Historical Overview of the Postwar
Introduction: Age of Conformity and Consensus vs Anxiety and Rebellion
The postwar era that forms the
background to Herb Brown’s political play has been assigned different names by
social commentators and historians, including the Age of Conformity, the Age of
Consensus, the Age of Anxiety. The consensus and conformity of the era
grounded “The Establishment,” that generation most recently labeled the
“Greatest Generation”, and which became the target of so much unrest in the
1960s. The children of The Establishment,
ironically and perhaps as the Establishment would have it, ungratefully,
attacked the very values upon which
To begin to understand the era, we must remember that several major forces influenced politics and society at the time: the memory of the Great Depression and World War II; the business-government partnerships that responded to these two crises; the emergence of the Cold War, with the conflict between democratic capitalism and communism replacing the tensions of the 1930s and 1940s between democracies and totalitarian governments; the resulting atomic arms race and second Red Scare/McCarthy era; the unleashing of consumerism (whose expansion in the 1920s had been restrained by the Depression and World War II); and, the unparalleled “Baby Boom” (77 million born between 1946 and 1964).
In some ways, as historian William
L. O’Neill argues in his book, American
High: The Years of Confidence, 1945-1960
(1986), President Eisenhower’s two terms in the White House underscored
Americans’ beliefs in the “American way” and the nation’s power. Had not the nation weathered the Great
Depression and led the free world to victory over three totalitarian
governments? Was not the economy
expanding with low inflation even in the face of several recessions and offering
more mobility to more Americans than ever before? Americans had, moreover, appeared to come to
grips with the fact that some government programs were necessary to counter the
unwanted consequences of capitalism. Many
now accepted that the New Deal and wartime programs that remained actually
promoted individual prosperity: Social
Security supplemented retirement savings, protecting against catastrophic
losses. Veterans’ benefits paid back
service men and women and created more productive citizens, who would then buy
homes and consumer goods. Government
building of infrastructure (e.g., the
In the American society of the
1950s, then, there was a consensus about the “American way.” But there existed also uncertainties abroad
and at home that made Americans anxious and uneasy. The
Closer to home, other forces made
Americans anxious and uneasy. How many
traitors were there in American government agencies? Was the threat overblown? Yes, some traitors had indeed been
discovered; but, was the government (and private citizens’ groups) undermining
American values in order to save
African Americans, especially in the South but in urban areas as well, were unhappy—and getting angrier—with their place in American society. They demanded access to economic opportunities (good jobs and schools) and to public spaces (urban transit systems, restaurants, parks)denied them by Jim Crow laws and racial customs. They demanded basic civil rights in the society (freedom from violence, right to vote, fair jury selection). The emergence of the civil rights movement, moreover, underscored the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, which preached political and social freedoms. And then, later in the decade of the 1950s, some white Americans engaged in “massive resistance” to deny black Americans the changes they were demanding. Meanwhile, President Eisenhower proved reluctant to take a stand on the issues.
Other anxieties plagued
Americans: Were the advertisers on radio
and television controlling their purchases, as some social commentators
alleged? Why should what one owned or spent
determine one’s status? Wasn’t
The media that brought Americans
the consumer society—and politicians like Richard Nixon, Joe McCarthy, and John
F. Kennedy—brought them new ideas as well.
Numerous kinds of music were emerging; some of it resurrected older
styles (bluegrass, hillbilly) while others challenged commercial styles (behop, jazz, folk).
And while Collier’s, Life, and Time Magazine, along with television shows like Father Knows Best and The Ozzie and Harriet Show, promoted domesticity and female subservience to husbands, did all American women want to follow that ideal? (Who was really in control in the Arnaz family—Lucy or Desi?) And what about the men? Were they really happy working in impersonal bureaucracies on a “career track”? What was the “corporateness” of American business and government doing to the society? Was “group think” really healthy for promoting capitalism and democracy? Social commentators began to question bureaucracy: The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1955); The Organization Man (1956); The Status Seekers (1959). And, irony of ironies: At the end of the period, as he bade farewell to the American people, none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower—the epitome of the age of conformity, consensus, and bureaucracy (he was an Army general)—sternly warned the American people against the growing threat of the industrial-military complex.
