The United States Of
America, Part Eight
This is the story of how the American Republic
developed from colonial beginnings in the 16th century, when the first European
explorers arrived, until modern times.
History of the United States:
THE COLD WAR
At the end of World War II, the United States and the USSR emerged as the
world’s major powers. They also became involved in the Cold War, a state of
hostility (short of direct military conflict) between the two nations. The clash
had deep roots, going back to the Russian Revolution of 1917, when after the
Bolshevik victory, the United States, along with Britain, France, and Japan,
sent troops to Russia to support the anti-Communists. During World War II, the
United States and the USSR were tenuously allied, but they disagreed on tactics
and on postwar plans. After the war, relations deteriorated. The United States
and the USSR had different ideologies, and they mistrusted one another. The
Soviet Union feared that the United States, the leader of the capitalist world,
sought the downfall of Communism. The United States felt threatened by Soviet
expansionism in Europe, Asia, and the western hemisphere.
The United States and the Soviet
Union disagreed over postwar policy in central and eastern Europe. The USSR
wanted to demilitarize Germany to prevent another war; to control Poland to
preclude any future invasion from its west; and to dominate Eastern Europe.
Stalin saw Soviet domination of Eastern Europe as vital to Soviet security.
Within months of the war's end, Stalin installed pro-Soviet governments in
Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. Independent Communist takeovers in Albania and
Yugoslavia provided two more "satellite nations." Finally, the Soviets barred
free elections in Poland and suppressed political opposition. In March 1946
former British prime minister Winston Churchill told a college audience in
Fulton, Missouri, that a Soviet-made "iron curtain" had descended across Europe.
President Harry S. Truman,
enraged at the USSR's moves, at once assumed a combative stance. He believed
that Soviet expansion into Poland and Eastern Europe violated national
self-determination, or the right of people to choose their own form of
government; betrayed democratic principles; and threatened the rest of Europe.
In contrast to the USSR, the United States envisioned a united, peaceful Europe
that included a prosperous Germany. Truman became an architect of American Cold
War policy. So did State Department official George Kennan, then stationed in
Moscow, who in 1946 warned of Soviet inflexibility. The United States, wrote
Kennan, would have to use "vigilant containment" to deter the USSR’s inherent
expansionist tendencies. The doctrine of containment became a principle of U.S.
policy for the next several decades.
Throughout 1946 a sequence of
events drew the United States and the USSR deeper into conflict. One area of
conflict was defeated Germany, which had been split after the war into four
zones: American, British, French, and Soviet. Stalin sealed off East Germany as
a Communist state. The two countries also encountered problems beyond Europe.
In 1945 and 1946, the Soviet
Union attempted to include Turkey within its sphere of influence and to gain
control of the Dardanelles, the strait in Turkey connecting the Aegean Sea and
the Sea of Marmara. Control of the Dardenelles would give the USSR a route from
its Black Sea to the Mediterranean. In response, Truman offered Turkey
large-scale aid, and the two countries entered a close military and economic
alliance. Meanwhile, an arms race began; each superpower rejected the other's
plans to control nuclear arms, and the United States established the Atomic
Energy Commission to oversee nuclear development. Within the year, the Cold War
was under way.
The Truman Doctrine
In 1947 the Cold War conflict centered on Greece, where a Communist-led
resistance movement, supported by the USSR and Communist Yugoslavia, threatened
to overthrow the Greek monarchical government, supported by Britain. When the
British declared that they were unable to aid the imperiled Greek monarchists,
the United States acted. In March 1947 the president announced the Truman
Doctrine: The United States would help stabilize legal foreign governments
threatened by revolutionary minorities and outside pressures. Congress
appropriated $400 million to support anti-Communist forces in Turkey and Greece.
By giving aid, the United States signaled that it would bolster regimes that
claimed to face Communist threats. As George Kennan explained in an article in
Foreign Affairs magazine in 1947, "containment" meant using "unalterable
counterforce at every point" until Soviet power ended or faded.
In 1947 the United States further pursued its Cold War goals in Europe, where
shaky postwar economies seemed to present opportunities for Communist gains. The
American Marshall Plan, an ambitious economic recovery program, sought to
restore productivity and prosperity to Europe and thereby prevent Communist
inroads (see European Recovery Program). The plan ultimately pumped more
than $13 billion into western European economies, including occupied Germany.
