Textbook for American Surveys
When FDR ran for his fourth presidential term in 1944, most expected him to retain his current VP, progressive Henry Wallace. But just as the Iowan made his way to the stage to accept the nomination at the Democratic convention, his detractors adjourned the meeting for the day, citing a fire code infraction because of the packed house. This was just as FDR planned because, contrary to public pronouncements in Wallace's favor, he'd decided to jettison him from the ticket. When the convention resumed the next day, the VP slot belonged to Harry Truman, a feisty, unpretentious no-name from Missouri who FDR disliked, but hoped could balance his ticket and get him the same Midwestern votes Wallace delivered in 1940 without the leftist baggage. Born in the waning days of the frontier West, Truman failed at farming, oil prospecting and selling hats, but served admirably as a corporal in WWI. Few Americans had heard of him. Those that had associated him mostly with the notoriously corrupt Kansas City political machine, though Truman managed to keep his nose clean. He ended up as president shortly thereafter when FDR died in April 1945, just a month before the war in Europe ended. Aside from handling the farming end of FDR's New Deal, Henry Wallace was most known for advocating a constructive, even conciliatory relationship with the Soviet Union, so it’s interesting to ponder how the Cold War would have played out had Truman not ended up on the ticket. After the Cold War, Soviet archives confirmed what Wallace's skeptics in the Democratic Party charged at the time: that Wallace's progressive wing of the Democratic Party was basically a vehicle of the Communist Party USA. That makes a Wallace presidency a compelling and/or disturbing counterfactual [what if?] scenario, because the policies he advocated moved in lockstep with the Soviets in 1948, though by 1952 he viewed the USSR as evil.¹ Truman, on the other hand, approached the Soviet Union with the consistent containment policy we covered in the previous two chapters. On the domestic front, he presided over a proud and anxious country on the cusp of the greatest economic and population boom in its history.
Having relied on defense spending to pull itself out of the Depression, the U.S. continued on that course, especially with the Cold War against the Soviets escalating. The America Truman inherited didn’t launch into its famous post-war economic boom immediately after the war, though. Real GDP dropped 11% from 1945 to '46, more than twice what it fell during the Great Recession of 2007-09. There were a couple of difficult years, with housing shortages and strained labor relations as the country transitioned from WWII. At stake was the question of whether the gains labor made during the Depression, including minimum wage and the right to collective bargaining, were temporary or permanent. While there were several strikes during WWII, both sides were mostly willing to shelve the argument during the war. Once the war ended, it was game on. Management wanted the 1935 Wagner Act repealed now that the Depression was over, especially the all-important collective bargaining law, which compelled management to negotiate with unions. Labor wanted to hang on to their gains, and underscored their determination with a series of connected, secondary strikes in coal, steel and autos in 1946. Truman wasn’t subtle in his reaction to these unwelcome slowdowns in the economy, lambasting management and threatening, in a clear violation of executive powers, to draft striking coal miners into the military. Both sides lost faith in him. Labor responded by voting Republican in the 1946 mid-term elections. But, once in power, the GOP’s first act was to weaken unions. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 outlawed closed shops (right-to-work zones replaced workplaces mandating union membership), union political contributions, and secondary strikes, where major unions like steel and auto would strike in unison, as they had in 1946. Truman vetoed the act, knowing he’d be overridden, just to help win back labor for the Democrats. After the lesson of 1946, unions mostly voted straight-ticket Democrat up until the 1970s. Many union workers still vote Democrat today.
Most commentators expected Truman to lose in 1948, and the Republican nominee Thomas Dewey had a big lead that summer. Recollect how divided the Democrats had been in the 1920s along rural/urban, immigrant/WASP lines – when big-city Catholic wets like Al Smith failed to connect with rural Protestants. Only the severity of the Depression bridged that gap, allowing FDR to launch the New Deal under the unspoken agreement that as a “party unifier” he wouldn’t push for civil rights. The Democrats stayed in power as FDR was re-elected three times, but broke apart along the old fault lines of the 1920s as soon as WWII was over. The States’ Rights Party, aka the Dixiecrats, led by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, threatened to break away or even lead a secessionist movement if the Democrats pushed for civil rights. And they opposed continuation of the New Deal. Northern Democrats ranging from near-left liberals like Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota to progressives like Henry Wallace wanted the opposite, and Truman was caught in between. The progressive Democrats had branched off and formed their own Progressive Party (1948-1955).
