Summary and Keywords
The 1950s have typically been seen as a complacent, conservative time between the end of World War II and the radical 1960s, when anticommunism and the Cold War subverted reform and undermined civil liberties. But the era can also be seen as a very liberal time in which meeting the Communist threat led to Keynesian economic policies, the expansion of New Deal programs, and advances in civil rights. Politically, it was “the Eisenhower Era,” dominated by a moderate Republican president, a high level of bipartisan cooperation, and a foreign policy committed to containing communism. Culturally, it was an era of middle-class conformity, which also gave us abstract expressionism, rock and roll, Beat poetry, and a grassroots challenge to Jim Crow.
Keywords: 1950s, Cold War, anticommunism, Keynesianism, liberal consensus, McCarthyism, Eisenhower, Republican Party, military spending, conformity, suburbia, liberalism, conservatism, African Americans, race relations, gender roles
The Political Economy of the Early Cold War
It would be hard to overstate the centrality of anticommunism and the Cold War in shaping the U.S. political economy during the 1950s. The Cold War dominated economic discussions and demanded unprecedented changes in America’s political traditions and international role. Anticommunism suppressed dissent and narrowed political possibilities. For many at the time, even those who supported it, the fight against communism marked a turn to the Right.
Beginning in the late 1940s, anticommunism—in the form of the Federal Loyalty Program, the Alger Hiss trial, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and the expulsion of Communists from liberal organizations—quelled the kind of radicalism and experimentation that had been a hallmark of the 1930s. In the 1930s, unions, Communists, and socialists marched together for economic justice and workers’ rights, while New Dealers implemented bold experiments in state planning and job creation. By 1950, all of that was gone. Liberals had grown disenchanted with “utopian” solutions and reined in their hopes of what kind of change was possible in a dark world. The Left splintered in the face of Stalinism, a process begun before the war, but renewed with the Communist Party’s postwar hard line. Union leaders purged Communist members and adopted more-conservative “bread and butter” goals that, arguably, transformed the labor movement from a class-based social movement into a run-of-the-mill interest group.1
Begun by the Truman administration, postwar anticommunism was quickly embraced by conservative Republicans. California congressman Richard Nixon and Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy exploited the Communist threat to target New Deal liberalism. As one historian put it, “McCarthy’s sledgehammer smashed two decades of Democratic dominance in Washington to bits.”2 HUAC, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI held hearings and conducted investigations into labor unions, civil rights groups, government agencies, and other organizations, requiring people to “name names” or “plead the fifth.” Fearful of being attacked and disillusioned by radicalism in general, liberal Democrats became more timid and outwardly conservative. After the Senate censured McCarthy in 1954, the most-extreme forms of anticommunism ended, in part because of McCarthy’s excesses, but also because Communists had been successfully eradicated from American political life. In local areas, however, particularly in the South, state-level “mini-HUACs” continued to harass those who were involved in the labor and civil rights movements.
The National Security State
Anticommunism at home went hand in hand with the U.S. stand against Communist expansion abroad. President Harry Truman had inaugurated the Cold War in 1947 with the Truman Doctrine, which promised military and economic aid to countries resisting international communism, and the National Security Act, which created the National Security Council (NSC), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and a permanent Department of Defense. After the Communist victory in China (1949) and the Soviet Union’s successful detonation of a nuclear bomb (1950), the newly formed National Security Council called for the United States to increase defense spending and prepare for the possibility of “total war.”3 Despite some resistance to these measures, by the early 1950s there was widespread consensus among American officials, businesspeople, and labor and religious leaders that the United States had a moral duty and a political interest in fighting the spread of communism abroad, whatever the cost.
And it was costly. The goal of containing communism created a permanent national security state, militarized the economy, and increased the possibility of nuclear war. The United States had historically avoided a large military establishment, which, it was thought, would aggrandize the state and curtail democracy. If Truman wanted congressional support for increased military spending, one senator said, he’d have to “scare hell out of the American people.”4 While the communist threat to the U.S. international position was real enough, “scaring” the public into support for new military priorities unleashed hysteria and weakened civil liberties—exactly why people wanted to avoid a permanent military establishment. In 1948, Truman signed into law a “peacetime” draft. Unelected officials in the new national-security bureaucracies were making decisions about resources and policy (in secret) that had once been in the hands of Congress. Military concerns dominated budget discussions. By 1954, fully 70 percent of the national budget was directed to defense-related areas.5 The welfare state of the 1930s had given way to a warfare state. A New York Times correspondent captured the dilemma American leaders faced: “How can we prepare for total war, without becoming a garrison state and destroying the very qualities and virtues and principles we originally set out to save?”6
Defense spending led to increased corporate influence in Washington. Earlier generations of progressives had warned of monopoly capitalism, cronyism, and “merchants of death,” but such concerns were squashed by Cold War defense contracts, which strengthened the defense industries and consolidated the power of the largest corporations. Just twenty companies received half the total dollar value of all military contracts in 1954, while 75 percent of that total went to a hundred firms. About 80 percent of the new aerospace industry’s income came from its number-one customer, the U.S. government.7 It was hardly surprising, then, when General Motors (GM) head Charles E. Wilson became secretary of defense in 1953. GM was the nation’s largest company and its leading defense contractor.