Stalin responded to the new U.S. policy in Europe by trying to force Britain,
France, and the United States out of Berlin. The city was split between the
Western powers and the USSR, although it was deep within the Soviet zone of
Germany. The Soviets cut off all access to Berlin from the parts of Germany
controlled by the West. Truman, however, aided West Berlin by airlifting
supplies to the city from June 1948 to May 1949 (see Berlin Airlift).
In 1949 the United States joined 11 other nations (Belgium, Britain, Canada,
Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and
Portugal) to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a mutual
defense pact. Members of NATO pledged that an attack on one would be an attack
on all. Stalin responded by uniting the economies of Eastern Europe under the
Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON). Then late in 1949, Americans
learned that the Soviets had successfully exploded an atomic bomb in August.
Finally, in February 1950, Stalin signed an alliance with the People's Republic
of China, a Communist nation formed in 1949.
The doctrine of "containment" now
faced big challenges. To bolster the containment policy, U.S. officials proposed
in a secret 1950 document, NSC-68, to strengthen the nation’s alliances, to
quadruple defense spending, and to convince Americans to support the Cold War.
Truman ordered the Atomic Energy Commission to develop a hydrogen bomb many
times more destructive than an atomic bomb. In Europe, the United States
supported the independence of West Germany.
Finally, the United States took
important steps to contain Communism in Europe and Asia. In Europe, the United
States supported the rearmament of West Germany. In Asia in early 1950, the
United States offered assistance to France to save Vietnam (still French
Indochina) from Communist rule, and signed a peace treaty with Japan to ensure
the future of American military bases there. Responding to the threats in Asia,
Stalin endorsed a Communist reprisal in Korea, where fighting broke out between
Communist and non-Communist forces.
The Korean War
Japan had occupied Korea during World War II. After Japan's defeat, Korea was
divided along the 38th parallel into the Communist Democratic People's Republic
of Korea in the north, and the U.S.-backed Republic of Korea in the south. After
June 1949, when the United States withdrew its army, South Korea was left
vulnerable. A year later, North Korean troops invaded South Korea. Truman
reacted quickly. He committed U.S. forces to Korea, sent General Douglas
MacArthur there to command them, and asked the United Nations to help protect
South Korea from conquest.
MacArthur drove the North Koreans
back to the dividing line. Truman then ordered American troops to cross the 38th
parallel and press on to the Chinese border. China responded in November 1950
with a huge counterattack that decimated U.S. armies. MacArthur demanded
permission to invade mainland China, which Truman rejected, and then repeatedly
assailed the president’s decision. In 1951 Truman fired him for insubordination.
By then, the combatants had separated near the 38th parallel. The Korean War did
not officially end until 1953, when President Dwight Eisenhower imposed a
precarious armistice. Meanwhile, the Korean War had brought about rearmament,
hiked the U.S. military budget, and increased fears of Communist aggression
abroad and at home.
Cold War at Home
As the Cold War intensified, it affected domestic affairs. Many Americans feared
not only Communism around the world but also disloyalty at home. Suspicion about
Communist infiltration of the government forced Truman to act. In 1947 he sought
to root out subversion through the Federal Employee Loyalty Program. The program
included a loyalty review board to investigate government workers and fire those
found to be disloyal. The government dismissed hundreds of employees, and
thousands more felt compelled to resign. By the end of Truman's term, 39 states
had enacted antisubversion laws and loyalty programs. In 1949 the Justice
Department prosecuted 11 leaders of the Communist Party, who were convicted and
jailed under the Smith Act of 1940. The law prohibited groups from conspiring to
advocate the violent overthrow of the government.
The Communist Party had reached the peak of its strength in the United States
during World War II, when it claimed 80,000 members. Some of these had indeed
worked for the government, handled classified material, or been part of spy
networks. Although Communist party membership had fallen to under 30,000 by the
1950s, suspicion about disloyalty had grown. Concerned about the Sino-Soviet
alliance and the USSR’s possession of atomic weapons, many Americans feared
Communist spies and Soviet penetration of federal agencies.
