1950 David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd

1947 Levittown development starts
1950 David Riesman’s The Lonely
1952 United States explodes first
hydrogen bomb
1953 Soviet Union explodes
hydrogen bomb
CIA-led Iranian coup
Earl Warren appointed Chief
1954 Brown v. Board of Education
Geneva Accords with Vietnam
CIA-led Guatemalan coup
1955 AFL and CIO merge
Allen Ginsberg’s Howl
Will Herberg’s ProtestantCatholic-Jew
1955– Montgomery bus boycott
1956 Southern Christian Leadership
Conference organized
Federal Interstate Highway Act
Suez crisis
1957 Eisenhower Doctrine
Integration of Little Rock’s
Central High School
Sputnik launched
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road
1958 National Defense Education
John Kenneth Galbraith’s The
Affluent Society
1959 Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen
1960 John F. Kennedy elected
1962 Milton Friedman’s Capitalism
and Freedom
A portrait of affluence: In this photograph by Alex Henderson, Steve Czekalinski, an
employee of the DuPont Corporation, poses with his family and the food they consumed in
a single year, 1951. The family spent $1,300 (around $11,000 in today’s money) on food,
including 699 bottles of milk, 578 pounds of meat, and 131 dozen eggs. Nowhere else in
the world in 1951 was food so available and inexpensive.
A Changing Economy
A Suburban Nation
The Growth of the West
A Consumer Culture
The TV World
A New Ford
Women at Work and at Home
A Segregated Landscape
Public Housing and Urban
The Divided Society
The End of Ideology
Selling Free Enterprise
People’s Capitalism
The Libertarian Conservatives
The New Conservatism
Ike and Nixon
The 1952 Campaign
Modern Republicanism
The Social Contract
Massive Retaliation
Ike and the Russians
The Emergence of the Third
The Cold War in the Third World
Origins of the Vietnam War
Mass Society and Its Critics
Rebels without a Cause
The Beats
Origins of the Movement
The Legal Assault on
The Brown Case
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
The Daybreak of Freedom
The Leadership of King
Massive Resistance
Eisenhower and Civil Rights
The World Views the United
Kennedy and Nixon
The End of the 1950s
An Af f luent Society,
n 1958, during a “thaw” in the Cold War, the United States and the
Soviet Union agreed to exchange national exhibitions in order to
allow citizens of each “superpower” to become acquainted with life
in the other. The Soviet Exhibition, unveiled in New York City in
June 1959, featured factory machinery, scientific advances, and other
illustrations of how communism had modernized a backward country.
The following month, the American National Exhibition opened in
Moscow. A showcase of consumer goods and leisure equipment, complete
with stereo sets, a movie theater, home appliances, and twenty-two
different cars, the exhibit, Newsweek observed, hoped to demonstrate the
superiority of “modern capitalism with its ideology of political and
economic freedom.” Yet the exhibit’s real message was not freedom but
consumption—or, to be more precise, the equating of the two.
When Vice President Richard Nixon prepared for his trip to Moscow
to launch the exhibition, a former ambassador to Russia urged him to
emphasize American values: “We are idealists; they are materialists.”
But the events of the opening day seemed to reverse these roles. Nixon
devoted his address, entitled “What Freedom Means to Us,” not to freedom
of expression or differing forms of government, but to the “extraordinarily
high standard of living” in the United States, with its 56 million cars and 50
million television sets. The United States, he declared, had achieved what
Soviets could only dream of—“prosperity for all in a classless society.”
The Moscow exhibition became the site of a classic Cold War
confrontation over the meaning of freedom—the “kitchen debate” between
Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet
premier Nikita Khrushchev during the
“kitchen debate,” a discussion, among
other things, of the meaning of freedom,
which took place at the 1959 American
National Exposition in Moscow.
• What were the main
characteristics of the affluent society of the 1950s?
• How were the 1950s a
period of consensus in
both domestic policies and
foreign affairs?
• What were the major
thrusts of the civil rights
movement in this period?
• What was the significance of the presidential
election of 1960?
Nixon and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Twice during the first day
Nixon and Khrushchev engaged in unscripted debate about the merits of
capitalism and communism. The first took place in the kitchen of a model
suburban ranch house, the second in a futuristic “miracle kitchen”
complete with a mobile robot that swept the floors. Supposedly the home
of an average steelworker, the ranch house was the exhibition’s centerpiece.
It represented, Nixon declared, the mass enjoyment of American freedom
within a suburban setting—freedom of choice among products, colors,
styles, and prices. It also implied a particular role for women. Throughout
his exchanges with Khrushchev, Nixon used the words “women” and
“housewives” interchangeably. Pointing to the automatic floor sweeper, the
vice president remarked that in the United States “you don’t need a wife.”
Nixon’s decision to make a stand for American values in the setting of a
suburban kitchen was a brilliant stroke. Nixon recognized that “soft
power”—the penetration across the globe of American goods and popular culture—was an even more potent form of influence than military
might. Indeed, his stance reflected the triumph during the 1950s of a conception of freedom centered on economic abundance and consumer choice
within the context of traditional family life—a vision that seemed to offer
far more opportunities for the “pursuit of happiness” to men than women.
In reply, Khrushchev ridiculed consumer culture and the American obsession with household gadgets. “Don’t you have a machine,” he quipped, “that
puts food in the mouth and pushes it down?” Many of the items on display,
he continued, served “no useful purpose.” Yet, in a sense, the Soviet leader
conceded the debate when he predicted—quite incorrectly—that within
seven years his country would surpass the United States in the production
of consumer goods. For if material abundance was a battleground in the
Cold War, American victory was certain.
The end of World War II was followed by what one scholar has called the
“golden age” of capitalism, a period of economic expansion, stable prices,
low unemployment, and rising standards of living that continued until
1973. Between 1946 and 1960, the American gross national product more
than doubled and much of the benefit flowed to ordinary citizens in rising
wages. In every measurable way—diet, housing, income, education, recreation—most Americans lived better than their parents and grandparents
had. By 1960, an estimated 60 percent of Americans enjoyed what the government defined as a middle-class standard of living. The official poverty
rate, 30 percent of all families in 1950, had declined to 22 percent a decade
later (still, to be sure, representing more than one in five Americans).
What were the main characteristics of the affluent society of the 1950s? 991
Numerous innovations came into widespread use in these years, transforming Americans’ daily lives. They included television, home air-conditioning,
automatic dishwashers, inexpensive long-distance telephone calls, and jet air
travel. Services like electricity, central heating, and indoor plumbing that
within living memory had been enjoyed only by the rich and solidly middle
class now became features of common life.
Despite the economic recovery of western Europe and Japan after World
War II, the United States remained the world’s predominant industrial
power. Major industries like steel, automobiles, and aircraft dominated the
domestic and world markets for their products. Like other wars, the Cold
War fueled industrial production and promoted a redistribution of the
nation’s population and economic resources. The West, especially the
Seattle area, southern California, and the Rocky Mountain states, benefited
enormously from government contracts for aircraft, guided missiles, and
radar systems. The South became the home of numerous military bases
and government-funded shipyards. Growth in the construction of aircraft
engines and submarines counterbalanced the decline of New England’s old
textile and machinery industries, many of which relocated in the South to
take advantage of low-cost nonunion labor.
In retrospect, the 1950s appear as the last decade of the industrial age in
the United States. Since then, the American economy has shifted rapidly
toward services, education, information, finance, and entertainment, while
employment in manufacturing has declined. Even during the 1950s, the
number of factory laborers fell slightly while clerical workers grew by
nearly 25 percent and salaried employees in large corporate enterprises
rose by 60 percent. Unions’ very success in raising wages inspired employers to mechanize more and more elements of manufacturing in order to
reduce labor costs. In 1956, for the first time in American history, whitecollar workers outnumbered blue-collar factory and manual laborers.
The long-term trend toward fewer and larger farms continued. During the
1950s, the farm population fell from 23 million to 15 million, yet agricultural production rose by 50 percent, thanks to more efficient
machinery, the application of chemical fertilizers and insecticides, increased use of irrigation to open land to cultivation
in the West, and the development of new crop strains. The
decade witnessed an acceleration of the transformation of
southern life that had begun during World War II. New tractors and harvesting machinery and a continuing shift from
cotton production to less labor-intensive soybean and poultry raising reduced the need for farm workers. More than 3
million black and white hired hands and sharecroppers
migrated out of the region. The center of gravity of American
farming shifted decisively to Texas, Arizona, and especially
California. The large corporate farms of California, worked
by Latino and Filipino migrant laborers, poured forth an endless supply of fruits and vegetables for the domestic and
world markets. Items like oranges and orange juice, once luxuries, became an essential part of the American diet.
992 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE GOLDEN AGE
PER CAPITA, 1790–2000
1800 1840 1880 1920 1960 1820 1860 1900 1940 1980 2000
Thousand 1996 dollars
The main engines of economic growth during the 1950s, however, were
residential construction and spending on consumer goods. The postwar
baby boom (discussed later) and the shift of population from cities to
suburbs created an enormous demand for housing, television sets, home
appliances, and cars. By 1960, suburban residents of single-family homes
outnumbered urban dwellers and those living in rural areas. (Today, they
outnumber both combined.)
During the 1950s, the number of houses in the United States doubled,
nearly all of them built in the suburbs that sprang up across the landscape.
The dream of home ownership, the physical embodiment of hopes for a better life, came within reach of the majority of Americans. William and Alfred
Levitt, who shortly after the war built the first Levittown on 1,200 acres of
potato fields on Long Island near New York City, became the most famous
suburban developers. Levittown’s more than 10,000 houses were assembled
quickly from prefabricated parts and priced well
within the reach of most Americans. Levittown
was soon home to 40,000 people. At the same
time, suburbs required a new form of shopping
center—the mall—to which people drove in
their cars. In contrast to traditional mixed-use
city centers crowded with pedestrians, malls
existed solely for shopping and had virtually no
public space.
But it was California that became the most
prominent symbol of the postwar suburban
boom. Between World War II and 1975, more
than 30 million Americans moved west of the
Mississippi River. One-fifth of the population
growth of the 1950s occurred in California
What were the main characteristics of the affluent society of the 1950s? 993
Levittown, New York, perhaps the nation’s
most famous suburban community,
photographed in 1954. Eventually, home
owners would make individualized
changes to their houses, so today
Levittown looks far less uniform than
when it was built.
This aerial view of Westchester, a
community in Los Angeles, California,
in 1949, illustrates how suburban
“sprawl” spread over the landscape in
the postwar era.
alone. In 1963, it surpassed New York to become the nation’s most populous state.
Most western growth took place in metropolitan areas, not on farms. But
“centerless” western cities like Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles differed
greatly from traditional urban centers in the East. Rather than consisting of
downtown business districts linked to residential neighborhoods by public
transportation, western cities were decentralized clusters of single-family
homes and businesses united by a web of highways. The Los Angeles basin,
the largest western suburban region, had once had an extensive system of
trains, trolleys, and buses. But local governments dismantled these lines
after World War II, and the state and federal governments replaced them
with freeways for cars and trucks. Suburban growth spilled into farm
regions like the San Fernando and San Bernardino Valleys. By one estimate,
one-third of southern California’s land area (presumably not including
mountains and deserts) was paved over with roads and parking lots. Life
centered around the car; people drove to and from work and did their shopping at malls reachable only by driving. In other sections of the country as
well, shopping shifted to suburban centers, and old downtown business
districts stagnated. The spread of suburban homes created millions of new
lawns. Today, more land is cultivated in grass than any agricultural crop in
the United States.
