The causes of this growth and stability were varied.
Government spending, which had ended the Depression in the 1940s, continued to stimulate growth through public funding of schools, housing, veterans’ benefits, welfare, the $100 billion interstate highway program, which began in 1956, and above all, military spending.
Economic growth was at its peak (averaging 4.7 percent a year) during the first half of the 1950s when military spending was highest because of the Korean War.
In the late 1950s, with spending on armaments in decline, the annual rate of growth declined by more than half, to 2.25 percent.
The national birth rate reversed a long pattern of decline with the so-called baby boom, which had begun during the war and peaked in 1957.
The nation’s population rose almost 20 percent in the decade, from 150 million in 1950 to 179 million in 1960.
The baby boom contributed to increased consumer demand and expanding economic growth.
The rapid expansion of suburbs—the suburban population grew 47 percent in the 1950s, more than twice as fast as the population as a whole—helped stimulate growth in several important sectors of the economy.
The number of privately owned cars (essential for a most suburban living) more than doubled in a decade, sparking a great boom in the automobile industry.
Demand for new homes helped sustain a vigorous housing industry.
The construction of roads and highways stimulated the economy as well.
Over 4,000 corporate mergers took place in the 1950s; and more than ever before, a relatively small number of large-scale organizations controlled an enormous proportion of the nation’s economic activity
During World War II, the federal government tended to award military contracts to a few large corporations.
In 1959, for example, half of all defense contracts went to only twenty firms.
By the end of the decade, half the net corporate income in the nation was going to only slightly more than 500 firms or one-tenth of 1 percent of the total number of corporations.
Corporations enjoying booming growth were reluctant to allow strikes to interfere with their operations.
As a result, business leaders made important concessions to unions.
By the early 1950s, large labor unions had developed a new kind of relationship with employers, a relationship sometimes known as the “postwar contract.”
Workers in steel, automobiles, and other large unionized industries were receiving generous increases in wages and benefits; in return, the unions tacitly agreed to refrain from raising other issues—issues involving the control of the workplace and a voice for workers in the planning of production.
Strikes became far less frequent.
The economic successes of the 1950s helped pave the way for a reunification of the labor movement
A particularly important advance in medical science was the development of new antibacterial drugs capable of fighting infections that in the past had been all but untreatable.
The development of antibiotics had its origins in the discoveries of Louis Pasteur and Jules-François Joubert.
Working in France in the 1870s, they produced the first conclusive evidence that virulent bacterial infections could be defeated by other, more ordinary bacteria.
Using their discoveries, the English physician Joseph Lister revealed the value of antiseptic solutions in preventing infection during surgery.
But the practical use of antibacterial agents to combat disease did not begin until many decades later
In 1928, in the meantime, Alexander Fleming, an English medical researcher, accidentally discovered the antibacterial properties of an organism that he named penicillin.
There was little progress in using penicillin to treat human illness
There was also dramatic progress in immunization.
The first great triumph was the development of the smallpox vaccine by the English researcher Edward Jenner in the late eighteenth century.
A vaccine effective against typhoid was developed by an English bacteriologist, Almorth Wright, in 1897, and was in wide use by World War I.
Vaccination against tetanus became widespread in many countries just before and during World War II.
Viruses are much more difficult to prevent and treat than bacterial infections, and progress toward vaccines against viral infections—except for smallpox—was relatively slow
A particularly dramatic postwar triumph was the development of a vaccine against polio.
In 1954, the American scientist Jonas Salk introduced an effective vaccine against the virus that had killed and crippled thousands of children and adults (among them Franklin Roosevelt).
It was provided free to the public by the federal government beginning in 1955.
As a result of these and many other medical advances, both infant mortality and the death rate among young children declined significantly in the first twenty-five years after the war (although not by as much as in Western Europe).
Average life expectancy in that same period rose by five years, to seventy-one.
At the same time that medical researchers were finding cures and vaccines against infectious diseases, other scientists were developing new kinds of chemical pesticides, which they hoped would protect crops from destruction by insects and protect humans from such insect-carried diseases as typhus and malaria.
The most famous of the new pesticides were dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, generally known as DDT, a compound discovered in 1939 by a Swiss chemist named Paul Muller.
Under these circumstances, DDT seemed a godsend.
It was first used on a large scale in Italy in 1943–1944 during a typhus outbreak, which it quickly helped end.
Soon it was being sprayed in mosquito-infested areas of Pacific islands where American troops were fighting the Japanese.
No soldiers suffered any apparent ill effects from the sprayings, and the incidence of malaria dropped precipitously
Only later did scientists recognize that DDT had long-term toxic effects on animals and humans.