What was Truman’s response to Dixiecratic racism?
The card-carrying member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans
spoke personally at an NAACP
convention and, more importantly, integrated the military
– the first major institution in American history to mix
races. He also recognized the new nation of Israel,
stating he couldn’t recollect the Arab-American vote ever
swinging an election. Still, everyone expected him
to lose in 1948, including his wife Bess, who wanted to
return to Missouri. But Truman crisscrossed the
country in an old-fashioned Whistle-Stop
campaign and pulled off a shocking upset (Bess was
especially shocked and upset). Since Dewey showed a
commanding lead early in the evening, most of the major
newspapers went to press proclaiming him the victor.
However, when all the electoral votes were counted by the
next morning, Truman had inched ahead.
In his 2nd term, Truman embraced the near-left Democrats while calling the progressives like Wallace commies. He pushed a platform to expand the New Deal called the Fair Deal. The Fair Deal supported civil rights legislation, universal health insurance, expansion of Social Security benefits, and repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act that weakened labor the year before. A lot of the Fair Deal was similar to what Dewey had proposed for his GOP platform in the '48 election, but out of step with what more conservative Republicans in Congress supported. A coalition of Northern Republicans and Southern Democrats that came to be known as the Old Guard mostly stymied the Fair Deal (the alliance coalesced in the late 1930s during FDR's 2nd New Deal). The Old Guard blocked civil rights legislation supporting black voting rights and prohibiting lynching up until the mid-1960s (the last confirmed black lynching in the U.S. was in Marion, Indiana in 1930, but there were others up through mid-century). The portions of the Fair Deal that made it through Congress were small increases in the minimum wage and expansion of social security benefits to include dependents. Taft-Hartley wasn’t repealed, but neither did unions lose the basic rights to collective bargaining that they’d won in the 1930s.
Unions stayed strong for the next thirty years, creating a relatively prosperous working class that, in turn, helped spur a thriving housing and consumer economy (of course, when workers get prosperous, the GOP starts looking more appealing to them with their promise of tax cuts so, in some ways, the Democrats later became victims of their own success). The Fair Deal didn’t add much ground to New Deal liberalism but, by taking the offensive, Truman helped secure the gains won in the 1930s. Partly because of Truman, the New Deal left a lasting imprint on American politics long after the Depression, up to and including the present. Americans had more urgent things to worry about by the late 1940s, though, like the end of the world.
Truman’s 2nd term failure thus resulted from the worsening Cold War instead of the Fair Deal languishing in Congress, especially the way the Soviet threat played out at home. The early Cold War succeeded insofar as the U.S. had managed to stave off communism in Greece, Turkey and Iran with no combat troops, and the Soviets hadn’t advanced in central Europe beyond Czechoslovakia. In fact, Truman’s even-handedness in formulating early containment policy was a big factor in helping him win re-election in 1948. But in his 2nd term, the U.S. experienced several setbacks in the Cold War, including the Soviets exploding an atomic bomb, spy scandals, and a communist takeover of China. Worst of all, the first two were connected: Klaus Fuchs, a German-British physicist working on the Manhattan Project, sold breakthrough secrets to the Soviets. Then the public sided with General MacArthur in his fight with Truman over whether the Americans should have conquered China during the Korean War. In fairness, China was not really Truman’s to lose, but TIME’s Henry Luce, especially, flayed Truman mercilessly for “losing China” and being soft on communism. TIME and LIFE were among the mainstream magazines that informed middle-class Americans, along with Saturday Evening Post.