“The consumer is the key to our economy,” declared Jack Straus, chairman
of the board of Macy’s, New York City’s leading department store. “Our ability to consume is endless. The luxuries of today are the necessities of
tomorrow.” The roots of the consumer culture of the 1950s date back to the
1920s and even earlier. But never before had affluence, or consumerism,
been so widespread. In a consumer culture, the measure of freedom
became the ability to gratify market desires. Modern society, wrote Clark
994 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE GOLDEN AGE
Ernst Haas’s 1969 photograph of
Albuquerque, New Mexico, could have
been taken in any one of scores of
American communities. As cities spread
out, “strips,” consisting of motels, gas
stations, and nationally franchised
businesses, became common. Meanwhile,
older downtown business sections
What were the main characteristics of the affluent society of the 1950s? 995
Kerr, president of the University of California, may well have reduced freedom “in the workplace” by subjecting workers to stringent discipline on
the job, but it offered a far greater range of “goods and services,” and therefore “a greater scope of freedom” in Americans’ “personal lives.”
In a sense, the 1950s represented the culmination of the long-term trend
in which consumerism replaced economic independence and democratic
participation as central definitions of American freedom. Attitudes toward
debt changed as well. Low interest rates and the spread of credit cards
encouraged Americans to borrow money to purchase consumer goods.
Americans became comfortable living in never-ending debt, once seen as a
loss of economic freedom.
Consumer culture demonstrated the superiority of the American way of
life to communism and virtually redefined the nation’s historic mission to
extend freedom to other countries. From Coca-Cola to Levi’s jeans,
American consumer goods, once a status symbol for the rich in other countries, were now marketed to customers around the globe. The country’s
most powerful weapon in the Cold War, insisted a reporter for House
Beautiful magazine, was “the freedom offered by washing machines and
dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, automobiles, and refrigerators.”
Thanks to television, images of middle-class life and advertisements for
consumer goods blanketed the country. By the end of the 1950s, nearly nine
of ten American families owned a TV set. Television replaced newspapers
as the most common source of information about public events, and TV
watching became the nation’s leading leisure activity. Television changed
Americans’ eating habits (the frozen TV dinner, heated and eaten while
watching a program, went on sale in 1954), and it provided Americans of
all regions and backgrounds with a common cultural experience.
In this 1950 photograph, television sets
move through an assembly line.
Introduced in 1954, the frozen TV dinner
was marketed in a package designed to
look like a TV set. Within a year, Swanson
had sold 25 million dinners.
With a few exceptions, like the Army-McCarthy hearings mentioned in
the previous chapter, TV avoided controversy and projected a bland image
of middle-class life. Popular shows of the early 1950s, such as The Goldbergs
(with Jewish immigrants as the central characters) and The Honeymooners
(in which Jackie Gleason played a bus driver), featured working-class families living in urban apartments. By the end of the decade, they had been
replaced as the dominant programs by quiz shows, westerns, and comedies
set in suburban homes like Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and
Harriet. Television also became the most effective advertising medium ever
invented. To polish their image, large corporations sponsored popular
programs—The General Electric Theater (hosted for several years by Ronald
Reagan), Alcoa Presents, and others. TV ads, aimed primarily at middle-class
suburban viewers, conveyed images of the good life based on endless consumption.
“The concept of freedom,” wrote one commentator in 1959, “has become as
familiar to us as an old hat or a new Ford.” And a new Ford—or Chrysler or
Chevrolet—now seemed essential to the enjoyment of freedom’s benefits.
Along with a home and television set, the car became part of what sociologists called “the standard consumer package” of the 1950s. By 1960, 80 percent of American families owned at least one car, and 14 percent had two
or more, nearly all manufactured in the United States. Most were designed
to go out of style within a year or two, promoting further purchases.
Auto manufacturers and oil companies vaulted to the top ranks of corporate America. Detroit and its environs were home to immense auto factories. The River Rouge complex had 62,000 employees, Willow Run 42,000.
Since the military increasingly needed high-technology goods rather than
the trucks and tanks that had rolled off assembly lines in World War II, the
region around the Great Lakes lagged in defense contracts. In the long term,
the continued funneling of federal dollars from the North and Midwest to
the Sunbelt would prove devastating to the old industrial heartland. But
during the 1950s, the booming automobile industry, with its demand for
steel, rubber, and other products, assured the region’s continued prosperity.
996 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE GOLDEN AGE
4 hrs. 36 mins.
5 hrs. 6 mins.
5 hrs. 54 mins.
A 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, an
example of the design excesses of 1950s
car makers. Behemoths like this, which got
less than fifteen miles to a gallon of
gasoline, depended on the availability of
cheap fuel. When gas prices rose in later
decades, consumers turned to smaller,
more fuel-efficient foreign cars, helping to
bring about the decline and fall of the
American automobile industry.
The automobile, the pivot on which suburban life turned, transformed the
nation’s daily life, just as the interstate highway system (discussed later) transformed Americans’ travel habits, making possible long-distance vacationing
by car and commuting to work from ever-increasing distances. The result was
an altered American landscape, leading to the construction of motels, drive-in
movie theaters, and roadside eating establishments. The first McDonald’s fast
food restaurant opened in Illinois in 1954. Within ten years, having been franchised by California businessman Ray Kroc, approximately 700 McDonald’s
stands had been built, which had sold over 400 million hamburgers. The car
symbolized the identification of freedom with individual mobility and private choice. On the road, Americans were constantly reminded in advertising,
television shows, and popular songs, they truly enjoyed freedom. They could
imagine themselves as modern versions of western pioneers, able to leave
behind urban crowds and workplace pressures for the “open road.”
The emergence of suburbia as a chief site of what was increasingly called
the “American way of life” placed pressure on the family—and especially
women—to live up to freedom’s promise. After 1945, women lost most of
What were the main characteristics of the affluent society of the 1950s? 997
Begun in 1956 and completed in 1993, the
interstate highway system dramatically
altered the American landscape and
Americans’ daily lives. It made possible
more rapid travel by car and stimulated
the growth of suburbs along its many
40 40
75 24
20 20
49 55
80 80
74 57
85 65
64 64
71 77
89 93
San Francisco
Los Angeles
San Diego
El Paso
Salt Lake City
Kansas City
Oklahoma City
San Antonio Houston
Fort Worth Dallas
Little Rock
New Orleans
Nashville Charlotte
St. Louis
Columbus Washington, DC
New York
H1 H2
no interstate
500 miles
500 kilometers
150 miles
150 kilometers
500 miles
500 kilometers
the industrial jobs they had performed during the war. As during most of
American history, women who worked outside the home remained concentrated in low-salary, nonunion jobs, such as clerical, sales, and service
labor, rather than better-paying manufacturing positions. After a sharp
postwar drop in female employment, the number of women at work soon
began to rise. By 1955, it exceeded the level of World War II. But the nature
and aims of women’s work had changed. The modern woman, said Look
magazine, worked part-time, to help support the family’s middle-class
lifestyle, not to help pull it out of poverty or to pursue personal fulfillment
or an independent career. Working women in 1960 earned, on average,
only 60 percent of the income of men.
Despite the increasing numbers of wage-earning women, the suburban
family’s breadwinner was assumed to be male, while the wife remained at
home. Films, TV shows, and advertisements portrayed marriage as the
most important goal of American women. And during the 1950s, men and
women reaffirmed the virtues of family life. They married younger (at an
average age of twenty-two for men and twenty for women), divorced less
frequently than in the past, and had more children (3.2 per family). A “baby
boom” that lasted into the mid-1960s followed the end of the war. At a time
of low immigration, the American population rose by nearly 30 million
(almost 20 percent) during the 1950s. The increase arose mostly from the
large number of births, but it also reflected the fact that Americans now
lived longer than in the past, thanks to the wide availability of “miracle
drugs” like penicillin that had been developed during World War II to combat bacterial infections.
The family also became a weapon in the Cold War. The ability of women
to remain at home, declared a government official, “separates us from the
Communist world,” where a high percentage of women worked. To be sure,
998 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE GOLDEN AGE
1940 1945 1950 1955
Figure 24.3 THE BABY BOOM
AND ITS DECLINE Number of births (per thousand)
*Based on estimated total live births per 1,000 population.
1960 1965 1970
Birthrate, 1940–1970*
Jack Gould’s 1946 photograph of a
hospital maternity ward captures the first
year of the postwar baby boom.
the family life exalted during the 1950s differed from the
patriarchal household of old. It was a modernized relationship, in which both partners reconciled family obligations
with personal fulfillment through shared consumption,
leisure activities, and sexual pleasure. Thanks to modern
conveniences, the personal freedom once associated with
work could now be found at home. Frozen and prepared
meals, exulted one writer in 1953, offered housewives “freedom from tedium, space, work, and their own inexperience”—quite a change from the Four Freedoms of World
War II.
Like other forms of dissent, feminism seemed to have disappeared from American life or was widely dismissed as
evidence of mental disorder. Prominent psychologists
insisted that the unhappiness of individual women or even
the desire to work for wages stemmed from a failure to
accept the “maternal instinct.” “The independent woman,”
declared the book Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947) “is a
contradiction in terms.” The idea of domestic life as a refuge and of fulltime motherhood as a woman’s “sphere” had a long history in the United
States. But in the postwar suburbs, where family life was physically separated from work, relatives, and the web of social organizations typical of
cities, it came close to realization.
For millions of city dwellers, the suburban utopia fulfilled the dream, postponed by depression and war, of home ownership and middle-class
incomes. For beneficiaries of postwar prosperity, in the words of a Boston
worker who made heroic sacrifices to move his family to the suburbs, the
home became “the center of freedom.” The move to the suburbs also promoted Americanization, cutting residents off from urban ethnic communities and bringing them fully into the world of mass consumption. But if the
suburbs offered a new site for the enjoyment of American freedom, they
retained at least one familiar characteristic—rigid racial boundaries.
Suburbia has never been as uniform as either its celebrants or its critics
claimed. There are upper-class suburbs, working-class suburbs, industrial
suburbs, and “suburban” neighborhoods within city limits. But if the class
uniformity of suburbia has been exaggerated, its racial uniformity was all
too real. As late as the 1990s, nearly 90 percent of suburban whites lived in
communities with non-white populations of less than 1 percent—the legacy of decisions by government, real-estate developers, banks, and residents.
During the postwar suburban boom, federal agencies continued to
insure mortgages that barred resale of houses to non-whites, thereby
financing housing segregation. Even after the Supreme Court in 1948
declared such provisions legally unenforceable, banks and private developers barred non-whites from the suburbs and the government refused to
subsidize their mortgages except in segregated enclaves. In 1960, blacks
represented less than 3 percent of the population of Chicago’s suburbs. The
vast new communities built by William Levitt refused to allow blacks,
What were the main characteristics of the affluent society of the 1950s? 999
Elliott Erwitt’s photograph of a young
mother in New Rochelle, a suburb of New
York City, suggests that life for the
suburban woman could be less idyllic than
many advertisements implied.
Advertisers during the 1950s sought to
convey the idea that women would enjoy
their roles as suburban homemakers, as in
this ad for a vacuum cleaner, which
equates housework with a game of golf.
including army veterans, to rent or purchase homes. “If we sell one house to a
Negro family,” Levitt explained, “then 90
or 95 percent of our white customers will
not buy into the community.” After a
lawsuit, Levitt finally agreed during the
1960s to sell homes to non-whites, but at
a pace that can only be described as glacial. In 1990, his Long Island community,
with a population of 53,000, included
127 black residents.
