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Chapter 30: the Affluent Society
The Economic Miracle
During the 1950’s and 1960’s the American economy was on the upheaval and was growing
quickly. This was due in part to several different reasons. One reason was government spending
that stimulated the economy through the public funding of schools, housing, veterans’ benefits,
welfare, and the $100 billion interstate highway program. Above all, there was military
spending. During this time was also the baby boom, which meant increased consumer demand
and expanding economic growth. Also, the rapid expansion of suburbs helped stimulate growth
in several important sectors of the economy (cars and housing). Because of this unprecedented
growth, the economy grew nearly ten times as fast as the population in the thirty years after the
No region of the country experienced more dramatic changes as a result of the economic growth
than the modern West. Much of the growth was due to federal spending and investment n the
dams, power stations, highways, and other infrastructure projects that made economic
development possible. An increase in automobile use created better highway systems which gave
a large stimulus to the petroleum industry and contributed to the rapid growth of oil fields in
Texas and Colorado. Once large amounts of water were easily sustainable in the West it attracted
many migrants from the East to the West due to the West’s warm, dry climates.
Two features made the postwar economy a source of national confidence. First was the belief the
Keynesian economics made it possible for the government to regulate and stabilize the economy
without intruding directly into the private sector. Keynes had argued that by varying the flow of
government spending and taxation and managing the supply of currency, the government could
stimulate the economy to cure recession, and dampen growth to prevent inflation. His theory
seemed to be confirmed during the last years of the Depression and the first years of the war.
Another new belief was in the possibility of permanent economic growth. Since the economy
had been growing at an unprecedented rate, Americans assumed that such growth was without
bounds. This created a new outlook on social and economic problems. By the mid-1950’s,
reformers concerned about economic deprivation were arguing that the solution lay in increased
production. The affluent would not have to sacrifice in order to eliminate poverty; the nation
would simply have to produce more abundance, thus raising the quality of life of even the
poorest citizens to a level of comfort and decency.
During the 1950’s a small percentage of large-scale organizations controlled an enormous
proportion of the nation’s economic activity. Corporations changed from single-industry firms to
diversified conglomerates. This included farming, which became more mechanical and reduced
the need for farm labor. This endangered one of the most cherished American institutions: the
family farm. Since corporations were booming they did not want strikes interfering with their
organizations. So many unions and corporations entered into a “postwar contract,” that would
give generous benefits and wages to workers as long as unions would refrain from raising other
issues. During this time the two labor unions the AFL and the CIO joined together to create the
AFL-CIO. Also during this time several large union organizations were rocked with scandals and
The Explosion of Science and Technology
Many medical breakthroughs occurred during the 1950’s and 1960’s. There was the development
of new antibacterial drugs capable of fighting infections that in the past had been all but
untreatable. There also was the creation on penicillin, which is a practical weapon against
bacterial diseases. There was also dramatic progress in immunization. There were now vaccines
against small pox, tetanus, tuberculosis, influenza, and polio. Due to these breakthroughs both
the infant mortality and the death rate among young children declined significantly.
Researchers in the 1940’s produced the first commercially viable televisions and created
technology that made it possible to broadcast programming over large areas. There was also the
invention of transistors, which made it possible to miniaturize many devices (radios, televisions,
hearing aids) and were also important in aviation, weaponry and satellites. They contributed to
another major breakthrough in electronics: the development of integrated circuitry in the late
The first significant computer of the 1950s was the UNIVAC. It was the first computer able to
handle alphabetical and numerical information easily. It accurately predicted the landside victory
of Eisenhower over Stevenson.
In 1952, the United States successfully detonated the first hydrogen bomb. This success pushed
both the United States and the Soviet Union to develop unmanned rockets and missiles capable
of traveling the new weapons to their targets. There were setbacks due to the difficulty of
massing sufficient, stable fuel to provide tremendous power needed to launch missiles beyond
the atmosphere. By 1958 scientists had created solid fuel to replace the volatile fuel of the
earlier missiles. American scientists also developed a nuclear missile capable of being carried
and fired by submarines.
When the Soviet Union created the first earth-orbiting satellite Sputnik, it came as a shock to the
United States. American soon launched their own satellite Explorer I. The United States started
up the space program NASA and was soon launching astronauts into space. The Apollo
Program’s goal was to place a man on the moon. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz
Aldrin were the first men on the moon.