Nor was it just military contracts that drew corporate leaders closer to Washington. The Cold War was not just about containing communism, it was also about strengthening global capitalism. This meant stabilizing and rebuilding the international economic system in the wake of World War II. The Bretton Woods system pegged international currencies to gold and the U.S. dollar and created institutions to encourage trade and integrate economic activity. The Marshall Plan (1948) coordinated and funded Europe’s economic recovery. Bretton Woods and the Marshall Plan were economic policies as well as foreign policy, and the U.S. government relied heavily on corporate leaders and bankers in formulating and implementing them. Some of these men, such as Averill Harriman, John McCloy, and Dean Acheson, held key government positions during the Truman administration. Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet, once described as “eight millionaires and a plumber,” continued the trend. In addition to Wilson in the Department of Defense, George Humphrey of the Hanna Company became secretary of the treasury, Kodak’s Marion Folsom took over the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), and Proctor & Gamble’s Neil McElroy replaced Wilson as defense secretary in 1957. Corporate leaders in government were nothing new—Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinets had likewise included businessmen and lawyers. But from a progressive perspective, Eisenhower’s administration represented the apotheosis of Republican cronyism and the triumph of corporate capitalism.
In terms of foreign policy, the Cold War’s fear mongering and militarism dashed progressive hopes for peace and international cooperation. The decade started with the Korean War (1950–1953). Officially a United Nations effort, the United States supplied the majority of troops deployed in the defense of South Korea.8 The monetary expense of the Korean War, paid for by raising taxes, prompted Eisenhower to find ways to lessen U.S. dependence on conventional warfare. Adopted in 1953, his “New Look” strategy shifted Cold War policy and expenses from conventional armies to nuclear weapons. “More bang for the buck,” was how Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson put it. This meant that the United States was prepared to respond to Soviet aggression with nuclear missiles, a policy known as “brinksmanship.” Not surprisingly, the Soviet Union responded by enlarging its own arsenal of nuclear weapons. While the strategy solved the problem of skyrocketing defense costs, the ensuing arms race and the policy of brinksmanship created near panic about the possibility of nuclear war. Americans invested in bomb shelters and lived in a world of heightened fear and anxiety.
To address fears of nuclear war, Eisenhower took steps to promote peace, which included working with the United Nations, proposing arms control initiatives, and softening relations with the Soviet Union. By the end of the decade, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev actually visited the United States in a “goodwill tour” organized by top Republicans. But these efforts were substantially undermined, in retrospect, by another cost-saving device Eisenhower deployed, which was to rely more on covert activities. The CIA was responsible for coups against Iran’s Mohammad Mosaddegh (1953) and Guatemala’s Jacobo Árbenz (1954). These top-secret operations weren’t revealed until the 1980s, but they contradicted Eisenhower’s talk of international cooperation and America’s professed commitment to democracy. Indeed, such actions confirmed to many the “Right turn” of the 1950s.
The Cold War’s Liberal Side
There is, however, another way to view the impact of anticommunism and the Cold War on the 1950s. And that is by comparing the decade not to the 1930s, but to the early 21st century. From our current political perspective, the 1950s were actually very liberal, a time when the communist threat created an impetus for Democrats and Republicans, labor leaders and corporate heads, and small and large businesses to work together to make capitalism work for all people, not just the rich. Proving to the world that the democratic free-enterprise system was more progressive, more just, and more productive than communism united erstwhile rivals behind government efforts to stabilize capitalism, expand social services, and in general create a better society.