A Housing Act passed by Congress in
1949 authorized the construction of
more than 800,000 units of public housing in order to provide a “decent home
for every American family.” But the law
set an extremely low ceiling on the
income of residents—a rule demanded by private contractors seeking to
avoid competition from the government in building homes for the middle
class. This regulation limited housing projects to the very poor. Since white
urban and suburban neighborhoods successfully opposed the construction
of public housing, it was increasingly confined to segregated neighborhoods in inner cities, reinforcing the concentration of poverty in urban
non-white neighborhoods. At the same time, under programs of “urban
renewal,” cities demolished poor neighborhoods in city centers that occupied potentially valuable real estate. In their place, developers constructed
1000 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE GOLDEN AGE
An aerial photograph of Boulevard
Houses, a low-income housing project in
Brooklyn, illustrates how public housing
concentrated poor Americans in structures
separated from surrounding
Suburban builders sometimes openly
advertised the fact that their communities
excluded minorities. This photograph was
taken in southern California in 1948.
retail centers and all-white middle-income housing complexes, and states
built urban public universities like Wayne State in Detroit and the University
of Illinois at Chicago. Los Angeles displaced a neighborhood of mixed ethnic
groups in Chavez Ravine in order to build a stadium for the Dodgers, whose
move in 1958 after sixty-eight years in Brooklyn seemed to symbolize the
growing importance of California on the national scene. White residents displaced by urban renewal often moved to the suburbs. Non-whites, unable to
do so, found housing in run-down city neighborhoods.
Suburbanization hardened the racial lines of division in American life.
Between 1950 and 1970, about 7 million white Americans left cities for the
suburbs. Meanwhile, nearly 3 million blacks moved from the South to the
North, greatly increasing the size of existing urban ghettos and creating
entirely new ones. And half a million Puerto Ricans, mostly small coffee
and tobacco farmers and agricultural laborers forced off the land when
American sugar companies expanded their landholdings on the island,
moved to the mainland. Most ended up in New York City’s East Harlem,
until then an Italian-American community. Although set in a different part
of New York, the popular Broadway musical West Side Story dramatized the
tensions between Puerto Rican newcomers and longtime urban residents.
By the late 1960s, more Puerto Ricans lived in New York City than San Juan,
the island’s capital.
The process of racial exclusion became self-reinforcing. Non-whites
remained concentrated in manual and unskilled jobs, the result of employment discrimination and their virtual exclusion from educational opportunities at public and private universities, including those outside the South.
In 1950, only 12 percent of employed blacks held white-collar positions,
compared with 45 percent of whites. As the white population and industrial
jobs fled the old city centers for the suburbs, poorer blacks and Latinos
remained trapped in urban ghettos, seen by many whites as places of crime,
poverty, and welfare.
Suburbanites, for whom the home represented not only an emblem of
freedom but the family’s major investment, became increasingly fearful that
any non-white presence would lower the quality of life and destroy property
values. Life magazine quoted a white suburbanite discussing a prospective
black neighbor: “He’s probably a nice guy, but every time I see him, I see
$2,000 drop off the value of my house.” Residential segregation was reinforced by “blockbusting”—a tactic of real-estate brokers who circulated exaggerated warnings of an impending influx of non-whites, to persuade alarmed
white residents to sell their homes hastily. Because of this practice, some allwhite neighborhoods quickly became all-minority enclaves rather than
places where members of different races lived side by side.
“Freedom is equal housing too” became a slogan in the campaign for residential integration. But suburban home ownership long remained a white
entitlement, with the freedom of non-whites to rent or purchase a home
where they desired overridden by the claims of private property and
“freedom of association.” Even as the old divisions between white ethnic
Americans faded in the suburban melting pot, racial barriers in housing,
and therefore in public education and jobs, were reinforced.
What were the main characteristics of the affluent society of the 1950s? 1001
Students at an East Harlem elementary
school in 1947. Most have recently
migrated from Puerto Rico to the mainland
with their families, although some are
probably children of the area’s older
Italian-American community.
Cold War affluence coexisted with urban decay and racism, the seeds from
which protest would soon flower. Yet to many observers in the 1950s it
seemed that the ills of American society had been solved. In contrast to the
turmoil of the 1930s and the immediate postwar years, the 1950s was a
placid time, because of both widespread affluence and the narrowing of the
boundaries of permissible political debate. The boom and bust cycles, mass
unemployment, and economic insecurity of the past seemed largely to
have disappeared. Scholars celebrated the “end of ideology” and the triumph of a democratic, capitalist “consensus” in which all Americans
except the maladjusted and fanatics shared the same liberal values of individualism, respect for private property, and belief in equal opportunity. If
problems remained, their solutions required technical adjustments, not
structural change or aggressive political intervention.
As for religious differences, the source of persistent tension in American
history, these were absorbed within a common “Judeo-Christian” heritage,
a notion that became central to the cultural and political dialogue of the
1950s. This newly invented tradition sought to demonstrate that Catholics,
Protestants, and Jews shared the same history and values and had all contributed to the evolution of American society. In the era of McCarthyism,
ideological differences may have been un-American, but group pluralism
reigned supreme, with the free exercise of religion yet another way of differentiating the American way of life from life under communism.
The idea of a unified Judeo-Christian tradition overlooked the long history of hostility among religious denominations. But it reflected the
decline of anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism in the wake of World War II,
as well as the ongoing secularization of American life. During the 1950s, a
majority of Americans—the highest proportion in the nation’s history—
were affiliated with a church or synagogue. Evangelists like Billy Graham
used radio and television to spread the message of Christianity and anticommunism to millions. But as Will Herberg argued in his influential book
1002 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE GOLDEN AGE
This postage stamp depicts four chaplains
who perished during the sinking of an
American ship during World War II. Its
original design listed their denominations:
Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. When
the stamp was issued in 1948, these words
were omitted, in keeping with the emphasis
on the newly invented idea of a JudeoChristian tradition shared by all
Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955), religion now had less to do with spiritual
activities or sacred values than with personal identity, group assimilation,
and the promotion of traditional morality. In an affluent suburban society,
Herberg argued, the “common religion” was the American way of life, a
marriage of democratic values and economic prosperity—in a phrase, “free
The economic content of Cold War freedom increasingly came to focus on
consumer capitalism, or, as it was now universally known, “free enterprise.” More than political democracy or freedom of speech, which many
allies of the United States outside western Europe lacked, an economic system resting on private ownership united the nations of the Free World. A
week before his Truman Doctrine speech, in a major address on economic
policy, the president reduced Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms to three. Freedom
of speech and worship remained, but freedom from want and fear had been
replaced by freedom of enterprise, “part and parcel,” said Truman, of the
American way of life.
Even more than during World War II, what one historian calls the “selling of free enterprise” became a major industry, involving corporate advertising, school programs, newspaper editorials, and civic activities.
Convinced that ads represented “a new weapon in the world-wide fight for
freedom,” the Advertising Council invoked cherished symbols like the
Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell in the service of “competitive free
enterprise.” To be sure, the free enterprise campaigners did not agree on
every issue. Some businessmen believed that defending free enterprise
required rolling back much of the power that labor unions had gained in
the past decade, dismantling New Deal regulations, and restricting the economic role of government. Representing what might be called business’s
more liberal wing, the Advertising Council, in its “American Economic
System” ad campaign of 1949, reaffirmed labor’s right to collective bargaining and the importance of government–business cooperation. Indeed,
despite talk of the glories of the free market, government policies played a
crucial role in the postwar boom. The rapid expansion of the suburban
middle class owed much to federal tax subsidies, mortgage guarantees for
home purchases, dam and highway construction, military contracts, and
benefits under the GI Bill.
Free enterprise seemed an odd way of describing an economy in which a
few large corporations dominated key sectors. Until well into the twentieth
century, most ordinary Americans had been deeply suspicious of big business, associating it with images of robber barons who manipulated politics,
suppressed economic competition, and treated their workers unfairly.
Americans, wrote David Lilienthal, chairman of the Atomic Energy
Commission, must abandon their traditional fear that concentrated economic power endangered “our very liberties.” Large-scale production was
not only necessary to fighting the Cold War, but it enhanced freedom by
multiplying consumer goods. “By freedom,” wrote Lilienthal, “I mean
What were the main characteristics of the affluent society of the 1950s? 1003
essentially freedom to choose. . . . It means a maximum range of choice for
the consumer when he spends his dollar.” By the end of the 1950s, publicopinion surveys revealed that more than 80 percent of Americans believed
that “our freedom depends on the free enterprise system.”
The United States, declared Fortune magazine, anticipating Vice
President Nixon’s remark in the 1959 kitchen debate, had achieved the
Marxist goal of a classless society. A sharp jump in the number of individuals investing in Wall Street inspired talk of a new “people’s capitalism.” In
1953, 4.5 million Americans—only slightly more than in 1928—owned
shares of stock. By the mid-1960s, the number had grown to 25 million. In
the face of widespread abundance, who could deny that the capitalist marketplace embodied individual freedom or that poverty would soon be a
thing of the past? “It was American Freedom,” proclaimed Life magazine,
“by which and through which this amazing achievement of wealth and
power was fashioned.”
During the 1950s, a group of thinkers began the task of reviving conservatism and reclaiming the idea of freedom from liberals. Although largely
ignored outside their own immediate circle, they developed ideas that
would define conservative thought for the next half-century. One was
opposition to a strong national government, an outlook that had been
given new political life in conservatives’ bitter reaction against the New
Deal. To these “libertarian” conservatives, freedom meant individual autonomy, limited government, and unregulated capitalism.
These ideas had great appeal to conservative entrepreneurs, especially in
the rapidly growing South and West. Many businessmen who desired to
pursue their economic fortunes free of government regulation, high taxes,
and labor unions found intellectual reinforcement in the writings of the
1004 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE GOLDEN AGE
TV became the most effective advertising
medium in history. Here, an advertisement
for Ford, one of the largest American
corporations, is being filmed. The
background evokes the idea of driving on
the open road as a form of individual
young economist Milton Friedman. In 1962, Friedman published Capitalism
and Freedom, which identified the free market as the necessary foundation
for individual liberty. This was not an uncommon idea during the Cold
War, but Friedman pushed it to extreme conclusions. He called for turning
over to the private sector virtually all government functions and the repeal
of minimum wage laws, the graduated income tax, and the Social Security
system. Friedman extended the idea of unrestricted free choice into virtually
every realm of life. Government, he insisted, should seek to regulate neither the economy nor individual conduct.
Friedman was indirectly criticizing not only liberalism but also the “new
conservatism,” a second strand of thought that became increasingly prominent in the 1950s. Convinced that the Free World needed to arm itself
morally and intellectually, not just militarily, for the battle against communism, “new conservatives” like writers Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver
insisted that toleration of difference—a central belief of modern liberalism—
offered no substitute for the search for absolute truth. Weaver’s book, Ideas
Have Consequences (1948), a rambling philosophical treatise that surprisingly became the most influential statement of this new traditionalism,
warned that the West was suffering from moral decay and called for a
return to a civilization based on values grounded in the Christian tradition
and in timeless notions of good and evil.
The “new conservatives” understood freedom as first and foremost a
moral condition. It required a decision by independent men and women to
lead virtuous lives, or governmental action to force them to do so.
Although they wanted government expelled from the economy, new conservatives trusted it to regulate personal behavior, to restore a Christian
morality they saw as growing weaker and weaker in American society.
Here lay the origins of a division in conservative ranks that would persist into the twenty-first century. Unrestrained individual choice and
moral virtue are radically different starting points from which to discuss
freedom. Was the purpose of conservatism, one writer wondered, to create
the “free man” or the “good man”? Libertarian conservatives spoke the language of progress and personal autonomy; the “new conservatives”
emphasized tradition, community, and moral commitment. The former
believed that too many barriers existed to the pursuit of individual liberty. The latter condemned an excess of individualism and a breakdown of
common values.