In this heated atmosphere, any man who didn’t knock himself out being “tough on communism” ran the danger of being considered a “fellow traveler” himself (fellow communist). The State Department even fired East Asian linguists as an irrational reaction to China's revolution, leaving the U.S. with no one in the government who spoke Korean or Vietnamese when wars broke out there later. Rather than stand up to the criticism, Truman pandered to the hysteria by instituting loyalty oaths and reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a committee started in the House of Representatives back in the late 1930s to ferret out right-wing influence (Nazi and Klan) in the government. FDR also used the FBI to hunt down left and right-wing radicals during World War II. The new enemy within was on the left and, seemingly, no one was above being accused of communism. The CIA and FBI were rightfully finding out what they could about real Soviet espionage, but some branches of the government (including the Army) struggled to control espionage. HUAC, meanwhile, made a public spectacle of the country's worst tendencies, including political backstabbing and paranoia. In hoping to defuse his critics, Truman accidentally fanned the flames with a pair of bellows when he should have used an extinguisher on HUAC and just made sure the FBI and CIA were adequately staffed.
The most notorious manipulator of HUAC as a vehicle for his own political ambition was Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy (known as “Tail Gunner” for his role in WWII, even though he only occasionally rode along observing on bombing missions as an intelligence officer). He was a tough, energetic, self-educated farm boy and boxer from Appleton, Wisconsin, who was a Democrat during the New Deal, but switched to the right wing of the Republican Party. In Washington, though, he was more of a loner than Republican team player. In the early Cold War, McCarthy (left) realized he could destroy pretty much anyone’s career simply by accusing him of being communist. In such a charged environment, the accusation alone sufficed, even without real evidence. If the victim fought back, that merely proved his guilt. Anyone who challenged him was "red," as journalist Drew Pearson discovered. Former New Dealers, especially, were subject to attack, whereas McCarthy steered clear of attacking FDR himself. Oftentimes when he saw his victims off camera, he would apologize and ask them to not take anything personally, suggesting that the whole thing was a kind of theater. Just as Democrats had taken advantage of Republican resistance to fighting Germany in the late 1930s by associating them with fascism through brown baiting, now Republicans smeared liberals with communism through red baiting.
Recently, some conservatives have revived McCarthy’s reputation, because it became apparent after the Cold War ended that the Soviets indeed had spies throughout the U.S. government and were influential in the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). Anne Coulter argues that God sent McCarthy to the U.S., and that he successfully immunized Americans against communist propaganda. Both the Americans and Soviets, in fact, infiltrated each other’s governments, nuclear research, militaries and intelligence agencies. Not only the aforementioned Fuchs (above right) but, as we saw in the Cold War chapter, David Greenglass passed critical information to his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg. Harry Dexter White in the Treasury Department, who was influential on the Free World's entire post-war economic policy, was a Soviet informer during WWII. Not all this came to light after the Cold War ended in 1991; a defecting Soviet spy named Elizabeth Bentley (right) named names to the FBI in the 1940s.
It’s important to realize, though, that McCarthy wasn't involved in counter-espionage intelligence such as the Venona Project, leaving him with little more knowledge about Soviet spies than the average man on the street, other than what he heard from others, like Bentley. Post-Cold War revelations show that McCarthy wasn’t insane or irrationally paranoid for suspecting such infiltration, warranting a revised interpretation among any historians who argued otherwise, or thought men like Fuchs or Rosenberg were innocent scapegoats. But some of his charges were true, and others were imagined. There’s not enough correspondence between real Soviet spies and those McCarthy accused of communist infiltration to rehabilitate his reputation, and he attacked too many non-spies for leaning left. If McCarthy had been discovering and fingering the actual spies, then not only would a revisionist upgrade be in order, we should build a memorial in D.C. to honor the man. But he wasn't, so we should recognize him for what he was: mainly a cynical opportunist who lacked any real sense of decency and justice. His legacy was exposing the paranoid finger-pointing tendencies of an anxious society.
The paranoia within the government spread to the rest of society and popular culture in the Red Scare, the second after an earlier post-WWI outbreak. The Cincinnati Reds baseball team changed their name to the Redlegs just to counter any suspicions as to their political leanings. Hollywood conservatives led by Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Charlton Heston led a blacklisting of leftist actors, writers and directors, trying to push them out of the industry. One victim of the Hollywood Blacklist, Arthur Miller, wrote a metaphoric attack on this culture of suspicion called The Crucible (1953), a play about the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, when people were killed simply for being accused rather than proven guilty. Miller couldn’t write a play about the Red Scare itself for obvious reasons. While it surely traumatized Miller being interrogated by HUAC and charged with contempt of Congress for refusing to rat out other leftists, it no doubt comforted him to have his future wife Marilyn Monroe at his side during the hearings.
