OVERVIEW / U.S. History II
America In The 1950s
Part 3: The Affluent Society
The 1950s are often seen as a counterpoint to the decades that followed it — a period of conformity, prosperity, and peace (after the Korean War ended), as compared to the rebellion, unrest, and war that began in the 1960s. However, the decade was not without its problems. Many domestic and foreign policy issues surfaced in the '50s that the United States would grapple with in the years ahead. Throughout the country, while many Americans enjoyed the fruits of an “affluent society,” poverty was more widespread than most believed, and the struggle for civil rights by minorities, particularly African‐Americans, became a national concern. Internationally, the Cold War continued. Although Eisenhower initiated the first steps toward improving relations with the Soviet Union, the United States became involved in Southeast Asia and offered pro‐Western governments in the Middle East and Latin America financial and military support.
For middle‐class Americans, the 1950s were a time of prosperity. Even with three recessions during the eight years of the Eisenhower administration, the country's per capita income rose and inflation remained low. Americans had more discretionary income, and they spent it on cars, homes, television sets, and an array of other household appliances. By 1960, more than 60 percent of Americans owned their own homes, and three quarters of the households in the country had television sets. Much of this consumer spending was done on credit, with bank loans, installment buying, and credit cards (which were introduced in 1950).
The physical well being of Americans was as good as their economic health. Advances in medicine included new antibiotics and, perhaps most important, a successful vaccine against poliomyelitis, a disease that had crippled millions of children. Dr. Jonas Salk announced his discovery of a polio vaccine in 1953, and four years later, Dr. Albert Sabin developed a vaccine that could be taken orally. With a nationwide inoculation program, polio disappeared from the United States.
The influx of people to the suburbs that began after World War II continued unabated throughout the 1950s. Meanwhile, population growth slowed in cities and decreased in rural areas, and by 1960, nearly 40 percent of all Americans lived in suburbia. The growth of these “bedroom” communities, where residents lived on the outskirts of town and commuted to work, meant that the automobile became more important than ever before. As the number of cars increased, so did the demand for gasoline and better roads. Although people were willing to drive or take public transportation to work, they were not willing to go to the city to shop. Consequently, shopping centers became a distinctive feature on the suburban landscape during the decade, and cities' central business districts showed signs of decline.
LABOR IN THE FIFTIES
The composition of the labor force changed dramatically in the 1950s. Factory employment declined because of improvements in productivity and technology, while the number of white‐collar jobs in the clerical, sales, and service sectors grew. Although union membership began to drop late in the decade, organized labor made significant gains. The internal strife within the union movement ended in 1955 with the merging of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations into the AFL‐CIO. Workers in many industries won settlements that linked wages to cost‐of‐living increases.
The number of women working outside the home increased significantly in the '50s. By 1960, nearly 40 percent of American women had joined the workforce, and married women with school‐age children represented a significant proportion of that number. Women continued to earn considerably less than men for doing the same job, regardless of whether they worked in a factory or office, or in a profession such as teaching or nursing. The fact that so many women worked outside the home ran counter to the myth in popular culture that emphasized the importance of traditional gender roles. Advertising, mass circulation magazines such as Life, and television's situation comedies sent the message that women should focus on creating a beautiful home and raising a family.
Although some Republicans hoped that Eisenhower would dismantle all of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, the president realized that doing so was neither possible nor desirable. In fact, Eisenhower supported some components of the New Deal, such as Social Security, whose coverage was expanded to the self‐employed, farm workers, and military personnel; and the federal minimum wage, which rose to $1 an hour during his administration. However, the president's domestic agenda did reverse some New Deal trends. For example, Eisenhower focused on reducing the federal budget, which included cutting farm subsidies, abolishing the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, keeping inflation in check, and promoting private rather than public development of the nation's energy resources. Despite Eisenhower's concern for fiscal responsibility, he was prepared to increase spending to get the country out of the 1953, 1957, and 1958 recessions. Modern Republicanism represented a pragmatic approach to domestic policy. Committed to limiting the role of the government in the economy, the administration was ready to act when circumstances demanded it.
