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Editors: Judith S. Baughman , Victor Bondi , Richard Layman , Tandy McConnell , and Vincent Tompkins
Date: 2001
From: American Decades(Vol. 6: 1950-1959. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Article
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page VII


The Danger of Generalization

It is always tempting to oversimplify history; even so, no American decade in the twentieth century lends itself more readily to facile summation than the 1950s. It is clear that there was a sweeping change in American life after World War II. It is equally clear that generalizations about the decade must be carefully considered and applied only with caution. The American people constitute a very large topic. In 1950 there were more than 151 million Americans, and the population increased at what some thought to be the alarming rate of 19 percent over the decade. There were, on average, some 100 million voting-age adults in America during the 1950s, and, being Americans, they tended to blaze their own paths, even if there are certain patterns recognizable in hindsight.


To make history palatable, popular historians tend to label periods for convenience. Labels come easily to the 1950s—so easily that it is difficult to choose a suitable name among them for the busy decade. It was a time of unparalleled innovation: nationally broadcast television, commercial jet transport, microwave ovens, turnpikes, rock 'n' roll, commercial hotel chains, fast food, polio and measles vaccinations, and birth control pills were all introduced during the 1950s, though in many cases their major impact came later.

In Search of a Label

Portable radios the size of a hardbound dictionary were plugged into a wall outlet or alternatively ran on a handful of D-cell batteries in 1950; battery-operated radios the size of cigarette packs were available by 1960. Records were, for the most part, 78 RPM and were played on raspy, single-speaker sets in 1950; by 1960, 45 RPM records and long-playing albums were played on high-quality, low-cost stereophonic sound systems. Many of the nation's public schools, particularly in the South, were segregated in 1950; by 1960 the federal government had taken an active and effective role in school desegregation. Children were killed or incapacitated by polio and a host of other infectious diseases in 1950; by 1960 polio was all but eradicated, and vaccinations had been developed for the most threatening childhood diseases.

Big Science

To some the 1950s were the age of big science. The success of the war effort triggered an explosive release of technological creativity in the postwar era and provided the stimulus for an unparalleled period of scientific discovery. With the success of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb, attitudes toward science changed. Scientists were no longer viewed as daydreaming eggheads who engaged in experiments out of simple curiosity. They were problem solvers. They no longer worked in benign isolation; teams of scientists shared their expertise to achieve practical goals. Top scientists no longer worked in makeshift laboratories or in underfunded university departments where they checked on experiments between classes; they had access to such expensive scientific tools as electron microscopes and atomic accelerators in well-funded research facilities. When America needed military might to win World War II, science came to the rescue by providing practical applications for complicated principles. The performance was so impressive that it suggested a method for solving almost any problem: bring together the best scientific minds in a field and provide them with unlimited resources.

Big Results

This method was called "big science," big because it cost a lot of money and because the results were astonishing. Big science cured polio, produced the computer, introduced the space age, and created the television generation by inventing the medium of obsession. Big science redefined American commerce because it created huge industries, such as the health-care industry and what President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. Big science provided the technology for thousands of new products that businesses became prosperous selling and that consumers worked, saved, and borrowed to buy.

Cold War

To some the 1950s were the age of the cold war, when American leaders defined their role in international diplomacy and thus molded the American personality. By demonstrating the concept of weapons so awe-some that they could destroy civilization, military leaders convinced a generation of Americans that a responsibility of government was to ensure military superiority. Strong government required a strong military, people were convinced; and the military must not only be strong, it must be unequaled. In atomic warfare losing was a permanent Page VIII  |  Top of Article condition. The high-stakes arms race with the Soviet Union that resulted had repercussions that extended into schoolrooms and suburban neighborhoods, as American anxiety about the encroaching enemy seeking to subvert the government and spy on American ingenuity approached hysteria. Political careers were made on the promise of revealing the level of Communist infiltration into American life; lives were ruined by charges of Communist sympathizing; and the average American's view of the world was affected by the cold-war spectacle known as McCarthyism.

Atomic Dread

In world politics, America undertook the role of policeman for the world, beginning with a three-year military action in Korea to prevent "the forcible absorption of free peoples into an aggressive despotism," in the words of Secretary of State Dean Acheson. The cost was 33,629 American soldiers killed in battle. Halting or at least containing the spread of communism was excuse enough for military intervention, or, preferably, the threat of intervention, at trouble spots around the world. The result was a decade of tension as annihilation by ever-more-powerful weapons seemed always possible and too-often imminent. That aura of dread had curious effects. Some people were unable to confront their own mortality. They built fallout shelters, sought refuge in extremist political organizations, and found comfort in the paternalistic arms of religious groups, both traditional and evangelistic. Others were liberated by atomic dread. In the arts, movements espousing fiercely independent modes of free expression attracted an enthusiastic following, and the commercial fallout from atomic research offered appealing diversions for people seeking relief from the tensions of the day.