People of Plenty
As the economy grew, so did the prosperity of the middle class of America. The middle class
was now living in the suburbs and had a larger margin of spending money, which was spent on
consumer crazes such as cars and hula hoops. Americans also bought more thanks to consumer
credit through credit cards, revolving charge accounts, and easy-payment plans.
Thanks to the Federal Highway Act of 1956, 40,000 miles of highways were created across the
nation. These new highways linked major cities to each other, cut down on traveling time,
encouraged manufacturing to leave behind the cites for rural areas, and allowed families to move
further away from the workplace. So much of the middle class moved into suburban
neighborhoods. Automobiles also transformed the landscape of retailing. It encouraged the
creation of fast-food chains such as McDonald’s. The automobile was one of the principle causes
of the enormous increase in the demand for oil and thus of the depletion of American oil
As masses of people left the cities, they entered into suburban neighborhoods. To meet this
demand designers built nearly identical houses all holed up together. Such homes were called
“Levittowns.” They were great because they were relatively cheap and met the growing demand
for housing. Americans wanted to move to the suburbs for several different reasons. One reason
was the enormous importance postwar Americans placed on family life after fiver years of a
disruptive war. Another factor motivating Americans to move to the suburbs was race. Cities
were now brimming with different races and minorities. Many white fled to the suburbs to
escape the integration of urban neighborhoods and schools.
During the 1950s there was a great cultural emphasis on family life, which strengthened popular
prejudices against women entering the professions, or occupying any paid job at all. Many
middle class husbands found it demeaning to have their wives work. And many women shied
away from the workplace and remained at home as a dutiful wife and mother. The experiences of
the 1950s worked in some ways of diminishing the power of feminism.
Television replaced newspapers, radios and magazines as the nation’s most important vehicle of
information. Television portrayed a common image of American life – an image that was
predominately white, middle class, and suburban. Television reinforced the concept of gender
roles between men and women. Television sought to create an idealized image of American
society: it did portray the other half life in America, but in a warm and unthreatening manner.
Television contributed to the alienation and powerless among groups excluded from the world it
Thanks to the new highway systems travel increased throughout the United States. People
wanted to leave behind the noisy and bustling cities and escape into the wild and beauty of
nature. National parks gained an upheaval of tourism that has continued to this day. And as
people loved to travel more, they began to take part in conserving and preserving the beauty of
nature. When the Bureau of Reclamation wanted to build a dam in Echo Valley, the Sierra Club
and a large coalition of protestors forced Congress to bow to public pressure and the valley was
left untouched.
Americans began to become convinced that the key to a successful future lay in acquiring the
specialized training and skills necessary for work in large organizations, where every worker
performed a particular, well-defined function. Schools now gave increased attention to the
teaching of science, mathematics and foreign languages.
Not all of Americans were content with the homogeneity of suburban living. The “beats” wrote
harsh critiques of what they considered the sterility and conformity of American life, the
meaningless of American politics, and the banality of popular culture. The youths of American
were becoming restless; this resulted from prosperity – 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. They began to be rebellious towards their parents, become
fascinated in fast cars and motorcycles, dressed up like greasers, and began having sex.
Teenagers emulated iconic figures such as James Dean, who seemed to stand for the image of
rebelliousness of American youth.
Rock ‘n’ Roll became immensely popular during the 1950s. And Elvis Presley led the pack as he
became a symbol of a youthful determination to push at the borders of the conventional and
acceptable. Rock music drew heavily from black rhythm and blues tradition, which appealed to
white youths. The rise and popularity of rock music was largely in part thanks to radio and
television programming which would play music on the air. Rock music defined both youth
culture as a whole and the experiences of a generation.
The “Other America”
Not every American lived contently in the suburbs. Over 30 million people lived below the
poverty line, and many millions more lived just above the official poverty line. For about 20% of
the poor, poverty was a never-ending reality. This included half the nation ’s elderly and a large
portion of African Americas and Hispanics. Native Americans counted as the single poorest
group in the nation.
As farm prices began to decline much of the rural population moved into or was absorbed by the
cities. In the cities, poor neighborhoods and ghettos sprouted up. Many minorities lived in such
areas (African Americans, Hispanics, etc.). Many of these minorities found it impossible to
escape such poverty that they found themselves trapped in. Most of the minority groups could
only work at unskilled jobs, which were now diminishing. To battle such ghettos, cities began
the “urban renewal” program. They would tear down old buildings and place new, economic
buildings in their stead. This didn’t so much help those poor people, but only erased the former
blight that they lived in.
