In HY233, a central paradox lies at the heart of all the readings and discussions with which we have engaged. On the one hand, the era following World War II represented the prime of, as Tom Brokaw dubbed it, “our greatest generation.” But on the other, the same era marked the brief high point of a social and political system soon to be challenged by the tumult of the ’60s.
By 1945, we had defeated the Axis Powers and their accompanying evils, pulled ourselves out of the Great Depression and built a massive military industrial complex. By 1947, the Truman doctrine declared, with regard to the Soviet Union, that once again America would stand against totalitarian regimes that, “reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died.” Following in his footsteps, Eisenhower continued a cold-war policy of containment abroad and Keynesianism and social planning at home. Reducing the defense budget from 50 billion to 40 billion, keeping inflation at 1.5% annually, ensuring open access to oil and other precious commodities, and maintaining tranquility within the home front all seemed like good ideas. The liberal consensus was widely agreed upon in Congress. Unlike today, elected congressmen from both parties actually collaborated in a successful effort to do their jobs: pass legislation.
But beneath a veneer of peaceableness and prosperity, rumblings of a different America and a different world grew louder.
Such sounds were most theatrically and poignantly expressed by the likes of such rock stars as Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, and Otis Redding. “Come mothers and fathers/ throughout the land/ and don’t criticize/what you can’t understand/your sons and your daughters/are beyond your command/your old road is rapidly agin,'” sung Dylan in “The Times They Are a Changin’.” Many American youth saw the world differently than their parents and proudly espoused a new set of progressive beliefs.
Both the Feminist and The Black Civil Rights Movements reared their heads and would become of increasing national importance. The patriarchal breadwinner complex and institutionalized racism would be challenged like never before. The post-war tranquility many Americans had become accustomed to would also be shaken by the events of the Cold War. With Kennedy’s aggressive cold-war rhetoric and increase in armaments, the Cuban Missile Crisis should have been all but expected. Narrowly avoiding a world-wide nuclear melt-down, Americans had for the first time been forced to confront the scary realities of nuclear war.
Thus, while wide agreement in the government allowed for an efficient political system, the “liberal consensus” of the 50’s would soon have to face up to the problems of basing a society on two incorrect assumptions. First, Americans were wrong to overestimate the threat of the Soviet Union. Truman’s polarizing language was a direct product of his desire to send foreign aid to Greece. Had he considered the implications of such rhetoric we probably wouldn’t have had to deal with the absurdity of McCarthyism. Nor would later officials have had strong ground on which to argue that billions of dollars were better spent developing the capacity to blow up the Soviets 10 times over than to be used to address domestic concerns. Second, Americans were wrong in believing that capitalism could eliminate class distinctions at home. The Civil Rights movement was a product of distinctions based on race and class. Blacks and other disenfranchised groups still had no seat at the table, and they insisted that it was time that white America recognized it.
America was changing quickly. To learn how it continued to change, be sure to check back for the next post on the issues covered in my class, HY233, taught by Doug Monroy.