The widespread, bipartisan agreement among people in power that government could be a positive force in society was called the liberal consensus.9 Despite the Cold War celebration of “free enterprise,” corporate leaders favored government policies designed to avoid recession and create a predictable, favorable investment environment. As members of the Business Council (BC) and the Committee for Economic Development (CED), they had worked closely with the Roosevelt and Truman administrations to develop the monetary and fiscal policies that became the basis of postwar Keynesianism. Now they guided Dwight Eisenhower. They were a new breed of businessmen, called corporate liberals, who managed large, multidivisional corporations and rejected the principles of laissez-faire capitalism. They believed the success of their large enterprises rested not on individual competition or a totally free market, but rather on economic cooperation and a macroeconomic environment shaped by government policies.10 To be sure, government interventions in the economy were minor compared to what was going on in Europe or to what leftists of the 1930s had hoped for; this was not socialism (despite conservatives’ complaints to the contrary). But it was a distinct break from the nation’s antistatist “liberal tradition.” Indeed, some historians have seen this era as part of “the long exception,” a brief, atypical time (from the 1930s to the 1970s) when American political culture favored redistributionist economic policies and strong government.11
As head of the Republican Party, President Eisenhower had promised to balance the budget and to end “creeping socialism.” But this was largely political rhetoric for Republican stalwarts. In reality, he adopted “demand-side” economic policies that “primed the pump” and put money into the pockets of consumers. These included an expansion of government-backed mortgages that made home ownership possible for thousands of working-class families, government-subsidized public housing, a higher minimum wage, and funding for an interstate highway system, which one historian called “a great tidal wave of federal money breaking over every sector of the American economy and influencing every aspect of American life.”12
Just as Harry Truman had “scared” Americans into supporting Cold War spending, Eisenhower used the Communist threat to “scare” Republican congressmen into supporting public-works projects. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 authorized $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of highways over a twelve-year period. It was the largest public-works project in history. Although the United States desperately needed a modern interstate system, a primary motivating factor behind the highway program was to avert recession.13 It was, in other words, an economic stimulus package. To those who objected to the cost, Eisenhower argued that it was necessary for national defense. Indeed, the law was more popularly known as the “National Interstate and Defense Highways Act.” Similarly, federal money poured into the South in the form of new research centers, universities, and defense plants, which finally began to generate growth in this economically backward region. What New Deal policies had failed to do, Cold War spending achieved.14
Eisenhower also supported government funds for social welfare services, healthcare, and education. He expanded coverage to 10.5 million people not covered by the original Social Security Act. He increased federal spending on hospitals and medical research and created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), which affirmed the government’s responsibility for its citizens’ health and welfare. Although he did not support a nationalized healthcare system, he did propose a program in which the government would underwrite risk for private insurance companies, a proposal opposed by the American Medical Association (AMA). In some ways, moderate Republicans’ support for social services can be seen as a bid for votes. Indeed, 83 percent of Americans approved of the expansion of Social Security, and 87 percent approved of the highway program.15 But it was also part of a Cold War strategy to show the world that capitalism was compatible with a socially responsible and compassionate state. To conservatives who objected to government spending in these areas, Eisenhower and moderate Republicans made a more direct appeal to the Cold War. Declaring education a “national security interest,” Eisenhower called for federal scholarships and programs to strengthen education in science and math. Passed in the wake of the Soviets’ successful launch of the satellite Sputnik, the National Defense Education Act (1958) made explicit the justification for federal intervention in unprecedented areas.
Eisenhower kept his promise to balance the budget, but he did it by cutting military spending (the “New Look,” discussed under Foreign Policy) and not cutting taxes. From 1952 until 1963, the marginal income tax rate for the richest Americans was 91 percent (on every dollar earned over $400,000). Very few Americans made that much money, which is over $3 billion in today’s dollars, but even those earning $32,000 were taxed at 50 percent. It was a highly progressive income tax, and although most tax revenue came from families earning less than $10,000, these rates signified a society that thought the rich should contribute more. Taxes on corporate income were also high: 52 percent on taxable income over $25,000 between 1952 and 1963. In addition, to counter the charge of war profiteering, there was in the early 1950s something called the “Excess Profits Tax,” which was a 30 percent levy on all profits exceeding 83 percent of a corporation’s “normal profits.”16
The Cold War made the U.S. practices of racial segregation and discrimination untenable. How could the United States claim to uphold democracy abroad when it upheld a system of white supremacy at home? Keenly aware of how Soviet propaganda exploited American racism in its appeals to the peoples of Africa and Asia, Secretary of State Dean Acheson supported legislation prohibiting segregation in schools, stating that racial discrimination “jeopardizes the effective maintenance of our moral leadership of the free and democratic nations of the world.”17 A tradition of states’ rights and a weak federal government had allowed southern states to openly flout the Fourteenth Amendment and northern states to freely discriminate against racial and religious minorities in employment, housing, and public services. But the Cold War state weakened states’ rights and acclimatized Americans to the power of the federal government.
By nature conservative, Eisenhower was unwilling to endorse the kind of antidiscrimination legislation that liberals and civil rights activists were calling for at the time. He didn’t want to “take sides” and felt that the government shouldn’t try to legislate morality. But he understood the importance of civil rights in foreign policy, and he did what he could to end segregation in cases where he, as president, had the power to do so. Thus, he desegregated military bases, hospitals, and schools, a large number of which were in the South. He ended segregation in Washington, DC. He issued an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industries and created the President’s Committee on Government Contracts (PCGC) to enforce it. Although discrimination continued to be rampant in the defense industries, the PCGC was able to conduct research, collect data, meet with CEOs, and develop “best practices” that would become the basis for real integration in the 1960s.18 He sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 to enforce the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision against school segregation. It was his duty to uphold the law, he said, but his actions helped integrate Little Rock Central High School. Perhaps most significantly, Eisenhower appointed judges to the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. appellate courts whom he knew to be favorable to black civil rights. He appointed California governor Earl Warren as chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1953, just in time for him to decide on Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. He appointed desegregationists to federal appellate courts in the South right at the moment of sit-ins and protests. One of these judges struck down segregated seating on Montgomery’s public buses; another led the fight for James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi.
Eisenhower also chose Herbert Brownell as his attorney general, a man he knew to favor black rights. With Brownell, Eisenhower prepared what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which strengthened the Justice Department’s ability to enforce the Brown decision in the wake of massive resistance and white terrorism in the South. Although watered down by the legislative process, it nonetheless represented the first federal legislation designed to protect black rights in the South since Reconstruction.
