Study Guide

The 1950s Analysis

  • Culture

    The paradoxical nature of the '50s was evident in the cultural arena. 

    The Eisenhower era was a time of both squeaky-clean Disneyland and unkempt, edgy beatniks. It was a time when the defiantly sexual Elvis competed with the insufferably bland Perry Como. Rebel Without a Cause, a film about teenagers fighting with switchblades and driving cars off cliffs, was a box-office hit—so too was The Ten Commandments, in which Moses parted the Red Sea and led the Israelites out of Egypt in a grand retelling of one of the Bible's most famous stories. 

    Why all the contradictions?

    During the '50s, mass culture began to dominate in the United States. This accounted for much of the blandness that critics lamented. Television network executives in particular wanted to cater to the largest audience possible, so they shaped their programs to offend the least number of viewers.

    But mass culture also left room for diversity. If you didn't like Western movies, there were Biblical epics. If you didn't like comedies, there were quiz shows. The culture offered something for everybody. And if that something became popular, as rock and roll certainly did, the engines of mass culture could make it huge.

    But the popularity of mass forms of entertainment didn't mean that they crowded out other types of culture. Recordings of classical music still sold well during the '50s. Many theater companies, art museums, and symphony orchestras survived, even though the exodus of urban dwellers to the suburbs shrank their audiences. Books sold well. And because of the GI Bill, which had paid for college for veterans, the country was increasingly well educated.

    Television Enters the National Living Room

    Though television had been invented in the 1930s, few Americans had watched a TV show even into the late 1940s. But by the end of the '50s, TVs were present in 90% of homes and watching television was the favorite leisure activity of nearly half the population.

    Television was the ultimate purveyor of mass culture. Before its arrival, people had to venture out to a theater, cinema, or concert hall to seek entertainment. And they had to pay for it. With television, the entertainment came to them for free. Millions could tune in and watch the same show—and millions did.

    The customer that executives at television networks catered to wasn't the viewer, but the advertiser. Advertisers pushed for the kind of mild entertainment that attracted the most viewers. At first, networks mounted serious dramas, with top actors and writers on shows like Playhouse 90 and Kraft Television Theater

    But these shows appealed mainly to the wealthy viewers who owned the first, expensive television sets. Within a few years, as cheap TVs entered many more homes, shows began to feature bland comedies that focused on middle class families. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver were typical. Programs featuring African Americans, ethnic minorities, or, with a few exceptions, working class characters, were rare.

    Television became the realm of what was called "middle-brow" entertainment. It appealed to the large middle class whose tastes were mostly conventional. These people tended to like entertainment that depicted a world they were already familiar with. They had minimal interest in shows that challenged accepted notions or put forth radical ideas. Only a very few programs of the time addressed any serious issues. And even nightly news shows in the '50s only lasted 15 minutes.

    The Impact of Television

    Did television have a negative effect on America? Did it destroy the sense of community, discourage reading, shorten attention spans, promote violence, or turn citizens into passive consumers? 

    The debate began almost immediately during the '50s and has continued down to the present without reaching any definitive answer. Television probably reflected rather than influenced its audience. The majority of Americans weren't interested in social ferment during the decade. They wanted to see people on television who were like them—or like what they hoped to be.

    But obviously, television had its effects. The movie industry was put on the defensive. Studios scrambled and tried to wow audiences with an experience they couldn't get on the small screen. Cinerama, introduced in 1952, used three projectors to create an ultra-wide-screen viewing experience. In 1953, 3-D movies enjoyed a brief vogue. Movies began to feature lavish sets and panoramic scenes. Biblical extravaganzas became popular—The Ten Commandments in 1956 and Ben Hur in 1959 were both huge hits.

    In 1961, Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said that television had become a "vast wasteland."blank">Heartbreak Hotel." Elvis had been stirring up increasing excitement among fans in the previous two years, but this was to be his first big hit. Presley knew how to depict alienation—he was a close student of James Dean. He understood that gesture, sexuality, and attitude were as important as the music itself.

    But even Elvis, the archetypical rebel, made use of the established media of mass culture. Ed Sullivan hosted one of the most popular television programs of his era, a Sunday-night variety show. Though at first reluctant, he finally had Elvis on his show in September 1956. Elvis didn't pass up the opportunity to reach millions of new fans. 

    Mass culture rolled on, Elvis became a superstar, and rock and roll was here to stay.

    A Final Assessment

    Many critics of the '50s looked on the audience as victims of some kind of cultural conspiracy. Comic books corrupted the young, rock and roll encouraged rebellion, and television dulled the mind.

    There was some truth in these assertions, but there was no conspiracy. 