Attention focused on two divisive
trials. In August 1948 Time magazine editor Whittaker Chambers, a former
Communist, charged former State Department official Alger Hiss of being a member
of the Communist Party and, subsequently, of espionage. Hiss sued Chambers for
slander, but Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950 and jailed (see Hiss
Case). In 1951 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of treason for stealing
atomic secrets. They were executed two years later. Both of these trials and
convictions provoked decades of controversy. Half a century later, the most
recent evidence seems to support the convictions of Alger Hiss and Julius
Meanwhile, Congress began to
investigate suspicions of disloyalty. The House Un-American Activities Committee
(HUAC) sought to expose Communist influence in American life. Beginning in the
late 1940s, the committee called witnesses and investigated the entertainment
industry. Prominent film directors and screenwriters who refused to cooperate
were imprisoned on contempt charges. As a result of the HUAC investigations, the
entertainment industry blacklisted, or refused to hire, artists and writers
suspected of being Communists.
One of the most important figures of this period was Senator Joseph McCarthy of
Wisconsin, who gained power by accusing others of subversion. In February 1950,
a few months after the USSR detonated its first atomic device, McCarthy claimed
to have a list of Communists who worked in the State Department. Although his
accusations remained unsupported and a Senate committee labeled them "a fraud
and a hoax," McCarthy won a national following. Branding the Democrats as a
party of treason, he denounced his political foes as "soft on Communism" and
called Truman’s loyal secretary of state, Dean Acheson, the "Red Dean."
McCarthyism came to mean false charges of disloyalty.
In September 1950, goaded by
McCarthy, Congress passed, over Truman's veto, the McCarran Internal Security
Act, which established a Subversive Activities Control Board to monitor
Communist influence in the United States. A second McCarran act, the Immigration
and Nationality Act of 1952, also became law over Truman's veto. It kept the
quota system based on national origin, though it ended a ban on Asian
immigration, and required elaborate security checks for foreigners visiting the
The Cold War played a role in the
presidential contest of 1952 between Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat
Adlai Stevenson. Many voters feared Soviet expansionism, Soviet atomic
explosions, and more conflicts like Korea. Eisenhower's running mate, former
HUAC member Richard M. Nixon, charged that a Democratic victory would bring
"more Alger Hisses, more atomic spies." Eisenhower’s soaring popularity led to
two terms as president.
McCarthy’s influence continued
until the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, when the Senate investigated
McCarthy’s enquiry into the army. The Senate censored him on December 2, 1954,
for abusing his colleagues, and his career collapsed. But fears of subversion
continued. Communities banned books; teachers, academics, civil servants, and
entertainers lost jobs; and unwarranted attacks ruined lives. Communists again
dwindled in number after 1956, when Stalin was revealed to have committed
extensive crimes. Meanwhile, by the end of the decade, new right-wing
organizations such as the John Birch Society condemned "creeping socialism"
under Truman and Eisenhower. McCarthyism left permanent scars.
The Cold War Under Eisenhower
When Eisenhower took office in 1953, he moved to end the war in Korea, where
peace talks had been going on since 1951. Eisenhower’s veiled threat to use
nuclear weapons broke the stalemate. An armistice, signed in July 1953, set a
boundary between the two Koreas near the 38th parallel. Eisenhower then reduced
the federal budget and cut defense spending. Still, he pursued the Cold War.
When Stalin died in 1953, the United States and the USSR had an opportunity to
ease tensions. However, the USSR tested a nuclear bomb in 1954, and Eisenhower
needed to appease Republicans who urged more forceful efforts to defeat
Communism. He relied on his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who called
for "liberation" of the captive peoples of Eastern Europe and the end of
Communism in China. Dulles was willing to bring the world to "the brink of war"
to intimidate the USSR. With reduced conventional forces, Dulles's diplomacy
rested on threats of "massive retaliation" and brinksmanship, a policy of
never backing down in a crisis even at the risk of war.
In 1955 the United States and
USSR met in Geneva, Switzerland, to address mounting fears about radioactive
fallout from nuclear tests. Discussions of "peaceful coexistence" led the two
nations to suspend atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons. Still, the United
States spent more on nuclear weapons and less on conventional forces.
