The Eisenhower Years
By 1952, the Truman Administration was weighed in the balance and found wanting by most Americans:
·Wage and price controls at home were not popular.
·The stalemate of the Cold War caused widespread uncertainty.
·The red scare, with accusations of disloyalty and Communist party affiliation.
·Corruption among lobbyists and others.
When Truman learned of corruption in the Internal Revenue Service, he fired 250 employees and an assistant Attorney General in charge of the Justice Department’s tax division; but there was no confidence that he could clean up the mess.
The Twenty Second Amendment was ratified in 1951, which limited presidents to two terms in office. It specifically exempted the sitting president at the time of ratification, who was Truman; however, Truman had had enough, and chose not to run.
Republicans readying for the presidential election loudly proclaimed, "It’s time for a change." They nominated Dwight D. Eisenhower, NATO commander, and war hero. He had managed to remain free of political conflict, but had developed political skills as a professional soldier. He announced himself a Republican in 1952, and allowed his name to be entered into early primaries, not carrying the impetus himself. Bumper stickers of the time read, "I like Ike." He won the nomination on the first ballot, and nominated Sen. Richard M. Nixon of California as his running mate. Nixon had made a reputation for himself as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and his attempts to nail Alger Hiss.
Eisenhower was born in Dennison Texas, October 14, 1890; but grew up in Abilene, Kansas. He graduated from West Point, and had been a professional soldier all his life. His only non-military position before becoming President was a brief time as President of Columbia University. Personally, he was very unpretentious and folksy, liked to read Western novels, and had no interest in intellectual pursuits. He had a soft, mellow voice and once said, "Everybody ought to be happy every day. Play hard, have fun doing it, and despise wickedness." He was once called "America’s number one Boy Scout." His inner circle saw a different side of him; he could be hot-tempered, and swore like a sailor when angered.
The Democrats nominated Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois. Truman threw his support behind Stevenson. Stevenson was handicapped almost immediately because he was not well known outside Illinois. Eisenhower promised to "clean up the mess" in Washington, and also said he would go to Korea to secure "an early and honorable peace." Stevenson was a brilliant intellectual, but came across as a bit too much so. Republicans called him an egghead, and said he was indecisive. They called him a "latter day Hamlet." Eisenhower, they said, was a man of the people, a general known for decisive action.
Eisenhower won by a landslide. Stevenson garnered only 89 electoral votes to Eisenhower’s 442. Notably, the South began moving toward a two-party system. Only eight southern states and West Virginia voted for Stevenson; Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia all went for Ike. However, Eisenhower did not have long coat tails: Democrats lost control of the Senate temporarily, but regained it in 1954. Eisenhower then had to work with a Democratic majority in Congress.
As President, Eisenhower was very methodical. He met with his Cabinet frequently, and relied on his staff for advice heavily. However, like U.S. Grant, he did have a proclivity to pal around with rich men. His cabinet were almost all millionaires. His Defense Secretary had been the President of General Motors, and his Secretary of the Interior and Postmaster-General were automobile distributors. Many made statements that were ill advised. The Defense Secretary was quoted, perhaps unfairly, of saying "what’s good for General Motors is good for the country," and the interior secretary once said, "We’re here in the saddle as an Administration representing business and industry." This would be fodder for Democratic political cannon.Adlai Stevenson, who would run against Eisenhower again in 1956, said of the Cabinet, "the New Dealers have all left Washington to make way for the car dealers."
Eisenhower generally disapproved of public programs. He abolished the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, ended wage and price controls, and reduced farm price subsidies. He also engineered a tax reduction that provided benefits mainly to corporations and taxpayers in the higher brackets, very similar to Andrew Mellon’s tax plan of the 1920’s. He also cut the budget by 10 per cent, but a business recession reduced government revenue, and as a result, he could not balance the budget.
Eisenhower did not entirely dismantle the New Deal. In fact, he would have had difficulty doing so with a Democratic Congress. In 1954 and 1956, the Social Security Act was amended to cover professionals, domestics, and clerical workers, farm workers, and the armed forces. Also, two major public works programs were implemented during his presidency:
·The St. Lawrence Seaway, which opened the Great Lakes for oceangoing ships.
·Limited-access interstate highways. The plan called for the Federal Government to put up 90 per cent of the cost, and the States 10 per cent. NOTE: Defense and movement of troops as well as commerce were primary purposes of the Interstate Highway system. It was considered little more than a convenience for private use. The interstate highway system severely damaged the American railway system, which was already in decline.
