For the United States of America, 1945 to 1964 was an era of economic growth and prosperity which saw the victorious powers of World War II confronting each other in the Cold War and the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement that ended Jim Crow segregation in the South.
The period saw an active foreign policy designed to rescue Europe and Asia from the devastation of World War II and to contain the expansion of Communism, represented by the Soviet Union and China. A race began to overawe the other side with more powerful nuclear weapons. The Soviets formed the Warsaw Pact of communist states to oppose the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. The U.S. fought a bloody, inconclusive war in Korea and was escalating the war in Vietnam as the period ended.
On the domestic front, after a short transition, the economy grew rapidly, with widespread prosperity, rising wages, and the movement of most of the remaining farmers to the towns and cities. Politically, the era was dominated by presidents, Democrats Harry Truman (1945–53), John F. Kennedy (1961–63) and Lyndon Johnson (1963–69), and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–61). For most of the period, the Democrats controlled Congress; however, they were usually unable to pass as much liberal legislation as they had hoped because of the power of the Conservative Coalition. The Liberal coalition came to power after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and launched the Great Society.
When the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Soviet and Western (U.S., British, and French) troops were located along a line through the center of Germany. Aside from a few minor adjustments, this would be the “Iron Curtain” of the Cold War. With the onset of the Cold War in Europe in 1947, the East-West lines stabilized (except that Yugoslavia broke with the Soviets and gained American support). In Asia, however, there was much more movement as the Communists took over China in 1949 and attempted to take over all of Korea (1950) and Vietnam (1954). Communist hegemony covered one third of the world’s land while the United States emerged as the world’s more influential superpower, and formed a worldwide network of military alliances.
There were fundamental contrasts between the visions of the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism with liberal democracy and totalitarian communism. The United States envisioned the new United Nations as a Wilsonian tool to resolve future troubles, but it failed in that purpose. The U.S. rejected totalitarianism and colonialism, in line with the principles laid down by the Atlantic Charter of 1941: self-determination, equal economic access, and a rebuilt capitalist, democratic Europe that could again serve as a hub in world affairs.
The only major industrial power in the world whose economy emerged intact—and even greatly strengthened—was the United States. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt thought his personal relationship with Joseph Stalin could dissolve future difficulties, President Truman was much more skeptical.
The Soviets, too, saw their vital interests in the containment or roll-back of capitalism near their borders. Joseph Stalin was determined to absorb the Baltics, neutralize Finland and Austria, and set up pro-Moscow regimes in Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, and Bulgaria. He at first collaborated with Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia, but then they became enemies. Stalin ignored his promises at Yalta (Feb. 1945) when he had promised that “free elections” would go ahead in Eastern Europe. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1946 condemned Stalin for cordoning off a new Russian empire with an “iron curtain“. Indeed the British government, under the Labour Party, was at first more anti-Communist than the U.S. Its economy was in bad shape, however, and it could no longer afford anti-Communist activity in Greece. It asked the U.S. to intervene there; Truman agreed with the Truman Doctrine in 1947. After making large ad-hoc loans and gifts to the Europeans in 1945-47, the U.S. reorganized its foreign aid program in the Marshall Plan, 1948–51, which gave $12 billion in gifts (and some loans) to help rebuild and modernize the West European economies. The Cold War had begun and Stalin refused to allow his satellites to accept American aid. Both sides mobilized military alliances, with NATO in the west and the Warsaw Pact in the east in operation by 1949.
For NATO, containment of the expansion of Soviet influence became foreign policy doctrine; the expectation was that eventually the inefficient Soviet system would collapse of internal weakness, and no “hot” war (that is, one with large-scale combat) would be necessary. Containment was supported by Democrats and internationalist Republicans (led by Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, and general Dwight D. Eisenhower), but was opposed by the isolationists led by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio.
In 1949, the communist leader Mao Zedong won control of mainland China in a civil war, proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, then traveled to Moscow where he negotiated the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship. China had thus moved from a close ally of the U.S. to a bitter enemy, and the two fought each other starting in late 1950 in Korea. The Truman administration responded with a secret 1950 plan, NSC-68, designed to confront the Communists with large-scale defense spending. The Russians had built an atomic bomb by 1950—much sooner than expected; Truman ordered the development of the Hydrogen bomb. Two of the spies who gave atomic secrets to Russia were tried and executed.