Dulles, meanwhile, negotiated pacts around the world committing the United
States to the defense of 43 nations. The focus of the Cold War now shifted to
the so-called Third World, where the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
represented U.S. interests. Established in 1947 to conduct espionage and assess
information about foreign nations, the CIA carried out covert operations against
regimes believed to be Communist or supported by Communist nations. In 1954, for
example, the CIA helped bring down a Guatemalan government that the United
States believed was moving towards Communism.
Finally, to stop the USSR from
spreading Communism, the United States became involved in Indochina and the
Middle East. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, a nationalist and a Communist, led a
movement for independence from France. The Truman administration had aided
France, but in 1954, the French were defeated. An international peace conference
in Geneva divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The United States refused to
sign the Geneva Accords, which it believed conceded too much to the Communists.
Instead the United States sent economic aid and military advisers to South
Vietnam from 1954 to 1961. Although Eisenhower feared further involvement in
Vietnam, he supported what was called the domino theory: If Vietnam fell to
Communism, all of Southeast Asia might follow.
In the Middle East, the United States promised a loan to Egypt's new ruler,
Gamal Abdul Nasser, to build the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River. But when
Nassar bought arms from Communist Czechoslovakia, the United States canceled the
loan. Nasser retaliated in July 1956 by nationalizing the Anglo-French Suez
Canal, an artificial waterway across the Isthmus of Suez in northeastern Egypt.
Britain, France, and Israel (formed in 1948) responded with force, which the
United States condemned. The invaders of Egypt withdrew, and the Suez crisis was
In reaction to the Suez crisis, the United States announced a new policy, the
Eisenhower Doctrine: The United States would intervene in the Middle East if
necessary to protect the area against Communism. In July 1958 the United States
sent 14,000 marines to Lebanon during a civil war that the United States feared
would destabilize the region.
In the USSR, Stalin's successor,
Nikita Khrushchev, did his part to keep the Cold War alive. He extended Soviet
influence by establishing relations with India and with other nations that were
not aligned with either side in the Cold War. In 1955 Khrushchev created the
Warsaw Pact, a military alliance of seven European Communist nations, to secure
the Soviet position in Europe. In 1956 he used force in Hungary and political
pressure in Poland to ensure continued Soviet control of those countries. He
increased Soviet power by developing a hydrogen bomb, and by launching the first
earth satellite in 1957. Finally, he formed an alliance with Cuba after Fidel
Castro led a successful revolution there in 1959.
At the end of Eisenhower’s second
term, the Cold War still dominated American foreign policy. United States
efforts around the world to quell Communist-inspired or nationalist insurgencies
sometimes caused anger. In 1958 angry crowds in Peru and Venezuela stoned Vice
President Nixon’s car. On May 1, 1960, the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane,
and plans for a second summit collapsed. When Eisenhower left office, he warned
against "unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex." But the
nuclear arms race had intensified, and the Cold War seemed to be widening.
The Cold War brought divisiveness and discord in the United States. Americans of
the 1950s clashed on the extent of the threat posed by Communism at home and
abroad. Historians debate this question, too, as well as the origins of the Cold
War. Some contend that Soviet aggression in the postwar era reflected valid
concerns for security, and that a series of hostile acts by the United States
provoked the USSR to take countermeasures. Others argue, variously, that
Communism was inherently expansionist; that Soviet aggression was a natural
outgrowth of Communism; that with Stalin in power, the Cold War was inevitable;
that the USSR was bent on establishing Communist regimes in every region where a
power vacuum existed; and that containment was a necessary and successful
Starting in the early 1990s,
scholars have gained access to Soviet evidence that was previously unavailable.
New revelations from Russian archives—as well as declassification in 1995 and
1996 of U.S. intelligence files on interception of Soviet spy cables, known as
the Venona decryptions—has recently made possible new scholarship on the Cold
War era. For the moment, debates about U.S. Cold War policy are likely to
A WORLD OF PLENTY In the
post-World War II decade, the United States was the richest nation in the world.