    Mass culture gave mass audiences what they wanted. Nothing was foisted on the public. The consumer could always switch the dial, refuse to buy the record, or stay home from the film. The audience had the power, and the culture that resulted was far more diverse than most '50s stereotypes admit.

  • Economy

    During the Eisenhower era, Americans achieved a level of prosperity they'd never known before. While other parts of the world struggled to rebuild from the devastation of World War II, citizens of the United States saw their standard of living surpass what previous generations had only dreamed about.

    Eisenhower himself deserves a good deal of credit for this economic growth. He found the right combination of low taxes, balanced budgets, and public spending that allowed the economy to hum along at a steady clip. 

    He also benefitted from steady growth in spending on new homes and consumer goods as citizens turned away from older notions of thrift and began to buy on credit.

    The Decade of Prosperity

    The economy overall grew by 37% during the 1950s. At the end of the decade, the median American family had 30% more purchasing power than at the beginning. Inflation, which had wreaked havoc on the economy immediately after World War II, was minimal, in part because of Eisenhower's persistent efforts to balance the federal budget. 

    Except for a mild recession in 1954 and a more serious one in 1958, unemployment remained low, bottoming at less than 4.5% in the middle of the decade.

    Many factors came together to produce the '50s boom. The GI Bill, which gave military veterans affordable access to a college education, added a productive pool of highly-educated employees to the work force at a time American businesses were willing to pay handsomely for engineering and management skills. 

    Cheap oil from domestic wells helped keep the engines of industry running. Advances in science and technology spurred productivity. At the same time, potential competitors in Europe and Asia were still recovering from being bombed into smithereens during World War II.

    Eisenhower's Middle Way

    Eisenhower steered a balanced course economically. Some Republicans called for rolling back the New Deal, but the president realized that many of Franklin D. Roosevelt's libeal social programs were both popular and effective. Instead of getting rid of Social Security, for example, Ike actually expanded it to cover another ten million people who'd been left out of the original program. 

    Instead of turning away from big public works projects, he instead invested federal money in the Interstate Highway System, one of the largest public spending projects in the country's history.

    The main economic goal that Eisenhower pursued through both his terms in office was to achieve a balanced federal budget. The government ran a small deficit in 1954 and 1955, then registered a surplus for each of the next two years. As the nation went into a recession in 1958 and 1959, Eisenhower allowed the federal deficit to grow in order to stimulate the economy. By 1960, he managed to return to a surplus.

    To achieve a balanced federal budget was a balancing act in itself. Democrats were clamoring for increases in defense spending in order to counter the Soviet threat. Congressional representatives from both parties pushed for tax cuts. Eisenhower used his credentials as an experienced military leader to reassure the nation that the defense budget did not need to be increased as much as some wanted. 

    Though he favored low taxes himself, he dug in his heels and fought tax cuts whenever they threatened to plunge the government into debt.

    The Rise of Consumerism

    One of the factors that fueled the prosperity of the '50s was the increase in consumer spending. Americans enjoyed a standard of living that was inconceivable to the rest of the world. 

    For example, Vice President Nixon told Nikita Khrushchev in the mid-1950s that there were 60 million cars in the United States, but the Soviet leader simply refused to believe him. When Khrushchev came to visit America, Eisenhower arranged for him to fly in a helicopter over busy roads and parking lots to witness the remarkable signs of abundance for himself.

    The time was ripe for Americans to change their spending patterns. The adults of the '50s had grown up in conditions of economic deprivation, first due to the general poverty of the Great Depression and then due to the rationing of consumer goods during World War II. During the '30s, with unemployment sky-high and the economy in shambles, most people simply couldn't afford much beyond the basics. During the war, much of the nation's productive capacity shifted to armaments. Everything from sugar to gasoline to tires to nylon stockings were rationed. 

    When consumer goods became available again, people wanted to spend. By the 1950s, though they made up just 6% of the world's population, Americans consumed a third of all the world's goods and services.

    The difference between a production society, which focused on meeting basic needs, and a consumption society, which emphasized customers' wants, was like the difference between a 1908 Ford Model T and a 1959 Ford Galaxie. The Model T, available only in black, was a utilitarian piece of machinery intended for basic transportation. The Galaxie, decked out in shiny chrome, was a way to show off and to enjoy a sense of luxury, not just to move from place to place. Within a year or two, it would be obsolete as fashion changed. 

    Blessed with abundant resources, America could afford to turn part of its productive capacity to creating glitz and fashionable waste. An older generation was careful to save and reuse, while Americans in the '50s began to use and throw away. They became "consumers."