France was hard-pressed by Communist insurgents in the First Indochina War. The U.S. in 1950 started to fund the French effort on the proviso that the Vietnamese be given more autonomy.
Stalin approved a North Korean plan to invade U.S.-supported South Korea in June 1950. President Truman immediately and unexpectedly implemented the containment policy by a full-scale commitment of American and UN forces to Korea. He did not consult or gain approval of Congress but did gain the approval of the United Nations (UN) to drive back the North Koreans and re-unite that country in terms of a rollback strategy
After a few weeks of retreat, General Douglas MacArthur‘s success at the Battle of Inchon turned the war around; UN forces invaded North Korea. This advantage was lost when hundreds of thousands of Chinese entered an undeclared war against the United States and pushed the US/UN/Korean forces back to the original starting line, the 38th parallel. The war became a stalemate, with over 33,000 American dead and 100,000 wounded  but nothing to show for it except a resolve to continue the containment policy. Truman fired MacArthur but was unable to end the war. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 campaigned against Truman’s failures of “Korea, Communism and Corruption,” promising to go to Korea himself and end the war. By threatening to use nuclear weapons in 1953, Eisenhower ended the war with a truce that is still in effect.
Anti-Communism and McCarthyism: 1947-54
In 1947, well before McCarthy became active, the Conservative Coalition in Congress passed the Taft Hartley Act, designed to balance the rights of management and unions, and delegitimizing Communist union leaders. The challenge of rooting out Communists from labor unions and the Democratic party was successfully undertaken by liberals, such as Walter Reuther of the autoworkers union and Ronald Reagan of the Screen Actors Guild (Reagan was a liberal Democrat at the time). Many of the purged leftists joined the presidential campaign in 1948 of FDR’s Vice President Henry A. Wallace.
The House Un-American Activities Committee, with young Congressman Richard M. Nixon playing a central role, accused Alger Hiss, a top Roosevelt aide, of being a Communist spy, using testimony and documents provided by Whittaker Chambers. Hiss was convicted and sent to prison, with the anti-Communists gaining a powerful political weapon. It launched Nixon’s meteoric rise to the Senate (1950) and the vice presidenncy (1952).
With anxiety over Communism in Korea and China reaching fever pitched in 1950, a previously obscure Senator, Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, launched Congressional investigations into the cover-up of spies in the government. McCarthy dominated the media, and used reckless allegations and tactics that allowed his opponents to effectively counterattack. Irish Catholics (including conservative wunderkind William F. Buckley, Jr. and the Kennedy Family) were intensely anti-Communist and defended McCarthy (a fellow Irish Catholic). Paterfamilias Joseph Kennedy (1888–1969), a very active conservative Democrat, was McCarthy’s most ardent supporter and got his son Robert F. Kennedy a job with McCarthy. McCarthy had talked of “twenty years of treason” (i.e. since Roosevelt’s election in 1932). When he in 1953 he started talking of “21 years of treason” and launched a major attack on the Army for promoting a Communist dentist in the medical corps, his recklessness was too much for Eisenhower, who encouraged Republicans to censure McCarthy formally in 1954. The Senator’s power collapsed overnight. Senator John F. Kennedy did not vote for censure. Buckley went on to found the National Review in 1955 as a weekly magazine that helped define the conservative position on public issues.
“McCarthyism” was expanded to include attacks on supposed Communist influence in Hollywood, which resulted in a black-list whereby artists who refused to testify about possible Communist connections could not get work. Some famous celebrities (such as Charlie Chaplin) left the U.S.; other worked under pseudonyms (such as Dalton Trumbo). McCarthyism included investigations into academics and teachers as well.
Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations
In 1953, Stalin died, and after new 1952 presidential election, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the opportunity to end the Korean War, while continuing Cold War policies. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was the dominant figure in the nation’s foreign policy in the 1950s. Dulles denounced the “containment” of the Truman administration and espoused an active program of “liberation”, which would lead to a “rollback” of communism. The most prominent of those doctrines was the policy of “massive retaliation“, which Dulles announced early in 1954, eschewing the costly, conventional ground forces characteristic of the Truman administration in favor of wielding the vast superiority of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and covert intelligence. Dulles defined this approach as “brinkmanship“.
A dramatic and unexpected shock to Americans’ self-confidence and its technological superiority came in 1957, when the Soviets beat the United States into outer space by launching Sputnik, the first earth satellite. The space race began, and by the early 1960s the United States had forged ahead, with President Kennedy promising to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s—the landing indeed took place on July 20, 1969.
East Germany was the weak point in the Soviet empire, with refugees leaving for the West by the thousands every week. The Soviet solution came in 1961, with the Berlin Wall to stop East Germans from fleeing communism. This was a major propaganda setback for the USSR, but it did allow them to keep control of East Berlin.
The Communist world split in half, as China turned against the Soviet Union; Mao denounced Khrushchev for going soft on capitalism. However, the US failed to take advantage of this split until President Richard Nixon saw the opportunity in 1969. In 1958, the U.S. sent troops into Lebanon for nine months to stabilize a country on the verge of civil war. Between 1954 and 1961, Eisenhower dispatched large sums of economic and military aid and 695 military advisers to South Vietnam to stabilize the pro-western government under attack by insurgents. Eisenhower supported CIA efforts to undermine anti-American governments, which proved most successful in Iran and Guatemala.
The first major strain among the NATO alliance occurred in 1956 when Eisenhower forced Britain and France to retreat from their invasion of Egypt (with Israel) which was intended to get back their ownership of the Suez Canal. Instead of supporting the claims of its NATO partners, the Eisenhower administration stated that it opposed French and British imperial adventurism in the region by sheer prudence, fearing that Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser‘s standoff with the region’s old colonial powers would bolster Soviet power in the region.
The Cold War reached its most dangerous point during the Kennedy administration in the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tense confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States over the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. The crisis began on October 16, 1962, and lasted for thirteen days. It was the moment when the Cold War was closest to exploding into a devastating nuclear exchange between the two superpower nations. Kennedy decided not to invade or bomb Cuba but to institute a naval blockade of the island. The crisis ended in a compromise, with the Soviets removing their missiles publicly, and the United States secretly removing its nuclear missiles in Turkey. In Moscow, Communist leaders removed Nikita Khrushchev because of his reckless behavior.
The Affluent Society
The immediate years unfolding after World War II were generally ones of stability and prosperity for Americans. The nation reconverted its war machine back into a consumer culture almost overnight and found jobs for 12 million returning veterans. Increasing numbers enjoyed high wages, larger houses, better schools, more cars and home comforts like vacuum cleaners, washing machines—which were all made for labor-saving and to make housework easier. Inventions familiar in the early 21st century made their first appearance during this era. The live-in maid and cook, common features of middle-class homes at the beginning of the century, were virtually unheard of in the 1950s; only the very rich had servants. Householders enjoyed centrally heated homes with running hot water. New style furniture was bright, cheap, and light, and easy to move around.
The American economy grew dramatically in the post-war period, expanding at a rate of 3.5% per annum between 1945 and 1970. During this period of prosperity, many incomes doubled in a generation, described by economist Frank Levy as “upward mobility on a rocket ship.” The substantial increase in average family income within a generation resulted in millions of office and factory workers being lifted into a growing middle class, enabling them to sustain a standard of living once considered to be reserved for the wealthy. As noted by Deone Zell, assembly line work paid well, while unionized factory jobs served as “stepping-stones to the middle class.” By the end of the Fifties, 87% of all American families owned at least one T.V., 75% owned cars, and 60% owned their homes. By 1960, blue-collar workers had become the biggest buyers of many luxury goods and services. In addition, by the early Seventies, post-World War II American consumers enjoyed higher levels of disposable income than those in any other country.
