Wartime industrial production and unprecedented defense spending during the 1950s and 1960s fueled the economic boom. Whereas the manufacturing infrastructures in Great Britain, France, and Germany had been destroyed by invasion and bombing, American industries had remained completely untouched and therefore benefited greatly from the war. Federal dollars—roughly half of the congressional budget in the 1950s and 1960s—later kept these war factories running throughout the Cold War. Low oil prices, along with Eisenhower’s investment in transportation infrastructure with the Federal Highway Act in 1956, also boosted the nation’s overall economic strength. Improvements in education thanks to the G.I. Bill also improved workers’ productivity.
The shift in the economic base away from agriculture and manufacturing and toward “white-collar” jobs also contributed significantly to the postwar boom. By 1960, the family homestead that had once dominated American economic life even up to the turn of the twentieth century had all but disappeared. Instead, corporate “agribusinesses” had take over agricultural production by using machinery that was more efficient than farmhands. Similarly, white-collar workers rapidly began to outnumber “blue-collar” manual laborers for the first time in U.S. history. This transformation contributed to the decline of labor unions in the latter half of the twentieth century.
New scientific discoveries and technological developments also spurred the economic boom. Federal grants encouraged companies to invest in research and development to make production more efficient. Government money also subsidized the development of commercial airlines, which contributed significantly to the economy by transporting goods and people across the country within hours rather than days or weeks. The development of the transistor rapidly transformed the electronics industry and resulted in the formation of new technology corporations. Nutrition and public health also improved during these years. Jonas Salk’s development of the polio vaccine in 1952, for example, effectively eliminated a disease that had killed and crippled hundreds of thousands of Americans in the past, including former president Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Meanwhile, the U.S. population redistributed itself geographically and grew dramatically during the postwar years. Improvements in transportation mobilized Americans: whereas the railroads of the Gilded Age had opened the West, interstates and airplanes developed it. During the 1950s and 1960s, millions of Americans left the East for the West, South, and Midwest. Federal grants to these regions contributed to their development. As a result, populations doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, and other so-called Sun Belt states. By the early 1960s, California had become the most populous state in the Union. On top of this migration, the postwar “baby boom” between 1945 and 1957 increased the U.S. population rapidly, as young Americans took advantage of the postwar peace and their increased wealth to start new families and have children.
Blacks, meanwhile, continued to move in large numbers from the South to northern and northeastern cities—a move that has become known as the African-American migration. The Great Depression, the invention of the mechanical cotton picker in the 1940s, World War II, and the prospect of jobs in northern cities prompted more than a million blacks to leave the South. This migration improved blacks’ overall economic status and ultimately helped make the civil rights movement possible.
As blacks moved to the cities, many whites moved out of urban areas and into the suburbs. This pattern came to be known as “white flight.” New housing developments, higher incomes, G.I. Bill loans to veterans, and the construction of interstates all contributed to the massive growth of American suburbia during the 1950s. The rapid development of shopping malls and fast-food restaurants matched the growth of the suburbs. Amusement parks, credit cards, and the availability of cheaper consumer goods followed as well, and Americans quickly developed the world’s foremost consumer culture.