President Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President in 1952 under the platform that he believed in moderate Republicanism. He promised to restore authority to the state and local governments and restrain the federal government from making decisions that ended up changing the political and social fabric on the country. He was neither far left or far right, but politically in the middle. He was a soldier that hated war and a politician who hated politics. "Ike" as he was called by most people, had shown that he had great organizational skills and could handle pressure, which he proved during his time as Allied commander during WWII. Eisenhower was the first professional soldier president since Ulysses S. Grant. He promised to pursue a middle of the road viewpoint that would not trample on individual freedoms, but he would try to meet the welfare of the nation. He didn't try to dismantle or get rid of the New Deal, just trim it down a little bit.
Eisenhower launched the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956 which created a national network of interstate highways to serve the needs of commerce and defense, as well as the public. Funded primarily by federal gasoline taxes, it took twenty-six years to construct and was the largest federal project in history. It created 47,000 miles of road and 55,512 bridges. This construction helped to fuel what America's number one obsession was in the 1950s, the automobile. By 1958, 57 million Americans owned an automobile. Cars became more than just transportation, they were social status symbol of personal freedom and granted people more power of choice. The were able to travel thus they could choose where they lived, worked, or spent vacations. Convenience stores were created, gas stations, drive-in movies, and fast foot restaurants, America had become a car culture.
What made America different than any other nation after WWII was its ability to become prosperous. Because none of the battles of WWII were ever fought on American soil and bombs were dropped on American cities, the country's manufacturing ability was not crippled like it was in other parts of the world. As a nation that decided that one way to beat the spread of Communism was to rebuild Europe, this meant that goods had to be manufactured to rebuild half of Europe, which meant good paying jobs. Military spending was at an all time high and industries that were related to the military were booming. Military testing created products like plastic, electronics, and aviation. In 1957, the aircraft industry was the nation's largest employer. Americans became a consumer culture, one that spent the largest amount of time and money buying products than ever before. Since they had good jobs, they had good money and spent it. With the advent of the credit card in 1949, buying with a plastic card on credit became the norm for millions of Americans. Americans did so much spending that it was considered patriotic.
The GI Bill
Another boost to the economy came from the GI Bill. The GI Bill boosted upward social mobility in postwar America, it gave veterans preference for government jobs, money to build and buy their own homes, and money for college if they wanted to get an education. Almost 8 million veterans took advantage of the $14.5 billion spent on benefits to attend college or enroll in job training programs.
Post WWII America created a migration of Americans to a new frontier, suburbs. Because of more cars and better roads, Americans moved out of the cities and into the suburbs. Veterans used their GI Bill to purchase new homes outside of busy cities and chose to commute to work each day. Suburbia was a symbol of freedom and mobility that allowed families to escape the overcrowded cities and raise their families in new clean neighborhoods. During the 1950s, suburbs grew six times faster than cities, and by 1970, more people lived in suburbs than in cities.
Baby Boomers & Social Structure
The availability of money and jobs made people more likely to settle down and get married. Matter of fact it was your patriotic duty to have a job, a family, and go to church, if families did these things there was no doubt that they would not want to be Communists. People who did not fall into this system were sometimes looked upon differently, people wondered why they hadn't obtained the American dream? With the war over, millions of Americans wanted to settle down and have a family. A record number of children were born from 1941 to 1964, known as the baby boom generation. The 1950s was a good time to be a kid. Parents who had lived through the tough times of the Great Depression and then survived WWII, did not want their children to go without like they had to do. The record number of children born meant that there needed to be more diapers, baby food, washing machines, new schools, all of which fueled a growing economy.
Religion - Another aspect that was common during the 1950s was large number of families that attended church. Going to church also illustrated that you were not Communists because it places like Russia, religion was frowned upon because nothing should be put ahead of the needs of the mother land, not even God. In 1954, Congress made this thought permanent when it added the phrase, "One Nation, Under God," into the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1956, Congress made the statement, "In God We Trust," the official motto of the United States.
John Kenneth Galbraith
Not everyone believed that everything was fixed by this upswing in the economy, in his book, The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith said that just because the nation was more prosperous, that did not mean it was solving social problems. He said that poverty still existed in many parts of the country and in the South prosperity had not brought equal rights.
Rock 'n' Roll
When the large number of small children from the baby boom became old enough to become teenagers, a subculture began to develop, as did a wave of juvenile delinquency. One factor for this was the automobile which enabled teens to escape the watchful eye of parents. Some blamed delinquency on Rock 'n' Roll, a form of music created in the 1950s, it was a louder version of R and B music that evolved into Rock 'n' Roll. In 1956, a twenty-six year old former army soldier named Elvis Presley began playing music with wild hair swaying hips and music that most older people thought was too loud and inappropriate. Cultural conservatives were outraged by the style of dancing that Elvis performed. Elvis went on to become the biggest musician of the 1950s. Elvis defined rock 'n' roll for decades.