Eisenhower & McCarthyism
McCarthy stole Truman’s thunder in the early 1950s. By reinvigorating HUAC, Truman fanned flames that didn’t so much consume him personally, as they displaced whatever momentum the Fair Deal would've otherwise had. In 1952, the Democrats took the unusual action of not nominating Truman for another term, even though he was eligible. In fact, the Democrats never nominated Truman, because he only inherited the office from FDR in 1945. His 22% approval ratings are still the lowest in history -- lower even than Richard Nixon when he resigned in disgrace in 1974 as he was being impeached. The Democrats hoped to nominate popular war hero Dwight Eisenhower, aka Ike, as their candidate. Ike was a centrist and wasn’t sure at first which party he’d belong to if he were to become a politician, but eventually accepted the Republican nomination instead. The outwardly affable Ike won the election and served two terms, from 1953-61. He gave people the impression of being simpler and more easygoing than he really was, but it stands to reason that no one who rose all the way through the ranks of the military to lead the European effort in World War II was anything short of cunning and manipulative. Anyone unfortunate enough to sit down at the bridge or poker table with Ike discovered that in short order. This was the man, after all, who tricked Hitler into thinking the allied invasion of 1944 was planned for a different spot.
Ike demonstrated his political prowess in nominating Richard Nixon of California as his VP running mate. Nixon nearly torpedoed Ike's campaign with an illegal fund-raising snafu. But he rectified the situation with his infamous Checkers Speech, in which he apologized for taking illegal contributions but refused to return one critical gift: a pet Cocker Spaniel puppy, "Checkers," he’d given to his children. It was a good example of spinning a potentially negative incident to one's advantage. Eisenhower thought Nixon was a creep but, this was the height of the McCarthy era, and he needed someone to stay on the anti-communist offensive when the situation called for it. By letting Nixon be his equivalent of a hockey thug, he could maintain his dignity by staying above the fray himself. As a young Congressman from California, Nixon earned his stripes through his investigation of diplomat and communist Alger Hiss. There's a near consensus today that Hiss was a Soviet spy; we'll know more when HUAC files are unsealed in 2026.
As for Joe McCarthy, he and Ike danced around each other cautiously, at least at first. Publicly, the new President said that, while he appreciated congressional work, investigations into communist subversion would now lie squarely on the shoulders of the executive branch. Also, in keeping with American principles, suspects would be considered innocent until proven guilty. Ike later said he didn’t want to get into a “pissing contest with a skunk.” (He may not have realized that, when McCarthy was a young politician campaigning in Wisconsin, he used to establish his down-home credibility by saying that, as a farm boy, he'd been tasked with the dirty work of killing skunks.) McCarthy, in turn, formally endorsed "the General," as he called Ike, but wished that it was he, rather than Ike, in the Oval Office. He technically had more power than ever, chairing a committe on government operations with the GOP in firm control of the Senate, but his days were numbered. He sent two agents to Europe to review the libraries of American embassies abroad and make sure they didn't contain leftist literature. That trip didn't go well and the agents were mocked and criticized in the European and American presses.
McCarthy eventually went too far by investigating the CIA and its director Allen Dulles, and George Marshall, who headed the U.S. Army in WWII. He didn't accuse Marshall directly of treason, but attacked high-ranking brass for allowing smaller-scale communist infiltration among the signal corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey (where the aforementioned Julius Rosenberg worked). Dulles told Eisenhower he'd resign if McCarthy didn't steer clear of the CIA, and Eisenhower was protective of the Army. Ike's administration held an important card, since McCarthy's staff had sought favor within the Army for a man McCarthy's chief aid, Roy Cohn, had purportedly had an affair with. More importantly, as more Americans got televisions and saw McCarthy in action, the public turned on him, especially after an hour-long documentary by journalist Edward R. Murrow. Eisenhower joked that McCarthyism had turned to McCarthywasm. The Senate censured him and McCarthy eventually died from alcoholism in 1957, at the age of 48. For Anne Coulter, McCarthy saved America long enough for it to get by until Ronald Reagan came along 30 years later.