Fortunately for conservatives, political unity often depends less on intellectual coherence than on the existence of a common foe. And two powerful enemies became focal points for the conservative revival—the Soviet
Union abroad and the federal government at home. Anticommunism, however, did not clearly distinguish conservatives from liberals, who also supported the Cold War. What made conservatism distinct was its antagonism
to “big government” in America, at least so long as it was controlled by liberals who, conservatives believed, tolerated or encouraged immorality.
Republican control of the presidency did not lessen conservatives’ hostility
to the federal government, partly because they did not consider President
Eisenhower one of their own.
What were the main characteristics of the affluent society of the 1950s? 1005
Dwight D. Eisenhower, or “Ike,” as he was affectionately called, emerged
from World War II as the military leader with the greatest political appeal,
partly because his public image of fatherly warmth set him apart from other
successful generals like the arrogant Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower’s party
affiliation was unknown. In 1948, he voted for Truman, and he accepted
Truman’s invitation to return to Europe as Supreme Commander of NATO
forces. Both parties wanted him as their candidate in 1952. But Eisenhower
became convinced that Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, a leading contender
for the Republican nomination, would lead the United States back toward
isolationism. Eisenhower entered the contest and won the Republican
As his running mate, Eisenhower chose Richard Nixon of California, a
World War II veteran who had made a name for himself by vigorous anticommunism. In his first campaign for Congress, in 1946, Nixon attacked
his opponent as an advocate of “state socialism.” He gained greater fame by
his pursuit of Alger Hiss while a member of the House Un-American
Activities Committee. Nixon won election to the U.S. Senate in 1950 in a
campaign in which he suggested that the Democratic candidate,
Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, had communist sympathies.
These tactics gave Nixon a lifelong reputation for opportunism and dishonesty. But Nixon was also a shrewd politician, who pioneered efforts to
transform the Republican Party’s image from defender of business to champion of the “forgotten man”—the hardworking citizen burdened by heavy
taxation and unresponsive government bureaucracies. “Freedom for the
individual, for private enterprise,” he
insisted, had made America great. In
using populist language to promote free
market economics, Nixon helped to lay
the foundation for the triumph of conservatism a generation later.
Almost as soon as he won the vice-presidential nomination, Nixon ran into
trouble over press reports that wealthy
Californians had created a private fund for
his family. Eisenhower considered dropping him from the ticket. But in an emotional nationally televised thirty-minute
address in which he drew attention to
his ordinary upbringing, war service,
and close-knit family, Nixon denied the
accusations. The “Checkers speech,”
named after the family dog—the one
gift Nixon acknowledged receiving, but
insisted he would not return—rescued
1006 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE EISENHOWER ERA
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s popularity was
evident at this appearance in Baltimore
during the 1952 presidential campaign.
his political career. It illustrated how television was beginning to transform politics by allowing candidates to bring
a carefully crafted image directly into Americans’ living
rooms. The 1952 campaign became the first to make
extensive use of TV ads. Parties, one observer complained,
were “selling the president like toothpaste.”
More important to the election’s outcome, however, was
Eisenhower’s popularity (invoked in the Republican campaign slogan “I Like Ike”) and the public’s weariness with the
Korean War. Ike’s pledge to “go to Korea” in search of peace
signaled his intention to bring the conflict to an end. He won
a resounding victory over the Democratic candidate, Adlai
Stevenson. Four years later, Eisenhower again defeated
Stevenson, by an even wider margin. His popularity, however, did not extend to his party. Republicans won a razor-thin
majority in Congress in 1952, but Democrats regained control in 1954 and retained it for the rest of the decade. In 1956,
Eisenhower became the first president to be elected without
his party controlling either house of Congress.
During the 1950s, voters at home and abroad seemed to
find reassurance in selecting familiar, elderly leaders to
govern them. At age sixty-two, Eisenhower was one of the oldest men ever
elected president. But he seemed positively youthful compared with
Winston Churchill, who returned to office as prime minister of Great
Britain at age seventy-seven, Charles DeGaulle, who assumed the presidency of France at sixty-eight, and Konrad Adenauer, who served as chancellor
of West Germany from age seventy-three until well into his eighties. In retrospect, Eisenhower’s presidency seems almost uneventful, at least in
domestic affairs—an interlude between the bitter party battles of the
Truman administration and the social upheavals of the 1960s.
With a Republican serving as president for the first time in twenty years,
the tone in Washington changed. Wealthy businessmen dominated
Eisenhower’s cabinet. Defense Secretary Charles Wilson, the former president of General Motors, made the widely publicized statement: “What is
good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa.” A champion of the business community and a fiscal conservative, Ike worked to
scale back government spending, including the military budget. But while
right-wing Republicans saw his victory as an invitation to roll back the
New Deal, Eisenhower realized that such a course would be disastrous.
“Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs,” he declared,
“you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”
Eisenhower called his domestic agenda Modern Republicanism. It
aimed to sever his party’s identification in the minds of many Americans
with Herbert Hoover, the Great Depression, and indifference to the economic conditions of ordinary citizens. The core New Deal programs not
only remained in place, but expanded. In 1955, millions of agricultural
workers became eligible for the first time for Social Security. Nor did Ike
How were the 1950s a period of consensus in both domestic policies and foreign affairs? 1007
4 6
4 4
27 13 25
8 11 12 8
3 4 5
8 16 3
Electoral Vote
442 (83%)
89 (17%)
Popular Vote (Share)
33,778,963 (55.1%)
27,314,992 (44.4%)
reduce the size and scope of government. Despite the use of “free enterprise” as a weapon in the Cold War, the idea of a “mixed economy” in
which the government played a major role in planning economic activity
was widely accepted throughout the Western world. America’s European
allies like Britain and France expanded their welfare states and nationalized key industries like steel, shipbuilding, and transportation (that is, the
government bought them from private owners and operated and subsidized them).
The United States had a more limited welfare state than western Europe
and left the main pillars of the economy in private hands. But it too used
government spending to promote productivity and boost employment.
Eisenhower presided over the largest public-works enterprise in American
history, the building of the 41,000-mile interstate highway system. As
noted in the previous chapter, Cold War arguments—especially the need to
provide rapid exit routes from cities in the event of nuclear war—justified
this multibillion-dollar project. But automobile manufacturers, oil companies, suburban builders, and construction unions had very practical reasons for supporting highway construction regardless of any Soviet threat.
When the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite, in 1957,
the administration responded with the National Defense Education Act,
which for the first time offered direct federal funding to higher education.
All in all, rather than dismantling the New Deal, Eisenhower’s modern
Republicanism consolidated and legitimized it. By accepting its basic premises, he ensured that its continuation no longer depended on Democratic
control of the presidency.
The 1950s also witnessed an easing of the labor conflict of the two previous
decades. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 (discussed in the previous chapter) had reduced labor militancy. In 1955, the AFL and CIO merged
to form a single organization representing 35 percent of all nonagricultural
workers. In leading industries, labor and management hammered out what
has been called a new “social contract.” Unions signed long-term agreements that left decisions regarding capital investment, plant location, and
output in management’s hands, and they agreed to try to prevent unauthorized “wildcat” strikes. Employers stopped trying to eliminate existing
unions and granted wage increases and fringe benefits such as private pension plans, health insurance, and automatic adjustments to pay to reflect
rises in the cost of living.
Unionized workers shared fully in 1950s prosperity. Although the social
contract did not apply to the majority of workers, who did not belong to
unions, it did bring benefits to those who labored in nonunion jobs. For
example, trade unions in the 1950s and 1960s were able to use their political power to win a steady increase in the minimum wage, which was
earned mostly by nonunion workers at the bottom of the employment
pyramid. But these “spillover effects” were limited. The majority of workers
did not enjoy anything close to the wages, benefits, and job security of
unionized workers in such industries as automobiles and steel.
Indeed, nonunion employers continued to fight vehemently against labor
organization, and groups like the National Association of Manufacturers
1008 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE EISENHOWER ERA
“Do you call C-minus catching up with
Russia?” Alan Dunn’s cartoon for the
New Yorker magazine comments on how
Soviet success in launching an artificial
earth satellite spurred a focus on
improving scientific education in the
United States.
still viewed unions as an unacceptable infringement on the
power of employers. Some firms continued to shift jobs to
the less-unionized suburbs and South. By the end of the
1950s, the social contract was weakening. In 1959, the steel
industry sought to tighten work rules and limit wage
increases in an attempt to boost profits battered by a recession that hit two years earlier. The plan sparked a strike of
500,000 steelworkers, which successfully beat back the proposed changes.
Soon after he entered office, Eisenhower approved an
armistice that ended fighting in Korea. But this failed to
ease international tensions. Ike took office at a time when
the Cold War had entered an extremely dangerous phase.
In 1952, the United States exploded the first hydrogen bomb—a weapon far
more powerful than those that had devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The following year, the Soviets matched this achievement. Both sides feverishly developed long-range bombers capable of delivering weapons of mass
destruction around the world.
A professional soldier, Ike hated war, which he viewed as a tragic waste.
“Every gun that is made,” he said in 1953, “every warship launched…
signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed.” But his secretary
of state, John Foster Dulles, was a grim Cold Warrior. In 1954, Dulles
announced an updated version of the doctrine of containment. “Massive
retaliation,” as it was called, declared that any Soviet attack on an
American ally would be countered by a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union
itself. In some ways, this reliance on the nuclear threat was a way to enable
the budget-conscious Eisenhower to reduce spending on conventional military forces. During his presidency, the size of the armed services fell by
nearly half. But the number of American nuclear warheads rose from 1,000
in 1953 to 18,000 in 1960.
Massive retaliation ran the risk that any small conflict, or even a miscalculation, could escalate into a war that would destroy both the United
States and the Soviet Union. Critics called the doctrine “brinksmanship,”
warning of the danger of Dulles’s apparent willingness to bring the world
to the brink of nuclear war. The reality that all-out war would result in
“mutual assured destruction” (or MAD, in military shorthand) did succeed
in making both great powers cautious in their direct dealings with one
another. But it also inspired widespread fear of impending nuclear war.
Government programs encouraging Americans to build bomb shelters in
their backyards, and school drills that trained children to hide under their
desks in the event of an atomic attack, aimed to convince Americans that
nuclear war was survivable. But these measures only increased the atmosphere of fear.
In his inaugural address, Eisenhower repeated the familiar Cold War formula: “Freedom is pitted against slavery; lightness against dark.” But the
How were the 1950s a period of consensus in both domestic policies and foreign affairs? 1009
An advertisement for a government film
explaining to children how to survive a
nuclear attack by hiding under their desks.
Thousands of schools instituted these “duck
and cover” drills. They were meant to
reduce Americans’ fear of nuclear war.
end of the Korean War and the death of Stalin, both of which occurred in
1953, convinced him that rather than being blind zealots, the Soviets were
reasonable and could be dealt with in conventional diplomatic terms. In
1955, Ike met in Geneva, Switzerland, with Nikita Khrushchev, the new
Soviet leader, at the first “summit” conference since Potsdam a decade earlier. The following year, Khrushchev delivered a speech to the Communist
Party Congress in Moscow that detailed Stalin’s crimes, including purges of
political opponents numbering in the millions. The revelations created a
crisis of belief among communists throughout the world. In the United
States, three-quarters of the remaining Communist Party members abandoned the organization, realizing that they had been blind to the nature of
Stalin’s rule.
Khrushchev’s call in the same 1956 speech for “peaceful coexistence”
with the United States raised the possibility of an easing of the Cold War.
The “thaw” was abruptly shaken that fall, however, when Soviet troops put
down an anticommunist uprising in Hungary. Many conservative
Republicans had urged eastern Europeans to resist communist rule, and
Secretary of State Dulles himself had declared “liberation,” rather than containment, to be the goal of American policy. But Eisenhower refused to
extend aid to the Hungarian rebels, an indication that he believed it impossible to “roll back” Soviet domination of eastern Europe.