In Korea, peace talks had been deadlocked. To break the deadlock, Eisenhower increased the bombardment of the North, and had his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, secretly threaten the Chinese that he would remove "all limits on weapons and targets." The message was not lost: If need be, he would use nuclear weapons to end the conflict.
Shortly after Eisenhower’s threat, an armistice was finally signed that established a border along the 38th parallel – where it had been established at the end of World War II – and provided for prisoner exchange; although POW’s were allowed to choose if they wished to be returned. Many North Koreans did not wish to return to the North.
There is much debate as to whether Eisenhower was bluffing, or would indeed have used the "ultimate weapon," or the extent to which the Chinese and North Koreans were swayed by his threat. Two other factors also came into play: The Chinese were suffering tremendous losses which was increasingly unacceptable, and the death of Joseph Stalin created great uncertainty in the Soviet Union, from whence shots were called. Stalin died on March 5, 1953.
The McCarthy hearings were at their height during the early years of the Eisenhower Administration. He was convinced that the government was infested with communists, and was determined to root them ott at all costs. At hearings, he often displayed charts and maps indicating the Communist Party membership in the U.S. The accuracy of these exhibits is highly doubtful. His aides lied, falsified evidence, bullied and blackmailed witnessesIn summer, 1953, he sent aides to Europe to purge American government libraries of "subversive works" such as Emerson, Thoreau, and John Steinbeck. The anti-communist hysteria in the country made him something of a hero fighting the forces of darkness for many Americans, although he was a thoroughly dangerous man.
McCarthy went too far when he accused the U.S. Army of being "soft" on communism. In the hearings (described in the Truman notes), Army counsel Joseph Welch made him look like a fool with his outraged comment, "have you no decency, sir, at long last?"
Prior to this exchange, a witness had used the word "pixie." McCarthy demanded to know the meaning of the word, and Welch calmly said, "It’s a kind of fairy."
McCarthy was suddenly out of control, and began attacking his own colleagues. He called one senator "senile," and another "a living miracle…the only man who has lived so long with neither brains nor guts." The U.S. Senate has strict rules of decorum which explicitly forbid ad hominem attacks by one Senator against another. In December 1954, he was censured by Senate vote. His problem with alcohol grew worse, and in three years he was dead at age 48.Eisenhower was glad to be rid of McCarthy, and once jibed that McCarthyism had become McCarthywasism. Still, he shared the feeling of many Americans of the dangers of espionage. He refused to commute the death sentences of Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, saying that they "may have condemned to death tens of millions of innocent people." They were electrocuted on June 19, 1953.
Even after McCarthy was gone, the Communist hysteria and crusade against communists in the government continued. Truman’s criteria for removing federal employees had been "disloyalty." Eisenhower changed that to "security risk." Specifically included were dubious associations or personal habits that might make them careless or vulnerable to blackmail. In light of the prevailing attitude of the 1950’s, this would include a multitude of situations that in the present day are considered acceptable. Among those who lost their security clearance under the new policy was the father of the A-Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, because he had expressed reservations about the Hydrogen bomb, and because of "fundamental defects in his character."
Much of the communist crusade was diluted by the Supreme Court. At the Republican National Convention in 1952, Eisenhower had promised Earl Warren, then governor of California, that if Warren could deliver California in the election, Warren would have Eisenhower’s first Supreme Court appointment. The first seat to come available was the Chief Justice’s seat with the death of Chief Justice Vinson. Warren, who had been predictably conservative as a politician became a first class liberal. The decisions of the Warren Court, discussed later, include Brown vs. Board of Education and Miranda vs. Arizona. Eisenhower later said of Warren’s appointment that it was the "biggest damnfool mistake I ever made." He also appointed William J. Brennan, another liberal thinking justice, more liberal than Warren, in fact, and who subsequently refused to leave the bench while a Republican was in office even though he had been appointed by a Republican.
Supreme Court decisions narrowly construed the Smith Act, and ultimately made it a dead letter. The court construed the Act as only applying to those advocating revolutionary action. Merely teaching revolutionary doctrine, the court said, was not enough, and was, in fact, protected by the First Amendment.
Foreign Affairs: Eisenhower’s Secretary of State was John Foster Dulles, the son of a minister, and an active Presbyterian, cast in the model of Woodrow Wilson, although of Republican stock. He saw the Truman doctrine of Containment as being "needlessly defensive." He rather believed that there was no need for the U.S. to accept the presence of the Soviets in Eastern Europe; rather Americans should work to liberate Eastern Europe.