Despite liberal complaints about a “Right turn,” actual conservatives were marginalized from positions of political and cultural power in the 1950s. Moderate Republicans and their corporate liberal allies defeated the conservative wing of the Republican Party with Eisenhower’s nomination over Senator Robert A. Taft in 1952. Reflecting this victory, the 1956 Republican Party national platform endorsed the Brown decision and called for federal assistance to low-income communities, expanded unemployment benefits, and supported equal rights for men and women. There remained a few conservative Republicans in Congress, such as Ohio senator John Bricker, Michigan congressman Clare Hoffman, and New York congressman Daniel Reed, who were able to join forces with southern Democrats to obstruct legislation, but they were a minority and in no position to sponsor their own legislation. Corporate liberal groups such as the BC and CED dominated economic lobbying, while the conservative National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) was denounced as “narrow” and “conservative.”19
Opinion makers and social scientists regarded political conservatism as a backward philosophy that could not be reconciled with the forward-moving, problem-solving, pluralistic America of the mid-20th century. Lionel Trilling famously dismissed conservatism as “an irritable gesture.” Social scientists called conservatives extremists and “pseudo-conservatives” and attributed to them pathologies such as “the authoritarian personality” or “status anxiety.” Those who held on to the idea that the free market shaped the economy were regarded as behind the times, unable to see the realities of the future. Thus, pundit Robert Bendiner’s observation: “Rare is the citizen who can bring himself to say, ‘Sure I’m a conservative.’ . . . any American would sooner drop dead than declare himself a reactionary.”20
Conservatives retreated to their own organizations. William F. Buckley Jr. founded the National Review in 1955, uniting disenchanted conservatives, libertarians, anticommunists, and traditionalists into the first “new Right.” Claiming to “stand athwart history,” Buckley’s journal provided a steady critique of modern liberalism’s state building, relativism, and passive containment policies. Conservative economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises helped found the Mount Pelerin Society in 1947 to defend classical liberalism and to combat the ascendency of Marxist and Keynesian ideas. Although most corporate leaders endorsed Keynesian policies, there were a few who did not, including Sun Oil Company’s J. Howard Pew, Du Pont’s Jasper Crane and Lammot du Pont, and David Goodrich from the B. F. Goodrich Company, who helped fund organizations such as Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the American Enterprise Association (later AEI), which aimed to preserve the values of individualism and competition in a Keynesian world. These organizations would later play a role in the rise of the Right, but in the 1950s they were marginal at best.21
The Culture of the 1950s
Postwar prosperity and Keynesian economic policies helped create a large white middle class with predictably bourgeois cultural values. This generated a great deal of alarm about conformity and mass society. But the same conditions also created a space for more experimental and diverse cultural forms and even nascent wells of protest. Beneath the complacency of the dominant culture lay the roots of 1960s-era social movements.
The Culture of Conformity
One of the intentions of governmental “demand-side” economic policies was to increase the size of the middle class by creating a mass of consumers with a long list of durable “needs” (houses, cars, appliances, televisions) to keep America’s economy humming. This was the function of government-backed mortgages, easy credit policies, and employment stabilization. The benefits of these policies were largely limited to white people (one historian has called them “affirmative action for whites”), who were able to leave their old ethnic urban neighborhoods and move into the suburbs.22 The whiteness of the suburbs contributed to the homogeneity reflected in such television shows as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. A new form of mass culture, television’s sole function was to deliver audiences to advertisers. Offering up an ersatz ideal of what one’s life was supposed to look like, TV celebrated suburban tranquility and the nuclear family.
This was the era of the baby boom. Marriage rates skyrocketed. Gender roles were in lockdown. Unions had secured “a living wage” for men, which for (white) women meant consignment to the domestic realm as “homemaker,” wife, and mother. Although it seemed as though a nuclear family consisting of a working father, a stay-at-home mother, and 2.5 children was traditional, some historians have argued that there was actually something new about this celebration of domesticity, that it was a way, perhaps, of “containing” women’s sexuality and aspirations in a time of anxiety and change.23 Feminist Betty Friedan would later dub white women’s apparent confinement to the domestic sphere in the 1950s as “the problem that has no name,” thereby sparking the second wave of feminism in the 1960s.
The homogeneity of suburban life was echoed in the corporate sphere, as thousands of men in gray flannel suits submitted to personality tests and attempted to ascend the corporate ladder. New management practices placed a premium on teamwork and getting along, which, according to Fortune editor William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man (1955), was robbing American men of their individualism and creating a nation of conformists. This critique reflected a widespread concern about the loss of individual autonomy in a modern, bureaucratized society found in such works as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer (1951).