In 1958, the two superpowers agreed to a voluntary halt to the testing of
nuclear weapons. The pause lasted until 1961. It had been demanded by
the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which publicized the
danger to public health posed by radioactive fallout from nuclear tests. In
1959, Khrushchev toured the United States and had a friendly meeting
with Eisenhower at Camp David. But the spirit of cooperation ended
abruptly in 1960, when the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane
1010 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE EISENHOWER ERA
Louis Severance and his son in their
underground fallout shelter near Akron,
Michigan. Manufacturers of such shelters
assured purchasers that occupants could
survive for five days after a nuclear war.
over their territory. Eisenhower first denied that the plane had been
involved in espionage and refused to apologize even after the Russians
produced the captured pilot. The incident torpedoed another planned
summit meeting.
Even as Europe, where the Cold War began, settled into what appeared to
be a permanent division between a communist East and a capitalist West,
an intense rivalry, which sometimes took a military form, persisted in what
came to be called the Third World. The term was invented to describe
developing countries aligned with neither of the two Cold War powers and
desirous of finding their own model of development between Soviet centralized economic planning and free market capitalism. The Bandung
Conference, which brought leaders of twenty-nine Asian and African
nations together in Indonesia in 1955, seemed to announce the emergence
of a new force in global affairs, representing a majority of the world’s population. But none of these countries could avoid being strongly affected by
the political, military, and economic contest of the Cold War.
The post–World War II era witnessed the crumbling of European
empires. The “winds of change,” said British prime minister Harold
Macmillan, were sweeping Africa and Asia. Decolonization began when
India and Pakistan (the latter carved out of India to give Muslims their own
nation) achieved independence in 1947. Ten years later, Britain’s Gold
Coast colony in West Africa emerged as the independent nation of Ghana.
Other new nations—including Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Kenya, and
Tanzania—soon followed. In 1975, Portugal, which five centuries earlier
had created the first modern overseas empire, granted independence to its
African colonies of Mozambique and Angola.
How were the 1950s a period of consensus in both domestic policies and foreign affairs? 1011
Mohammed Mossadegh, prime minister of
Iran, views the Liberty Bell during his visit
to the United States in 1951. The U.S.-
sponsored coup that overthrew Mossadegh
in 1953 created resentments that helped
lead to Iran’s Islamic Revolution twentyfive years later.
Decolonization presented the United States with a complex set of choices.
It created power vacuums in the former colonies into which, Americans
feared, communists would move. The Soviet Union strongly supported
the dissolution of Europe’s overseas empires, and communists participated in movements for colonial independence. Many noncommunist
leaders, like Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana,
saw socialism of one sort or another as the best route to achieving economic independence and narrowing the social inequalities fostered by
imperialism. Most of the new Third World nations resisted alignment
with either major power bloc, hoping to remain neutral in the Cold War.
On the other hand, many nationalists sincerely admired the United
States and, indeed, saw the American struggle for independence as a
model for their own struggles. Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader of
the Vietnamese movement against rule by France, modeled his 1945 proclamation of nationhood on the American Declaration of Independence.
He even requested that President Truman establish a protectorate over
Vietnam to guarantee its independence.
By the end of the 1950s, the division of Europe appeared to be set in stone.
Much of the focus of the Cold War shifted to the Third World. The policy of
containment easily slid over into opposition to any government, whether
communist or not, that seemed to threaten American strategic or economic interests. Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala and Mohammed
Mossadegh in Iran were elected, homegrown nationalists, not agents of
Moscow. But they were determined to reduce foreign corporations’ control
over their countries’ economies. Arbenz embarked on a sweeping landreform policy that threatened the domination of Guatemala’s economy
by the American-owned United Fruit Company. Mossadegh nationalized
the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, whose
refinery in Iran was Britain’s largest
remaining overseas asset. Their foes
quickly branded both as communists. In
1953 and 1954, the Central Intelligence
Agency organized the ouster of both governments—a clear violation of the UN
Charter, which barred a member state
from taking military action against
another except in self-defense.
In 1956, Israel, France, and Britain—
without prior consultation with the
United States—invaded Egypt after the
country’s nationalist leader, Gamal
Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez
Canal, jointly owned by Britain and
France. A furious Eisenhower forced
them to abandon the invasion. After the
Suez fiasco, the United States moved to
replace Britain as the dominant Western
1012 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE EISENHOWER ERA
The military junta installed in Guatemala
by the CIA in 1954 enters Guatemala
City in a Jeep driven by CIA agent Carlos
Castillo Armas. Although hailed by the
Eisenhower administration as a triumph
for freedom, the new government
suppressed democracy in Guatemala and
embarked on a murderous campaign to
stamp out opposition.
power in the Middle East, and American companies increasingly dominated the region’s oil fields. In 1957, Eisenhower extended the principle of containment to the region, issuing the Eisenhower Doctrine, which pledged
the United States to defend Middle Eastern governments threatened by
communism or Arab nationalism. A year later, Ike dispatched 5,000
American troops to Lebanon to protect a government dominated by proWestern Christians against Nasser’s effort to bring all Arab states into a single regime under his rule.
In Vietnam, the expulsion of the Japanese in 1945 led not to independence
but to a French military effort to preserve their Asian empire, which dated
to the late nineteenth century, against Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist forces.
Anticommunism led the United States into deeper and deeper involvement. Following a policy initiated by Truman, the Eisenhower administration funneled billions of dollars in aid to bolster French efforts. By the early
1950s, the United States was paying four-fifths of the cost of the war. Wary
of becoming bogged down in another land war in Asia immediately after
Korea, however, Ike declined to send in American troops when France
requested them to avert defeat in 1954. He also rejected the National
Security Council’s advice to use nuclear weapons, leaving France no alternative but to agree to Vietnamese independence.
A peace conference in Geneva divided Vietnam temporarily into northern and southern districts, with elections scheduled for 1956 to unify the
country. But the staunchly anticommunist southern leader Ngo Dinh Diem,
urged on by the United States, refused to hold elections, which would
almost certainly have resulted in a victory for Ho Chi Minh’s communists.
Diem’s close ties to wealthy Catholic families—in predominantly Buddhist
South Vietnam—and to landlords in a society dominated by small farmers
who had been promised land by Ho alienated an increasing number of his
subjects. American aid poured into South Vietnam in order to bolster the
Diem regime. By the time Eisenhower left office, Diem nevertheless faced a
full-scale guerrilla revolt by the communist-led National Liberation Front.
Events in Guatemala, Iran, and Vietnam, considered great successes at
the time by American policymakers, cast a long shadow over American foreign relations. Little by little, the United States was becoming accustomed
to intervention, both open and secret, in far-flung corners of the world.
Despite the Cold War rhetoric of freedom, American leaders seemed more
comfortable dealing with reliable military regimes than democratic governments. A series of military governments succeeded Arbenz. They
reversed his social reforms and inaugurated three decades of repression in
which some 200,000 Guatemalans perished. The shah of Iran replaced
Mossadegh and agreed to give British and American oil companies 40 percent of his nation’s oil revenues. He remained in office until 1979 as one of
the world’s most tyrannical rulers, until his overthrow in a revolution led
by the fiercely anti-American radical Islamist Ayatollah Khomeini. In
Vietnam, the American decision to prop up Diem’s regime laid the groundwork for what would soon become the most disastrous military involvement in American history.
How were the 1950s a period of consensus in both domestic policies and foreign affairs? 1013
Save the Holy Places, a 1948 cartoon by
Herbert Block, suggests that American
diplomacy in the Middle East was
primarily concerned with access to oil.
The fatherly Eisenhower seemed the perfect leader for the placid society of
the 1950s. Consensus was the dominant ideal in an era in which
McCarthyism had defined criticism of the social and economic order as disloyalty and most Americans located the enjoyment of freedom in private
pleasures rather than the public sphere. With the mainstreams of both parties embracing the Cold War, political debate took place within extremely
narrow limits. Even Life magazine commented that American freedom
might be in greater danger from “disuse” than from communist subversion.
Dissenting voices could be heard. Some intellectuals wondered whether
the celebration of affluence and the either-or mentality of the Cold War
obscured the extent to which the United States itself fell short of the ideal
of freedom. In 1957, political scientist Hans J. Morgenthau noted that free
enterprise had created “new accumulations” of power, “as dangerous to the
freedom of the individual as the power of the government had ever been.”
More radical in pointing to the problem of unequal power in American
society, the sociologist C. Wright Mills challenged the self-satisfied vision
of democratic pluralism that dominated mainstream social science in the
1950s. Mills wrote of a “power elite”—an interlocking directorate of corporate leaders, politicians, and military men whose domination of government and society had made political democracy obsolete. Freedom, Mills
insisted, meant more than “the chance to do as one pleases.” It rested on the
ability “to formulate the available choices,” and this most Americans were
effectively denied.
Even as the government and media portrayed the United States as a beacon of liberty locked in a titanic struggle with its opposite, one strand of
social analysis in the 1950s contended that Americans did not enjoy genuine
freedom. These critics identified as the culprit not the unequal structure of
power criticized by Mills, but the modern age itself, with its psychological
and cultural discontents. Modern mass society, some writers worried,
inevitably produced loneliness and anxiety, causing mankind to yearn for
stability and authority, not freedom. In The Lonely Crowd (1950), the
decade’s most influential work of social analysis, the sociologist David
Riesman described Americans as “other-directed” conformists who lacked
the inner resources to lead truly independent lives. Other social critics
charged that corporate bureaucracies had transformed employees into
“organization men” incapable of independent thought.
Some commentators feared that the Russians had demonstrated a greater
ability to sacrifice for common public goals than Americans. What kind of
nation, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith asked in The Affluent Society
(1958), neglected investment in schools, parks, and public services, while
producing ever more goods to fulfill desires created by advertising? Was
the spectacle of millions of educated middle-class women seeking happiness in suburban dream houses a reason for celebration or a waste of
precious “woman power” at a time when the Soviets trumpeted the accomplishments of their female scientists, physicians, and engineers? Books like
Galbraith’s, along with William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) and
Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957), which criticized the monotony of modern work, the emptiness of suburban life, and the pervasive influence of advertising, created the vocabulary for an assault on the nation’s
1014 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE EISENHOWER ERA
Commuters returning from work in
downtown Chicago, leaving the railroad
station at suburban Park Forest, Illinois, in
1953. Social critics of the 1950s claimed
that Americans had become “organization
men,” too conformist to lead independent
social values that lay just over the horizon. In the 1950s, however, while
criticism of mass society became a minor industry among intellectuals, it
failed to dent widespread complacency about the American way.
The social critics did not offer a political alternative or have any real impact
on the parties or government. Nor did other stirrings of dissent. With
teenagers a growing part of the population thanks to the baby boom, the
emergence of a popular culture geared to the emerging youth market suggested that significant generational tensions lay beneath the bland surface
of 1950s life. J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel Catcher in the Rye and the 1955 films
Blackboard Jungle and Rebel without a Cause (the latter starring James Dean
as an aimlessly rebellious youth) highlighted the alienation of at least
some young people from the world of adult respectability. These works
helped to spur a mid-1950s panic about “juvenile delinquency.” Time magazine devoted a cover story to “Teenagers on the Rampage,” and a Senate
committee held hearings in 1954 on whether violent comic books caused
criminal behavior among young people. (One witness even criticized
Superman comics for arousing violent emotions among its readers.) To
head off federal regulation, publishers—like movie producers in the
1920s—adopted a code of conduct for their industry that strictly limited
the portrayal of crime and violence in comic books.
Cultural life during the 1950s seemed far more daring than politics.