After a brief period of postwar adjustment, the economy boomed. Consumers
demanded goods and services. Businesses produced more to meet this demand, and
increased production led to new jobs. Federal foreign aid programs, such as the
Marshall Plan, provided overseas markets for U.S. businesses. Finally, the
government spent large amounts of money by providing loans, fighting the Cold
War, and funding social programs. Government spending plus consumer demand led
to an era of widespread prosperity, rising living standards, and social
The Postwar Administrations
As the nation demobilized, President Harry S. Truman faced a political battle. A
one-time courthouse politician who owed his political success to the Democratic
political machine of Kansas City, Truman had been a liberal senator and loyal
New Dealer. Assertive and self-confident, he capably assumed the presidency
after Roosevelt’s death at the end of World War II. But in 1946, Truman
encountered the Republican-dominated 80th Congress, the first time Republicans
won control of both houses since 1928.
In 1947 Congress passed the Labor-Management Relations Act, known as the
Taft-Hartley Act, over Truman’s veto. The act was a restrictive labor law that
handicapped labor and boosted employer power. For instance, it banned closed
shops, thereby enabling employers to hire nonunion workers; it revived the labor
injunction as a way to end strikes and boycotts; and it allowed states to pass
right-to-work laws that forbade making union membership a condition of hiring.
Congress also rejected Truman’s
efforts to improve civil rights for African Americans. It refused to pass
federal antilynching laws or to abolish the poll tax. In 1948, however, Truman
integrated the armed forces by an executive order. He also ordered an end to
discrimination in the hiring of federal employees.
Southern Democrats never liked Truman. At the Democratic convention of 1948,
they withdrew from the party to form a states’ rights party, the Dixiecrats.
Truman also faced a challenge from the left, when Henry Wallace ran as the
presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. Both of these challenges took
Democratic votes from Truman, and most observers expected that his Republican
opponent, New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, would defeat him. But the scrappy
president won reelection. The 81st Congress continued to reject his social and
economic proposals, known as the Fair Deal. Legislators defeated, for instance,
a measure for national compulsory health insurance. Still, Truman succeeded in
raising the minimum wage, extending social security coverage, and building
Elected president by big margins
in 1952 and 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyed immense popularity. A pragmatic,
centrist Republican, Eisenhower believed in smaller government, fiscal
conservatism, and a business-like administration.
Eisenhower continued some New Deal policies. He expanded social security, raised
the minimum wage, and backed a huge public works program, the Federal Highway
Act of 1956, which provided funds for the Interstate Highway System. He also cut
defense spending and presided over an era of peace and prosperity.
In 1953 Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as chief justice of the Supreme Court,
an appointment that began a new era in judicial history. The Warren Court
transformed the American legal system by expanding civil rights and civil
liberties. In the 1950s the Court broadened the rights of the accused and
overturned the 1949 convictions of Communist leaders who had been tried under
the Smith Act. Most important, in Brown v. Board of Education of
Topeka (1954), the Warren court declared that school segregation violated
the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Concluding that "separate
educational facilities are inherently unequal," it declared segregated schools
In 1955 the Court ordered the
states to desegregate schools "with all deliberate speed." However, many people
resisted school integration. In 1957 the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus,
tried to block the enrollment of nine black students into Little Rock High
School. In response, Eisenhower, never a strong civil rights supporter,
reluctantly sent federal troops to desegregate the school. The Brown
decision began a new era in civil rights.
The Eisenhower administration
also ushered in the age of modern space exploration. In 1958 Congress formed the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to oversee a civilian space
program. NASA's birth reflected the Cold War competition between the United
States and the USSR for supremacy in space. The Soviets launched Sputnik 1 (an
artificial satellite) in October 1957. The United States followed with Explorer
1 in January 1958. In 1961 the Soviets hurled the first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin,
into orbit. The same year, Alan Shepard, one of seven American astronauts
trained in Project Mercury, went into space on a suborbital flight. In 1962 John
Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
The Prosperous Fifties
Eisenhower oversaw a productive and prosperous era. Government spending plus
consumer demand boosted the gross national product (GNP). With 6 percent of the
world's population, the United States produced half the world's goods.
Technological advances, many achieved with federal aid, ushered in new
industries and sped up the pace of production in old ones.