Even religion seemed a little more homogeneous and bland. President Eisenhower inaugurated the White House “prayer breakfast” and added the words “in God we trust” to U.S. currency, but his version of religion was vague and ecumenical. He once said, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”24 This was a nod to postwar pluralism and religious tolerance, which had softened Protestant antipathies toward Catholicism and Judaism. But some critics, such as Will Herberg in Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955), charged that America’s major religious groups had abandoned distinctive religious identities in favor of a bland, amorphous “American way of life.”Conformity, mass society, and suburbanization provided endless fodder for intellectuals and critics, who saw these trends as fertile ground for authoritarianism. Whereas once intellectuals embraced Marxism and sought alternatives to capitalism, now they grappled with social anomie, conformity, and mass consumerism—in other words, the problems of a prosperous, capitalist society. In some ways, they were offering a trenchant critique of consumer capitalism, but there was also, arguably, something elitist about the concerns, a kind of condescension to what was, after all, the consequence of a great redistribution of wealth. Plus, it ignored the vitality and dynamism that existed in other parts of society.
Cultures of Change
World War II had transformed American society in ways not wholly felt until the 1950s. The movements of different groups of people—the internal migration of southern blacks and others, the influx of European refugees, the mobilization of a diverse citizen army—uprooted Americans and brought them into contact with others not like themselves, which led to cross-fertilization in the worlds of art, architecture, and music. The war also brought like-minded populations together and made visible the injustices of a nation that claimed to stand for democracy, leading various minority groups to organize for change.
In more-rarefied cultural realms, away from the conforming masses, American artists transcended past conventions and became part of an international avant-garde. No longer would the world look to Europe for the most-advanced cultural forms—American art had come into its own. In painting, artists such as Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko abandoned the whole idea of representation, developing a style known as abstract expressionism. Typical of 1950s-era intellectuals, critic Clement Greenberg insisted that it was not “revolutionary” but rather a necessary “devolution of tradition,” which was no more a break with the past than anything before in modern art.25 Nonetheless, “revolutionary” was not an inapt word for the apparently haphazard splashes and swathes of color in these paintings. Such radical abstraction was also on display in the world of dance, with Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, and Martha Graham; in music, with John Cage; and in sculpture, with Alexander Calder and Jacques Lipschitz. Many of these artists were immigrants who had escaped from war-torn Europe and who contributed to a cultural cross-fertilization that was distinctly modern, dynamic, and forward moving.
In architecture as well, Americans were shedding an older parochial past, leaving heavy bricks behind and adopting the new “international style” of sleek glass skyscrapers. Reflecting the new role of the United States in the world, as well as trends in the art world, the international style was modern, spare, and cosmopolitan. It was exemplified by the United Nations Headquarters complex, designed by Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer and completed in 1952, and the Seagram Building, designed by Ludwig Mies Van de Rohe and completed in 1958, both located in New York City. Although not part of the same international style, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, completed in 1959 and also in New York, exhibits the same spirit of modernist experimentation. The new offices were filled with items inspired by designers such as Isamu Noguchi, George Nelson, and Charles Eames, a look now known as “midcentury modern.”
There was nothing explicitly “political” about modernism—it made no attempt to appeal to the masses, as art in the 1930s had done; indeed, it was embraced by large corporations that sought to put forward a “new,” modern image of themselves. This has led some to argue that abstract art and modernist architecture, like the intellectual and political worlds, reflected an abandonment of political radicalism, a lack of political engagement that signaled acquiescence to capitalism.26 Perhaps. But it is difficult to look at modernism’s dynamic experimentation, its total rejection of traditional forms, and call it conservative.
American literature in the 1950s was also alive and vibrant, with a new generation of writers including Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, J. D. Salinger, Patricia Highsmith, Flannery O’Connery, and Tennessee Williams, whose work subverted the rosy plastic norms emanating from television screens. Notably, the era was a highpoint in African American literature. Pushing against the conventions of the traditional protest novel, works such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (1955), and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) nonetheless condemned white racism and its effects on the black psyche. And in poetry, there were the Beats. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) screamed at the puritanical, capitalist inhumanity of the militaristic terror state known as America. In keeping with a newly visible black presence in American society, both Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (1957) and Ginsberg’s Howl saw black culture as a way out of the stultifying sterility and murderous militarism of whiteness.
The appeal of black culture was not limited to writers and poets. Black culture energized the popular music industry in the 1950s. New record companies such as Atlantic Records, founded in 1947 by Ahmet Ertegun, a Turkish immigrant, and Herb Abramson, a Jewish dental student, tracked down and promoted such black artists as Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, and others. The audiences for rhythm and blues (R & B) were mainly black, but the scene also attracted “mixed” audiences, becoming one of the few integrated areas in U.S. society at this time.27 White artists began to cover black R & B hits, which led to a phenomenon known as rock ’n’ roll, a true revolution both in music and American society. In the minds of anxious parents and social guardians, rock ’n’ roll represented a challenge to traditional authority, a gateway to drug use, interracial sex, juvenile delinquency, and the kind of teenage discontent portrayed in Rebel without a Cause (1955). But Elvis and Little Richard were products of the same historical forces that produced the new middle class. A new generation of white and black Americans could afford to buy not only records, but also a lot of other stuff, which made them attractive to radio advertisers. Regarded as a homogenizing force, consumer capitalism nonetheless created a space for companies such as Atlantic, Sun, and, later, Stax Records to develop and promote more diverse talent.