Cold War @ Home
Eisenhower’s domestic agenda was closely tied to Cold War foreign policy, emphasizing military spending as a way to keep pace with the USSR. Fearing nuclear war, some people were building fallout shelters in the backyards with weeks worth of dry foodstuffs and supplies. The nice ones even had wet bars. Schools showed kids cartoons featuring a turtle named Bert who taught them to "duck and cover" in case of an atomic attack.
The paranoia went up a notch when the Soviets beat the U.S. into space. In response to their successful launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, Ike created NASA, a bureaucracy separate from the military to pursue the Space Race. Sputnik (lower right) was just an 184-pound ball, but Sputnik II sent a stray dog named Laika into space, and it required putting a six-ton rocket into orbit to launch the satellites. At the time of Sputnik’s orbit, the U.S. was actually further along then Ike let on in its pursuit of “artificial moons” [satellites] and rocketry, but he wanted to take the projects out of the military's hands and give them some semblance of true, scientific importance. Ike capitalized on Sputnik to create NASA. The Space Race was still really a subset of the broader arms race at the time, even though today NASA has branched out into climatology, geology, asteroid defense and Mars explorations. At all times, the space agency has funneled billions of taxpayer dollars to the shareholders of aerospace companies. In the 1950s the key feature of rockets was that they would soon carry nuclear warheads for the Air Force. It’s a commonly held notion today that only free markets spur growth and innovation, while governments just drag down the economy. It’s surprising how many people nod their head in approval at that notion despite the obvious contradictions of recent history. Military spending during the Cold War was an example of how government-funded research and cooperation with private contractors and universities spurred the economy.
Boeing's contracts for the Minuteman Missile paid, in turn, for Fairchild Semiconductor's research on silicon transistors. Under Ike's successor, John Kennedy, NASA funded Fairchild's work on integrated circuits, or microchips, because they needed computers smaller than a barn if they were going to send them on rockets to the moon. The company spawned dozens of "Fairchildren" in Silicon Valley (Santa Clara Valley in and around San Jose, California) -- home today to Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, eBay, Adobe, Yahoo, Facebook, Netflix, Linked In, etc. The first was its direct descendant, Intel, where engineers invented the microprocessor that kicked off the digital age. Intel epitomized the creative, hard-working, egalitarian culture that contrasted Silicon Valley from stuffier, old-school corporations. Every employee, from top to bottom, was encouraged to come up with innovative ideas and bounce them off management, regardless of the chain-of-command. After public funding seeded the information technology plant, private venture capital took over from there, targeting a market far bigger than any government: us.
Defense spending stayed around 10-12% of GDP in the 1950s-60's, compared to 5% today. In the mid-to-late 20th century, government-funded research, especially at DARPA, led to much of the technology that surrounds us today. Satellites, for instance, made cell phones, advanced weather forecasting, and global-positioning systems [GPS] possible, while revolutionizing television and media coverage. Composite materials, lightweight computer equipment, long-range data links, digital flight controls, and artificial intelligence, in conjunction with GPS, made drones (UAVs) possible. Currently, the Air Force trains more remote pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. DARPA's most conspicuous contribution was the Internet, created so that missile sites could communicate with each other in the case of a nuclear attack by the Soviets. It may or may not be disturbing that the Cold War arms race led to all this, depending on your perspective, and a small-government advocate could argue that a free market would've produced better technology on its own. But either way, it's nonsense to argue that taxpayer-funded government spending can't produce results when it created our modern economy. The government also spurred growth by subsidizing college tuitions, especially via the GI Bill. While none of us enjoy paying taxes, and free markets definitely produce a lot of innovation on their own, be wary of broad, simplified generalizations about the relationship between the government and economy. If you don’t think the public/private model holds any value at all, try going a day without your phone or the Internet. Half of us couldn't go five minutes, let alone one day. While you're at it, don't drive on the freeway.
