Society in The 1950s
If one word could describe American society during the Eisenhower era, it would be "restless." We tend to imagine the Fifties as a tranquil decade, but in fact Americans spent the years moving and searching. They moved physically, from the Northeast to the South and West—California's population grew by 49% during the Fifties, Florida's by 79%.31 They moved from rural areas to cities and from cities to suburbs. By 1960, a third of the country's population lived in the 'burbs. Many people were content, but many others felt ill at ease because of the speed at which the world was changing. Searching for new ways of coping, they embraced religion and visited psychiatrists in unprecedented numbers.
The Automobile Revolution
Americans were well on the way to becoming a motorized society before the 1950s, but the Depression and the halt in auto production during World War II slowed the growth of America's car culture. During the Fifties, though, the number of cars in the US nearly doubled from 39 million to 74 million. By 1960, 80% of American families had at least one car and 15% had two or more.32
By making radical year-to-year design changes, Detroit automakers encouraged consumers to scrap older cars to buy the latest models, even as often as once a year. On average, 4.5 million cars were junked every year during the 1950s. By 1960, Americans owned more cars than all the rest of the world put together.33
Some point to the imaginative cars of the second half of the Fifties—with their swooping decorative fins and sparkling chrome accessories—as classic examples of automobile design. Others are more critical of all the waste involved. Cars were becoming more aerodynamic before the 1950s, but with the advent of fins and lavish grilles, most cars of the decade only appeared streamlined; as cars became heavier and their engines more powerful, they required more and more gas to operate. Safety, efficiency, and durability were all sacrificed on the altar of automobile fashion.
The Interstate Highway System
Eisenhower was an opponent of extravagant federal spending, yet one of his most enduring legacies is the Interstate Highway System, which his Secretary of Commerce called "the greatest public works program in the history of the world."34
The idea had entered Eisenhower's head in 1919 when, as a young army officer, he had accompanied a cross-country military convoy to test the quality of the nation's roads. The journey of 81 trucks and autos took two months to cross the United States—at an average of only 50 miles a day. Roads were "from average to non-existent," Second Lieutenant Eisenhower noted. When he saw the modern autobahns of Germany after World War II, he again grew enthusiastic about the possibility of a new high-speed US highway system.35
The new freeway system, officially known as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, had a military as well as civilian purpose: it could be used to rapidly evacuate cities in case of a Soviet missile attack. It was a monumental undertaking to build 41,000 miles of four-lane roads. The nationwide construction project, which involved building more than 16,000 entrance ramps and 55,000 bridges, would not be fully completed until the early 1990s. The roads, whose wide shoulders and easy curves were designed for high-speed driving, would end up costing a grand total of some $129 billion. To satisfy urban interests, sections of highway were constructed into and around cities.
The historian Lewis Mumford predicted that Americans would regret "all the damage to our cities and our countryside . . . that this ill conceived and preposterously unbalanced program will have wrought."36 No one listened. Americans were delighted with the ability to drive from place to place at high speed, with no stoplights or intersections to worry about.
The Impact of the Auto
Mumford's warnings began to resonate with more Americans by the 1970s, when oil shortages left Americans waiting in long lines to fill up at the gas station. The nation's growing dependence on the automobile proved to be a mixed blessing.
Many Americans wanted to escape the cities and live in surrounding suburbs, and the automobile allowed them to do so. Of the 12 largest cities in the United States, 11 lost population during the 1950s. (The one exception was Los Angeles, which became a kind of car-culture mecca.) The cities suffered economically and culturally as a result.
While enormous public investment went into accommodating automobiles, much less was devoted to mass transit. Buses and subways accounted for 35% of urban passenger miles in 1945; by 1965 they made up only 5%. Highway construction near cities displaced residents and divided neighborhoods, further hastening urban deterioration.
On the other hand, new businesses catering to car owners flourished. Drive-in movie theaters boomed—there were 3,000 in operation nationwide by 1956. Motels became common, led by chains like Holiday Inn. Shopping malls, offering new shopping convenience, began to appear everywhere. By the middle of the decade, 1,800 shopping centers had appeared in the United States. Fewer and fewer people went to the inner city to shop, leaving the streets of many cities largely deserted at night.
In 1954, businessman Ray Kroc purchased the franchise rights to an assembly-line hamburger operation that had been started in San Bernardino, California by Maurice and Richard McDonald. Kroc standardized the concept, took it national, and by 1959 had opened his 100th McDonald's restaurant. By then he had sold 50 million burgers for 15¢ each and fast food was becoming part of the American way of life.
A More Religious Nation?
President Eisenhower was not a religious man; he officially joined the Presbyterian Church only in 1953, because he thought some form of piety was appropriate for a president. But during the Fifties, religion made a big resurgence in America. In 1950, 49% of Americans were church members; by 1960, the figure had jumped to 69%.
In keeping with the split personality of the decade, there were really two separate religious revivals. The first was the type of public religion typified by Eisenhower's stance. This was a reaction to the "godless" Communism of America's enemies. The president said, "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith—and I don't care what it is." Eisenhower was worried about citizens "deadened in mind and soul by a materialistic philosophy of life."37 In 1954, he signed a bill to add "one nation under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. Two years later, Congress made "In God We Trust" the national motto of the United States.