Sadly, most of this was just talk to win votes. When East German workers rebelled, and Russian tanks rolled over them, the Administration did nothing; likewise when an uprising in Hungary was put down. The U.S. was successful in some covert operations, helping to overthrow hostile governments in Iran and in Guatemala.
Dulles’ policy was hardly a departure from containment; rather he institutionalized it, and added some new terms to the debate:
·Massive Retaliation: The idea was to get "more bang for the buck," or "more rubble for the ruble." The idea was to build nuclear weapons that would actually be a deterrent rather than a defense.
At this point in time, both the U.S. and the Soviets had exploded hydrogen bombs. Winston Churchill said the new policy of deterrence had replaced the balance of power with a balance of terror.
·Brinkmanship: This rested on the fear of nuclear disaster; mutually assured destruction. He said that in confronting the communists, a nation had to "go to the brink" of war. He said this had stopped further aggression in Korea, when the U.S. threatened to use nuclear weapons.
Dulles’ plan to use brinkmanship in Indochina was not so successful. The Japanese had supported French governments in that area loyal to Vichy France. (Vichy was the Nazi controlled French government during the Nazi occupation. Ironically, its head had been General Petain, the French hero of World War One, ultimately branded as a traitor). After the Japanese were ousted, a group known as the Viet Minh (Vietnamese League for Independence) led by Ho Chi Minh, a communist, set up a government in the north of Vietnam which he called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The capital was Hanoi. In declaring independence, he borrowed words from the Declaration of Independence. Americans were present, and he had received help from America in ousting the Japanese. Later, when he asked for further aid, he got no answer, primarily because Harry Truman could not stomach the thought of aiding an avowed communist.
The French attempted to resume control of Indochina, and Ho Chi Minh resisted. Since he could expect no help from Washington, he willingly accepted it from Moscow. The Truman and Washington Administrations provided substantial financial aid to the French, but backed down from furnishing military air support. As a result, the Viet Minh under General Nguyen Giap (who would later oppose American forces in the Vietnam War) defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. On July 20, 1954, the Geneva Accords were signed by France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China and the Viet Minh, which neutralized Laos and Cambodia and divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The plan was to reunite the country with elections in 1956. American and South Vietnamese representatives refused to join in the accord. The refusal of the U.S. to participate led China and the Soviets to back away from earlier indications they would support the settlement.
As a result of the deteriorating condition in Southeast Asia, The U.S. and seven other countries formed the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Only three Asian countries were members: the Philippines, Thailand, and Pakistan. India and Indonesia, the two most populous countries refused to join. It was NOT similar to NATO, but rather committed the members to "consult immediately" in the event of an attack on any one.
The Eisenhower Administration backed Ngo Dinh Diem as premier of South Vietnam. This proved to be a mistake. Once entrenched, Diem tightened his grip on the country, refused to join in elections to reunify Vietnam, and installed himself as President. He was immensely corrupt, and attempted to oust all his opposition. His corruption fostered opposition: in 1957, guerrilla forces known as the Viet Cong were operating in the country; in 1960, the resistance movement became the National Liberation Front. Eisenhower had tied his kitestring to Diem, so he had to stay with him for better or worse.
Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in 1955, but still stood for reelection in 1956, with Nixon as his running mate. The Democrats again turned to Adlai Stevenson. The campaign did not excite the voters much, but diplomatic crises in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe convinced Americans that switching horses in midstream might not be a good idea. Eisenhower was reelected in a landslide. He carried Louisiana, the first Republican to carry a Deep South state since Reconstruction, and nationally, carried all but seven states. Yet the voters’ loyalty was to him, not to his party. His party failed to win a congressional majority for him in either house, the first time this had happened since the election of Zachary Taylor in 1848.