The great majority of American workers who had stable jobs were well off financially, while even non-union jobs were associated with rising paychecks, benefits, and obtained many of the advantages that characterized union work. An upscale working class came into being, as American blue-collar workers came to enjoy the benefits of home ownership, while high wages provided blue-collar workers with the ability to pay for new cars, household appliances, and regular vacations. By the 1960s, a blue-collar worker earned more than a manager did in the Forties, despite the fact that his relative position within the income distribution had not changed.
As noted by the historian Nancy Wierek:
“In the postwar period, the majority of Americans were affluent in the sense that they were in a position to spend money on many things they wanted, desired, or chose to have, rather than on necessities alone.”
As argued by the historians Ronald Edsforth and Larry Bennett:
“By the mid-1960’s, the majority of America’s organized working class who were not victims of the second Red Scare embraced, or at least tolerated, anti-communism because it was an integral part of the New American Dream to which they had committed their lives. Theirs was not an unobtainable dream; nor were their lives empty because of it. Indeed, for at least a quarter of century, the material promises of consumer-oriented Americanism were fulfilled in improvements in everyday life that made them the most affluent working class in American history.”
Between 1946 and 1960, the United States witnessed a significant expansion in the consumption of goods and services. GNP rose by 36% and personal consumption expenditures by 42%, cumulative gains which were reflected in the incomes of families and unrelated individuals. While the number of these units rose sharply from 43.3 million to 56.1 million in 1960, a rise of almost 23%, their average incomes grew even faster, from $3940 in 1946 to $6900 in 1960, an increase of 43%. After taking inflation into account, the real advance was 16%. The dramatic rise in the average American standard of living was such that, according to sociologist George Katona:
- “Today in this country minimum standards of nutrition, housing and clothing are assured, not for all, but for the majority. Beyond these minimum needs, such former luxuries as homeownership, durable goods, travel, recreation, and entertainment are no longer restricted to a few. The broad masses participate in enjoying all these things and generate most of the demand for them.”
More than 21 million housing units were constructed between 1946 and 1960, and in the latter year 52% of consumer units in the metropolitan areas owned their own homes. In 1957, out of all the wired homes throughout the country, 96% had a refrigerator, 87% an electric washer, 81% a television, 67% a vacuum cleaner, 18% a freezer, 12% an electric or gas dryer, and 8% air conditioning. Car ownership also soared, with 72% of consumer units owning an automobile by 1960.
The period from 1946 to 1960 also witnessed a significant increase in the paid leisure time of working people. The forty-hour workweek established by the Fair Labor Standards Act in covered industries became the actual schedule in most workplaces by 1960, while uncovered workers such as farmworkers and the self-employed worked less hours than they had done previously, although they still worked much longer hours than most other workers. Paid vacations also became to be enjoyed by the vast majority of workers, with 91% of blue-collar workers covered by major collective bargaining agreements receiving paid vacations by 1957 (usually to a maximum of three weeks), while by the early Sixties virtually all industries paid for holidays and most did so for seven days a year. Industries catering to leisure activities blossomed as a result of most Americans enjoying significant paid leisure time by 1960, while many blue-collar and white-collar workers had come to expect to hold on to their jobs for life. Educational outlays were also greater than in other countries while a higher proportion of young people were graduating from high schools and universities than elsewhere in the world, as hundreds of new colleges and universities opened every year. Tuition was kept low—it was free at California state universities. At the advanced level American science, engineering and medicine was world famous. By the mid-Sixties, the majority of American workers enjoyed the highest wage levels in the world, and by the late Sixties, the great majority of Americans were richer than people in other countries, except Sweden, Switzerland, and Canada. Educational outlays were also greater than in other countries while a higher proportion of young people was at school and college than elsewhere in the world. As noted by the historian John Vaizey:
“To strike a balance with the Soviet Union, it would be easy to say that all but the very poorest Americans were better off than the Russians, that education was better but the health service worse, but that above all the Americans had freedom of expression and democratic institutions.”
In regards to social welfare, the postwar era saw a considerable improvement in insurance for workers and their dependents against the risks of illness, as private insurance programs like Blue Cross and Blue Shield expanded. With the exception of farm and domestic workers, virtually all members of the labor force were covered by Social Security. In 1959 that about two-thirds of the factory workers and three-fourths of the office workers were provided with supplemental private pension plans. In addition 86% of factory workers and 83% of office had jobs that covered for hospital insurance while 59% and 61% had additional insurance for doctors. By 1969, the average white family income had risen to $10,953, while average black family income lagged behind at $7,255, revealing a continued racial disparity in income amongst various segments of the American population.