The rest of this introduction to the historical background of the play focuses on a few key issues—the Cold War defined, the Cold War Abroad, the Red Scare/McCarthy era, Civil Rights, and the Media. Each includes brief summaries of the issues and Eisenhower’s and Nixon’s position in each. Material in other areas of the web site include more detail on these and other issues.
The Cold War
The Cold War was the conflict between the forces of democratic capitalism and communism that emerged during and after World War II, lasting until the late 1980s and early 1990s. At its core, the Cold War pitted the values of the U.S. against the values of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) through all forms of diplomacy—ideological debate, economic support for friends, and military aid for friends to be used against foes. Direct military engagement, the final choice of diplomacy when all else fails, was not a hallmark of this conflict and that is why it is labeled the “cold” war.
The Cold War Abroad
In 1947, the Truman Administration decided
to engage in what was at the time believed to be a temporary strategy in the
Cold War—containment. The idea was that
President Harry S Truman announced
the ideological component of containment in 1947 in his speech on
The military aspect of the
containment policy centered on NATO—the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization. Established in 1949, NATO
was based on the notion of collective security—an attack on any member of the
organization would be considered an attack on all members. In effect, of course, it would be the
President Eisenhower supported the
basic outlines of containment and during the 1952 campaign spoke of adding
“liberation” to the policy. As
president, however, he did not support the high costs that came with being the
principal agent of the strategy. He
proposed a “New Look” foreign policy that relied on “more bang for the
buck.” This led to some confused policy
making. On the one hand, Eisenhower
promoted the idea of “peaceful coexistence” with the
Eisenhower’s knowledge of
Another aspect of Eisenhower’s
conflicting foreign policy can be seen in his “atoms for peace” initiative,
which he announced in 1953. Soviet
leader Khrushchev did not believe Eisenhower’s sincerity and continued to exert
strong influence, and in some cases outright military action (
Eisenhower had done much to institutionalize the Cold War, even as he tried to hold down the costs (he reduced the Defense budget from $50 billion to $40 billion), prevent an arms race, and preserve peace. Thus, by the 1960 presidential campaign, the Cold War abroad had become a prime issue for the Democrats. Their presidential nominee, John F. Kennedy, claimed that there was a “missile gap” and that the preceding 8 years of Eisenhower-Nixon leadership had allowed that to happen. In fact, there was no missile gap.
Many politicians employed the Cold War and the fear of communism it engendered to rise to power during this time. Others, like Eisenhower for a long time, did not know how to respond effectively to the movement. Some politicians, moreover, worried about a “garrison state” emerging in reaction to the Cold War, a consequence they believed would undermine the very values for which the Americans and the West were battling the communists.
The Second Red Scare began in 1947 when Truman, advised that he would have “to scare the hell out of the American people” if he were to get funding for his containment policies, and fearing that Republicans would label him “soft on communism,” spoke out on the threat of communism abroad—and at home. He authorized the Federal Employee Loyalty Program (FELP) and ordered the FBI to develop a list of government employees who might be subversive. Together, the list and FELP violated Americans’ fundamental rights to know their accusers and to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. Of the nearly 4 million employees and prospective employees investigated during Truman’s presidency, 378 were dismissed or denied employment. Another 2,000, however, left their government jobs under clouds of suspicion. No cases of espionage were discovered through FELP investigations. President Eisenhower revamped the internal security program and, in the process, actually removed more employees than did Truman (2,611 “security risks” fired; another 4,300 resigned). By the mid-1950s, however, individuals in the press and in all three branches of government—the executive, the judicial, and the legislative—began to expose the internal security programs for violating civil liberties. Thereafter, steps were taken to control the processes that had trampled Americans’ rights.