    But this consumerism was driven by advertising. Spending on product promotion boomed, from $6 billion annually in 1950 to more than $13 billion by 1963. "The reason we have such a high standard of living," Robert Sarnoff, president of the National Broadcasting Company, said in 1956, "is because advertising has created an American frame of mind that makes people want more things, better things, and newer things." 

    In general, this middle way proved highly successful, even though it did fail to reach everyone.

  • Society

    If one word could describe American society during the Eisenhower era, it would be "restless." 

    We tend to imagine the '50s as a tranquil decade, but in fact, Americans spent the years moving and searching. They moved physically, from the Northeast to the South and the West—California's population grew by 49% during the '50s, Florida's by 79%.blank">serious protests against wider injustices in society. Most white teenagers didn't concern themselves with social problems and some educators referred to them as a "silent generation."

    Like many in the '50s, 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.

  • Politics

    During and immediately after Eisenhower's presidency, his critics painted him as a great general but a bumbling politician. In later years, many came to understand that his political skills were more formidable than they seemed.

    During his run for president in 1952, Eisenhower adopted the slogan "I Like Ike." The phrase not only had a nice ring to it, but it was true. Americans overwhelmingly did like Ike. He was a personable, down-to-earth, honest man with an infectious grin. He had been a great athlete, but a knee injury ruined his promising football career while he was still at West Point. As an older man, he seemed like a pretty ordinary guy: he played golf and bridge, watched television, and read Western novels.

    Many presidents, of course, have found that popularity is a tremendous asset in the White House. It aids a president when he wants to pass legislation and makes his political enemies think twice before attacking him. And Eisenhower was one of the most popular presidents of the 20th century.

    The Non-Political Politician

    Eisenhower was the first professional soldier to become president since the famous Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant was elected in 1868. Like Grant, Ike had an undistinguished career early in life but became a national hero during a major war; Eisenhower's leadership of the successful D-Day invasion during World War II turned him into a national hero. He rode his popularity into the White House even though he'd never run for any political office beforehand.

    In fact, well into the early 1950s, most people didn't even know what party Eisenhower belonged to. As a military man, he'd deliberately stayed out of politics, so the Democrats were as eager to recruit him as the Republicans.

    Before Eisenhower's election in 1952, the Republicans hadn't won a presidential election for nearly a quarter century, with Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman combining to win five straight national campaigns. When leaders of both parties first encouraged Eisenhower to run as Truman's presidency was nearing its end, Ike refused to commit himself. He figured it was better to be sought for office than to seek it. 

    He only finally agreed to run for office as a Republican after letting the party's leaders plead with him for months on end.

    But the road to the nomination wasn't smooth. The Republican Party was deeply divided between its isolationist conservatives, who felt that America should stay out of foreign affairs, and its internationalist moderates (like Eisenhower), who saw an essential role for America overseas. The leader of the conservatives was Robert Taft, a well-respected Ohio senator and the son of former President William Howard Taft.

    Taft was known at the time as "Mr. Republican." He stood for what he saw as traditional American values and true-blue conservatism. He supported states' rights and opposed the idea that "we know better what is good for the world than the world does."blank">Reconstruction, a mild piece of legislation aimed at guaranteeing Blacks the right to vote. But amendments added in Congress made the new law almost impossible to enforce. 

    Meaningful federal action on civil rights wouldn't occur until the 1950s, when Ike was no longer president. Eisenhower's failure to take decisive action and to provide moral leadership on issues of race and racism didn't serve the country well.

  • Diplomacy

    America has never had a president who was better prepared in the area of foreign affairs than Dwight D. Eisenhower was when he took office. 

    He'd been in the international arena for more than a dozen years by that point. He knew many world leaders personally. As Army Chief of Staff (1945–1948), he'd charted America's military strategy around the world. As Supreme Commander of NATO (1950–1952), he'd been involved in forging the critical European-American alliance of the early Cold War years.

    Given the serious and complex problems he faced, Ike needed every bit of this formidable experience. When he took office, America was in the midst of a stalemated and frustrating war in Korea. The country was faced with a powerful, implacable, and unpredictable Soviet enemy that openly sought world domination. And all across the globe, populations festered under dictatorships or colonial oppression.

    Eisenhower's approach to world affairs was based on two unwavering principles. First, he was a staunch anticommunist. Having helped defeat the Nazis, he wasn't about to let another form of totalitarianism spread across the world. Second, he a recognized the limits of military power. The nation was already pouring a huge proportion of its wealth into arms spending. Increasing defense spending could bankrupt the country, he believed, leaving the U.S. weaker, not stronger.

