In America during the 1950s, there was a mix of prosperity and anguish. While certain groups like returning veterans and the growing middle class had happy days, others such as women, African Americans, and the poor had unhappy days. This era saw an arms race that caused fear among many Americans; however, it also brought economic prosperity – a welcome change from the Depression and limited spending during World War II. Depending on one’s viewpoint, the 50s could be seen as either happy or unhappy for specific demographics. Nevertheless, overall they were indeed happy days since most of the population experienced prosperity.
During the 1950s, there was a significant economic prosperity that many individuals had not experienced in their working lifetime. The memories of the Great Depression and limited domestic economic spending during World War II remained, but the economic situation in the 1950s differed greatly. Statistics demonstrate that between 1945 and 1960, the gross national product increased impressively by almost 250%, while per capita income rose by 35% (1). These impressive numbers were made possible due to individuals’ savings efforts during the war. In fact, Americans saved at a rate more than three times higher than before or since the war (2). It is important to note that most of the spending during this period was directed towards supporting the war effort.
During the war, car purchases were halted while factories shifted production to support the war effort. However, following the end of the war, there was a substantial rise in people’s disposable income. This led to an increased demand for new products and was further bolstered by government support, which stimulated industry expansion and job creation. Consequently, there was a rapid growth of the middle class, with approximately 60 percent of the population attaining middle-class incomes by the mid-1950s. With greater financial resources at their disposal, individuals in the 1950s became increasingly focused on acquiring material possessions. This era witnessed an unprecedented level of economic prosperity that had not previously been observed.
Veterans who returned from World War II found themselves facing a drastically different world than the one they left behind. Prior to the war, the United States was still recovering from a severe economic downturn. However, upon their homecoming, the country was experiencing a major economic transformation thanks to programs like the GI Bill or Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, which aimed to help veterans readjust to civilian life. These initiatives provided various benefits including unemployment aid, low-interest loans for housing or business endeavors, and financial assistance for college or technical school tuition and living expenses. Consequently, veterans were able to enhance their quality of life compared to pre-war times by transitioning from manual labor jobs to professional occupations. The GI Bill played a pivotal role in fostering growth in higher education and contributed significantly to the emergence of a prosperous middle-class culture across the nation—a development that proved advantageous for the American economy as a whole. With government backing, veterans experienced newfound prosperity and accomplishments within 1950s American society.
While not all Americans experienced a comfortable life, certain groups faced even greater challenges. These groups comprised African Americans, people who feared nuclear attacks and Communism, the lower class, and women. African Americans had never encountered favorable circumstances in the United States; however, change was near and approaching swiftly. Even after their emancipation in 1865, former slaves still endured oppression comparable to that during enslavement. Many African Americans resided in impoverished urban areas. To seek better job opportunities, many individuals migrated from the South to the North. Although employment options were available for them, African Americans received considerably lower wages compared to others and were consistently denied the same privileges and rights as other American citizens, always being regarded as second-class individuals. Nonetheless, conditions for this population were gradually improving.
The Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s, but its origins can be traced back to an earlier time. In 1946, President Truman established the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which had a significant impact on shaping the civil rights agenda for the next two decades. This included advocating for laws against lynching and segregation, as well as fighting for voting rights and equal employment opportunities.
In 1954, the landmark case Brown vs. The Board of Education declared that segregation had no place in education and emphasized that separate but equal facilities were rarely genuinely equal. The following year saw Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Additionally, Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise to prominence occurred during this same decade.
Despite facing numerous challenges and lacking equality in the 1950s, African Americans experienced a noticeable shift that instilled optimism.
During the 1950s, anxiety and fear spread among many Americans due to worries about the future and the potential for a world-ending event. The start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union intensified concerns, particularly after they successfully developed their own atomic bomb. The possibility of a nuclear attack on America greatly impacted people’s lives. In order to safeguard themselves from heat, explosion, and radiation, some individuals invested in fallout shelters. Even children participated in duck-and-cover drills as a preparation for such an attack. The uncertain nature of a possible Soviet attack left many Americans feeling uneasy and anxious. Additionally, there was widespread dread regarding any association with Communism.
Fuelled by Senator Joseph McCarthy, numerous Americans were accused and investigated for their alleged involvement with and support of Communism. McCarthy asserted “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 witnessed uprisings in Greece sparked by native Communist endeavors. McCarthy and fellow Americans were concerned that anyone with even the slightest association with Communism, regardless of how distant in the past, would initiate a Communist revolt and attempt to overthrow the democratic government. This speculation and irrational fear of the spread of Communism caused immense damage to countless lives. The 1950s were also characterized by a culture of conformity. Television portrayed an idealized image that families were expected to embody. A family that held Communist beliefs did not conform to the American family’s expected standard. Respect was lost for those who deviated from this ideal and disagreed with the notion of normalcy.
During the 1950s, poverty in America was an overlooked issue that resulted in immense suffering. There appeared to be no assistance or optimism for change. According to mid-1950s statistics, around 25 percent of Americans (approximately forty to fifty million people) experienced poverty. This included individuals living in poverty, as well as African Americans and Latinos left behind in urban areas while the white middle class relocated to suburban communities. Michael Harrington explains that those dwelling in poverty resided in deplorable housing within city centers but became increasingly isolated from society due to minimal interaction with anyone outside of the middle class resulting from white migration to the suburbs. Workers would commute between their homes and jobs without ever encountering impoverished individuals, making encounters or even sightings of someone living in poverty extremely uncommon.
In the 1950s, the poor were both neglected and purposely disregarded, exacerbating the division of social classes due to suburbanization. Instead of aiding the impoverished, federal policies favored the middle class. An example is the National Housing Act of 1949, which sought to provide suitable homes for all American families but prioritized urban redevelopment and slum clearance. Consequently, the poor were evicted from their homes to make way for inaccessible new buildings. They were then compelled to relocate within the city, facing even more dire living conditions than before. This rendered them invisible and unrecognized, trapping them in their unhappy circumstances.
Despite widespread discontent and dissatisfaction among women in the 1950s, societal expectations forced them to maintain a facade of happiness. The roles assigned to women as housewives left them unfulfilled and hindered their pursuit of personal aspirations. After marriage and having children, women were confined without freedom of movement, consumed by household chores and child-rearing responsibilities. If they did not find immense joy in these traditional duties, they were made to feel abnormal and flawed. Self-expression, personal growth, and independent thinking were forbidden. Women sacrificed their lives for their families’ betterment; those who defied societal norms faced judgment and scrutiny.
In her famous manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan stated that women encountered obstacles when it came to pursuing careers, higher education, or political rights. They were perceived as neurotic, unfeminine, and unhappy. Traditional gender roles and societal norms for women were heavily enforced. Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg even went as far as accusing women who sought equality in education or employment of symbolically emasculating men. Hence, during the 1950s, women faced oppression and scrutiny from society if they deviated from their traditional roles.
In the 1950s, although there was concern over the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, many Americans were primarily driven by fear. The urban poor faced neglect from society, and women felt unfulfilled in their traditional roles as wives and mothers. African Americans endured oppression but held onto hope for change through the Civil Rights Movement. Veterans returning home received a warm welcome with government support. However, a significant portion of the population found contentment during this time. The majority of Americans belonged to the middle class, enjoyed financial stability, and spent more money than ever before. From veterans to the growing middle class, most Americans flourished and experienced happiness during this prosperous era of the 1950s.