symbols were a host of other housing forms—tenements, slave quarters, row houses, French apartments, loft condos, and public housing towers—that revealed much about American social order and the material conditions of life for many people.
Since the 19th century, housing markets have been fundamental forces driving the nation’s economy and a major focus of government policies. Home construction has provided jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. Land speculation, housing development, and the home mortgage industry have generated billions of dollars in investment capital, while ups and downs in housing markets have been considered signals of major changes in the economy. Since the New Deal of the 1930s, the federal government has buttressed the home construction industry and offered economic incentives for home buyers, giving the United States the highest home ownership rate in the world. The housing market crash of 2008 slashed property values and sparked a rapid increase in home foreclosures, especially in places like Southern California and the suburbs of the Northeast, where housing prices had ballooned over the previous two decades. The real estate crisis led to government efforts to prop up the mortgage banking industry and to assist struggling homeowners. The crisis led, as well, to a drop in rates of home ownership, an increase in rental housing, and a growth in homelessness.
Home ownership remains a goal for many Americans and an ideal long associated with the American dream. The owner-occupied home—whether single-family or multifamily dwelling—is typically the largest investment made by an American family. Through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, housing designs varied from region to region. In the mid-20th century, mass production techniques and national building codes tended to standardize design, especially in new suburban housing. In the 18th century, the family home was a site of waged and unwaged work; it was the center of a farm, plantation, or craftsman’s workshop. Two and a half centuries later, a house was a consumer good: its size, location, and decor marked the family’s status and wealth.
Public authorities are agencies created by governments to engage directly in the economy for public purposes. They differ from standard agencies in that they operate outside the administrative framework of democratically accountable government. Since they generate their own operating income by charging users for goods and services and borrow for capital expenses based on projections of future revenues, they can avoid the input from voters and the regulations that control public agencies funded by tax revenues.
Institutions built on the public authority model exist at all levels of government and in every state. A few of these enterprises, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, are well known. Thousands more toil in relative obscurity, operating toll roads and bridges, airports, transit systems, cargo ports, entertainment venues, sewer and water systems, and even parking garages. Despite their ubiquity, these agencies are not well understood. Many release little information about their internal operations. It is not even possible to say conclusively how many exist, since experts disagree about how to define them, and states do not systematically track them.
One thing we do know about public authorities is that, over the course of the 20th century, these institutions have become a major component of American governance. Immediately following the Second World War, they played a minor role in public finance. But by the early 21st century, borrowing by authorities constituted well over half of all public borrowing at the sub-federal level. This change means that increasingly the leaders of these entities, rather than elected officials, make key decisions about where and how to build public infrastructure and steer economic development in the United States
Robert O. Self
Few decades in American history reverberate with as much historical reach or glow as brightly in living mythology as the 1960s. During those years Americans reanimated and reinvented the core political principles of equality and liberty but, in a primal clash that resonates more than half a century later, fiercely contested what those principles meant, and for whom. For years afterward, the decade’s appreciators considered the era to have its own “spirit,” defined by greater freedoms and a deeper, more authentic personhood, and given breath by a youthful generation’s agitation for change in nearly every dimension of national life. To its detractors in subsequent decades, the era was marked by immature radical fantasies and dangerous destabilizations of the social order, behind which lay misguided youthful enthusiasms and an overweening, indulgent federal government. We need not share either conviction to appreciate the long historical shadow cast by the decade’s clashing of left, right, and center and its profound influence over the political debates, cultural logics, and social practices of the many years that followed.
The decade’s political and ideological clashes registered with such force because post–World War II American life was characterized by a society-wide embrace of antiradicalism and a prescribed normalcy. Having emerged from the war as the lone undamaged capitalist industrial power, the United States exerted enormous influence throughout the globe after 1945—so much that some historians have called the postwar years a “pax Americana.” In its own interest and in the interest of its Western allies, the United States engaged in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union over the fate of Europe and no less over the fate of developing countries on every continent. Fiercely anticommunist abroad and at home, U.S. elites stoked fears of the damage communism could do, whether in Eastern Europe or in a public school textbook. Americans of all sorts in the postwar years embraced potent ideologies justifying the prevailing order, whether that order was capitalist, patriarchal, racial, or heterosexual. They pursued a postwar “normalcy” defined by nuclear family domesticity and consumer capitalism in the shadow cast by the threat of communism and, after 1949, global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. This prevailing order was stultifying and its rupture in the 1960s is the origin point of the decade’s great dramas.
The social movements of that decade drew Americans from the margins of citizenship—African Americans, Latina/o, Native Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians, among others—into epochal struggles over the withheld promise of equality. For the first time since 1861, an American war deeply split the nation, nearly destroying a major political party and intensifying a generational revolt already under way. Violence, including political assassinations at the highest level, bombings and assassinations of African Americans, bombings by left-wing groups like the Weathermen, and major urban uprisings by African Americans against police and property bathed the country in more blood. The New Deal liberalism of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman reached its postwar peak in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and then retreated amid acrimony and backlash, as a new conservative politics gained traction. All this took place in the context of a “global 1960s,” in which societies in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere experienced similar generational rebellions, quests for meaningful democracy, and disillusionment with American global hegemony. From the first year of the decade to the last, the 1960s were a watershed era that marked the definitive end of a “postwar America” defined by easy Cold War dualities, presumptions of national innocence, and political calcification.