The Rise of the Civil Rights Movement
One major wave of the Civil Rights Movement was the groundbreaking decision of the Supreme
Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In it the Supreme Court decided to overturn
the “ separate but equal” doctrine that had been in place in schools down in the south. Now
schools were advised to integrate African Americans into formerly all-white schools. This was
met with “massive resistance” from Southerners. In Little Rock, Arkansas, a white mob
blockaded the entrances to Central High School so as to prevent black students from entering.
Governor Orval Faubus refused to stop the obstruction and President Eisenhower was forced to
call in the National Guard to keep order in Little Rock.
On December 1 , 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a
Montgomery bus. This led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. African Americans refused to ride
the public transportation and instead would walk or carpool to work. This nearly crippled the
public transportation companies. Then the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to allow
segregation in public transportation. This was a great victory for the Civil Rights Movement.
This also led to Martin Luther King Jr. going to the helm of the Civil Rights movement. King
believed in passive resistance and civil disobedience, a way of fighting violence with love.
Segregation also began to lift in other sectors, such as professional sports.
Several factors led to the rise of African American protests against racism. One was the legacy of
WWII. Millions of black people had fought and worked during the war and had gained a new
view on the world and their place in it. Another factor was the growth of the urban black middle
class. Educated blacks were able to see the obstacles that prevented them and their brethren from
leading a prosperous life. Television and other forms of popular culture were another factor in
the rising consciousness of racism among blacks. Television also conveyed the activities of
demonstrators to a national audience.
Eisenhower Republicanism
Eisenhower’s cabinet was filled with wealthy corporate leaders and executives of powerful
organizations. Eisenhower’s inclination was to limit federal activities and encourage private
enterprise. He removed the last limited wage and prince controls maintained by the Truman
The most significant piece of legislature in Eisenhower’s administration was the creation of the
Federal Highway Act of 1956, which authorized $25 billion for a ten-year project that built over
40,000 miles of interstate highways.
During the 1950s the scare of communism began to dwindle as did McCarthyism. The clearest
signal of that was the political demise of Senator Joseph McCarthy. After attacking Secretary of
the Army Robert Stevens and the armed forces, Congress organized a special investigation into
the charges. During the Army-McCarthy hearings Senator McCarthy was show bullying
witnesses , hurling groundless accusation and evading issues. The American public began to
view him as a villain and Congress condemned him with “conduct unbecoming a senator.”
Eisenhower, Dulles, and the Cold War
Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Dulles believed in the idea of “massive retaliation.” The
United States would respond to communist threats to its allies not by using conventional forces
in local conflicts, but by relying on “the deterrent of massive retaliatory power.” Dulles wanted
to push the Soviet Union the brink of war so as to exact concessions. Also force behind
retaliation was economic gain. Military spending was beginning to decline and a possible war
would cause that to reverse.
Years ago France had once had control over Vietnam and was trying to regain that control;
however, Ho Chi Minh wanted to win independence for his country. French troops landed at
Dien Bien Phu and became surrounded. Only American intervention would save the French
troops, but Eisenhower refused to permit direct American military intervention in Vietnam.
Without American aid the French agreed to settle the conflict at the conference in Geneva.
When Israel proclaimed its independence the United States formally recognized it as a nation.
This concerned some Americans since the Arab states were unhappy about this and the U.S.
needed to remain close to the Arab regimes in the oil-rich Middle East. When Muhammad
Mossadegh began to resist the presence of Western corporations in his nation, the United States
helped stage a coup that drove Mossadegh from office and placed Muhammad Reza Pahlevi in
his place.
In Egypt, when General Gamal Abdel Nasser began to become friendly with the Soviet Union,
Dulles responded by pulling out American assistance in the building of the Aswan Dam on the
Nile. Nasser took the Suez Canal from British control so as to pay for his dam. French and
British troops landed in Egypt to fight the Arabs back. The United States was concerned that the
Arabs would run off to the Soviet Union for aid and that could potentially cause another world
war. So with the United Nations, the United Stated helped pressure the French and British to
withdraw and helped persuade Israel to agree to a truce with Egypt.
Cold War concerns affected American relations in Latin America as well. When the Batista
regime fell in Cuba, Fidel Castro came to power and ties with the U.S. were severed. Castro then
cemented an alliance with the Soviet Union.
Relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union remained cold and rocky. For a time it seemed
that an agreement could be met when Nikita Khrushchev offered to come to the U.S. if
Eisenhower traveled to the Soviet Union and then the two could have a summit in Paris. This
was called off when the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 that had been flying over
Russian territory.