Domestic DifficultiesOctober 4, 1957 (the day after Gates’ 9th Birthday), the Soviets launched the first successful Earth Satellite, Sputnik I. A month later, they launched Sputnik II, which contained a dog. It caused massive shockwaves throughout America, it indicated that the Russians were ahead in the space race, and could possibly build a missile advanced enough to hit the U.S. Such a missile could contain a nuclear weapon, and lead to a catastrophic attack. It also sent shockwaves through American education, as it indicated that American education was woefully behind in science and mathematics. The launching of Sputnik had a greater influence on American education than any other event in recent history. Gates’ Note: I was in the fourth grade at the time, and remember well my teacher telling us about it. We didn’t know what a "satellite" was. It was great fun to track the satellite, and we were all concerned about the dog aboard Sputnik II, as to how they would get it back. (There was no means of retrieving Satellites then, and the Russians never had any hope of retrieving the dog, which had been a stray from the Moscow streets. It probably died before reaching orbit. ) Shortly thereafter, and for several years, our teachers constantly berated us about how advanced European kids were in Math and Science, how European boys discussed Chess moves the way Americans discussed Baseball plays [yeah, right]. They said European, but they really meant Russian kids. This was all part of the hysteria that we were falling behind the Russians, as well as the rest of the world. American fears of a possible nuclear attack by the Soviet Union had been greatly increased by the time of Sputnik. Upon the death of Stalin, Nikita S. Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, had become Premier of the Soviet Union. He was a short, bald man, but given to histrionic speeches. During one speech in the Kremlin, he took off his shoe and pounded it on the podium. He was often painted as a demonic terror for Americans. Frequent pictures of him appeared in advertisements for rightwing organizations with his finger pointed upward, containing the slogan, "we’ll bury you." Americans were aware of the communist philosophy of worldwide domination. President Truman had said that this domination would not be by subversion, but by military force. Sputnik made this seem all too real. There was constant fear that they would attack using military weapons. School children were trained in "duck and cover" bomb drills, families were encouraged to build bomb shelters, and buildings carried signs indicating that they would be safe from radioactive fallout in the event of an attack. Major cities practiced air raid signals at various times. (My home, Columbia, did so every Saturday at twelve noon.) The issue became not IF there would be a nuclear attack, but WHEN it would happen. It was for most Americans, a time of dread, of impending doom. As a result of Sputnik, the government greatly increased defense spending, and established a crash course in Science education. The worry over the budget was suddenly over. IN 1958, Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and that same year, passed the National Defense Education Act authorizing federal money for training in mathematics, science, and modern languages.
NASA succeeded in launching a manned Spacecraft, Mercury I with Astronaut Alan Shephard, on May 5, 1961, when John F. Kennedy was President. Even this was behind the Russians. Shephard’s flight was little more than a separation from the booster rocket and descent back into the waters off Cape Canaveral. Previously, the Russians had orbited a Satellite with Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin, who became the first man to actually orbit the earth.
Corruption in his Administration caused Eisenhower’s popularity to suffer severely. His approval rating dropped to 49 per cent, and in mid-term elections, the Democrats won a 2-1 advantage in both houses. Eisenhower was forced to work with a Democratically controlled Congress for six of his eight years in office.
Domestic legislation during the last two years of Eisenhower’s administration included:
·The Landrum – Griffin Act of 1959 – intended to control union corruption.
·The Civil Rights Act of 1960
·Admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union in 1959 – the first non-contiguous states to join the Union.
Foreign Difficulties: Problems flared up in various areas of the world:
·Possible Communist takeover in the Middle East led the President to issue the Eisenhower Doctrine: Promised economic and military aid to the middle east and to use armed forces if necessary to assist against aggression from any Communist nation.
·Red China began shelling islands near Taiwan. The American Seventh Fleet began escorting Nationalist Chinese convoys, but did not enter territorial waters. Eisenhower said that to abandon the islands to the Red Chinese would be a "Western Pacific Munich." Later he suggested a cease-fire, and the Red Chinese agreed, on the same day that American forces deployed in Lebanon were freed, and could have been used to bomb the Chinese.
·Berlin was the largest problem. Khrushchev called it a "bone in his throat." West Berlin was a model of Western Democracy and was a funnel for news and propaganda from the West to enter the East, where living conditions were terrible. Many refugees passed from East to West Berlin, including many scientists and other people vital to the East German economy. A confrontation soon developed, with Khrushchev threatening to give East Germany control of East Berlin. Eisenhower refused to budge, but the crisis abated, temporarily, when British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan suggested talks.
After talks, Khrushchev visited the United States, toured the East Coast and Midwest, visited Eisenhower at Camp David, and talked of "peaceful coexistence." They agreed to a summit meeting in the spring, and Khrushchev invited Eisenhower to visit Moscow. Everyone was feeling warm and fuzzy for a while.
I remember well the trip. In the sixth grade, we were all shown how President Eisenhower was being "nice" to this man who was a guest in our country. It was a sign of the innocence and fear that dominated the Fifties.