Indeed, many adults found the emergence of a mass-marketed teenage culture that rejected middle-class norms more alarming than the actual increase
in juvenile arrests. Teenagers wore leather jackets and danced to rock-androll music that brought the hard-driving rhythms and sexually provocative
movements of black musicians and dancers to enthusiastic young white
audiences. They made Elvis Presley, a rock-and-roll singer with an openly sexual performance style, an immensely popular entertainment celebrity.
Challenges of various kinds also arose to the family-centered image of
personal fulfillment. Playboy magazine, which began publication in 1953,
reached a circulation of more than 1 million copies per month by 1960. It
extended the consumer culture into the
most intimate realms of life, offering men a
fantasy world of sexual gratification outside
the family’s confines. Although considered
sick or deviant by the larger society and subject to constant police harassment, gay men
and lesbians created their own subcultures
in major cities.
In New York City and San Francisco, as well
as college towns like Madison, Wisconsin,
and Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Beats, a small
group of poets and writers, railed against
mainstream culture. The novelist Jack
Kerouac coined the term “beat”—a play on
How were the 1950s a period of consensus in both domestic policies and foreign affairs? 1015
Rebels without a cause. Teenage members
of a youth gang, photographed at Coney
Island, Brooklyn, in the late 1950s.
Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips appealed to
teenagers but alarmed many adults
during the 1950s.
rights if the States provided separate but equal
facilities. This decision . . . restated time and again,
became a part of the life of the people of many of the
States and confirmed their habits, traditions, and
way of life. It is founded on elemental humanity and
commonsense, for parents should not be deprived
by Government of the right to direct the lives and
education of their own children.
Though there has been no constitutional amendment or act of Congress changing this established
legal principle almost a century old, the Supreme
Court of the United States, with no legal basis for such
action, undertook to exercise their naked judicial
power and substituted their personal political and
social ideas for the established law of the land.
This unwarranted exercise of power by the Court,
contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and
confusion in the States principally affected. It is
destroying the amicable relations between the white
and Negro races that have been created through 90
years of patient effort by the good people of both
races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there
has been heretofore friendship and understanding.
With the gravest concern for the explosive and
dangerous condition created by this decision and
inflamed by outside meddlers: . . . we commend the
motives of those States which have declared the
intention to resist forced integration by any lawful
means. . . .
Drawn up early in 1956 and signed by 101
southern members of the Senate and House of
Representatives, the Southern Manifesto
repudiated the Supreme Court decision in Brown
v. Board of Education and offered support to the
campaign of resistance in the South.
The unwarranted decision of the Supreme Court in
the public school cases is now bearing the fruit always
produced when men substitute naked power for
established law. . . .
We regard the decisions of the Supreme Court in
the school cases as a clear abuse of judicial power.
It climaxes a trend in the Federal Judiciary undertaking to legislate, in derogation [violation] of the
authority of Congress, and to encroach upon the
reserved rights of the States and the people.
The original Constitution does not mention
education. Neither does the 14th Amendment nor
any other amendment. The debates preceding the
submission of the 14th Amendment clearly show
that there was no intent that it should affect the
system of education maintained by the States.
In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 the
Supreme Court expressly declared that under the
14th Amendment no person was denied any of his
FROM The Southern Manifesto (1956)
On the evening of Rosa Parks’s arrest for refusing
to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a
white passenger, a mass rally of local AfricanAmericans decided to boycott city buses in
protest. In his speech to the gathering, the young
Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. invoked
Christian and American ideals of justice and
democracy—themes he would strike again and
again during his career as the leading national
symbol of the civil rights struggle.
We are here this evening . . . because first and
foremost we are American citizens, and we are
determined to apply our citizenship to the fullness
of its means. We are here also because of our love for
democracy. . . . Just the other day . . . one of the
finest citizens in Montgomery—not one of the finest
Negro citizens but one of the finest citizens in
Montgomery—was taken from a bus and carried to
jail and arrested because she refused to give her seat
to a white person. . . .
Mrs. Rosa Parks is a fine person. And since it had
to happen I’m happy that it happened to a person
like Mrs. Parks, for nobody can doubt the boundless
outreach of her integrity! Nobody can doubt the
height of her character, nobody can doubt that depth
of her Christian commitment and devotion to the
teachings of Jesus. And I’m happy since it had to
happen, it happened to a person that nobody can
call a disturbing factor in the community. Mrs. Parks
is a fine Christian person, unassuming, and yet there
is integrity and character there. And just because she
refused to get up, she was arrested.
I want to say, that we are not here advocating
violence. We have never done that. . . . We believe in
the teachings of Jesus. The only weapon that we
have in our hands this evening is the weapon of
protest. . . . There will be no white persons pulled
out of their homes and taken out to some distant
road and lynched. . . .
We are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are
wrong, then the Supreme Court of this nation is
wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United
States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is
wrong. . . . If we are wrong, justice is a lie. . . .
We, the disinherited of this land, we who have
been oppressed so long, are tired of going through
the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching
out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and
equality. . . . Right here in Montgomery when the
history books are written in the future, somebody
will have to say, “There lived a race of people, a black
people, . . . a people who had the moral courage to
stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a
new meaning into the veins of history and of
1. Why does the Southern Manifesto claim
that the Supreme Court decision is a threat to
constitutional government?
2. How do religious convictions shape King’s
definition of freedom?
3. How do these documents illustrate contrasting understandings of freedom in the wake of
the civil rights movement?
Speech at Montgomery, Alabama (December 5, 1955)
“beaten down” and “beatified” (or saintlike). His On the Road, written in the
early 1950s but not published until 1957, recounted in a seemingly spontaneous rush of sights, sounds, and images its main character’s aimless wanderings across the American landscape. The book became a bible for a generation of young people who rejected the era’s middle-class culture but had
little to put in its place.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
hysterical naked,” wrote the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl (1955), a brilliant protest against materialism and conformism written while the author
was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Ginsberg became nationally known when San Francisco police in 1956 confiscated his book and
arrested bookstore owners for selling an obscene work. (A judge later overturned the ban on the grounds that Howl possessed redeeming social
value.) Rejecting the work ethic, the “desperate materialism” of the suburban middle class, and the militarization of American life by the Cold War,
the Beats celebrated impulsive action, immediate pleasure (often enhanced
by drugs), and sexual experimentation. Despite Cold War slogans, they
insisted, personal and political repression, not freedom, were the hallmarks of American society.
Not until the 1960s would young white rebels find their cause, as the seeds
of dissent planted by the social critics and Beats flowered in an outpouring
of political activism, new attitudes toward sexuality, and a full-fledged generational rebellion. A more immediate challenge to the complacency of the
1950s arose from the twentieth century’s greatest citizens’ movement—the
black struggle for equality.
1018 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE FREEDOM MOVEMENT
A Beat coffeehouse in San Francisco,
photographed in 1958, where poets,
artists, and others who rejected 1950s
mainstream culture gathered.
Today, with the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday and
the struggles of Montgomery, Little Rock, Birmingham, and Selma celebrated as heroic episodes in the history of freedom, it is easy to forget that at the
time, the civil rights revolution came as a great surprise. Looking back, its
causes seem clear: the destabilization of the racial system during World
War II; the mass migration out of the segregated South that made black voters an increasingly important part of the Democratic Party coalition; and
the Cold War and rise of independent states in the Third World, both of
which made the gap between America’s rhetoric and its racial reality an
international embarrassment. Yet few predicted the emergence of the
southern mass movement for civil rights.
In An American Dilemma (1944), Gunnar Myrdal had suggested that the
challenge to racial inequality would arise in the North, where blacks had far
greater opportunities for political organization than in the South. With
blacks’ traditional allies on the left decimated by McCarthyism, most union
leaders unwilling to challenge racial inequalities within their own ranks, and
the NAACP concentrating on court battles, new constituencies and new tactics were sorely needed. The movement found in the southern black church
the organizing power for a militant, nonviolent assault on segregation.
The United States in the 1950s was still a segregated, unequal society.
Half of the nation’s black families lived in poverty. Because of labor contracts that linked promotions and firings to seniority, non-white workers,
who had joined the industrial labor force later than whites, lost their
jobs first in times of economic downturn. In the South, evidence of Jim
Crow abounded—in separate public institutions and the signs “white” and
“colored” at entrances to buildings, train carriages, drinking fountains, restrooms, and the like. In the North and West, the law did not require segregation, but custom barred blacks from many colleges, hotels, and restaurants,
and from most suburban housing. Las Vegas, Nevada, for example, was as
strictly segregated as any southern city. Hotels and casinos did not admit
blacks except in the most menial jobs. Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis
Armstrong, and other black entertainers played the hotel-casinos on the
“strip” but could not stay as guests where they performed.
In 1950, seventeen southern and border states and Washington, D.C., had
laws requiring the racial segregation of public schools, and several others
permitted local districts to impose it. Around 40 percent of the nation’s 28
million schoolchildren studied in legally segregated schools, and millions
more attended classes in northern communities where housing patterns
and school district lines created de facto segregation—separation in fact if
not in law. Few white Americans felt any urgency about confronting racial
inequality. “Segregation,” the white writer John Egerton later recalled, “didn’t restrict me in any way, so it was easy to accept things the way they were,
to take my freedom for granted and not worry about anyone else’s.”
With Truman’s civil rights initiative having faded and the Eisenhower administration being reluctant to address the issue, it fell to the courts to confront
the problem of racial segregation. In the Southwest, the League of United
What were the major thrusts of the civil rights movement in this period? 1019
Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the equivalent of the NAACP, challenged
restrictive housing, employment discrimination, and the segregation of
Latino students. They won an important victory in 1946 in the case of Mendez
v. Westminster, when the California Supreme Court ordered the schools of
Orange County desegregated. In response, the state legislature repealed all
school laws requiring racial segregation. The governor who signed the measure, Earl Warren, had presided over the internment of Japanese-Americans
during World War II as the state’s attorney general. After the war, he became
convinced that racial inequality had no place in American life. When Chief
Justice Fred Vinson died in 1953, Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to
replace him. Warren would play the key role in deciding Brown v. Board of
Education, the momentous case that outlawed school segregation.
For years, the NAACP, under the leadership of attorney Thurgood
Marshall, had pressed legal challenges to the “separate but equal” doctrine
laid down by the Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson (see Chapter 17). At first,
the NAACP sought to gain admission to white institutions of higher learning for which no black equivalent existed. In 1938, the Supreme Court
ordered the University of Missouri Law School to admit Lloyd Gaines, a
black student, because the state had no such school for blacks. Missouri
responded by setting up a segregated law school, satisfying the courts. But
in 1950, the Supreme Court unanimously ordered Heman Sweatt admitted
to the University of Texas Law School even though the state had established a “school” for him in a basement containing three classrooms and no
library. There was no way, the Court declared, that this hastily constructed
law school could be “equal” to the prestigious all-white institution.
Marshall now launched a frontal assault on segregation itself. He brought
the NAACP’s support to local cases that had arisen when black parents
challenged unfair school policies. To do so required remarkable courage.
In Clarendon County, South Carolina, Levi Pearson, a black farmer who
1020 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE FREEDOM MOVEMENT
A segregated school in West Memphis,
Arkansas, photographed for Life
magazine in 1949. Education in the South
was separate but hardly equal.
brought a lawsuit on behalf of his children, saw his house burned to the
ground. The Clarendon case attacked not segregation itself but the unequal
funding of schools. The local school board spent $179 per white child and
$43 per black, and unlike white pupils, black children attended class in
buildings with no running water or indoor toilets and were not provided
with buses to transport them to classes. Five such cases from four states and
the District of Columbia were combined in a single appeal that reached the
Supreme Court late in 1952.
