Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.
Home From War
With the end of World War II, millions of American soldiers returned home, ready to make up for time lost spent fighting in Europe and the Pacific. While one phenomenon, the Baby Boom, requires little explanation, it does deserve recognition for adding four million new people every year to the American population. However, another boom was going on and that was the economy. The millions of returning servicemen found themselves full of confidence, and, thanks to legislation like the GI Bill, had the ability to pursue opportunities never before imagined. More than two million veterans went to college on the GI Bill, transforming American higher education from a playground of the rich to the model of social advancement that it is today.
For the first time ever, a booming, vibrant middle class emerged in the United States as a powerful political player. Identified by living in suburbs and increased consumer spending, this group would power much of America's drive to global dominance. However, it wasn't a happy time for everyone, as women and minorities were often treated as second-class compared to the white men who epitomized the period.
The GI Bill didn't only cover tuition and fees, however. One of the most important advantages of the new law was that it permitted veterans to obtain low-interest loans for new businesses and, just as importantly, new houses. Entrepreneurship shot up in the years following World War II, with those entrepreneurs, and their customers, coming home to something that a great many had never encountered before - a home of their own.
With low-interest mortgages available, millions purchased homes, with many of them in the new suburbs built outside of major U.S. cities. The most famous of these is Levittown, a custom-built community on Long Island with houses built almost exactly alike. It was in these suburbs that millions of Americans found their realization of the American dream. Combined with a steady, well-paying job, the classic American image of a two-parent household, with the father working and the mother tending to the needs of the home and children, was formed as a distinct memory of the 1950s.
In your own mental image of the 1950s, when compared with any other decade prior in American history, you probably see a lot more stuff. Consumerism was on the rise during the 1950s and choice was everywhere. The great American carmakers competed heavily for the loyalty of the clientele that now considered a car in the driveway to be a birthright, despite the fact that many of their grandparents would have been lucky to have a horse. New technologies, such as television, and improvements to existing technologies, like radios, also helped to make sure that choices were everywhere, and the only way to vote for your favorite was to spend those hard-earned dollars.
Of course, this consumerism was seen as the American way, as it was the prevailing of capitalism. Remember, the 1950s were a time during which the threat of war was very real and alive. Consumerism helped remind Americans that they were happier and richer than their communist Soviet rivals.
Not Perfect - The Downside of the 50s
Unfortunately, exhortations to 'Duck and Cover' to avoid Soviet bombs were not the only dark point of the 1950s. Those same women who, in popular imagination, were so happy to be the perfect wife and mother found themselves actually miserable, stifled, and bored. Advertisements especially targeted this idea of a wife doting on her husband every time he returned from work, as if her sole purpose was to provide for his comfort. A minority even found themselves subject to domestic abuse.
Society at the time had little room for women who didn't want to fulfill the role of wife and mother, and even less room for those who cried foul when faced with abuse. One famous advice columnist, who was asked by a reader how to address the fact that her sister was being abused by her husband, advised her fans to stay out of such things, as chances were the sister in question may enjoy it. Sadly, this was obviously not the case.
Another segment of the population that faced difficulties during the 1950s were racial minorities. Some of the more appealing aspects of the GI Bill were not available to soldiers of color, meaning that they lost out on much of the postwar boom. In places like the South, many of the returning soldiers found themselves once again fighting a new tyrant, this time named Jim Crow, a system of laws that kept racial minorities in a state of second-class citizenry.
However, as the 1950s drew to a close, the conditions of women and racial minorities were on the verge of improvement. Revolt against the oppression of the hearth had led many women to turn to more feminist thought, culminating in that movement's growth in the 1960s. More famously, Brown vs. Board of Education laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement by calling for schools to be integrated.
In this lesson, we look at American life during the 1950s. Starting with the return from World War II, we discussed the impact of the Baby Boom and the GI Bill on the economy, leading to a rise in homeownership and the growth of suburbs. These new houses were filled with the goods inherent in a rise of American consumerism, itself largely encouraged as a foil to Soviet communism. However, the 1950s were not a happy time for everyone. Women were trapped in the home, while racial minorities were only starting to see an end to Jim Crow and segregation.
After you are finished, you should be able to:
- Explain how the returning GIs of WWII altered the composition of the American middle class forever
- Describe the GI bill and how it spurred 1950s' social development
- Discuss the treatment of women and racial minorities during the 1950s
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