To some, the 1950s were the decade of education, when the priorities of the nation shifted markedly from brawn to brains. Hard work was still the American virtue, but Americans recognized that hard work alone was insufficient to ensure success in the postwar world. The nation came to recognize that intelligence and knowledge are key elements of strength and that they must be nurtured. The availability and the quality of education, from kindergarten through graduate school and even self-teaching—was a national concern during the 1950s. Americans recognized that only by thoughtful instruction, including vocational training, would their children grow up with the skills necessary to compete. Attracted by dreams of prosperity and by urban values that promoted communal action, families moved in unprecedented numbers from rural America to the cities, where, in one way or another, either wittingly or not, they confronted life in a world more sophisticated than the one their fathers and mothers inhabited.


To some, the 1950s were the decade of integration, a time when Americans had to confront the image of a World Series championship baseball team with three black players, contrasted with the image of a black schoolgirl being turned away from the schoolhouse door in Little Rock, Arkansas; the image of their daughters dancing suggestively to the rock 'n' roll sounds of lusty black performers singing about sex, contrasted with the image of two white men in Mississippi bragging after they were found innocent by an all-white jury of mutilating and drowning a fourteen-year-old black boy for whistling at a white woman. Integration was pioneered, as so many innovations in the 1950s were, by the military, In the name of constitutional rights and human decency integration was forced during the 1950s on a white society often unwilling to make a place in the workforce and in its neighborhoods for people considered socially, if not physiologically, inferior. The civil rights struggle was sometimes violent; more often it was soul wrenching and agonizing, as people struggled with their consciences, weighing deeply etched convention against moral rectitude.

Broad Inequities

Civil rights was more than a social issue. It was economic at its roots. Black men wanted more than the right to sit in the front of public buses and drink at the same water fountains as whites. They wanted the right to work alongside white men and to earn the same pay. So did white women. The consideration of equal rights for blacks suggested inevitably that other elements of society might have been subjected to inequitable treatment by an insensitive social system dominated by white males. Women, in particular, having been forced by the war to the workplace and forced by the war's end back to domestic service, began to see a commonality between their lack of economic opportunity and that of blacks.

Rock 'n' Roll

To many, the 1950s were the age of rock 'n' roll, a time when the nation's youth asserted themselves through a music that was distinctly theirs. The message the music delivered was more complex than it was given credit for during the decade. The message of rock 'n' roll was clearly racial. The dominant influence on rock 'n' roll came from black rhythm and blues music, and after the color barrier was cracked in the mid 1950s, black groups were at least as popular among white audiences as white groups; and black superstars, such as Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, and Fats Domino, commanded huge audiences. The message of rock 'n' roll was hedonistic. The music was about sex, good times, freedom from parental control, and expressions of love. Parents worried that the music undermined traditional values, and they were on the right track. The music did not undermine values, but it did announce that these values were under revision by a new generation. The message of rock 'n' roll was libertine. Rock 'n' roll was the music of a generation announcing its independence. It was blamed for a perceived rise in juvenile crime, teen marriage, and adolescent incorrigibility. Elders mistook the symptom for the cause. The message of rock 'n' roll was commercial. The exploding music industry demonstrated the financial clout wielded by the children of the 1950s. They possessed the stuff of real power in a capitalist society—money.

Page IX  |  Top of Article


To some, the 1950s were the decade of spontaneity. The arts took on qualities after the war that disturbed traditionalists. Abstract expressionist artists turned their backs on representation, even representation of the subconscious mind. They embraced instead a theory of spontaneity in which art was defined as the enduring record of an event, recording the frenzy of motion of an artist's swinging arms and feet at some moment or, in layers, some set of moments. In jazz, improvisation was held in higher regard than studied composition. As jazzmen became more skilled in the uses of atonal harmonies and syncopated rhythms, pioneers in the field introduced musical forms that shunned standard melodic structures and rhythm altogether, so that music became purely expressive without any of the strictures of form. The Beats explored similarly liberating techniques in literature. Truly spontaneous prose was considered the pinnacle of creative expression by some, to the dismay of careful writers who believed that art required craft, by definition.

These and More

The 1950s were the decade of miniaturization, when the development of the transistor coupled with people's concerns about the use of space made the word compact a staple of consumerism. The 1950s were the decade of the tail fin, when cars came to symbolize the futuristic spirit of the postwar age, representing speed, independence, conspicuous consumption, and technical superiority. The 1950s were the decade of lost innocence, the decade of communication, the decade of exploration and discovery. All of these and more.


This is the first of nine volumes in the American Decades series. Each volume will chronicle a single twentieth-century decade from thirteen separate perspectives, broadly covering American life. The volumes begin with a chronology of world events outside of America, which provides a context for American experience. Following are chapters, arranged in alphabetical order, on thirteen categories of American endeavor ranging from business to medicine, from the arts to sports. Each of these chapters contains the following elements: first, a table of contents for the chapter; second, a chronology of significant events in the field; third, Topics in the News, a series, beginning with an overview, of short essays describing current events; fourth, anecdotal sidebars of interesting and entertaining, though not necessarily important, information; fifth, Headline Makers, short biographical accounts of key people during the decade; sixth, People in the News, brief notices of significant accomplishments by people who mattered; seventh, Awards of note in the field (where applicable); eighth, Deaths during the decade of people in the field; and ninth, a list of Publications during or specifically about the decade in the field. In addition, there is a general bibliography at the end of this volume, followed by an index of photographs and an index of subjects.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3468301753