The origins of the American space program can be traced most directly to a dramatic event in 1957 when the Soviet Union announced that it had launched an earth-orbiting satellite— Sputnik—into outer space
The centerpiece of space exploration, however, soon became the manned space program, established in 1958 through the creation of a new agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and through the selection of the first American space pilots, or “astronauts.”
They quickly became among the nation’s most revered heroes
Mercury and Gemini were followed by the Apollo program, whose purpose was to land men on the moon.
It had some catastrophic setbacks, most notably a fire in January 1967 that killed three astronauts.
But on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins successfully traveled in a space capsule into orbit around the moon.
Instead, the program became a more modest effort to make travel in near space easier and more practical through the development of the “space shuttle,” an airplane-like device launched by a missile but capable of both navigating in space and landing on earth much like a conventional aircraft.
The first space shuttle was successfully launched in 1982.
The explosion of one shuttle, Challenger, in January 1986 shortly after takeoff, killing all seven astronauts, stalled the program for two years.
Missions resumed in the late 1980s, driven in part by commercial purposes.
The space shuttle launched and repaired communications satellites, and inserted the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit in 1990
At the center of middle-class culture in the 1950s, as it had been for many decades before, was a growing absorption with consumer goods.
That was a result of increased prosperity, of the increasing variety and availability of products, and of advertisers’ adeptness in creating a demand for those products.
It was also a result of the growth of consumer credit, which increased by 800 percent between 1945 and 1957 through the development of credit cards, revolving charge accounts, and easy-payment plans.
The popularity of the Walt Disney–produced children’s television show The Mickey Mouse Club created a national demand for related products such as Mickey Mouse watches and hats.
It also helped produce the stunning success of Disneyland, an amusement park near Los Angeles that re-created many of the characters and events of Disney entertainment programs.
By 1960, a third of the nation’s population was living in suburbs. Suburbanization was partly a result of important innovations in home-building, which made single-family houses affordable to millions of people.
The most famous of the postwar suburban developers, William Levitt, used new mass-production techniques to construct a large housing development on Long Island, near New York City.
This first “Levittown” (there would later be others in New Jersey and Pennsylvania) consisted of several thousand two-bedroom Cape Cod-style houses, with identical interiors and only slightly varied façades, each perched on its own concrete slab (to eliminate excavation costs), facing curving, treeless streets.
Levittown houses, and other, similarly low-priced homes, sold for under $10,000, and they helped meet an enormous and growing demand for housing.
Young couples—often newly married and the husband a war veteran, eager to start a family, assisted by low-cost, government-subsidized mortgages provided by the GI Bill (see p. 741)—rushed to purchase the inexpensive homes
Suburban neighborhoods had many things in common with one another.
But they were not uniform.
Levittowns and inexpensive developments like them ultimately became the homes of mainly lower-middle-class people one step removed from the inner city.
Other, more affluent suburbs became enclaves of wealthy families.
In virtually every city, a clear hierarchy emerged of upper-class suburban neighborhoods and more modest ones, just as such gradations had emerged years earlier among urban neighborhoods.
The most caustic critics of bureaucracy, and of middle-class society in general, were a group of young poets, writers, and artists generally known as the “beats” (or, derisively, as “beatniks”).
They wrote harsh critiques of what they considered the sterility and conformity of American life, the meaninglessness of American politics, and the banality of popular culture
In part, that restlessness as a result of prosperity itself—of a growing sense among young people of limitless possibilities, and of the declining power of such traditional values as thrift, discipline, and self-restraint.
Young middle-class Americans were growing up in a culture that encouraged them to expect rich and fulfilling lives, but they were living in a world in which almost all of them experienced obstacles to that fulfillment.
Tremendous public attention was directed at the phenomenon of “juvenile delinquency,” and in both politics and popular culture there were dire warnings about the growing criminality of American youth.
One of the most powerful cultural forces for American youth was the enormous popularity of rock ’n’ roll—and of the greatest early rock star, Elvis Presley.
Presley became a symbol of a youthful determination to push at the borders of the conventional and acceptable.
His sultry good looks; his self-conscious effort to dress in the vaguely rebellious style of urban gangs (motorcycle jackets and slicked-back hair); and most of all, the open sexuality of his music and his public performances made him wildly popular among young Americans in the 1950s
Presley’s music, like that of most early white rock musicians, drew heavily from black rhythm and blues traditions, which appealed to some white youths in the early 1950s because of their pulsing, sensual rhythms and their hard-edged lyrics.
The rise of such white rock musicians as Presley was a result in part of the limited willingness of white audiences to accept black musicians.
The rapid rise and enormous popularity of rock owed a great deal to innovations in radio and television programming.
By the 1950s, radio stations no longer felt obliged to present mostly live programming.