Communities of Protest
While intellectuals and labor unions had abandoned protest politics, certain subcultures, or what might now be called identity groups, found opportunities to organize at the grassroots level. Most famously, southern blacks organized to fight Jim Crow in the South. The Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955–1956), the NAACP’s fight to integrate Little Rock Central High (1957), and the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1957) were foundational moments in the so-called classical phase of the civil rights movement. Several factors coalesced to inspire a new surge of grassroots organization in the 1950s. Black organizations had increased their memberships during World War II. African Americans fighting for democracy abroad returned determined to fight for it at home. Southern whites responded by lynching several black veterans in the late 1940s and Emmett Till in 1955. This violence increased southern blacks’ commitment to the struggle. After the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) declared segregation unconstitutional, black activists began to test the court’s decisions at the polls, on buses, and in diners and universities. This set the stage for a series of showdowns that eventually ended Jim Crow.
The war had been a time of relative freedom for gays and lesbians, who had found others like themselves in the army, the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and the great urban centers to which millions flocked for work. After the war, however, persecution of gays returned. Dubbed in retrospect “the lavender scare,” the U.S. government targeted homosexuals as security risks (they were allegedly vulnerable to blackmail) and removed them from government positions. In response, gays began to organize. The Mattachine Society was founded in 1950 for the purpose “of liberating one of our largest minorities from . . . social persecution.”28 It was the first time gay people saw themselves as a social group with political claims, as opposed to individuals who had different erotic tastes. Lesbians organized the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, with the aim of educating the public and lesbians about lesbianism. While Cold War suspicions increased persecution of blacks, gays, and other minority groups, that persecution also contributed to solidifying what became communities of protest.
Even among the middle classes, traditional attitudes were giving way to what one historian has called “a permissive turn.”29 While some have seen the rise of “the expert” in the 1950s as part of the decade’s conservative tendencies, the experts’ advice was actually quite liberal. Scientists were telling people that there was no biological basis for racial differences and that racism bred conflict and needed to be eradicated. Management experts were helping companies work with unions and urging them to be more socially responsible. Psychologists declared that guilt and repression, mainstays of American Puritanism and the Protestant work ethic, were damaging to personal well-being. Loosen up, they told Americans. Dr. Benjamin Spock advised against shaming or even punishing one’s children. Social scientists were writing about the social construction of the self, emphasizing the role of environment in determining character, which was a further assault on American individualism and the self-made man. The prevalence of ideas about social determinism is reflected in “Officer Krupke,” a song in West Side Story (1957) that mocks the “head-shrinkers” and social workers who believe juvenile delinquents aren’t intrinsically bad, just misunderstood and from bad homes.
Attitudes about gender roles were changing as well. Polling data indicate that Americans were more likely to imagine supporting a woman for president (57 percent) in 1959 than they had been in 1945 (33 percent). Support for statements regarding the importance of female sexual purity also fell among the most educated.30 These looser attitudes were reflected in the greater participation of women in politics and professional life. While there were only nine women in the U.S. Congress in 1944, by 1957 there were seventeen. More women were getting elected to state legislatures as well, with 317 in 1957, up from 236 in 1944.31 In 1955, women made up 35.7 percent of the workforce, which surpassed the highest rate of female participation in the workforce during World War II, when women made up 35 percent of the workforce. True, their job opportunities were more limited—they weren’t riveters—but they weren’t exactly confined to the home, either. By 1959, women composed 37.1 percent of the workforce, indicating a rise in women’s workplace participation over the 1950s.32 More women were getting college degrees and as a result were finding more professional positions open to them, especially in the areas of social welfare research, labor management, and marketing. So while the majority of women may have occupied domestic roles, it isn’t true that all did.33 Like in other areas of American life in the 1950s, there was more openness and tolerance to change than historians had initially thought.
Discussion of the Literature
Many topics of the 1950s are subfields in themselves and are not primarily focused on how to characterize what was once called the “postwar era.” There are, for instance, rich historiographical debates about the origins of the Cold War, the efficacy of the Eisenhower administration, McCarthyism, the civil rights movement, and women and gender that may influence how we view the 1950s but are not principally concerned with that question (and won’t be reviewed here). How to understand the climate of the post–World War II era, however, has generated some discussion. From the start, historians have regarded the era as conservative. But the nature of that conservatism and what it meant have been open to debate.
In the 1960s, historians known as revisionists began to see the Cold War not as a heroic defense of democracy but as part of America’s drive for world markets; that is, American imperialism. The argument was first made by William Appleman Williams in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) and The Contours of American History (1961) and was later developed by others, most notably Walter LaFeber and Gabriel Kolko.34 For them, Keynesian economic policies and cooperation between business and government did not represent a moderating or progressive trend, but rather the consolidation of a militarized imperialist state. Nor was there a break from the New Deal era to the 1950s; the New Deal was just another step in the inevitable triumph of corporate capitalism and imperialism.35
This view was tempered in the 1980s by historians who saw in the 1950s a distinct turn away from the more open, politically engaged world of the 1930s and late 1940s. Works such as Richard H. Pells’s The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age (1985), Alan M. Wald’s The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (1987), and Stephen J. Whitfield’s The Culture of the Cold War (1991) focused on postwar artists’ and intellectuals’ explicit rejection of Marxism and avoidance of political engagement, while Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988) examined how the repressive culture of the national security state shaped postwar families and gender relations. Others argued that there was a strong left-labor-liberal coalition in the late 1940s that could have taken history in a different direction had it not been cut down by anticommunism and Cold War imperatives.36 Most of that work focused on the late 1940s, but it informed works on 1950s culture, such as Lary May’s Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War (1989).