The nation's five largest
industries—autos, oil, aircraft, chemicals, and electronics—illustrated a leap
in productivity. The auto industry, the nation's largest, lowered labor costs by
using more automated machines. Oil replaced coal as the nation's major energy
source. The aircraft industry profited from defense spending, space research,
and commercial airlines’ shift to jet propulsion. The chemical industry offered
new consumer goods, such as synthetic fibers, chemical fertilizers, and
plastics. Computers, too, began to have an effect in the business world. By the
mid-1960s, more than 30,000 mainframe computers were in use.
As productivity rose, the labor
market changed. Fewer people held blue-collar jobs, and more did white-collar
work. Employment grew rapidly in the service sector, which includes sales work,
office work, and government jobs. More American wage earners worked for large
corporations or for state or federal agencies than in small enterprise.
Businesses expanded by swallowing weaker competitors, as happened in the steel,
oil, chemical, and electrical machinery industries. Corporations formed huge new
conglomerates (mergers of companies in unrelated industries). In addition,
companies offering similar products or services in many locations, known as
franchises, increased; the first McDonald’s franchise opened in 1955.
Some big corporations established
overseas operations and became multinational. Producers in the United States
depended on world markets to buy oil, iron, steel, and food that they exported.
They also increased their overseas investments. Standard Oil (later Exxon), for
instance, developed oil resources in Venezuela and the Middle East. Coca-Cola
swept through Europe, where it set up bottling factories. New types of
bureaucrats ran the big businesses of postwar America. In The Organization
Man (1956), sociologist William H. Whyte wrote that employers sought
managers who would adapt to corporate culture, which rewarded teamwork and
The Middle Class Expands
Many factors converged to provide unparalleled social mobility in postwar
America. Most important, income rose. Between 1945 and 1960, the median family
income, adjusted for inflation, almost doubled. Rising income doubled the size
of the middle class. Before the Great Depression of the 1930s only one-third of
Americans qualified as middle class, but in postwar America two-thirds did.
The growth of the middle class reflected full employment, new opportunities, and
federal spending, which contributed mightily to widespread prosperity. During
the war, for example, the U.S. government built many new factories, which
provided jobs. The federal government also directly aided ambitious Americans.
In 1944 Congress passed the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, known as the GI Bill
of Rights. Under the law, the government paid part of tuition for veterans and
gave them unemployment benefits while they sought jobs. It also provided
low-interest loans to veterans buying homes or farms, or starting businesses.
The GI Bill and other federal programs offered mortgages for homebuyers.
New middle-class families of
postwar America became suburban families. Of 13 million new homes built in the
1950s, 85 percent were in the suburbs. By the early 1960s, suburbs surrounded
New families of the postwar era
created a baby boom. The birthrate soared from 1946 to 1964, and peaked in 1957,
when a baby was born every 7 seconds. Overall, more than 76 million Americans
were part of the baby boom generation. The Common Sense Book of Baby and
Child Care (1946), by Dr. Benjamin Spock, sold a million copies a year in
the 1950s, and popular culture glorified suburban homemakers.
However, more and more women entered the job market. New women workers were
increasingly likely to be middle-aged and middle-class. By 1960 almost two out
of five women with school-age children held jobs. Some women workers supported
households alone; many were wives whose second incomes helped their families
attain middle-class lifestyles.
As suburbs, generally without
public transportation, grew, cars became necessary and auto sales increased.
Easy credit facilitated the purchase of cars. The number of cars on the road
leaped from 40 million in 1950 to 60 million in 1960. The Federal Highway Act of
1956 created the Interstate Highway System, a 68,400-km (42,500-mi) network of
limited-access highways. This system spurred further suburban growth.
Middle-class families bought not
only homes and cars, but educational opportunities. Between 1940 and 1960, the
percentage of college-age Americans who attended college almost doubled. Again,
the federal government played a role. In 1958 Congress passed the National
Defense Education Act, which provided loans to college students and funds for
teacher training and instructional materials. Cold War enthusiasm for
technological advances also affected research. By 1960 one-third of scientists
and engineers in universities worked on government research, mainly defense
World War II limited the products that consumers could buy, but at its end,
consumer demand fueled the postwar economy. By the end of the 1950s, three out
of five families owned homes, and three out of four owned cars. Consumers chose
among a wealth of new products, many developed from wartime innovations,
including polyester fabrics—rayon, dacron, orlon—and new household appliances
such as freezers, blenders, and dishwashers. Manufacturers urged new models on
consumers. Americans acquired more private debt with the introduction of credit
cards and installment plans. Home mortgages increased the debt burden.