The proposed summit blew up in Eisenhower’s face on May 1, 1960 when an American U-2 Spy Plane was shot down over Russia. (U-2 flights had been going on for over three years, but this was the first plane lost. Eisenhower protested that the Soviets had shot down an American weather plane. After he had put his foot royally in his mouth, the Soviets produced the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, whom Eisenhower thought had been killed in the crash, or had at least committed suicide per orders. The Soviets got to him first. The Soviets put him on trial publicly, and invited the world press to watch, and used the incident to thoroughly embarrass Eisenhower.
Eisenhower gave up trying to dig out of the hole he had dug for himself and took personal responsibility for the incident –unheard of precedent for an American President. He justified the action on the grounds of national security, saying, "no one wants another Pearl Harbor." Five days later, at the proposed Paris summit, Khrushchev withdrew Eisenhower’s invitation to visit the Soviet Union, and demanded that he apologize for the U-2 incident. Eisenhower refused, and Khrushchev left the meeting. Nothing was accomplished, other than the exchange of insults, and the end of the warm fuzzies. In 1962, Powers was exchanged for a Russian spy. The two walked alone past each other across a bridge in Berlin with armed escorts from each side looking on.
During the 1960 Presidential campaign, Gates saw and heard Richard Nixon speak from the State House steps in Columbia. Nixon severely criticized Democrat John F. Kennedy for suggesting that Eisenhower should indeed have apologized for the U-2 incident. He said, "if the President had done so, Khrushchev would have beat him to a pulp with his fists." Nixon was really whipping up the old "down with the Communists" bit.
·In Cuba, Fidel Castro overthrew Dictator Fulgencio Batista, who fled to Florida. Although many hoped this would usher in democratic reforms in Cuba, Castro had other ideas, and began resisting foreign influence in Cuba. The U.S. under Eisenhower refused to provide aide to Cuba, and sharply curtailed imports of sugar, the islands main resource. The Soviets were only too happy to pick up the slack, and Castro soon proclaimed himself to be a communist.
Whether or not he was a true communist or claimed to be one in order to get help from the Russians is a matter of debate. Originally, he vehemently denied any association with communism; later, however, in headlines with which the newspapers had a field day, he stated, "I am a Marxist-Leninist, and will be until I die."
After Eisenhower cut the Cuban sugar import quota, Khrushchev warned that armed intervention in Cuba would encounter Soviet rockets. This was an omen of evil days to come. One of Eisenhower’s last acts as President was to sever diplomatic relations with Cuba on January 3, 1961, seventeen days before he left office.
The Early Days of the Civil Rights Movement
Eisenhower was committed to civil rights in principle, but two factors stood in the way of enforcing the principle:
·He preferred state or local action rather than federal enforcement.
·He believed that legislation could not change attitudes. Said he, "I don’t believe you can change the hearts of men with laws or decisions."
The NAACP had long planned to test the doctrine of separate but equal first adopted by the Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson. The first case to attack the doctrine was Sweatt vs. Painter which said that Texas’ separate black law school was not equal because of intangible factors, such as isolation of its graduates from other law school graduates with whom they would interact as members of the Bar.
At this time, South Carolina State College had a law school for blacks, but enrollment was seldom greater than 10-12.
Five cases, including one from Williamsburg County, South Carolina finally reached the court in the case of Brown vs. board of education of Topeka, Kansas. In a unanimous decision handed down on May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled that "in the field of education, the doctrine of separate but equal has no place." The court held that the mere fact of separation on the basis of race engendered feelings of inferiority. It ordered desegregation to proceed with "all deliberate speed."
To the South, this was an assault upon the Holy Grail. The very thought of desegregated schools was completely unthinkable. Eisenhower was no help; claiming that the decision had set back progress in the South at least fifteen years.
Southerners did not take to the decision kindly or lightly. "Citizen’s Councils" were formed by former KKK members, which used economic coercion rather than violence to discourage blacks from crossing racial lines. African Americans who tried to integrate white schools would have their insurance policies cancelled, be denied loans or mortgages, even lose their jobs. In 1956, 101 southern Congressmen signed a "Southern Manifesto" denouncing the Court’s decision as a "clear case of judicial power." By the end of 1956, no black children attended school with whites in six southern states. Segregation in others was miniscule.