The Civil Rights Movement
Many problems in civil rights were addressed beginning in the 1950s. The NAACP began to challenge long standing Jim Crow laws, especially the idea of separate but equal. Back in 1896 in Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court had decided that separate but equal was Constitution, but Eisenhower and others knew society was separate but equal. When the NAACP challenged the law, it went back to the Supreme Court in the form of Brown v Board of Education. The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 on the case of separate but equal and found that it was not equal when you looked at the conditions of the black schools compared to white schools. The South had not intention of just allowing all of these Supreme Court decisions to dismantle their long time systematic racism. In opposition to the Brown case, Southern states formed Citizens' Councils, which was an upper middle class version of the Klan. Citizens' councils sought to do any means necessary to keep blacks from voting and participating in elections.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42 year old black seamstress who was an activist for racial justice, refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man. This act is viewed by many as the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. She was arrested and removed from the bus. That night at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, blacks packed the church in order to organize a mass boycott of the city's bus system. This became known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church had a fairly new twenty-six year old preacher to lead the meetings, his name was Martin Luther King, Jr. King was originally from an Atlanta, born into a middle class black family, he was sent to college in New England where he studied theology and philosophy to become a preacher like his father. King preached nonviolent civil disobedience, the tactic of defying laws through peaceful actions. King would go on to become the most famous leader of the Civil Rights Movement. After 381 days, the Montgomery Bus boycotters won their court case to desegregate the public transportation system of Montgomery. This victory showed that nonviolence could be very effective to win Civil Rights goals.
The Civil Rights Act of 1957
Eisenhower was soft on Civil Rights issues, he never took the lead and tried to break barriers through politics, but often relented and supported legislation that was not too aggressive, which is whey he supported the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Significant because it was the first Civil Rights legislation passed since 1875, it was supposed to guarantee the right to vote for all Americans, especially blacks in the South. Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat from Texas helped the bill get through the Senate (it took over a year) by watering down the enforcement part of the bill. One important thing that it did was create the Civil Rights Commission, a new Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department, which was intended to enforce voting rights. However, just two years after being passed, not single black voter had been able to register under the new law. Another Civil Rights bill was passed in 1960, but it too lacked any real teeth to enforce voter registration.
Just after the Civil Rights Bill of 1957 was passed, Arkansas governor and devout racist, Orval Eugene Faubus, called a special session of the state legislature in Arkansas to pass a series of bills designed to give him power to close public schools threatened with integration and to be able to transfer federal funds intended for public schools where integration was supposed to occur and transfer that money to private "segregated academies." Faubus defied a federal court order by ordering the National Guard to prevent nine black students, known forever as the Little Rock Nine, from entering the school. Local authorities removed the black students, and the mayor of Little Rock called the White House for help. Eisenhower surprisingly dispatched 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to ensure the nine black students attended school safely. Troops remained in Little Rock throughout the school year.
In the aftermath of Little Rock, there were many Civil Rights leaders, including King that felt that the NAACP spent too much time on lengthy and expensive court battles to gain forward momentum in advancing civil rights. He wanted to create a direct action civil rights group that would themselves fight for justice. In 1957, King invited about sixty ministers to Ebenezer Church in Atlanta. The goal was to form an organization to coordinate and support nonviolent direct action as a method of desegregating bus systems across the South. He called the organization the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Unlike the NAACP that recruited individual members, SCLC coordinated activities on behalf of a cluster of organizations. King knew that a direct action campaign meant that violence awaited them, but he believed it was the fastest way to reach equality.
Eisenhower was determined to contain Communism just as Truman had before him. He hoped that with the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), he would be able to secretly manipulate world politics in covert ways to favor the United States. After WWII, several nations wished to be free from the colonial rule they experienced before the war. The French controlled Indochina, the area that today is made up of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In the 1950s, the leader of the Indochina, Ho Chi Minh, wanted an independent country free from French rule. Ho Chi Minh's forces were backed by the Communist Chinese, called Viet Minh. They had not originally planned to fight under Communist direction, but no other country would listen or help them achieve independence, except for China who saw an opportunity to take punches at Western European rival, the French. When war broke out between the Viet Minh and the French, American officials watched with concern that if the French were defeated, the Communists could claim another victory and another country.
In December of 1953, 12,000 French soldiers parachuted into Dien Bien Phu, a cluster of small villages in a valley ringed by mountains in northeastern Vietnam. The French hoped to draw Viet Minh forces out into the open where their artillery with the help of American planes, would bomb the Viet Minh into submission. What the French had not counted on was the 55,000 Viet Minh soldiers that were able to quickly surround Dien Bien Phu and deploy artillery that rained shells down on the French. The French were trapped and they pled with Eisenhower for help. On May 7, 1954, the French garrison surrendered to the Viet Minh and signaled the end of French colonial rule in Asia. On July 20, 1954, representatives of France, Britain, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and the Viet Minh, signed the Geneva Accords which gave Laos, Cambodia, their independence and divided Vietnam in two at the 17th parallel. The Viet Minh Communists got North Vietnam, the French would remain in South Vietnam until nationwide elections in there would elect a new government.
In South Vietnam, fearing a Communist takeover, the U.S. used the CIA to install a new South Vietnamese leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic nationalist. Diem was a terrible leader that angered many in South Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh used this discontent to his advantage and used guerrilla fighters known as the Viet Cong to launch attacks against Diems forces in South Vietnam. Eisenhower at first only sent financial aid and support from the CIA to help Diem fight the Communists, using the "domino theory" to justify his actions, Eisenhower said that if South Vietnam fell, other countries in Southeast Asia would fall to the Communists. The stage was set for the next president to either leave or send troops to Vietnam.
One of the most shocking advancements that the Soviet Union made during the 1950s was the launch of the world's first communication satellite, called Sputnik (1957). The Americans were worried because if the Soviets had the technology to launch a beach ball sized satellite into space, they could possibly fire a nuclear warhead across the ocean and hit the U.S. Also, with confidence, America was supposed to be the first in everything, but they were bested in the space race by the Soviets! This dealt a severe blow to American science and technology. Sputnik led to increased American defense spending out of fear of what the Soviets could do to the U.S. from space.