At the center of middle-class culture in the 1950s was a growing demand for consumer goods; a result of the postwar prosperity, the increase in variety and availability of consumer products, and television advertising. America generated a steadily growing demand for better automobiles, clothing, appliances, family vacations and higher education.
With Detroit turning out automobiles as fast as possible, city dwellers gave up cramped apartments for a suburban life style centered around children and housewives, with the male breadwinner commuting to work. Suburbia encompassed a third of the nation’s population by 1960. The growth of suburbs was not only a result of postwar prosperity, but innovations of the single-family housing market with low interest rates on 20 and 30 year mortgages, and low down payments, especially for veterans. William Levitt began a national trend with his use of mass-production techniques to construct a large “Levittown” housing development on Long Island. Meanwhile, the suburban population swelled because of the baby boom. Suburbs provided larger homes for larger families, security from urban living, privacy, and space for consumer goods.
Poverty and inequality in the postwar era
The new prosperity did not extend to everyone. Many Americans continued to live in poverty throughout the 1950s, especially older people and blacks, the latter of whom continued to earn far less than whites on average in the two decades following the end of the Second World War. In 1947, 60% of black families lived below the poverty level (defined in one study as below $3000 in 1968 dollars), compared with 23% of white families. In 1968, 23% of black families lived below the poverty level, compared with 9% of white families. In 1947, 11% of white families were affluent (defined as above $10,000 in 1968 dollars), compared with 3% of black families. In 1968, 42% of white families were defined as affluent, compared with 21% of black families. In 1947, 8% of black families received $7000 or more (in 1968 dollars) compared with 26% of white families. In 1968, 39% of black families received $7,000 or more, compared with 66% of white families. In 1960, the median for a married man of blue-collar income was $3,993 for blacks and $5,877 for whites. In 1969, the equivalent figures were $5,746 and $7,452, respectively.
As Socialist leader Michael Harrington emphasized, there was still The Other America. Poverty declined sharply in the Sixties as the New Frontier and Great Society especially helped older people. The proportion below the poverty line fell almost in half from 22% in 1960 to 12% in 1970 and then leveled off.
The farm population shrank steadily as families moved to urban areas, where on average they were more productive and earned a higher standard of living. Friedberger argues that the postwar period saw an accelerating mechanization of agriculture, combined with new and better fertilizers and genetic manipulation of hybrid corn. It made for greater specialization and greater economic risks for the farmer. With rising land prices many sold their land and moved to town, the old farm becoming part of a neighbor’s enlarged operation. Mechanization meant less need for hired labor; farmers could operate more acres even though they were older. The result was a decline in rural-farm population, with gains in service centers that provided the new technology. The rural non-farm population grew as factories were attracted by access to good transportation without the high land costs, taxes, unionization and congestion of city factory districts. Once remote rural areas such as the Missouri Ozarks and the North Woods of the upper Midwest, with a rustic life style and many good fishing spots, have attracted retirees and vacationers.
Civil Rights Movement
Following the end of Reconstruction, many states adopted restrictive Jim Crow laws which enforced segregation of the races and the second-class status of African Americans. The Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson 1896 accepted segregation as constitutional. Voting rights discrimination remained widespread in the South through the 1950s. Fewer than 10% voted in the Deep South, although a larger proportion voted in the border states, and the blacks were being organized into Democratic machines in the northern cities. Although both parties pledged progress in 1948, the only major development before 1954 was the integration of the military.