To explain the foregoing, this essay is organized in five sections. First comes a broad overview of the decade, highlighting some of its indelible moments and seminal political events. The next four sections correspond to the four signature historical developments of the 1960s. Discussed first is the collapse of the political consensus that predominated in national life following World War II. We can call this consensus “Vital Center liberalism,” after the title of a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or “Cold War liberalism.” Its assault from both the New Left and the New Right is one of the defining stories of the 1960s. Second is the resurgence, after a decades-long interregnum dating to Reconstruction, of African American political agency. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was far more than a social movement for civil rights. To shape the conditions of national life and the content of public debate in ways impossible under Jim Crow, black American called for nothing less than a spiritual and political renewal of the country. Third, and following from the latter, is the emergence within the American liberal tradition of a new emphasis on expanding individual rights and ending invidious discrimination. Forged in conjunction with the black freedom movement by women, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and homophiles (as early gay rights activists were called) and gay liberationists, this new emphasis profoundly changed American law and set the terms of political debate for the next half century. Fourth and lastly, the 1960s witnessed the flourishing of a broad and diverse culture of anti-authoritarianism. In art, politics, and social behavior, this anti-authoritarianism took many forms, but at its heart lay two distinct historical phenomena: an ecstatic celebration of youth, manifest in the tension between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation, and an intensification of the long-standing conflict in American life between individualism and hierarchical order.
Despite the disruptions, rebellions, and challenges to authority in the decade, the political and economic elite proved remarkably resilient and preserved much of the prevailing order. This is not to discount the foregoing account of challenges to that order or to suggest that social change in the 1960s made little difference in American life. However, in grappling with this fascinating decade we are confronted with the paradox of outsized events and enormous transformations in law, ideology, and politics alongside a continuation, even an entrenchment, of traditional economic and political structures and practices.
Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese
Mass migration to suburban areas was a defining feature of American life after 1945. Before World War II, just 13% of Americans lived in suburbs. By 2010, however, suburbia was home to more than half of the U.S. population. The nation’s economy, politics, and society suburbanized in important ways. Suburbia shaped habits of car dependency and commuting, patterns of spending and saving, and experiences with issues as diverse as race and taxes, energy and nature, privacy and community. The owner occupied, single-family home, surrounded by a yard, and set in a neighborhood outside the urban core came to define everyday experience for most American households, and in the world of popular culture and the imagination, suburbia was the setting for the American dream. The nation’s suburbs were an equally critical economic landscape, home to vital high-tech industries, retailing, “logistics,” and office employment. In addition, American politics rested on a suburban majority, and over several decades, suburbia incubated political movements across the partisan spectrum, from grass-roots conservativism, to centrist meritocratic individualism, environmentalism, feminism, and social justice. In short, suburbia was a key setting for postwar American life.
Even as suburbia grew in magnitude and influence, it also grew more diverse, coming to reflect a much broader cross-section of America itself. This encompassing shift marked two key chronological stages in suburban history since 1945: the expansive, racialized, mass suburbanization of the postwar years (1945–1970) and an era of intensive social diversification and metropolitan complexity (since 1970). In the first period, suburbia witnessed the expansion of segregated white privilege, bolstered by government policies, exclusionary practices, and reinforced by grassroots political movements. By the second period, suburbia came to house a broader cross section of Americans, who brought with them a wide range of outlooks, lifeways, values, and politics. Suburbia became home to large numbers of immigrants, ethnic groups, African Americans, the poor, the elderly and diverse family types. In the face of stubborn exclusionism by affluent suburbs, inequality persisted across metropolitan areas and manifested anew in proliferating poorer, distressed suburbs. Reform efforts sought to alleviate metro-wide inequality and promote sustainable development, using coordinated regional approaches. In recent years, the twin discourses of suburban crisis and suburban rejuvenation captured the continued complexity of America’s suburbs.
Urban politics provides a means to understand the major political and economic trends and transformations of the last seventy years in American cities. The growth of the federal government; the emergence of new powerful identity- and neighborhood-based social movements; and large-scale economic restructuring have characterized American cities since 1945. The postwar era witnessed the expansion of scope and scale of the federal government, which had a direct impact on urban space and governance, particularly as urban renewal fundamentally reshaped the urban landscape and power configurations. Urban renewal and liberal governance, nevertheless, spawned new and often violent tensions and powerful opposition movements among old and new residents. These movements engendered a generation of city politicians who assumed power in the 1970s. Yet all of these figures were forced to grapple with the larger forces of capital flight, privatization, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, immigration, and gentrification. This confluence of factors meant that as many American cities and their political representatives became demographically more diverse by the 1980s and 1990s, they also became increasingly separated by neighborhood boundaries and divided by the forces of class and economic inequality.