1950's History for AP U.S. History
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Summary: In the 1950s, many middle-class, white American families experienced a prosperity they had never known before. Many young couples moved to the suburbs and purchased their first home (for veterans, this could be partially financed by the GI Bill). Observers noted that Dwight Eisenhower was the perfect president for the seemingly placid 1950s. Many commentators wrote on the conformity of American suburban life in the period. However, there were also many Americans pushing for change. Proponents of civil rights for black Americans were heartened by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public schools, yet found that their struggles would continue throughout this decade and all through the next. Many women felt frustrated in the role of housewife that they were expected to play in suburban America. Many teenagers rebelled in the decade as well, by emulating the "rebellious" movie star James Dean, by dabbling in Beat poetry, or by listening to the new rock and roll music.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954): Supreme Court decision stating that "separate but equal" schools for white and black students were unconstitutional and that school districts across America must desegregate with "all deliberate speed"; controversy over enforcement of this decision was to last for more than a decade.
Montgomery bus boycott (1955): effort by blacks in Montgomery, Alabama, to have the local bus company end discriminatory seating and hiring policies. The movement started with the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man; the boycott was later led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Baby boom: From 1947 to 1962 Americans married and had children at a record pace; the "high point" of the baby boom was 1957.
The Feminine Mystique: book written by Betty Friedan describing the frustration felt by suburban women in the 1950s; this book was a landmark for feminists of the 1960s and 1970s.
James Dean: young actor whose character in the film Rebel Without a Cause inspired many rebellious young people of the 1950s.
Beat Generation: literary movement of the 1950s; writers of this movement rejected the materialistic American culture of the decade. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were key writers of this movement.
Economic Growth and Prosperity
Some economists feared that the ending of World War II would lead to economic recession. Instead, the American economy enjoyed tremendous growth in the period between 1945 and 1960. In 1945, the American Gross National Product (GNP) stood at just over $200 billion; by 1960, the GNP had grown to over $500 billion.
A significant reason for this growth was the ever-growing spending on defense during the Cold War era. The "military–industrial complex" (a term coined by Dwight D. Eisenhower) was responsible for billions of dollars of new spending during the 1950s (and far beyond). Millions were spent on technological research throughout the era.
Other significant factors were responsible for the economic growth of the era. Consumers had accumulated significant amounts of cash during World War II, but had little to spend it on, as the production of consumer goods was not emphasized in the war era. With the war over, consumers wanted to spend. Credit cards were available to consumers for the first time; Diner's Club cards were issued for the first time in 1950. Two industries that benefited from this were the automobile industry and the housing industry.
Many American households had never owned a new automobile since the 1920s, and in the postwar era, demand for cars was at a record high. If consumers needed assistance in deciding on which automobile to buy, they could receive assistance from the advertisers who were working for the various automobile companies (advertising reached levels in the 1950s equal to the 1920s). As the 1950s wore on, consumers could buy cars with bigger and bigger fins and fancier and fancier interiors. President Eisenhower and Congress encouraged America's reliance on the automobile when they enacted legislation authorizing the massive buildup of the interstate highway system (at the expense of the construction of an effective mass transit system). The highway system was a by-product of national defense plans of the Cold War; planners thought they would be ideal for troop movements and that airplanes could easily land on the straight sections of them.
The other industry that experienced significant growth in the postwar era was the housing construction business. There was a dire shortage of available housing in the immediate postwar era; in many cities, two families living in an apartment designed for one was commonplace. Housing was rapidly built in the postwar era, and the demand was insatiable. The GI Bill of 1944 authorized low-interest mortgage loans for ex-servicemen (as well as subsidies for education).
William Levitt helped ease the housing crises when he built his initial group of dwellings in Levittown, New York. Several other Levittowns were constructed; homes were prefabricated, were built using virtual assembly line practices, and all looked remarkably the same. Nevertheless, William Levitt and developers like him began the move to the suburbs, the most significant population shift of the postwar era.
The economy was also spurred by the mass of appliances desired by consumers for their new homes in the suburbs. Refrigerators, televisions, washing machines, and countless other appliances were found in suburban households; advertising helped ensure that the same refrigerator and television would be found in homes across the nation. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted that, by the 1950s, America had become an "affluent society." It should be noted, however, that even though the economy of the era enjoyed tremendous growth, the wages of many workers lagged behind spiraling prices. For many workers, real income declined; this led to labor unrest in the postwar era.
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