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Post-War American Life: Culture of the late 1940s & 1950s

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  • 0:06 Into a New Era
  • 0:54 The 'Baby-Boom' and…
  • 2:36 The 'Red Scare' and…
  • 4:47 Other Aspects of…
  • 6:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore American postwar culture. We will learn what life was like throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s by highlighting important cultural trends.

Into a New Era

The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of a new era, not only for the United States, but also the entire world. In America, the end of the war was met with much celebration and hope for the future, even as the threat of conflict with the Soviet Union loomed like a dark cloud. The immediate postwar era was a time of uncertainty. Emerging from World War II as a victorious superpower, America's future appeared bright, even as complex geopolitical concerns spilled over into everyday life, affecting society at its most basic levels. Prosperity and social conservatism came to define the early postwar era, amid Cold War-related anxiety.

The 'Baby-Boom' and Family Life

Thousands of young American men had spent years away from their wives and girlfriends because of World War II. You can imagine the joy they experienced upon being reunited. Not surprisingly, marriage rates soared in the postwar era. With the war over and the promise of American prosperity on the horizon, many couples decided this was the ideal time to begin a family, and an unusually high number of children were born. This trend is called the 'baby-boom'. The 'baby-boom' lasted between 1946-1964. People born during this time are now commonly called 'baby-boomers.'

With the dramatic increase in new families, suburbs emerged as a popular place to live. These pre-fabricated homes placed just outside city limits became all the rage. One of the most famous examples of the postwar idealized suburb was Levittown, New York.

In many ways, the early postwar era was a socially conservative time. Gender roles for men and women were more often than not traditional and very clearly defined. When World War II ended, many women who had worked in factories during the war returned to home and the domestic way of life. The feminism so characteristic of the 1920s to early 1940s was noticeably lacking throughout the 1950s. While there were exceptions, and while we must be careful about over-generalizing, the traditional nuclear family as typified in the popular television show 'Leave it to Beaver' was very much the cultural norm.

The 'Red Scare' and Anti-Communism

The roots of American-Soviet tension go back to World War II and differences over how Eastern Europe should be reconfigured. By the time the Soviet Union successfully exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, the Cold War was well underway. The Red Scare, sometimes called the Era of McCarthyism or just McCarthyism, was a period of time roughly between 1947-1954 when many Americans experienced heightened fear over the potential spread of communism. Of particular concern was the prospect of communist infiltration within the United States.

Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, after whom 'McCarthyism' is obviously named, was one of the leading figures of the Red Scare. McCarthy became famous for his crusade against communism and for making unfounded allegations of communist activity. Throughout the Red Scare, many Americans were wrongly accused of being communists. The Hollywood motion picture industry, in particular, came under suspicion, resulting in many actors and actresses having their careers destroyed. The House Committee on Un-American Activities was set up to investigate alleged communist activity within the United States. While there is still debate among historians, it is now generally believed that the Red Scare was mostly an unfounded paranoia.

What is important to remember is that a deep-seated fear of communism ran rampant throughout America during the immediate postwar era. It affected numerous areas of cultural life. Patriotism and religious sentiment ran high as Americans sought to shield themselves from 'godless' communism. Fearful over the possibility of a nuclear attack, some Americans went as far as constructing their own underground bunkers. In schools, children were taught the 'duck and cover' drill, in which they would crawl under their desks in an attempt to protect themselves in the event of a nuclear explosion.

Other Aspects of Popular Culture

A distinct youth culture developed during the postwar era. Many teenagers enjoyed 'souping up' old cars, a hobby that came to be known as hot-rodding. Many boys read comic books and science fiction, while, among girls, hula-hooping became a fad. For both males and females, blue jeans became a popular fashion.

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