Eisenhower's modern Republicanism embraced two major public works projects — the St. Lawrence Seaway and the interstate highway system. The Seaway, a joint American‐Canadian effort completed in 1959, gave ocean‐going ships access to the Great Lakes. The Interstate Highway Act, passed in 1956, authorized the federal government to finance 90 percent of the cost of building the interstate system through a tax on automobiles, parts, and gasoline that went into the Highway Trust Fund. The 30‐year construction program skewed the nation's transportation policy in favor of cars and trucks and resulted in reduced spending on urban mass transit and railroads.
THE OTHER AMERICA
Although the economy grew in the 1950s, not everyone experienced prosperity. Michael Harrington's The Other America (1962) documented poverty in the United States and revealed that, by 1960, 35 million Americans lived below the poverty line (defined as a family of four with an annual income of less than $3,000). Despite the expansion of Social Security, older Americans often lived in substandard housing with inadequate food and medical care. Poverty crossed color lines, affecting whites in rural Appalachia, Mexican‐American migrant farm workers in the Southwest and California, Native Americans on reservations, and inner‐city minorities, including blacks and Puerto Ricans.
Because poverty was not recognized as a national problem until the 1960s, federal policy in the 1950s often contributed to the situation rather than to help resolve it. During and after World War II, for example, the bracero program brought Mexican workers to the United States to work on American farms. Although the workers were expected to return to Mexico at the end of the harvest or the labor contract, many opted to stay and became illegal aliens. Millions were deported in 1953–55 when a recession made having jobs available for American citizens essential. One of the most notable “roundups” of illegal immigrants occurred in Texas during the summer and fall of 1954 when 80,000 Mexicans were deported in Operation Wetback. When prosperity returned in the mid‐1950s, so did invitations to Mexican guest workers.
In 1954, Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and the phrase “In God We Trust” was included on all U.S. currency in the following year. While these changes were subtle reminders of the ideological struggle of the Cold War (Americans believed in God; Communists were atheists), they also reflected the mood of the country. The United States experienced a religious revival in the 1950s, with more than 60 percent of Americans reporting they belonged to a church or synagogue, as opposed to less than 50 percent before World War II. Evangelist Billy Graham, Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale, and Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen emerged as the spokespersons for the revival, and they used the newest mass medium — television — to carry their message to millions of Americans. Sheen had a weekly television program called Life is Worth Living, and Graham's crusades were later televised as well.
Television replaced the radio as the dominant form of home entertainment. The number of television sets in American homes grew from a few thousand at the end of World War II to nearly 46 million by 1960. TV Guide became the nation's leading magazine, and food companies introduced frozen meals called TV dinners. Although the most popular television programs were situation comedies (I Love Lucy), game shows (The $64,000 Question), and adult westerns ( Gunsmoke), television in the 1950s was not the “vast wasteland” that critics often claimed. Television proved that it could be a potent force in shaping politics and public opinion. For example, Nixon's “Checkers” speech, which was carried on TV, kept him in the running for vice president in 1952, and the televised Army‐McCarthy hearings proved that the senator from Wisconsin was a dangerous demagogue, a point that was emphasized on Edward R. Murrow's See It Now exposé in 1954. Murrow's series, which ran from 1951 to 1958, also brought the plight of migrant farm workers to the attention of Americans.
Drawing the largest audience of teenage television viewers was Dick Clark's American Bandstand, a program showcasing the music of rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll grew out of the African‐American rhythm and blues (R & B) tradition when, around 1954, white singers began imitating R & B groups or melding R & B and country styles. Despite charges that it was “race music” and contributed to juvenile delinquency, performers such as Bill Haley and the Comets (“Rock Around the Clock”) and, most notably, Elvis Presley made rock 'n' roll a youth music phenomenon. Rock 'n' roll also helped to bring black artists such as Chuck Berry into the entertainment mainstream.