The Brown decision, together with others such as Miranda vs. Arizona played right into the hands of those who considered the government infiltrated with Communists. Earl Warren and William Brennan, along with Hugo Black (who was actually from Alabama, a former Klan member, and very strict constructionist) became their chief targets. An extreme right wing organization known as the John Birch Society soon emerged in the South. Highway 378 from Columbia to Myrtle Beach had several signs reading "Help Impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren: Join the John Birch Society." Later, several congregations of the Methodist Church voted to leave the organized Church claiming that the Church, as a member of the National Council of Churches, supported Communism. Each congregation voted to join the Southern Methodist Church. In Turbeville, S.C. among other places, there are two Methodist Churches within a stone’s throw of each other; one United Methodist, the other Southern Methodist. In one instance, in Pelion, South Carolina, the Methodist Bishop, Paul Hardin, asserted church ownership over Church property, and padlocked the door of the church to prevent the congregation from using it for any church other than the Methodist church.
December 1, 1955, Ms. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person as required by a Montgomery, Alabama ordinance, and was arrested. Her arrest led to a meeting at a local Black Baptist Church and the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. King based his philosophy of nonviolent disobedience on the writings of Henry David Thoreau, the Gospels, and Mahatma Gandhi. He told his people "We must use the weapon of love. We must realize so many people are taught to hate us that they are not totally responsible for their hate."
The organization boycotted the Montgomery Bus system, but the white town leaders refused to back down, even though the bus company was losing money. Later, a lower federal court ruled that separate but equal could no longer be considered the law. In 1957, King and others formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Eisenhower supported the right of blacks to vote, even though he did not want to become involved in desegregation. His efforts led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction. It established a Civil Rights Commission for two years, which was later extended indefinitely. Sadly, by 1959, it had not added single black voter to the rolls in Southern states. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 also was ineffective.
Following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to prevent blacks from attending Little Rock Central High School. A mob forced the kids to withdraw. Eisenhower responded by sending paratroopers to Little Rock, and placed the National Guard on federal service. Soldiers stayed for the balance of the School year. Faubus responded by closing all the high schools in Little Rock rather than allow them to be integrated. The case remained in the Courts until 1959, when the schools finally reopened.
In his farewell address, Eisenhower, like Washington, couched his wisdom in the form of wisdom. He specifically warned Americans about the dangers of the military-industrial complex: "This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist"
Society and Culture in the 1950’sThe fifties were marked by tremendous economic growth and rising social contentment. Americans had known mostly deprivation during the war years, and now enjoyed prosperity unseen by any of them. The end result was a sense of contentment. Divorce and homicide rates declined, the birthrate soared, and the prevailing mood was upbeat.
Prosperity was the primary feature of Post World War II America. With a soaring economy, the U.S., with 6 per cent of the world’s population, produced and consumed 2/3 of the world’s goods. The common belief was that the prosperity was permanent. President Eisenhower said "Never again shall we allow a depression in the United States." Most economists agreed that safeguards put in place after the New Deal would prevent this. The common belief was that there would be perpetual growth.
The postwar economic surge resulted from:
·Military expenditures during the war had brought the country out of the Great Depression. The Cold War kept government spending high. The Defense Industry spawned new industries in chemicals, electronics, and aviation.
As an example, the Interstate "Super" Highway system was constructed as an easy method of moving troops in the event of a Russian invasion. The Internet was conceived as a means of communication, although it did not become available for popular use until the 1990’s.
·Most of the other industrialized nations had been devastated during the War; American manufacturers enjoyed a virtual monopoly of trade.
·Use of efficient machinery and computers led to more worker productivity. The amount of time to produce a new car was reduced from 310 hours in 1945 to 150 in 1960.
·Pent up consumer demand was a major factor. People unable to buy new automobiles and big-ticket items during the war years created a major market.
In 1944, Congress passed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (GI Bill of Rights) which created the Veterans Administration, and provided benefits for veterans, including preference for civil service jobs (Veterans had points added to Civil Service Exams by virtue of the fact), loans for homes, subsidies for college education, etc. This sent many veterans to college and allowed many to buy homes. VA Loans were guaranteed by the government, and a veteran could often borrow 100% of the purchase price – no down payment.
By 1949, 40% of college enrollment consisted of veterans. It also democratized education. More working class Americans than ever before were able to earn a college education. Even so, most colleges remained racially segregated. Few Blacks ever were able to attend college. Those who did attended traditionally all-black schools that frequently turned down applicants because they were full.
The returning GI’s produced a "baby boom" which peaked in 1957. The population grew by 40 million, a 30% increase. The "Baby Boomers" have influenced American history in many ways since. They will continue to do so as they approach retirement and tax the Social Security system.