More recently, historians have moved away from the Cold War lens and are focusing on how racism and political shortsightedness shaped what otherwise might appear to be progressive postwar policies. In urban/suburban studies, these works include Kevin M. Kruse’s White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (2007), Thomas J. Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996), Robert O. Self’s American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (2005), and David M. P. Freund’s Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America (2010). More generally, there are Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White (2005) and Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003). In foreign policy, Mary L. Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (2000), Thomas Borstelmann’s The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (2001), and Carol Anderson’s Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955 (2003) focus on the Cold War but underscore the limitations and shortsightedness of its racial policies. Taken together, these works belie the notion that the liberal consensus was either liberal or a consensus.
While the overwhelming majority of scholarship continues to hold that the 1950s were a conservative era riddled with racism, sexism, militarism, and paranoia, there have been historians who have argued either that there were nonetheless spaces for activism or that the era was more open and liberal than typically perceived. Examples of this line of argumentation include Joanne Meyerowitz’s collection titled Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960 (1994), Kevin Mattson’s When America Was Great: The Fighting Faith of Postwar Liberalism (2004), Alan Petigny’s The Permissive Society: America, 1941–1965 (2009), and Jennifer A. Delton’s Rethinking the 1950s: How Anticommunism and the Cold War Made America Liberal (2013). As labor historians Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore have observed, it is hard to be living now, in what seems like a second Gilded Age, and not notice that the era from the 1930s through the 1970s was different from what came before or after it. In their periodization, the 1950s are not separate from the 1930s and 1960s, but in harmony with them, sharing the view that government—the state—could build a stronger nation with policies that curbed the wealth accumulation of the rich and fulfilled the basic needs of the many.37
There are plenty of archival sources and documentary collections available for studying different aspects of the 1950s, depending on your specific interests. But in terms of understanding the 1950s as an era, the best primary sources include the following texts from the 1950s, which are mostly still in print or available at libraries. Peter Drucker’s The New Society: The Anatomy of the Industrial Order (1950) and U.S.A.: The Permanent Revolution (1951), written by the editors of Fortune, offer insider views and explanations of enlightened corporate capitalism, while C. Wright Mills’s White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951), David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (1950), William H. Whyte Jr.’s The Organization Man (1956), and David Potter’s People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (1958) detail the consequences of new corporate values and economic growth, especially in terms of individual autonomy.38 Classic statements of liberal anticommunism include Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949) and Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952), while Whittaker Chambers’s Witness (1952) is the classic statement of conservative anticommunism (and a foundational text for modern conservatism).39 To the extent that Dwight Eisenhower dominated the decade politically, his two-volume memoirs offer great detail and insight into his policies.40 Critiques of the dominant culture and social norms include Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (1957), originally published in Dissent, and Grace Metalious’s racy, best-selling novel Peyton Place (1956), which exposed the ugliness of repressive social norms.41 Insights into African American culture and white racism can be found Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), James Baldwin’s essays in Notes of a Native Son (1955), Lillian Smith’s 1949 critique of Jim Crow, Killers of the Dream, and Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun (1959).42
Ambrose, Stephen E. Eisenhower. Vol. 2, The President. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.Find this resource:
Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Knopf, 2003.Find this resource:
Delton, Jennifer A. Rethinking the 1950s: How Anticommunism and the Cold War Made America Liberal. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:
D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.Find this resource:
Fried, Richard M. Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.Find this resource:
Haynes, John Earl. Red Scare or Red Menace? American Communism and Anticommunism in the Cold War Era. Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 1996.Find this resource:
Hodgson, Godfrey. America in Our Time: From World War II to Nixon; What Happened and Why. New York: Vintage, 1976.Find this resource:
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.Find this resource:
May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.Find this resource:
May, Lary, ed. Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.Find this resource:
Pells, Richard H. The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.Find this resource:
Petigny, Alan. The Permissive Society: America, 1941–1965. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:
Phillips-Fein, Kim. Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan. New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.Find this resource:
Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.Find this resource:
Schrecker, Ellen. The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents. 2d ed. Bedford Series in History and Culture. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2002.Find this resource:
Smith, Jean Edward. Eisenhower: In War and Peace. New York: Random House, 2012.Find this resource:
Sugrue, Thomas J. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton Studies in American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.Find this resource:
Wald, Alan M. The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.Find this resource:
Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War. American Moment. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.Find this resource:
(1.) On liberal and Left disenchantment, see Richard H. Pells, The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age (New York: Harper & Row, 1985); and Alan M. Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987). On anticommunism in the labor movement, see Robert Zieger, The CIO, 1935–1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); and George Lipsitz, A Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
(2.) Kim McQuaid, Uneasy Partners: Big Business in American Politics, 1945–1990 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 69. On McCarthyism, see Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998); and Richard M. Fried, Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
(3.) On the origins of the Cold War, see Melvyn P. Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007); John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Walter LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–2006, 10th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002).