    Ike also applied his own personality to world affairs. He'd never been rash, and as a rule, opted for the moderate course. "Eisenhower's personal inclination has always been to try to talk and to conciliate," observed journalist James Reston.

  • Science & Technology

    Was the Eisenhower era the best of times for science, or the worst? 

    It's true that the science of the '50s gave us the most awful weapon ever developed. The hydrogen bomb cast the shadow of nuclear Armageddon over the world. But research in other areas, often also spurred by military concerns, brought advances that directly affected the daily lives of people across the globe. 

    In medicine and electronics, innovations that came to fruition in the '50s offered mankind tremendous benefits...starting with the computer you're staring at right now.

    The Hydrogen Bomb and Atomic Power

    Even as scientists were working on the original atomic bomb, which the U.S. dropped on Japan to end World War II, they were also looking into the possibility of an even more powerful explosive device, known as the "Super" or hydrogen bomb. The atomic bomb's energy came from fission, the splitting of the atom. The Super instead used the energy released when atoms fused together, as they do inside stars. Fusion only occurs at temperatures so high that they never occur on earth. But scientists realized that a fission bomb could create those kinds of temperatures. 

    If they could find a way to maintain this heat long enough to set off fusion, they could dramatically multiply the explosive force of the bomb. A Super could be thousands of times more powerful than the A-bombs that ruined Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

    Most scientists favored building the original atomic bomb, but they were split over the Super. Albert Einstein opposed its development. So did J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had led the Manhattan Project that developed the A-bomb. Others who knew about the project thought it would be morally wrong to create a bomb that could destroy an entire city, or more, in a single blast. 

    But Edward Teller, another prominent atomic scientist, worked on the Super and lobbied hard for it. So did some military men. Those in favor of developing the Super argued that the Russians would certainly work to develop the technology, and that the Americans couldn't risk letting the USSR develop a monopoly on such dangerous weaponry. In January 1950, President Truman, despite his "grave reservations," decided to go ahead with development of the H-bombblank">1960s.

    The fight against heart disease moved forward with new techniques for open-heart surgery. Doctors could implant artificial valves and pacemakers to keep heart patients alive. Vaccines for whooping cough and diphtheria helped restrict those diseases, which had killed many children during earlier decades. The average life expectancy reached nearly 70 years by 1960, up from only 63 in 1940. Because of improved nutrition, children in the '50s grew up taller and stronger than their parents.

    But not everything was rosy. 

    Cancer remained a mysterious affliction for which there were few treatments. Medical care was expensive, and many citizens lacked medical insurance. President Truman's proposal for a national health insurance plan died in Congress. When Eisenhower put forth a much more modest program to help private health insurance companies, the American Medical Association, a doctors' group, raised the fear of "socialized" medicine. 

    The plan failed to pass and even with national healthcare in place today, health insurance remains a hotly-debated policy. 

    Transistors Change the World

    We take computers so much for granted today that it's hard to imagine a time when they didn't exist. 

    The closest thing to a computer in 1950 was the Electrical Numerical Integrator and Calculator or ENIAC. Constructed out of 18,000 vacuum tubes and consuming about 180,000 watts of electrical power, the ENIAC was capable of multiplying numbers rapidly.

    But it didn't do much else.

    Work on the hydrogen bomb wasn't the only factor that pushed scientists to increase the capacity of the computer. With the rapid growth in population, the U.S. Census Bureau wanted a new machine for tabulating its data and in 1951, took delivery of a Universal Automatic Computer or UNIVAC, the first commercial computer. In 1952, CBS borrowed UNIVAC and used it to correctly predict Eisenhower's victory over Stevenson from the early results of the presidential election.

    Computers would have remained massive and ungainly contraptions if not for the invention of the transistor in 1947. Scientists at Bell Laboratories used the electrical conductive properties of crystals to put the function of a vacuum tube into a solid-state device. The first transistor-based computer arrived in 1955. In 1958, Jack Kilby, a scientist Texas Instruments, found that arrays of transistors would work even better if packed onto a single wafer of semiconductor material. His invention of the integrated circuit set the computer industry on the fast track.

    So, what were computers like by the end of the '50s? 

    By modern standards, pitiful. Digital Equipment Corporation's state-of-the-art PDP-1 stored data on punched paper tape and had a memory of 9 kilobytes (though it could be upgraded to 144 kilobytes). In modern terms, this memory is ludicrously tiny—a single average-size photograph stored in your computer requires about 1,000 kilobytes. 

    In spite of its limitations, though, customers at the time thought the machine was worth its price tag: $120,000. And it was used to play the first ever video game, called Spacewar! (Naturally.)