Brown v. Board of Education and “massive resistance”
In the early days of the civil rights movement, litigation and lobbying were the focus of integration efforts. The U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954); Powell v. Alabama (1932); Smith v. Allwright (1944); Shelley v. Kraemer (1948); Sweatt v. Painter (1950); and McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950) led to a shift in tactics, and from 1955 to 1965, “direct action” was the strategy—primarily bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and social movements.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a landmark case of the United States Supreme Court which explicitly outlawed segregated public education facilities for blacks and whites, ruling so on the grounds that the doctrine of “separate but equal” public education could never truly provide black Americans with facilities of the same standards available to white Americans. One hundred and one members of the United States House of Representatives and 19 Senators signed “The Southern Manifesto” condemning the Supreme Court decision as unconstitutional.
Governor Orval Eugene Faubus of Arkansas used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent school integration at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. President Eisenhower nationalized state forces and sent in the US Army to enforce federal court orders. Governors Ross Barnett of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama physically blocked school doorways at their respective states’ universities. Birmingham’s public safety commissioner Eugene T. “Bull” Connor advocated violence against freedom riders and ordered fire hoses and police dogs turned on demonstrators. Sheriff Jim Clark of Dallas County, Alabama, loosed his deputies on “Bloody Sunday” marchers and personally menaced other protesters. Police all across the South arrested civil rights activists on trumped-up charges.
Civil rights organizations
Although they had white supporters and sympathizers, the modern civil rights movement was designed, led, organized, and manned by African Americans, who placed themselves and their families on the front lines in the struggle for freedom. Their heroism was brought home to every American through newspaper, and later, television reports as their peaceful marches and demonstrations were violently attacked by law enforcement. Officers used batons, bullwhips, fire hoses, police dogs, and mass arrests to intimidate the protesters. The second characteristic of the movement is that it was not monolithic, led by one or two men. Rather it was a dispersed, grass-roots campaign that attacked segregation in many different places using many different tactics. While some groups and individuals within the civil rights movement—such as Malcolm X—advocated Black Power, black separatism, or even armed resistance, the majority of participants remained committed to the principles of nonviolence, a deliberate decision by an oppressed minority to abstain from violence for political gain. Using nonviolent strategies, civil rights activists took advantage of emerging national network-news reporting, especially television, to capture national attention.
The leadership role of black churches in the movement was a natural extension of their structure and function. They offered members an opportunity to exercise roles denied them in society. Throughout history, the black church served as a place of worship and also as a base for powerful ministers, such as Congressman Adam Clayton Powell in New York City. The most prominent clergyman in the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King, Jr. Time magazine’s 1963 “Man of the Year” showed tireless personal commitment to black freedom and his strong leadership won him worldwide acclaim and the Nobel Peace Prize.
Students and seminarians in both the South and the North played key roles in every phase of the civil rights movement. Church and student-led movements developed their own organizational and sustaining structures. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded in 1957, coordinated and raised funds, mostly from northern sources, for local protests and for the training of black leaders. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, founded in 1957, developed the “jail-no-bail” strategy. SNCC’s role was to develop and link sit-in campaigns and to help organize freedom rides, voter registration drives, and other protest activities. These three new groups often joined forces with existing organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, and the National Urban League. The NAACP and its Director, Roy Wilkins, provided legal counsel for jailed demonstrators, helped raise bail, and continued to test segregation and discrimination in the courts as it had been doing for half a century. CORE initiated the 1961 Freedom Rides which involved many SNCC members, and CORE’s leader James Farmer later became executive secretary of SNCC.
The administration of President John F. Kennedy supported enforcement of desegregation in schools and public facilities. Attorney General Robert Kennedy brought more than 50 lawsuits in four states to secure black Americans’ right to vote. However, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, concerned about possible communist influence in the civil rights movement and personally antagonistic to King, used the FBI to discredit King and other civil rights leaders.