When cases are united, they are listed alphabetically and the first case
gives the entire decision its name. In this instance, the first case arose from a
state outside the old Confederacy. Oliver Brown went to court because his
daughter, a third grader, was forced to walk across dangerous railroad tracks
each morning rather than being allowed to attend a nearby school restricted
to whites. His lawsuit became Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
Thurgood Marshall decided that the time had come to attack not the unfair
applications of the “separate but equal” principle but the doctrine itself. Even
with the same funding and facilities, he insisted, segregation was inherently
unequal since it stigmatized one group of citizens as unfit to associate with
others. Drawing on studies by New York psychologists Kenneth and Mamie
Clark, Marshall argued that segregation did lifelong damage to black children, undermining their self-esteem. In its legal brief, the Eisenhower administration did not directly support Marshall’s position, but it urged the justices
to consider “the problem of racial discrimination . . . in the context of the
present world struggle between freedom and tyranny.” Other peoples, it
noted, “cannot understand how such a practice can exist in a country which
professes to be a staunch supporter of freedom, justice, and democracy.”
The new chief justice, Earl Warren, managed to create unanimity on a
divided Court, some of whose members disliked segregation but feared
that a decision to outlaw it would spark widespread violence. On May 17,
1954, Warren himself read aloud the decision, only eleven pages long.
Segregation in public education, he concluded, violated the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. “In the field of
education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The black press hailed the Brown decision as a “second Emancipation
Proclamation.” And like its predecessor it was in many ways a limited document. The decision did not address segregation in institutions other than
public schools or ban all racial classifications in the law, such as statutes
prohibiting interracial marriage. It did not address the de facto school segregation of the North, which rested on housing patterns rather than state
law. It did not order immediate implementation but instead called for hearings as to how segregated schooling should be dismantled. But Brown
marked the emergence of the “Warren Court” as an active agent of social
change. And it inspired a wave of optimism that discrimination would
soon disappear. “What a wonderful world of possibilities are unfolded for
the children,” wrote the black novelist Ralph Ellison.
Brown did not cause the modern civil rights movement, which, as noted in
the previous two chapters, began during World War II and continued in
What were the major thrusts of the civil rights movement in this period? 1021
cities like New York after the war. But the decision did ensure that when the
movement resumed after waning in the early 1950s, it would have the
backing of the federal courts. Mass action against Jim Crow soon reappeared. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a black tailor’s assistant who had
just completed her day’s work in a Montgomery, Alabama, department
store, refused to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white rider, as required
by local law. Parks’s arrest sparked a year-long bus boycott, the beginning
of the mass phase of the civil rights movement in the South. Within a
decade, the civil rights revolution had overturned the structure of legal segregation and regained the right to vote for black southerners. In 2000, Time
magazine named Rosa Parks one of the 100 most significant persons of the
twentieth century.
Parks is widely remembered today as a “seamstress with tired feet,” a
symbol of ordinary blacks’ determination to resist the daily injustices and
indignities of the Jim Crow South. In fact, her life makes clear that the civil
rights revolution built on earlier struggles. Parks was a veteran of black politics. During the 1930s, she took part in meetings protesting the conviction
of the Scottsboro Boys. She served for many years as secretary to E. D.
Nixon, the local leader of the NAACP. In 1943, she tried to register to vote,
only to be turned away because she supposedly failed a literacy test. After
two more attempts, Parks succeeded in becoming one of the few blacks in
Montgomery able to cast a ballot. In 1954, she attended a training session
for political activists at the Highlander School in Tennessee, a meeting
ground for labor and civil rights radicals.
No one knows exactly why Parks decided not to give up her seat that day.
Perhaps it was because an all-white jury in Mississippi had just acquitted
the murderers of Emmett Till, a black teenager who had allegedly whistled
at a white woman. Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at the all-black Alabama
State University, had been calling for a boycott of public transportation
since 1954. When news of Parks’s arrest spread, hundreds of blacks gathered in a local church and vowed to refuse to ride the buses until accorded
equal treatment. For 381 days, despite legal harassment and occasional violence, black maids, janitors, teachers, and students walked to their destinations or rode an informal network of taxis. Finally, in November 1956, the
Supreme Court ruled segregation in public transportation unconstitutional. The boycott ended in triumph.
The Montgomery bus boycott marked a turning point in postwar
American history. It launched the movement for racial justice as a nonviolent crusade based in the black churches of the South. It gained the support
of northern liberals and focused unprecedented and unwelcome international attention on the country’s racial policies. And it marked the emergence of twenty-six-year-old Martin Luther King Jr., who had recently
arrived in Montgomery to become pastor of a Baptist church, as the movement’s national symbol. On the night of the first protest meeting, King’s
call to action electrified the audience: “We, the disinherited of this land, we
who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night
of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and
justice and equality.”
1022 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE FREEDOM MOVEMENT
The mug shot of Rosa Parks, taken in
December 1955 at a Montgomery,
Alabama, police station after she was
arrested for refusing to give up her seat on
a city bus to a white passenger.
From the beginning, the language of freedom pervaded the black
movement. It resonated in the speeches of civil rights leaders and in the
hand-lettered placards of the struggle’s foot soldiers. On the day of Rosa
Parks’s court appearance in December 1955, even before the bus boycott
had officially been announced, a torn piece of cardboard appeared on a
bus shelter in Montgomery’s Court Square, advising passengers: “Don’t
ride the buses today. Don’t ride it for freedom.” During the summer of
1964, when civil rights activists established “freedom schools” for black
children across Mississippi, lessons began with students being asked to
define the word. Some gave specific answers (“going to public libraries”),
some more abstract (“standing up for your rights”). Some insisted that
freedom meant legal equality, others saw it as liberation from years of deference to and fear of whites. “Freedom of the mind,” wrote one, was the
greatest freedom of all.
For adults as well, freedom had many meanings. It meant enjoying the
political rights and economic opportunities taken for granted by whites. It
required eradicating historic wrongs such as segregation, disenfranchisement, confinement to low-wage jobs, and the ever-present threat of violence.
It meant the right to be served at lunch counters and downtown department
stores, central locations in the consumer culture, and to be addressed as
“Mr.,” “Miss,” and “Mrs.,” rather than “boy” and “auntie.”
In King’s soaring oratory, the protesters’ understandings of freedom fused
into a coherent whole. For the title of his first book, relating the boycott’s
history, King chose the title Stride Toward Freedom. His most celebrated oration, the “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, began by invoking the unfulfilled promise of emancipation (“one hundred years later, the Negro still is
not free”) and closed with a cry borrowed from a black spiritual: “Free at
last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
A master at appealing to the deep sense of injustice among blacks and to
the conscience of white America, King presented the case for black rights
in a vocabulary that merged the black experience with that of the nation.
Having studied the writings on peaceful civil disobedience of Henry David
Thoreau and Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, as well as the nonviolent
protests the Congress of Racial Equality had organized in the 1940s, King
outlined a philosophy of struggle in which evil must be met with good,
hate with Christian love, and violence with peaceful demands for change.
“There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out to
some distant road and lynched,” he declared in his speech at the launching
of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Echoing Christian themes derived from his training in the black church,
King’s speeches resonated deeply in both black communities and the
broader culture. He repeatedly invoked the Bible to preach justice and forgiveness, even toward those “who desire to deprive you of freedom.” Like
Frederick Douglass before him, King appealed to white America by stressing the protesters’ love of country and devotion to national values. The
“daybreak of freedom,” King made clear, meant a new dawn for the whole
of American society. And like W. E. B. Du Bois, he linked the American
“color line” with the degradation of non-white peoples overseas. “The great
What were the major thrusts of the civil rights movement in this period? 1023
Black residents of Montgomery, Alabama,
walking to work during the bus boycott of
struggle of the Twentieth Century,” he declared in a 1956 sermon, “has
been between the exploited masses questing for freedom and the colonial
powers seeking to maintain their domination.” If Africa was gaining its
freedom, he asked, why must black America lag behind?
Buoyed by success in Montgomery, King in 1956 took the lead in forming
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a coalition of black ministers and civil rights activists, to press for desegregation. But despite the
movement’s success in popular mobilization, the fact that Montgomery’s
city fathers agreed to the boycott’s demands only after a Supreme Court ruling indicated that without national backing, local action might not be
enough to overturn Jim Crow. The white South’s refusal to accept the
Brown decision reinforced the conviction that black citizens could not gain
their constitutional rights without Washington’s intervention. This was
not immediately forthcoming. When the Supreme Court finally issued its
implementation ruling in 1955, the justices declared that desegregation
should proceed “with all deliberate speed.” This vague formulation unintentionally encouraged a campaign of “massive resistance” that paralyzed
civil rights progress in much of the South.
In 1956, 82 of 106 southern congressmen—and every southern senator
except Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas and Albert Gore and Estes Kefauver of
Tennessee—signed a Southern Manifesto, denouncing the Brown decision
as a “clear abuse of judicial power,” and calling for resistance to “forced
integration” by “any lawful means.” State after state passed laws to block
desegregation. Some made it illegal for the NAACP to operate within their
borders. Virginia pioneered the strategy of closing any public schools
1024 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE FREEDOM MOVEMENT
If the civil rights movement borrowed the
language of freedom, Cold War opponents
of racial integration seized on the
language of anticommunism to discredit
the movement. This photograph is from a
1959 rally in Little Rock, Arkansas.
The Problem We All Live With. This 1964 painting
by Norman Rockwell, which accompanied an article in
Look magazine, depicts federal marshals escorting sixyear-old Ruby Bridges to kindergarten in New Orleans
in 1960 in accordance with a court order to integrate the
city’s schools. “There was a large crowd of people outside
the school,” she later recalled. “They were throwing
things and shouting.” But Rockwell, intent on focusing on
the child, presents the mob only through their graffiti and
tomatoes thrown against the wall, and does not show the
faces of the marshals. Because of the decision to send her
to the formerly white school, Bridges’s father lost his job,
and her grandparents, who worked as sharecroppers in
Mississippi, were evicted from their land. In 2001,
President Bill Clinton presented her with the Presidential
Citizens Medal.
1. What does the painting suggest about the
relationship of federal power and individual
2. Do you think that Rockwell’s decision to
show the mob only indirectly makes the painting more or less powerful?
ordered to desegregate and offering funds to enable white pupils, but not
black, to attend private institutions. Prince Edward County, Virginia, shut
its schools entirely in 1959; not until 1964 did the Supreme Court order
them reopened. Many states adopted “freedom of choice” plans that
allowed white students to opt out of integrated schools. As a symbol of defiance, Georgia’s legislature incorporated the Confederate battle flag into its
state flag in 1956, and Alabama and South Carolina soon began flying the
battle flag over their state capitol buildings.
The federal government tried to remain aloof from the black struggle.
Thanks to the efforts of Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson, who
hoped to win liberal support for a run for president in 1960, Congress in
1957 passed the first national civil rights law since Reconstruction. It targeted the denial of black voting rights in the South, but with weak enforcement provisions it added few voters to the rolls. President Eisenhower
failed to provide moral leadership. He called for Americans to abide by the
law, but he made it clear that he found the whole civil rights issue distasteful. He privately told aides that he disagreed with the Supreme Court’s reasoning. Ike failed to act in 1956 when a federal court ordered that
Autherine Lucy be admitted to the University of Alabama; a mob prevented her from registering and the board of trustees expelled her. The university remained all-white into the 1960s.
In 1957, however, after Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas used the
National Guard to prevent the court-ordered integration of Little Rock’s
Central High School, Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to the city. In
the face of a howling mob, soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division escorted
1026 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE FREEDOM MOVEMENT
Federal troops at Little Rock’s Central
High School, enforcing a court order for
integration in 1957.
nine black children into the school. Events in Little Rock showed that in
the last instance, the federal government would not allow the flagrant violation of court orders. But because of massive resistance, the pace of the
movement slowed in the final years of the 1950s. When Eisenhower left
office, fewer than 2 percent of black students attended desegregated
schools in the states of the old Confederacy.