Instead, many radio stations devoted themselves to playing recorded music.
Early in the 1950s, a new breed of radio announcers, known now as “disc jockeys,” began to create programming aimed specifically at young fans of rock music; and when those programs became wildly successful, other stations followed suit
As white families moved from cities to suburbs in vast numbers, many inner-city neighborhoods became vast repositories for the poor, “ghettos” from which there was no easy escape.
The growth of these neighborhoods owed much to the vast migration of African Americans out of the countryside and into industrial cities.
Similar migrations from Mexico and Puerto Rico expanded poor Hispanic neighborhoods at the same time. Between 1940 and 1960, nearly a million Puerto Ricans moved into American cities (the largest group to New York).
Mexican workers crossed the border in Texas and California and swelled the already substantial Latino communities of such cities as San Antonio, Houston, San Diego, and Los Angeles (which by 1960 had the largest Mexican American population of any city, approximately 500,000 people).
Many others argue that a combination of declining blue-collar jobs, inadequate support for minority-dominated public schools, and barriers to advancement rooted in racism—not the culture and values of the poor themselves—as the source of inner-city poverty.
It is indisputable that inner cities were filling up with poor minority residents at the same time that the unskilled industrial jobs they were seeking were diminishing.
Employers were relocating factories and mills from old industrial cities to new locations in suburbs, smaller cities, and even abroad—places where the cost of labor was lower.
Even in the factories that remained, automation was reducing the number of unskilled jobs.
The economic opportunities that had helped earlier immigrant groups to rise up from poverty were unavailable to most of the post-war migrants.
For many years, the principal policy response to the poverty of inner cities was “urban renewal”: the effort to tear down buildings in the poorest and most degraded areas
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court announced its decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.
In considering the legal segregation of a Kansas public school system, the Court rejected its own 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which had ruled that communities could provide blacks with separate facilities as long as the facilities were equal to those of whites.
The Topeka suit involved the case of an African American girl who had to travel several miles to a segregated public school every day even though she lived virtually next door to a white elementary school.
In some communities—for example, Washington, D.C.— compliance came relatively quickly and quietly.
More often, however, strong local opposition (what came to be known in the South as “massive resistance”) produced long delays and bitter conflicts. Some school districts ignored the ruling altogether.
Many white parents simply withdrew their children from the public schools and enrolled them in all-white “segregation academies”; some state and local governments diverted money from newly integrated public schools and used it to fund the new, all-white academies.
The Brown decision, far from ending segregation, had launched a prolonged battle between federal authority and state and local governments, and between those who believed in racial equality and those who did not.
The Eisenhower administration was not eager to commit itself to that battle.
The president himself had greeted the Brown decision with skepticism (and once said it had set back progress on race relations “at least fifteen years”)
The Brown decision helped spark a growing number of popular challenges to segregation in the South.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger. Parks, an active civil rights leader in the community, had apparently decided spontaneously to resist the order to move.
Her feet were tired, she later explained.
But black leaders in Montgomery had been waiting for such an incident, which they wanted to use to challenge the segregation of the buses
An important result of the Montgomery boycott was the rise to prominence of a new figure in the movement for civil rights.
The man chosen to head the boycott movement was a local Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., the son of a prominent Atlanta minister, a powerful orator, and a gifted leader.
At first, King was reluctant to lead the movement. But once he accepted the role, he became consumed by it.
King’s approach to black protest was based on the doctrine of nonviolence—that is, of passive resistance even in the face of direct attack.
He drew from the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian nationalist leader; from Henry David Thoreau and his doctrine of civil disobedience; and from Christian doctrine
President Eisenhower completed the integration of the armed forces, attempted to desegregate the federal workforce, and in 1957 signed a civil rights act (passed, without active support from the White House, by a Democratic Congress) providing federal protection for African Americans who wished to register to vote.
It was a weak bill, with few mechanisms for enforcement, but it was the first civil rights bill of any kind to win passage since the end of Reconstruction, and it served as a signal that the executive and legislative branches were beginning to join the judiciary in the federal commitment to the “Second Reconstruction.”
The Soviet Union announced that it had shot down an American U-2, a high-altitude spy plane, over Russian territory.
Its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was in captivity.
Khrushchev lashed out angrily at the American incursion into Soviet air space, breaking up the Paris summit almost before it could begin and withdrawing his invitation to Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union.
Yet Eisenhower had brought to the Cold War his own sense of the limits of American power.
He had resisted military intervention in Vietnam.
And he had placed a measure of restraint on those who urged the creation of an enormous American military establishment.
In his Farewell Address in January 1961, he warned of the “unwarranted influence” of a vast “military-industrial complex.”