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One can say that the first fifteen years after World War II was the most dynamic period in American History. It was marked by great optimism; – people longed for material prosperity and comforts of life and the nation sought to be a world leader in the modern era.
The end of World War II marked a new beginning as thousands of military men returned home to start new lives. They needed new jobs and had to set up new homes. It was during this period that American industry developed by leaps and bounds. This was the beginning of American consumerism; – the powerful wartime economy was retooled and redirected towards consumer needs. This in turn created corporate expansion and jobs.
There was growth in every sphere. Fortune magazine proclaimed in 1946, “The Great American Boom is on” (Donaldson, 1997). The general perception after World War II was that the future of America is prosperous, safe, and secure. Thesis statement: The era of 1945-1960 in the United States was a predominantly positive period, characterized by great economic prosperity, optimism, a shift to the cities, growth in population, development of the entertainment industry, and enhanced lifestyle though it had its setbacks in the context of declining cultural values, widening gap between rich and poor and increase in racial strife.
The period 1945-1960 was a golden period in American history. Americans honestly believed they could do anything – eradicate communism, end poverty, explore space, resolve racism, provide basic necessities for all and even cure any disease (Donaldson, 1997). The American economy was also supported indirectly by the postwar destruction faced by England, Japan, Germany, France, and the Soviet Union. U.S. trade flourished as there was no competition in the world market. As a result, American overseas trade grew exponentially and American manufacturing thrived. The GNP grew by 250 percent between 1945 and 1960 (Donaldson, 1997).
Per capita income increased by 35 percent in the same period, and there was a steady growth rate of 4.7 percent (Donaldson, 1997). The economic prosperity of the nation also led to the adoption of a new urban lifestyle that greatly impacted the moral fabric of the cities, altered race relations, and shaped the place of women in society. Middle-class white Americans who moved to the city in search of material prosperity achieved great success and this phenomenon was popularly known as the realization of the American dream.
However, some anxiety was generated in the minds of the Americans during this period. Americans had come to believe that they are invincible because of their nuclear strength and believed that it had the power to keep the forces of evil in check in the future. However, soon after the war, conflicts broke out with the Soviet Union. Within a brief span of four years, the Soviets posed a threat to the U.S. by acquiring the atomic bomb and territorial assets of Eastern Europe and China.
The war against Korea in 1950 was also not moving in favor of the U.S. These events shocked and frustrated the Americans so much so they developed a worry that Communist spies inside the government must have caused the rise to power of Soviet Russia. First of all, U.S. was not prepared for the cold war and above everything else; did not expect to be on the losing side. All of this caused great anxiety. The extent of the anxiety can be seen in the fact that duck-and-cover exercises were taught as part of civil defense drills to every American citizen including children (Nadel, 1995). Even a movie Duck and Cover (1951) was produced by the Federal Civil Defense Administration for school showings.
Major social problems that America was to fight in the future, took root in the 1950s. The rise of a new black middle class supported African Americans to demand civil rights in the post-war period (Donaldson, 1997). The demand also got its strength from the power of the black vote in northern urban centers. Politicians had to woo the black voters to win. But this rise in political clout of the African Americans also leads to the appearance of a deep chasm between the white and black races that lasted over the next five decades (Donaldson, 1997).
Rising consumerism after World War II caused postwar inflation that Truman had to control through regulations and controls. However, the economy soon brightened and there was real growth that overcame the inflation. One of the main characteristics of this post-war period was the boom in the economy through the rise in military expenditures. This was due to the Truman administration’s acceptance of the rearmament policy endorsed by NSC-68 and the outbreak of the Korean War.
It is significant to note that in 1951, when the Korean War was at its peak, military expenditures exceeded private domestic investment and by 1960 military spending was nearly 20 percent of the nation’s gross national product (GNP). Richard Hofstader called the process by which military expenditures boosted the economy “military Keynesianism”.
With only 6 percent of the world’s population, the United States, by 1960, was producing and consuming an enormous one-third of the world’s goods and services. This caused a great leap in the standard of living of American citizens between 1945 and 1960. Workers worked for lesser hours and had more time for shopping and entertainment (Donaldson, 1997). But worker productivity increased by a significant 35 percent between 1945 and 1960. The increase in productivity was mainly due to automation (Young and Young, 2004).
During this period, emerged the “organization man” who was to halt the pace of industrial progress. The organization man stood for conformity and blocked anything innovative. It was his emergence in the 1950s that lead to the slide of American businesses in the 1960s. This phenomenon in American business was criticized by William H. Whyte in The Organization Man (1956), by David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950), and by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite (1956) (Donaldson, 1997).
The labor movement became hugely unpopular. The labor unions became their own enemy and the 113-day strike against General Motors in 1946 turned the nation against them. This made the two labor organizations AFL and CIO to merge in 1955 and the merger was hailed as a great event (Donaldson, 1997). Another life-altering event of this era was the growth of the automobile industry. Between 1945 and 1960 the number of cars in the nation increased by 133 percent and they also became much longer, wider, and more powerful (Donaldson, 1997).
During this period there were great increases in marriage and birth rates. Between 1945 and 1960 the population of the nation grew by almost 40 million, an increase of nearly 30 percent. This was the largest increase in the nation’s history. In the 1950s alone the population grew by 29 million. The children of the baby boom generation are known as “the boomers”. Due to this boom in population, housing became a hot industry and people began to move to the suburbs to get away from the hustle of the cities (Donaldson, 1997). This migration belonged mainly to the middle class and left behind the poor people in the cities. Life in the suburbs made women more secluded and lonely. In the 1950s, America positioned the woman at home and basically as a housewife (Donaldson, 1997).
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The greatest symbol of American society between 1945 and 1960 was the television. It impacted the public in a huge way, dramatically changing the entertainment scene, the political scene, and the realm of advertising (Young and Young, 2004). Soap operas, the lowest form of television entertainment came into being and were so named because they were initially sponsored by soap companies (Young and Young, 2004). Pseudo sports, children’s shows, and game shows became hugely popular.
The 1950s sitcom genre was mostly filled with light comedy. The talk show originated in 1951 with Today and its easy-mannered host Dave Garroway. In Hollywood, the genre of the American Western became hugely popular and this was also the period of Alfred Hitchcock and Marilyn Monroe (Young and Young, 2004). The music of the age was Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rhythm and Blues. The popularity of rock ‘n’ roll music was a background to the transformation of American culture in the fifties.
It symbolized good times, free sex, and personal choice. This was also the golden period of Elvis Presley (Donaldson, 1997). President Dwight D.Eisenhower who was in power for a major part of this era proved to be, among these changing times, an embodiment of virtue and was hence most loved by his people. While his victories on the battlefield made his countrymen proud and ecstatic, his honest simple nature endeared him to the hearts of all people.
It is no wonder that today, many Americans look back on the 1950s with nostalgia and see it as America at its best, the norm to which we should strive to return. It is basically a positive period in America’s growth despite the experimental setbacks in some areas. It grew in terms of its economy, population, cities, agriculture, military, music and entertainment, and also in various other scientific fields. Overall, people had a peaceful and comfortable life. The problems that arose in the 1950s however had to be faced in the subsequent decades.
Donaldson, A. Gary (1997). Abundance and Anxiety: America, 1945-1960. Praeger Publishers. Westport, CT. Page Number: 123.
Young, H. William and Young, K. Nancy (2004). The 1950s. Contributors: William H. Young – author, Nancy K. Young – author. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of Publication: Westport, CT. . Page Number: 1.
Nadel, Alan (1995). Containment Culture: American Narrative, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age. Duke University Press. Durham, NC.