Ever since the beginning of the Cold War, American leaders had worried
about the impact of segregation on the country’s international reputation.
President Truman had promoted his civil rights initiative, in part, by
reminding Americans that they could not afford to “ignore what the world
thinks of our record.” The State Department filed a brief in the Brown case
noting the damage segregation was doing to the country’s image overseas.
Foreign nations and colonies paid close attention to the unfolding of the
American civil rights movement. The global reaction to the Brown decision
was overwhelmingly positive. “At Last! Whites and Blacks in the United
States on the same school benches!” proclaimed a newspaper in Senegal,
West Africa. But the slow pace of change led to criticism that embarrassed
American diplomats seeking to win the loyalty of people in the non-white
world. In a public forum in India, the American ambassador was peppered
with questions about American race relations. Was it true that the Haitian
ambassador to the United States had to live in a black ghetto in
Washington? Why did no black person hold a high public office? Of course,
the Soviet Union played up American race relations as part of the global
“battle for hearts and minds of men” that was a key part of the Cold War.
The presidential campaign of 1960 turned out to be one of the closest in
American history. Republicans chose Vice President Richard Nixon as their
candidate to succeed Eisenhower. Democrats nominated John F. Kennedy, a
senator from Massachusetts and a Roman Catholic, whose father, a millionaire Irish-American businessman, had served as ambassador to Great
Britain during the 1930s. Kennedy’s chief rivals for the nomination were
Hubert Humphrey, leader of the party’s liberal wing, and Lyndon B.
Johnson of Texas, the Senate majority leader, who accepted Kennedy’s offer
to run for vice president.
The atmosphere of tolerance promoted by World War II had weakened
traditional anti-Catholicism. But as recently as 1949, Paul Blanshard’s
American Freedom and Catholic Power, which accused the Church of being
antidemocratic, morally repressive, and essentially un-American, had
become a national best-seller. Many Protestants remained reluctant to vote
for a Catholic, fearing that Kennedy would be required to support Church
doctrine on controversial public issues or, in a more extreme version, take
orders from the pope. Kennedy addressed the question directly. “I do not
speak for my church on public matters,” he insisted, and “the church does
What were the major thrusts of the civil rights movement in this period? 1027
not speak for me.” His defeat of Humphrey in the Democratic primary in
overwhelmingly Protestant West Virginia put the issue of his religion to
rest. At age forty-three, Kennedy became the youngest major-party nominee for president in the nation’s history.
Both Kennedy and Nixon were ardent Cold Warriors. But Kennedy pointed to Soviet success in putting Sputnik, the first earth satellite, into orbit
and subsequently testing the first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
as evidence that the United States had lost the sense of national purpose
necessary to fight the Cold War. He warned that Republicans had allowed a
“missile gap” to develop in which the Soviets had achieved
technological and military superiority over the United
States. In fact, as both Kennedy and Nixon well knew,
American economic and military capacity far exceeded
that of the Soviets. But the charge persuaded many
Americans that the time had come for new leadership. The
stylishness of Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, which stood in
sharp contrast to the more dowdy public appearance of
Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon, reinforced the impression that Kennedy would conduct a more youthful, vigorous presidency.
In the first televised debate between presidential candidates, judging by viewer response, the handsome Kennedy
bested Nixon, who was suffering from a cold and appeared
tired and nervous. Those who heard the encounter on the
radio thought Nixon had won, but, on TV, image counted
for more than substance. In November, Kennedy eked out
a narrow victory, winning the popular vote by only
120,000 out of 69 million votes cast (and, Republicans
charged, benefiting from a fraudulent vote count by the
notoriously corrupt Chicago Democratic machine).
1028 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 THE ELECTION OF 1960
7 1
4 4
4 11
8 6 5 12
10 14
27 13
3 4 5
16 3
Electoral Vote
303 (56%)
219 (41%)
15 (3%)
Popular Vote (Share)
34,227,096 (49.7%)
34,107,646 (49.6%)
501,643 (0.7%)
The 1960 presidential campaign produced
a flood of anti-Catholic propaganda.
Kennedy’s victory, the first for an
American Catholic, was a major step in
the decline of this long-standing prejudice.
What was the significance of the presidential election of 1960? 1029
A photograph of John F. Kennedy and his
wife, Jacqueline, strolling along the pier at
Hyannisport, Massachusetts, illustrates
their youthful appeal.
Residents of Los Angeles don gas masks
at a 1954 luncheon to protest the
government’s failure to combat the air
pollution, or “smog,” that hung over
the city.
In January 1961, shortly before leaving office, Eisenhower delivered a televised Farewell Address, modeled to some extent on George Washington’s
address of 1796. Knowing that the missile gap was a myth, Ike warned
against the drumbeat of calls for a new military buildup. He urged
Americans to think about the dangerous power of what he called the
“military-industrial complex”—the conjunction of “an immense military
establishment” with a “permanent arms industry”—with an influence felt
in “every office” in the land. “We must never let the weight of this combination,” he advised his countrymen, “endanger our liberties or democratic
processes.” Few Americans shared Ike’s concern—far more saw the alliance
of the Defense Department and private industry as a source of jobs and
national security rather than a threat to democracy. A few years later, however, with the United States locked in an increasingly unpopular war,
Eisenhower’s warning would come to seem prophetic.
By then, other underpinnings of 1950s life were also in disarray. The tens
of millions of cars that made suburban life possible were spewing toxic
lead, an additive to make gasoline more efficient, into the atmosphere.
Penned in to the east by mountains that kept automobile emissions from
being dispersed by the wind, Los Angeles had become synonymous with
smog, a type of air pollution produced by cars. Chlorofluorocarbons, used
in air conditioners, deodorants, and aerosol hair sprays, were releasing
chemicals into the atmosphere that damaged the ozone layer, producing
global warming and an increase in skin cancer. (Both leaded gasoline and
chlorofluorocarbons had been invented by General Motors research scientist Thomas Midgley. He “had more impact on the atmosphere,” writes one
historian, “than any other single organism” in the history of the world.) The
chemical insecticides that enabled agricultural conglomerates to produce
the country’s remarkable abundance of food were poisoning farm workers,
consumers, and the water supply. Housewives were rebelling against a life
centered in suburban dream houses. Blacks were increasingly impatient
with the slow progress of racial change. The United States, in other words,
had entered that most turbulent of decades, the 1960s.
Belgrad, Daniel. The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar
America (1998). Explores how developments in the arts reflected and encouraged the idea of the free individual.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–1963 (1988). A
comprehensive account of the civil rights movement from the Brown decision
to the early 1960s.
1030 Ch. 24 An Af f luent Society, 1953–1960 SUGGESTED READING
Andy Warhol’s 1962 painting Green CocaColor Bottles uses one of the most famous
international symbols of American consumerism
both to celebrate abundance and to question the
sterile uniformity of 1950s consumer culture.
Asked why he painted Coke bottles, he replied
that artists paint what they see. Previous artists
painted landscapes and city buildings; he painted
things present in American life wherever one
Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar
America (2003). Considers how the glorification of consumer freedom shaped
American public policy and the physical landscape.
De Grazia, Victoria. Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century
Europe (2005). An examination of American “soft power” and its triumphant
penetration of twentieth-century Europe.
Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth A. Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and
Liberalism, 1945–1960 (1994). Examines the carefully developed campaign
whereby business leaders associated capitalism and a union-free workplace
with freedom.
Freeman, Joshua B. Working-Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II (2000).
An account of the lives of laborers in the nation’s largest city, tracing the rise
and decline of the labor movement.
Hirsch, Arnold R. Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940–1960
(1983). Describes how the migration of African-Americans from the South to
Chicago during the 1940s and 1950s reshaped the city.
Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of America (1985). The
standard account of the development of American suburbia.
Jacobs, Meg. Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America
(2005). Discusses how consumer freedom became central to Americans’
national identity after World War II.
Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle
for Racial Equality (2004). A full study of Supreme Court cases dealing with
civil rights, and how they both reflected and helped to stimulate social
May, Elaine T. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988).
Studies the nuclear family as a bastion of American freedom during the Cold
War, at least according to official propaganda.
Nicolaides, Becky M. My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of
Los Angeles, 1920–1965 (2002). Traces the transformation of Southgate, an
industrial neighborhood of Los Angeles, into an all-white suburb, and the
political results.
Patterson, James T. Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974 (1996). A comprehensive account of American history over the three decades following
World War II.
Pells, Richard. The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the
1940s and 1950s (1984). Examines how American writers and artists responded to the Cold War.
Phillips-Fein, Kim. Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the
New Deal to Reagan (2009). Relates how a group of economic thinkers and
businessmen worked to fashion a conservative movement in an attempt to
reverse many of the policies of the New Deal.
Wall, Wendy L. Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus from the New
Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (2008). A careful examination of the political
and ideological world of the Cold War era.
Westad, Odd Arne. The Global Cold War (2005). A wide-ranging analysis of how the
Cold War played out in the Third World.
Brown v. Board of Education: www.lib.umich.edu/exhibits/brownarchive/
Herblock’s History: Political Cartoons from the Crash to the Millennium:
Levittown: Documents of an Ideal American Suburb: http://tigger.uic.edu/
Suggested Reading 1031
1. What was the role of consumerism in ideas of American freedom in the 1950s?
2. To what extent was the Cold War a struggle to promote freedom in the world, and
how did it affect the freedoms of Americans at home?
3. What were the arguments posed by social critics of Cold War society and culture?
4. What basic freedoms did African-Americans seek through the civil rights movement of this period?
5. According to President Eisenhower, what dangers were posed by a militaryindustrial complex?
1. Explain the meaning of the “American standard of living” during the 1950s.
2. Describe how the automobile transformed American communities and culture in
the 1950s.
3. Identify the prescribed roles and aspirations for women during the social conformity of the 1950s.
4. How did the growth of suburbs affect the racial lines of division in American
5. Explain the ideological rifts between conservatives in the 1950s. Why did many
view President Eisenhower as “not one of them”?
6. What was the new “social contract” between labor and management, and how did
it benefit both sides as well as the nation as a whole?
7. How did the United States and Soviet Union shift the focus of the Cold War to the
Third World?
8. What were the most significant factors that contributed to the growing momentum of the civil rights movement in the 1960s?
9. How did many southern whites, led by their elected officials, resist desegregation
and civil rights in the name of “freedom”?
10. Explain the significance of American race relations for U.S. relations overseas.
Levittown (p. 993)
“standard consumer package”
(p. 996)
women at work (p. 998)
housing discrimination (p. 999)
“end of ideology” (p. 1002)
Capitalism and Freedom
(p. 1005)
“Checkers speech” (p. 1006)
Sputnik (p. 1008)
“social contract” (p. 1008)
National Defense Education Act
(p. 1008)
massive retaliation (p. 1009)
Iranian coup (p. 1011)
juvenile delinquency (p. 1015)
rock-and-roll music (p. 1015)
the Beats (p. 1015)
school segregation (p. 1019)
League of United Latin American
Citizens (p. 1019)
Brown v. Board of Education
(p. 1020)
Montgomery bus boycott (p.
“missile gap” (p. 1028)
military-industrial complex
(p. 1029)
Study and Review at wwnorton.com/studyspace
Landmark Events in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s
Event Date Significance
Brown v. Board 1954 Ended segregation in public
of Education education, reversing the 1896
Plessy v. Ferguson decision
Montgomery 1955– Mobilized a community to
bus boycott 1956 successfully fight Jim Crow,
ending segregation on public
buses and launching the
leadership career of Martin
Luther King, Jr.
Integration of Little 1957 Led the federal government to
Rock’s Central High uphold the law of the nation and
School enforce the Brown decision

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