The most popular new appliance of the era was the television set. By 1960, there were 50 million sets in American homes, up form 7,000 in 1946. This alone created a new industry and changed social and cultural patterns. People watched Television rather than reading, going to the movies, etc. Also, there was the now famous TV Dinner.
Most Americans were prosperous by historical standards. Marketing agents took advantage of this and promoted "must-have" sales techniques. Automobiles and other big-ticket items had a built in obsolescence, so that people would buy new ones more often. All throughout the 1950’s, American automobile manufacturers completely redesigned automobiles every year. One could easily identify the year model of a car by its design.
A product of this time was the best selling automobile of all time, and the model still considered to be the best ever produced: The 1957 Chevy.
The Fifties were also the age of the Credit Card. Consumer debt increased 800%. Savings became almost unusual, with Americans saving less than 5% of their total income. Shopping became a recreation in itself.
A distinctive teenage subculture emerged during this time also. Young people were the target of marketing with transistor radios, Hula-Hoops, "rock ‘n’ roll" records, etc. The child heartthrob of the day was Pat Boone. Teenagers did not experience the deprivation of their parents; and it was perhaps that deprivation that led their parents to provide them with every convenience, and not a few luxuries.
Parents were very permissive, resulting in what one writer called "child-centered anarchy." At the same time, juvenile delinquency became a real problem, the primary crime being car theft. Juvenile Delinquency was sometimes celebrated in the movies with characters such as Marlon Brandon, who often portrayed a street hood with slicked back hair. J. Edgar Hoover blamed delinquency on the lack of religious training, and said parents should not give their kids a choice about going to church. Said he: They aren’t given a choice to go to school, they should not be given a choice about Church either.Personal grooming was important to boys and girls. Girls typically wore ponytails; boys often wore hair long and combed back in a "ducktail." Some school dress/grooming policies prohibited ducktails as inappropriate.
Many boys used a solution called "Brylcreme" for hair dressing. The product slogan was "a little dab’ll do ya." The other product was Vitalis, preferred by older men, which held hair stiff and in place. In their commercials, an older young man would ask a young teenager: "Are you still using that greasy kid’s stuff?" Flat top haircuts were also popular, with Butch Hairwax being used. A male would use hair spray about as quickly as he would wear a dress.
Teenagers were also more mobile than ever before. Many had access to automobiles, which allowed them to escape parental control. One journalist said that the automobile became "a private lounge for drinking and for petting or sex episodes." Most teenage entertainment often centered on automobiles; drive-in theaters, drive-up restaurants, etc.
A new form of music also arose: Rock ‘n’ roll. The phrase originated in black communities as a reference to dancing and sex. It was originally a black music phenomena, but was popular with white teenagers. Black performers such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Ray Charles were suddenly popular with white kids; as was Richard Valenzuela (Richie Valens) a Chicano. Most music dealt with teen love, some was sad.Richie Valens, Buddy Holly another white performer, and The Big Bopper were all killed in a private plane crash.) A popular song memorialized them after their deaths. Elvis Presley was the most famous product of rock ‘n’ roll. He was not popular with adults because of the sexually provocative nature of his performance. He tended to roll his hips while performing, and as a result the few tapes made of him show him only from the waist up. Rock ‘n’ roll was often considered to be the single influence that most corrupted the nation’s young. Disc Jockeys sometimes publicly broke his records rather than play them, some were fired for playing his music.
Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Germany, which was considered a national teenage tragedy. Most adults were glad to see him go.
After the war, substantial numbers of Americans moved outside cities to the suburbs. The automobile, and new technological advances in farming which freed many people who previously had worked the land were freed and left for the city. Much of the growth occurred in the South, augmented by the invention of Air Conditioning, which became common in the 1950’s. Suburbs grew six times faster than cities, and by 1970, more Americans lived in suburbs than in central cities.
The development of the suburbs was pioneered by William Levitt, a New York Developer who with his brother developed mass production housing inn Long Island. They build on 1200 acres, and called it "Levittown." Houses were all cookie cutter design, all looked exactly alike.
Several factors contributed to the explosive growth of suburbia:
·Expanded automobile production and highway construction. Automobile construction increased fivefold from 1946 – 1955. A "car culture" developed.
·The availability of more spacious homes and greater security as well as better schools.
·"White flight." Many African Americans moved North and Midwest to the cities; when they did, whites moved to the suburbs.