Ike also spurred economic growth by promoting and signing the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 that built on earlier legislation from the 1940s and '50's. As a former general, he had military efficiency in mind, primarily, envisioning a four-lane system similar to the German Autobahn he'd seen during WWII. But the interstates were the biggest federal project in U.S. history -- bigger than any New Deal stimulus -- and more importantly made transportation and trucking more efficient. The concrete ribbons running horizontally across the country end in zero, running from I-10 to I-90 south to north, while the vertical roads end in 5, from I-5 to I-95 west to east, matching or exceeding what Classical Romans built in efficiency and scale. The two-lane highways they displaced make for good memories with their kitschy dives and motels now that people don’t have to rely on them (i.e. Route 66 and Lincoln Highway), and it's interesting that many of those were built on old Indian trails. But before the interstates, drivers and truckers had to stop at every light in every town across the country, and couldn’t pass each other safely in between. The same motels and restaurants we look back on nostalgically today built up against the right of way, making expansion into 4-lanes impossible.
Car, truck, oil and tire companies were pushing city and state multi-lane freeways long before the national government built the interstates. These industries didn't just pay politicians or win contracts (those went to road-builders); they got together and bought streetcar lines from municipalities, then destroyed them. It happened most famously in Los Angeles (see the L.A. Streetcar Conspiracy), but the same consortium of General Motors, Standard Oil, Philips Petroleum, Firestone Tires and Mack Trucks wielded similar influence in Baltimore, Newark and Oakland, where they converted streetcars to bus lines. The 2012 GOP platform called highways civil engineering and mass transit social engineering, but that's a false distinction; one is no more or less social engineering than the other. Both involve civil engineers, are usually publicly funded and dictate how cities grow and people behave. Neither occurs naturally, or in a free market vacuum. Pennsylvania pioneered the four-lane system with its Turnpike, completed in 1940, but the prevailing pattern ended up being open-access free roads funded by the federal government. Of course, they weren't really free. U.S. military presence in the Middle East kept global oil prices artificially lower than they might have been in a truly free market. To the extent that exhaust fumes are unhealthy, healthcare costs were arguably higher than what they might have been with more mass transit. Excise taxes on oil, vehicles and tires went toward road construction in a so-called self-fueling system (no pun intended) that set up America's longstanding addiction to oil. These taxes are nearly invisible to the public because they're charged to wholesalers rather than retailers, but they're mostly passed on to consumers. Still, it's easier than fumbling around for quarters every few miles as you slow down for a tollbooth, or sending a check after being photographed and billed in the mail. Both Ike's Interstate Act and his widening of the St. Lawrence Seaway between New England and Canada to allow ocean-going vessels into the Great Lakes were ideas that Herbert Hoover had during the Depression to put people to work, but Congress blocked them at the time. The St. Lawrence Seaway (right) made the famous Erie Canal obsolete, as freighters now bypassed that and went directly up the St. Lawrence.
The Interstate Act was rough on ghettos. The government has the right to eminent domain, or the right to expel residents while paying them full market value. It sounds harsh but, if they didn't, there wouldn't be many straight roads or rails. But the poorer the neighborhood, the easier it is for the government to match fair market value before bulldozing. Furthermore, the blacker the residents, the less political opposition the government had to overcome from influential Whites. In Los Angeles, middle class neighborhoods blocked the government in certain spots, leading to a spotty system that was only ever 2/3rd built, and even that was based on 1950s traffic levels (about 1/3rd those of today). The result is daily gridlock. In Austin, they tore out a high-value street, East Avenue, but conveniently situated I-35 to separate east and west Austin, effectively using the interstate as a physical barrier to affirm segregation. West Austin, especially Clarksville, had a lot of African Americans due to the 19th-century plantations there, but in the 1930s Austin realtors agreed to never re-sell anything new to blacks or Hispanics in the western part of the city, hoping to gradually segregate it completely with minorities on the east side.