Meanwhile, in 1947, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), which had been
instituted in the 1930s but had faced fading support for its actions lately,
began hearings investigating the influence of communism in
The HUAC hearings of 1947 and
later prove embarrassing today.
Senator Joe McCarthy came late (1950) to understanding how politically helpful it would be to “go after communists.” His actions—particularly the “big lie” technique in which he claimed to have a certain number of confirmed subversives in his files, only to change the number on subsequent occasions—worked because the press allowed it to work. Sometimes McCarthy would call a press conference to announce that he would have another press conference shortly when he would have more information. And the press continued to buy into his antics. Only when television displayed his behavior in the Army-McCarthy hearings did the American people wake up to his fraudulent behavior. Finally, with some prodding from the Eisenhower administration behind the scenes, Congress voted to condemn McCarthy’s actions.
[For an outline of the Civil Rights story, see Historical Chronology, 1944-1961]
In the 1930s, the New Deal Democratic coalition included African American voters from the North. By the late 1940s, however, the black vote was not as solidly Democratic as it had been. Some Republicans (Thomas E. Dewey, Wendell Willkie, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jacob Javits), most from the Northeast, believed the party should do more to court black voters. The Democrats, meanwhile, added a civil rights plank to their 1948 platform and President Truman ordered final desegregation of all of the nation’s armed services. This led to the formation of the Dixiecrat party, a group of Southern white Democrats who opposed the national government’s interference in “social affairs.”
President Eisenhower was not
committed to social equality (nor was President Truman, actually). While preferring to ignore the civil rights
issues if he could, Eisenhower did favor removing Federal laws that supported
Jim Crow discrimination. He was not
interested in employing the national government to force desegregation or to
force changes in social attitudes.
Still, his Attorney General’s office quietly lent support to preparation
of a brief for the Brown v. Board of
Education of Topeka (1954), in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared
segregated school systems unconstitutional.
In 1957, the president was persuaded that the actions of the state and
local authorities in
While vice president, it appeared that Nixon held some sympathies for African Americans. He was instrumental in working with Senate Majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson to bring about the watered-down Civil Rights Act of 1957. And at times he seemed to understand better than Eisenhower how important the issue was to … politics. Indeed, although at first sympathetic to a civil rights program, later in his 1960 presidential campaign Nixon abandoned the northeastern liberal wing of the Republican party to court support from the South. Ironically, that strategy might have made the difference between defeat and victory in November 1960. (Of course, Nixon’s “southern strategy” of attracting southern conservative Democrats to vote Republican brought him victory in 1968).
“The media” of the postwar era was undergoing immense changes in large measure because of technological innovation.
Henry Luce, publisher of Time Magazine and Life Magazine, had begun influencing American culture back in the 1920s and 1930s with his mass circulation magazines. He promoted “personalities as news,” focusing on politicians as well as artists. Luce was the originator of the “American Century” idea (in a 1941 editorial) and an unabashed supporter of the Nationalist Chinese against the Communist Chinese; much of what Americans knew about China in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s came from Luce publications.
With the development of television (the technology had been available in the 1930s) and the transistor (it replaced the cumbersome “vacuum tube”) in the late 1940s, Americans became bombarded with more media images and sounds than ever before. Competition was fierce. While radio benefited from the profusion of musical styles, it lost ground to television in the news departments (as did the daily newspapers). The weekly magazines also suffered from competition among themselves and with television.
The 1940 Republican Convention was broadcast on television to an audience of 50,000 in three cities; and while the 1948 and 1952 conventions had more television coverage, it is Richard Nixon’s “Checkers Speech” that is generally regarded as the watershed event that brought politics and campaigning to television. Ironically, of course, it was the media that undermined Nixon’s campaign for president in 1960: The television made John F. Kennedy look better. A majority of those who watched the first debate on television gave Kennedy the win; those who listened to it on radio chose Nixon as the winner. (See Nixon and the Media) Given that by then 9 out of 10 American homes had a television, political campaigning would continue to take advantage of the medium. (See also Dwight D. Eisenhower)