Businesses tried to increase consumer spending by investing more money in
advertising, especially in television ads. Television played a pivotal role in
consumption—both as a product to be bought and a mode of selling more products.
The first practical television system began operating in the 1940s. Television
reached 9 percent of homes in 1950 and almost 90 percent in 1960. Audiences
stayed home to watch live productions of beloved comedies, such as "I Love Lucy"
(1951-1957), and the on-the-scene reporting of Edward R. Murrow. TV Guide
became one of the most popular magazines. Television programming of the 1950s,
which catered to potential consumers, portrayed a middle-class, homogeneous
society. But the less visible, less prosperous parts of society were also an
important facet of the postwar era.
The widespread prosperity of postwar America failed to reach everyone. In The
Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), political activist
Michael Harrington revealed an economic underworld of 40 million to 50 million
Americans, who were excluded from affluence and were socially invisible. At the
end of the 1950s, nearly one-fifth of the population lived below the poverty
line. The poor included many groups: the uninsured elderly, migrant farm
workers, families in the Appalachian hills, and residents of inner-city slums.
When many middle-class Americans
left the city for the suburbs, they left behind urban areas with antiquated
schools and deteriorating public facilities. They also left behind high
concentrations of poor people, which meant a dwindling tax base. Federal aid,
which provided the middle class with mortgages and highways, had less influence
on the poor. Federal housing programs, urban renewal efforts, and slum clearance
projects often did little more than move poor city dwellers from one ghetto to
another. What Harrington called the culture of poverty—that is, living without
adequate housing, food, education, medical care, job opportunities, or
Poverty affected minority groups
in the 1950s. In the 1940s, when labor was scarce, the United States established
the Emergency Labor Program, popularly known as the Bracero Program. Braceros,
whose name derived from the Spanish word brazo (arm), were Mexican manual
laborers allowed to enter the United States to replace American workers who
joined the armed forces. Many Mexicans who entered the United States under the
Bracero Program remained in the country illegally. To curb illegal immigration
from Mexico, the United States in 1954 began Operation Wetback, a program to
find illegal immigrants and return them to Mexico. During the 1950s, several
million Mexicans were deported. But illegal entrants continued to arrive, often
to become low-paid laborers. Most of the postwar Mexican American population
settled in cities, such as Los Angeles, Denver, El Paso, Phoenix, and San
Antonio. One-third of Mexican Americans in the 1950s lived below the poverty
Federal policy toward Native
Americans underwent several reversals in the 20th century. In 1934 Congress
passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which granted Native Americans the right
to elect tribal councils to govern reservations. In 1953 the federal government
changed its position and adopted a "termination" policy. Congress passed a
resolution to end its responsibility for Native American tribes. The resolution
terminated Native American status as wards of the United States, granted Native
Americans citizenship, eliminated financial subsidies, discontinued the
reservation system, and distributed tribal lands among individual Native
Americans. This redistribution made thousands of acres of reservation land
available to non-Indians, such as real estate dealers. From 1954 to 1960, the
federal government initiated a voluntary relocation program to settle Native
Americans in urban areas. The new policies failed, and in 1963 the government
African Americans of the postwar
era continued their exodus from the South. Waves of black migrants, mainly
young, left the rural South for Northern cities. The introduction of new
machinery, such as the mechanical cotton-picker, reduced the need for field
labor and eliminated sharecropping as a way of life. From the end of World War
II to 1960, nearly five million blacks moved from the rural South to cities in
the North. By 1950 one-third of blacks lived outside the South.
Simultaneously, the black
population moved within the South. By 1960 almost three out of five Southern
blacks lived in towns and cities, concentrated in large metropolitan areas such
as Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Large-scale migration to cities spurred rising
aspirations, soon evident in the postwar civil rights moveme