Segregation was key to real estate development across the country, North and South. Suburbs would have happened regardless of race, due to housing shortages and a growing population after WWII (Levittown, PA, left). The GI Bill awarded 4% long-term mortgages to veterans. But the way suburbs developed had a lot to do with white flight from the inner cities. Homebuyers often had to sign covenants promising to never re-sell their land to Blacks, Hispanics or Jews. The Supreme Court ruled in Shelley vs. Kraemer (1948) that these covenants were constitutional as long as they were private agreements and not government-mandated. The government, far from helping minorities, had instead encouraged racism since the New Deal by Redlining all-white areas on maps and awarding them lower-rate mortgages. As we saw in the chapter on the New Deal, minorities got sub-prime interest rates on their loans from the federal housing authorities. When a homeowner did sell to a minority, realtors descended on their neighbors like flies on you-know-what warning them to resell their homes quickly and move to the suburbs before the whole neighborhood transitioned to a ghetto and their homes lost their values. Often this led to a self-fulfilling prophecy. The result was the donut effect, whereby many cities had donut-holes of poverty and rubble in the center, surrounded by a donut of prosperity in white suburbs.
Have you ever wondered why suburbs often have their own names? Sometimes the suburb was originally a small town in its own right (i.e. Round Rock, Texas) but, more often, the motivation was to avoid paying taxes to the nearby city. By incorporating under different names, they avoided paying property taxes toward inner-city schools, police or sanitation. Suburban whites paid separate property taxes toward quality public schools while commuting into the city on the new freeways to work. Eventually the freeways became so choked with traffic that many cities regretted having torn out their train systems earlier in the century. Los Angeles is the prime example, now spending millions trying to uncover their old streetcar tracks downtown while building out commuter rails. By the late 20th century, yuppies and moneyed hipsters started re-investing in old, dilapidated inner-city homes, gradually gentrifying neighborhoods and driving up tax rates on existing minority homeowners, who sometimes migrated to the suburbs. Immigrants today usually land in the suburbs first, as part of this trading places migration pattern.
What one thought about the realization of the new American Dream in these suburbs went a long way toward determining one's attitude about the 1950s in general, even though millions of Americans obviously lived in cities, small towns and on farms. Many of the baby-boomers who grew up in the 1950s were fine, but others (and some of their parents, as well) were bored by the blandness and obsession with conformity. They were being taught that the meaning of life revolved around getting a job and moving your way up the company ladder to impress your neighbors and get a nicer house or car. For those that found those values stifling and soul-deadening, their rebellion and search for meaning took the form of pretty much anything outside that mainstream, including drugs, psycho-therapy, eastern religions, or more fulfilling careers than people had the luxury of aiming for in the 1930s. For the generation that suffered through the Depression and fought WWII, though, the prosperous 1950s seemed great, with the suburbs offering a peaceful patch of green grass outside the dirt, crime and noise of the cities. Anyone who didn’t appreciate it was a spoiled brat or, worse, a communist. You could argue there was some truth to both notions, except for the communist part: the suburban lifestyle was dull (maybe it was everywhere), and the people that didn’t appreciate that dullness were spoiled in comparison with their parents' generation. Their parents, after all, didn't have the luxury of worrying about choosing the right career, or "fulfillment."
The 1950s have a reputation for being placid, with most of the population in a less reflective mood than most eras – similar to the breath of fresh air the 1920s offered Middle America after WWI. But tensions were reaching the boiling point under the surface. For some Whites, the lid blew off the pot in the mid-1960s, launching a cultural revolution that left a cleavage between Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation of the Depression and WWII. For many minorities, the lid was already rattling on top the pot in the form of the brewing Civil Rights movement. Just as there's always connective tissue in families regardless of generation gaps, there’s more connection between the tumultuous 60’s and placid 50’s than people realize. All of the big developments of the 1960s – the Civil Rights movement, Cultural Revolution, Vietnam War, Space Race, and Sexual Revolution – originated in the 1950s.
|At the Altar, 1958
||Home of the Future, 1957 (Monsanto Home)
¹Henry Wallace, "Where I Was Wrong," This Week Magazine in New York Herald Tribune, September 7, 1952.