Truman, a self-educated farm boy from Missouri, stood in sharp contrast to the urbane and imperious Roosevelt who kept personal control of all major decisions. Truman was a folksy, unassuming president who relied on his cabinet, remarking “The buck stops here” and “If you can’t stand the heat, you better get out of the kitchen.” Truman faced many challenges in domestic affairs. His poll ratings were sky high when he took office in April 1945 after Roosevelt’s sudden death, then plunged to low levels for most of his eight years in office. The disorderly postwar reconversion of the economy of the United States was marked by severe shortages of housing, meat, appliance, automobiles and other rationed goods. The country was hit by long strikes in major industries in 1946. The Republicans took control of Congress in a landslide in 1946 and passed the Taft–Hartley Act over his veto. He confounded all predictions to win election in 1948, helped by his famous Whistle Stop Tour of small town America. He used executive orders to end racial discrimination in the armed forces and created loyalty checks that dismissed thousands of communist fellow travelers from office. Truman’s presidency was also eventful in foreign affairs, with the defeat of Nazi Germany and his decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan, the founding of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the Truman Doctrine to contain communism, the beginning of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift, and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The defeat of America’s wartime ally in the Chinese Civil War brought a hostile Communist regime to East Asia, and the US became bogged down fighting China in the Korean War, 1950-53. Corruption in Truman’s administration, which was linked to cabinet level appointees and senior White House staff, was a central issue in the 1952 presidential campaign. Truman was forced to end his third term hopes by a poor showing in the 1952 primaries. drop out of his reelection. Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, the famous wartime general, won a landslide in the 1952 presidential election by crusading against Truman’s failures in terms of “Communism, Korea and Corruption.”
Eisenhower was elected in 1952 as a moderate Republican, bringing along a Republican Congress. He ended the Korean war, maintained the peace in Asia and the Middle East, and worked smoothly with NATO allies in Europe while drawing keeping the policy of containing Communism rather than trying to roll it back.
While frugal in budget matters he expanded Social Security and did not try to repeal the remaining New Deal programs. He launched the interstate highway system (using a tax on gasoline) that dramatically improved the nation’s transportation infrastructure. The economy was generally healthy, apart from a sharp economic recession in 1958. Ike remained popular and largely avoided partisan politics; he was easily reelected by a landslide in 1956.
In both foreign and domestic policy Eisenhower remained on friendly terms with the Democrats, who regained Congress in 1954 and made large gains in 1958. His farewell address to the nation warned of the dangers of a growing “military industrial complex.”
Kennedy in 1960
The very close 1960 election pitted Republican Vice President Richard Nixon against the Democrat John F. Kennedy. Historians have explained Kennedy’s victory in terms of an economic recession, the numerical dominance of 17 million more registered Democrats than Republicans, the votes that Kennedy gained among Catholics practically matched the votes Nixon gained among Protestants, Kennedy’s better organization, and Kennedy’s superior campaigning skills. Nixon’s emphasis on his experience carried little weight, and he wasted energy by campaigning in all 50 states instead of concentrating on the swing states. Kennedy used his large, well-funded campaign organization to win the nomination, secure endorsements, and with the aid of the last of the big-city bosses to get out the vote in the big cities. He relied on Johnson to hold the South and used television effectively. Kennedy was the first Catholic to run for president since Al Smith‘s ill-fated campaign in 1928. Voters were polarized on religious grounds, but Kennedy’s election was a transforming event for Catholics, who finally realized they were accepted in America, and it marked the virtual end of anti-Catholicism as a political force.
The Kennedy Family had long been leaders of the Irish Catholic wing of the Democratic Party; JFK was middle-of-the-road or liberal on domestic issues and conservative on foreign policy, sending military forces into Cuba and Vietnam. The Kennedy style called for youth, dynamism, vigor and an intellectual approach to aggressive new policies in foreign affairs. The downside was his inexperience in foreign affairs, standing in stark contrast to the vast experience of the president he replaced. He is best known for his call to civic virtue: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” In Congress the Conservative Coalition blocked nearly all of Kennedy’s domestic programs, so there were few changes in domestic policy, even as the civil rights movement gained momentum.
President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald. The event proved to be one of the greatest psychological shocks to the American people in the 20th century and led to Kennedy being revered as a martyr and hero.
After Kennedy’s assassination, vice president Lyndon Baines Johnson served out the remainder of the term, using appeals to finish the job that Kennedy had started to pass a remarkable package of liberal legislation that he called the Great Society Johnson used the full powers of the presidency to ensure passage the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These actions helped Johnson to win a historic landslide in the 1964 presidential election over conservative champion Senator Barry Goldwater. Johnson’s big victory brought an overwhelming liberal majority in Congress.