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The 1950s in America

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    The 1950s in America was filled with prosperity and anguish. Happy days were experienced by returning veterans and the growing middle class, which constituted the majority of American society. Unhappy days were lived by women, African Americans, and the poor. The decade was home to a nuclear arms race which many Americans feared. It also was home to tremendous economic prosperity, a welcome change from the Depression and from a lack of spending during World War II. Depending on the perspective taken, the 50s were happy days, but they were also unhappy days for several groups of people. Overall, however, the 1950s were, in fact, happy days because the greatest amount of people experienced prosperity.

    The fifties were a time of economic prosperity that had not occurred in many people’s working memories. People were haunted by the hopelessness of the Depression and the stunted domestic economic spending of World War II. The economic experience of the Fifties was the polar opposite. “Between 1945 and 1960, the gross national product grew by almost 250 percent, and per capita income by 35 percent.” 1 This was made possible by the saving efforts of people during the war. “During the war, Americans had saved at a rate more than three times higher than that in the decades before or since.”2 The only spending during the war was to support the war effort.

    No one bought new cars because none were made. Factories that manufactured domestic products were transformed to factories that produced wartime materials. After the war, people had an exponential amount of money to spend on newly manufactured goods. The increases in demand for manufactured goods led to the expansion of industries, partially aided by government funding, which created more jobs. This led to an expanding middle class. “By the mid-1950s, nearly 60 percent of the population had what was labeled a middle-class income level.” 3 More people had more money and more people had a materialistic drive in the fifties. This led to a prosperous economic period that had never been seen before.

    Veterans returned from World War II to a world completely different from what they had left. When the war started, the United States was still in a depression. When soldiers came home, the United States was beginning an economic revolution. Veterans were assisted by the government with the GI Bill or the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. Veterans were given unemployment benefits and were given “low interest loans to buy a house or start a business, and…stipends to cover the cost of college or technical school tuition and living expenses.”4 This allowed veterans to better their lives from what they were before the war. Instead of blue-collar jobs, veterans had the opportunity to secure white-collar ones. The GI Bill “created a golden age for higher education, and the resulting increase in well-educated or technically trained workers benefitted the American economy.”5 It also “fostered the emergence of a national middle-class culture.”6 The veterans experienced the happy days as a result of government aid. Compared to their lives before the war, veterans in the fifties experienced a huge shift in prosperity and success in American society.

    Not all Americans lived the good life, however, as can be demonstrated with African Americans, those who feared nuclear attack and the associated threat of Communism, the lower class, and women. African Americans had never experienced happy days in the United States, but change was coming, and fast. Even when slaves were freed in 1865, they were still oppressed, almost as badly as they had been under slavery. Many African Americans lived in poverty and in the cities. Many moved from the South to the North for the possibility of more jobs. Even though jobs were available, wages were significantly lower for African Americans. African Americans did not enjoy the same benefits as other American citizens; they were considered to be second-class citizens and not worthy of the same rights. However, conditions were getting better for the African American population.

    The fifties marked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Even before the fifties, President Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. This “would become the civil rights movement agenda for the next twenty years. It called for anti-lynching and anti-segregation legislation and for laws guaranteeing voting rights and equal employment opportunity.”7 In 1954, Brown vs. the Board of Education established that segregation had no place in education and determined that separate but equal facilities usually did not exist. The next year Rosa Parks refused to give her bus seat to a white man and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. Martin Luther King Jr. also made his emergence in the fifties. While African Americans did not have equal rights in the fifties and the fifties were by no means happy for them, there was a clear changing tide coming for African Americans that gave a sense of hope.

    The fifties were also a time of fear of the unknown, of whether or not the world would end tomorrow. The Cold War between the Soviet Union was beginning and many people were fearful of a nuclear attack, especially after the Soviets developed their own atomic bomb. An air attack on America would have ended the world, at least as most Americans knew it. Because of this fear, some Americans invested in fallout shelters to protect against heat, explosion, and radiation. Children practiced duck-and-cover exercises in case of an attack. There was a fear of the unknown. No one knew if or when an attack from the Soviet Union would come. This instilled an apprehensive and anxious attitude in many Americans. Americans also feared being associated with Communism.

    Fueled by Senator Joseph McCarthy, thousands of Americans were accused and investigated for being involved with and supporting Communism. McCarthy affirmed “When a great democracy is destroyed, it will not be because of enemies from without, but rather because of enemies from within.”8 The world had already seen rebellions in Greece from home grown Communist efforts. McCarthy and other Americans feared that anyone even remotely associated with Communism no matter how far in the distant past would start a Communist rebellion and try to overthrow the democratic government. Many lives were ruined by this speculation and irrational fear of spreading Communism. The Fifties were also a time of conformity. There was an image portrayed by television that families were expected to reflect. A family with Communistic beliefs did not fit the expectation for an American family. Respect was lost for anyone who strayed from this illustration, and who disagreed with normalcy.

    Another group that experienced the unhappy days of the Fifties was the poor population who was forgotten about by the rest of the American population. Help and hope for change for the poor did not occur in the wildest of dreams. “A full 25 percent of Americans, forty to fifty million people, were poor in the mid-1950s.”9 Poor people, African Americans, and Latinos were left in the cities as the white middle class moved to the suburbs. As Michael Harrington argues, “The poor still inhabit the miserable housing in the central area, but they are increasingly isolated from contact with, or sight of, anybody else.”10 As whites moved into the suburbs, contact with people outside of the middle class was very rare. Workers got in their cars, went to work, and went back home. Contact with the poor was unheard of.

    The poor were forgotten about because no one ever saw them, or chose to ignore them when they were seen. There was a huge separation of classes in the fifties that was facilitated by suburbanization. Federal policies were made to benefit the middle class, not the poor. For instance, the National Housing Act of 1949 was “passed to make available ‘a decent home…for every American family,’ provided for urban redevelopment. Redevelopment meant slum clearance.”11 The poor were forced out of their homes to make room for new buildings unavailable to the poor. They were forced to relocate to even worse conditions within the city than they had endured before. The poor had no recognition; they were invisible, so moving from the unhappy to happy days was impossible for them.

    Women were also unhappy in the Fifties; however, they were expected to employ a happy facade, even though most were not satisfied and unfulfilled in their roles as housewives. Women were forced to give up their dreams in order to satisfy the status-quo of being a wife and mother. Once married and with children, the woman had no mobility. She was trapped in a world full of housework and child rearing. She was told that she was not normal and broken if she did not find the utmost joy in these womanly duties. There were no opportunities for a woman to express herself, to better herself, or to even think for herself. Women sacrificed their own lives for the betterment of their families. Women who did not uphold this status-quo were judged and scrutinized.

    As Betty Friedan argued in her famous manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, “They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights.”12 Rejecting traditional gender roles and the status of women was highly frowned upon. “Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg…accused women who sought education or employment equality of engaging in symbolic castration of men.”13 Women in the fifties were oppressed, immobile in society, and scrutinized if deviation from the traditional female role in society.

    Even though more groups of people experienced unhappiness in the fifties, the majority of people were in fact very happy in the fifties. Fear encompassed many American lives due to the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. The poor were forgotten and left behind in the cities by most Americans. Women were left feeling unfulfilled in their roles as wife and mother and had no mobility or choice. African Americans were still oppressed but had hope for the coming change with the Civil Rights Movement. Veterans were welcomed home and their success was aided by the government. The majority of Americans were a part of the middle class, were financially stable, and were spending more money than ever before. Most Americans, from veterans to the growing middle class, were prosperous and lived the happy days of the fifties.

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