(4.) This was Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. On the creation of the national security state, see Michael J. Hogan, A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Aaron L. Friedberg, In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America’s Anti-statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).
(5.) McQuaid, Uneasy Partners, 74–75.
(6.) Hanson W. Baldwin, The Price of Power (New York: Harper, 1947), 18–20. Quoted in Friedberg, 62.
(7.) McQuaid, Uneasy Partners, 74, 75.
(9.) For a critical discussion of the liberal consensus, see Godfrey Hodgson, America in Our Time (New York, 1976).
(10.) On corporate liberalism, See Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of Capitalism, 1890–1916 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988); and Peter Drucker, The New Society: The Anatomy of the Industrial Order (New York: Harper, 1962), originally published in 1949.
(11.) Jefferson Cowie and Nick Salvatore, “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History,” International Labor and Working-Class History 74, no. 1 (Fall 2008): 3–32.
(12.) Tom Lewis, Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (New York: Viking, 1997), 88.
(13.) See Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower, Vol. 2, The President (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 76, 159; and Lewis, Divided Highways, 86–88.
(14.) See Bruce J. Schulman, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938–1980, rev. ed. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994).
(15.) See Arthur Larson, Eisenhower: The President Nobody Knew (New York: Scribner, 1968), 42; and Hodgson, America in Our Time, 68–98.
(16.) Figures from "U.S. Federal Individual Income Tax Rates History, 1913–2011 (Nominal and Adjusted Brackets)" at the Tax Foundation website [accessed July 20, 2012]; and IRS, “U.S. Corporation Income Tax: Tax Brackets and Rates, 1909–2010,” SOI Bulletin 25, no. 2 (Fall 2005): table 24 [accessed July 20, 2012]. See also W. Elliot Brownlee, Federal Taxation in America: A Short History, 2d ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
(17.) Quoted in Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 101. Originally from Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae, p. 7, Brown, 347 U.S. 483 (quoting letter from Dean Acheson, December 2, 1952). See also Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); and Carol Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944–1955 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
(18.) On this, see Jennifer Delton, Racial Integration in Corporate America, 1940–1990 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); and David A. Nichols, A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007).
(19.) Richard W. Gable, “NAM: Influential Lobby or Kiss of Death?,” Journal of Politics 15, no. 2 (May 1953): 254–273.
(20.) See Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (New York: Viking, 1950); and Richard Hofstadter, “The Pseudo-conservative Revolt,” in The Radical Right, ed. Daniel Bell (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1964), 75–96. Bendiner quote in Peter Viereck, “The Philosophical ‘New Conservatism,’” in The Radical Right, 187.
(21.) On conservative organizations, see Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009).
(22.) Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006); David M. P. Freund, Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); and Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
(23.) This argument is made in Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
(25.) Clement Greenberg, “‘American-Type’ Painting,” in Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon, 1971), 208–229.
(26.) See Lary May, ed., Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); and Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).
(27.) On the multicultural flavor of early rock ‘n’ roll, see George Lipsitz, Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). On the cultural significance of R & B, see Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (Boston: Little, Brown, 2014).
(28.) Quoted in John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 9. See also Allan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: Free Press, 1990); Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); and David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
(29.) Alan Petigny, The Permissive Society: America, 1941–1965 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
(30.) Petigny, The Permissive Society, 164–166.
(31.) Figures from Petigny, The Permissive Society, 159–160.
(33.) See essays in Joanne Meyerowitz, ed., Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).
(34.) Walter LaFeber, America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–1966, originally published in 1967 (New York: Wiley), is now in its tenth edition, covering through 2006 (America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–2006, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008); and Joyce Kolko and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945–1954 (New York: Harper & Row, 1972).
(35.) This line of argumentation was developed in Ronald Radosh and Murray N. Rothbard, eds., A New History of the Leviathan: Essays on the Rise of the American Corporate State (New York: Dutton, 1972). While these essays didn’t focus on the 1950s, they did describe a process that culminated with the corporate war state of the 1950s.
(36.) See for instance, Lipsitz, A Rainbow at Midnight; and Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
(37.) Cowie and Salvatore, “The Long Exception.”
(38.) Peter Drucker, The New Society; the editors of Fortune in collaboration with Russell W. Davenport, U.S.A.: The Permanent Revolution(New York: Prentice Hall, 1951); C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes, 50th anniversary ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, abridged and rev. ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001); William H. Whyte Jr., The Organization Man (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002); and David Potter, People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).
(39.) Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (New York: De Capo, 1988); Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); and Whittaker Chambers, Witness (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1987).
(40.) Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change, 1953–1956: The White House Years (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963); and Eisenhower, The White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956–1961 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965).
(41.) Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights, 2001); Norman Mailer, The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster (San Francisco: City Lights, 1957); and Grace Metalious, Peyton Place (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956).
(42.) Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Signet, 1952); James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon, 1955); Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994); and Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (New York: Modern Library, 1995).