Related to this generic, public religion was the success of Norman Vincent Peale. He was an author and preacher who merged religion and the growing self-help movement. In 1952, Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking, one of the most successful inspirational books of all time. In it, he argued that a combination of faith and self-confidence could allow anyone to surmount any obstacle.
A different kind of religious impulse motivated evangelical Christians, typified by the Reverend Billy Graham. Graham founded his Evangelistic Association in 1950 in a small office with a single secretary. Eight years later, he employed 200 people, had a weekly television show, and was taking in $2 million a year.
Graham promoted a traditional type of religion that saw the materialism, hedonism, and secularism of the modern world as evils to be avoided. His followers wanted to cleanse themselves of sin, not to improve themselves through "positive thinking." Though Graham's revivals drew huge crowds, evangelicals of the day did not have a much political impact at the time. But the movement continued to grow until it became a major social and political force in later decades.
After two difficult and tumultuous decades, Americans in the Fifties had enough leisure and material comfort to step back and reflect. They listened to experts and critics like sociologist David Riesman, who published The Lonely Crowd in 1950. The American character was changing, Riesman asserted. Citizens were substituting conformity for individualism.
Riesman's critique was the first in a series of books, many of them bestsellers, that analyzed perceived problems in the American society. They included The Organization Man by William H. Whyte Jr., which criticized the growing bureaucracies of many corporations for encouraging uncreative group thinking. C. Wright Mills, another critic, wrote in The Power Elite that Americans had lost autonomy to a small number of powerful decision-makers in business and government.
It may seem odd that during an era often remembered as the "good old days," Americans were so bothered by self-doubt… but it's just another paradox of the Fifties. Critics were especially hard on the suburbs. This was the heartland of conformity, critics charged, a wasteland of ticky-tack houses, bored men commuting to work, unhappy housewives popping tranquilizers, and greedy, demanding children. Citizens had become consumers, purchasing goods in an endless attempt to keep up with their neighbors.
Were the critics right? Certainly there were elements of truth in their opinions. But later analysts have dismissed many of these criticisms. Conformity is a feature of every society; the Fifties had no monopoly on it. The suburbs let city dwellers escape crowded urban neighborhoods and gave many their first opportunity to own a home. For those who could afford the suburban dream, suburbanization was an opportunity, not a curse. As one suburbanite put it, "It was exhilarating to own my own home. I felt like I had finally achieved something."38
Americans in the 1950s were just as hardworking, ambitious, and entrepreneurial as they had ever been. As their basic needs for food and shelter were met, it was natural for them to look further and grab for even more material goods. It wasn't conformity that drove them, but a desire for comfort and security and status.
Teenagers Take the Stage
The term "teenager" was rarely used before the 1950s. During the Eisenhower years, young people began to see themselves as a distinct group. Their attempts to forge an identity worried adults, who couldn't understand the shift.
The change was connected to the nation's affluence. Earlier in American history, young people often had to work full-time jobs to help support their families' basic survival. By the 1950s, that was usually no longer the case. Teens instead worked part-time jobs or received allowances from their parents, giving them money to spend on fun non-essentials. In part, the phenomenon was inspired by the returning G.I.s of the late 1940s, who after surviving more than four years of World War II had a lot of wild oats to sow. Teens of the following decade imitated the defiant, rebellious, let-loose pattern of this slightly older group.
Much to the delight of young people, adults wrung their hands over their children's strange and worrying behaviors. Author Fredric Wertham wrote a book in 1954 called Seduction of the Innocent. Comic books, he declared, were behind the youth problem, causing everything from delinquency to dyslexia. By 1955, 13 states had passed laws regulating comic books. That same year, Time magazine put out a special issue called "Teenagers on the Rampage." Psychologist Robert Linder claimed in 1954, "The youth of the world today is touched with madness, literally sick with an aberrant condition of mind."39
Juvenile delinquency did exist. Fights among gang members, vandalism, car theft, and random violence were reported in the newspapers every day. But youth gangs had been around for generations; so too had urban violence. A rapidly growing population of young people and extensive coverage by the mass media made the problem seem far graver than it was. Young people adopted the fashions of gangs—the slang, leather jackets, and ducktail hair styles (just as many teens in more recent years have adopted the fashions of "gangsta" culture). But, then as now, most of these stylistically rebellious teens did not commit crimes or get in trouble with the police.
Instead, they eagerly embraced the mobile culture. They owned cars, cruised the highways, and frequented fast food outlets and drive-in movies. They bought records and adopted rock n' roll as the sound of their generation. Rock was a form of music created specifically for teenagers, performed by young people, and marked by a more open sexuality than the kids' parents were used to. Popular radio disc jockeys like Alan Freed, Murray the K, and Wolfman Jack became, in a way, unlikely authority figures for Fifties youths.
But the youth movement of the Fifties did not overturn society, as some grown-up experts feared it would. Youth rebellion was aimed at parents and the confines of daily life, not at society as a whole. The only youthful rebels of the era who you might truly call revolutionary were the African Americans who participated in serious protests against wider injustices in society. Most white teenagers did not concern themselves with social problems and some educators referred to them as a "silent generation." Like many in the Fifties, they were restless. But as they grew up, they tended to adopt to the norms of the wider society. Almost half the young men of the era were drafted and served dutifully in the United States military. Even Elvis Presley, the epitome of defiant youth, was one of them.