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The 1950s Terms

Affluent Society

The prosperous American economy of the 1950s. The term was coined by economist John Kenneth Galbraith in 1958, but he was in fact critical of what he called "private opulence and public squalor," which resulted from the accumulation of private wealth.

Baby Boom

The increase in the U.S. birth rate that lasted from 1946 until 1964. The baby boom helped drive the prosperous economy, and prosperity encouraged couples to have more children, extending the post-war trend.


A term applied to a group of avant-garde writers and artists of the 1950s, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs. The term came from jazz slang, meaning "beaten down," referring to their outsider status. Later it was said to be connected to "beatitude," since they searched for spiritual experiences.


A mocking term applied to the Beats after the advent of Sputnik.

Checkers Speech

During the 1952 campaign, vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon went on television to deny corruption allegations. He referred tearfully to Checkers, a dog he had been given. The speech saved his candidacy and gave a clue to the power of television in politics.


An economic orientation in which resources are devoted to satisfying secondary wants of consumers rather than building basic industry and infrastructure. The prosperity of the 1950s gave rise to consumerism even as it was fueled by it.


Removing barriers according to race. Public schools were ordered desegregated by the Supreme Court in 1955.

The process of racial integration of previously segregated social organizations.


The process in the Soviet Union during the 1950s during which harsh regime of Joseph Stalin was softened somewhat.

Duck's Ass

A hairstyle, also called a Ducktail or D.A., popular with young men in the 1950s.


An automobile released by Ford in 1957 that was noted for its gaudy design and fancy gadgets. It flopped, proving there were limits to customers' appetites for increasingly novel and fanciful cars.


Radioactive debris resulting from nuclear explosions. Fallout was one of the feared horrors of nuclear war; it was also a danger of atomic bomb tests, which spread low levels of fallout around the world.

Geneva Accords

The peace treaty in 1954 between the French and the Vietnamese Communists. The agreement temporarily divided the country and called for elections to unify it in 1956. The United States did not sign the accord or favor an election that the Communists were sure to win.

Hula Hoop

A plastic hoop that could be spun around the waist. More than 100 million were sold in 1958.


The explosive equivalent of a million tons of TNT, a way of describing the power of nuclear bombs.

Military-Industrial Complex

Eisenhower's term for the private armaments industry and their allies in the Pentagon who could potentially encourage military spending more for their own sake than for meeting real defense goals.

New Look

The term during the Eisenhower administration for a smaller but more effective military. Nuclear weapons and long-range bombers, in this view, gave "more bang for the buck," by intimidating enemies.

People's Capitalism

The notion, popular in the 1950s, that the American economic system had surpassed older forms of capitalism and was providing benefits to a wide swathe of society through high wages and broader ownership of stocks.

The Pill

Birth control medication, first approved for use in 1960. In coming years, the availability of reliable contraception would have a significant effect on sexual mores and behavior.

Planned Obsolescence

The idea that businesses could prosper by making sure that products had a short life due to changing fashion or poor quality. Planned obsolescence was an important principle in the automobile industry of the 1950s.


Atomic bombs built around fusion rather than fission.

Relating to fusion or hydrogen bomb technology. Thermonuclear bombs used an atomic or fission reaction as the trigger for a much larger explosion.


Anti-anxiety medication first widely marketed in the U.S. in the mid-1950s. Time Magazine called them "don't give a d--n pills."63

World War III

The feared conflict that would resemble the two world wars earlier in the century, but with the use of atomic weapons on both sides.

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