The 1950s: Cold War, Civil Rights, and Social Trends
Trends and Themes of the Era
- The U.S. and the USSR emerged from World
War II as the two sole superpowers in the world. The two quickly
became enemies and rivals, battling in politics, technology, and
military power. The arms race, in which each nation developed an
arsenal of nuclear weapons that could destroy the other numerous times
over, was a defining fact and metaphor of the conflict. Neither
side wanted to face destruction, however, which is what made the
Cold War cold: though crisis after crisis loomed, the two sides
avoided direct conflict. Policies of containing communism influenced
virtually all U.S. foreign policy decisions.
- Fear of communist subversion of the U.S. government
led to intense domestic anticommunist fervor. Communists and suspected
communists were closely watched, vilified, blacklisted, and, in
one case, tried and executed. Domestic anticommunism reached its
peak in the mid-1950s with the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy and
waned after he lost influence and power. But fear of communism remained
a part of American culture for decades to follow.
- Bolstered by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision
in Brown v.Board of Education, the civil rights
movement began to come into its own. Following an ethic of nonviolence,
blacks in the South began to win their first battles for equality.
- 1950s postwar prosperity helped propel the creation of
suburbs and the popularization of the automobile, which in turn
caused the decline of cities as wealthy whites left urban areas
for suburban ones. Prosperity also led to a baby boom and the promotion
of conservative values. In the late 1950s, artists began to rebel
against this conservatism.