Many suburbs were anxious to maintain a "whites only" policy. Levittown and other similar areas restricted occupation solely to persons of the "Caucasian race." As a result, by 1970, 95 per cent of suburban population was white.A second Great Black Migration occurred at the end of the War. The second migration was much larger than the first. It consisted of about 5 million southern blacks, primarily from farming areas, seeking better jobs and greater social equality. Chicago’s black population doubled in the 1950’s. To this day, the largest concentration of Blacks in the country is in Chicago. Many moved north because they had been replaced by mechanical cotton pickers. Sadly, they did not realize their dreams when they reached the North. They were often forced to live in slums, frequently for exorbitant rents, were often refused jobs and union membership. To many northerners, the blacks were just another ethnic group.
A Conforming Culture
mericans found comfort in likeness. No one wanted to be seen standing out in the crowd, so conformity was the order of the day.
Employment changed with the advent of machines and big business. White-collar work became more prevalent than blue collar. Also, with a shorter workweek, more time was available for leisure.
The Cult of Domesticity: A woman’s place in the 50’s was the home. She was supposed to tend the hearth and care for the children while the husband was the primary breadwinner. Many had worked during the war, but now they were forced to resume full-time housekeeping. Said a trustee of Barnard College, "God protect us from the efficient go-getter businesswoman whose feminine instincts have been completely sterilized."
LifeMagazine described the "ideal" middle class woman: A 32 year old mother of four, who had married at sixteen, an excellent mother, volunteer, and home manager who made her own clothes, hosted dinner parties, sang in the church choir, worked with the school PTA and Campfire Girls, and was devoted to her husband. She attends club or charity meetings, drives the children to school, does the weekly grocery shopping, makes ceramics, and is planning to study French."
Americans tended to be "joiners" in the 50’s, including civic clubs, garden clubs, etc., but most especially churches and synagogues. J. Edgar Hoover had said, "since Communists are anti-God, encourage your child to be active in the church." As a result church membership…and sales of Bibles…expanded dramatically. Eisenhower promoted this as a form of patriotism, to bring Americans back to God. Said he, "Recognition of the Supreme Being is the first, most basic, expression of Americanism. Without God, there could be no American form of government nor an American way of life." Eisenhower never joined a church until 1953, but afterwards proclaimed himself "the most intensely religious man I know." In 1954, Congress added the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1955, "In God We Trust" was added to all U.S. Currency.
Religion at the time was mostly "feel good" religion. An exception was Billy Graham’s evangelical campaign, but even he stayed away from controversial issues. The primary salesman of the "feel good gospel" was Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, of New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church. His book The Power of Positive Thinking, on how to achieve happiness, was a best seller. He had a teenage version of the book entitled I Dare You! which was required reading for any self-respecting Christian teenager of the time.
Not everyone bought into the feel good religion. Reinhold Niebuhr, a famous theologian, said that it was an excuse for maintaining the status quo, and that concern with one’s self only was the essence of sin.
While the American public were quietly comformist, many intellectuals and artists were highly critical of this loss of identity.
·John Kenneth Galbraith, a noted economist, in The Affluent Society noted that America had yet to solve the problem of poverty for all its affluence.
·Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman portrayed a man who suddenly came to grips with his own existence, and finds that it has been empty. He commits suicide, thinking of all the friends who would attend his funeral, but no one came.
·Tennessee Williams in Streetcar Named Desire portrayed alienation. One character, Blanche DuBois, comments, "I have always found comfort in the company of strangers."
·The common crowd were reading novels like Lloyd C. Douglas’ The Robe, and Leon Uris’ Exodus, but other works such as J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and John Updike’s Rabbit Run, showed unhappy, tormented, restless people searching for meaning in life.
Artists also displayed the meaninglessness of life. Among the more famous artists of the time was Jackson Pollack, who poured and dripped paints on a canvas, to "be in the painting." To him and his contemporaries, the act of painting was as important as the result. Because his work was largely abstract, it did not find a huge following in the general public.
A small group of young intellectuals such as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, totally disillusioned with life, formed a group known as The Beats. They stayed in Greenwich Village, New York, and were searching inwardly for the meaning of life. They were the first to look to transcendental oriental religions, such as Buddhism, and experiment with drugs, alcohol and free sex as a way of finding meaning. Those who followed in their steps became known as Beatniks, forerunners of the hippies of the 1960’s. They often wore ragged clothes, beards, and shaggy hair at a time when no male’s hair touched the top of his ears.
They had little effect on 1950’s society, and were considered basically weirdoes. Later, when the baby boomers went to college in the 1960’s, turbulent changes resulted.