RETURN The Affluent Society

Despite a sometimes morbid preoccupation with the issues of the Cold War, including the possibility of nuclear annihilation, Americans in the years following World War II enjoyed an era of prosperity in which the great bulk of the population, shared. The middle class way of life came to be taken as the norm, something which most people, whatever their immediate circumstances might reasonably aspire to. For reasons not well understood, the birth rate soared and the population grew by nearly 30 million in the decade of the 1950s. The boom in housing construction, the emergence of suburbia, expressways, increased leisure time, and steadily rising incomes created at least on the surface an impression of a new consumer-oriented society in which the social tensions of the past might soon be erased. 

Yet this affluence was not a source of great peace in the land. Although money incomes were rising, prices were also rising and many workers found themselves locked in conflict with employers over wages. Union activity became increasingly militant and the early postwar years saw large numbers of strikes being called in support of worker demands, which often included the demand for automatic pay increases to keep wages in line with prices. Despite the enactment of pro-business industrial relations legislation (the Taft-Hartley Act of 1948 imposed tough restrictions on the powers of unions), such efforts were often successful. In 1955 the forces of organized labor, since the 1930s divided between unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations and those in the American Federation of Labor, succeeded in reconciling their differences to merge into a single body, the AFL-CIO the membership of which accounted for well over 80 per cent of all union members in the country.

Neither the office of the President nor Congress during the immediate postwar years showed much interest in social reform, but beginning with the appointment of Earl Warren to the seat of chief justice on the Supreme Court, what had traditionally been viewed as the most conservative segment of government in the US suddenly became the most progressive. While Warren presided (1953-1969) the Supreme Court arrived at a series of decisions which dramatically affected the social situation in the country. The Warren Court effectively tore down the legal foundations of racial discrimination in the US (including segregation in the public schools), freed artists to offend the public, guaranteed that accused persons had rights which police could not arbitrarily abridge, and in a number of other ways made it more difficult for government to tell people what they could and could not do. 

All these rulings were, of course, controversial, and those dealing with race issues particularly so. School desegregation was bitterly opposed, not only in the south, but in the northern cities where so many American blacks were now located, and the process was slow to be implemented.

If Americans were shocked by the liberal position their Supreme Court was taking on social issues they were bewildered when the authorities reported hearing distinct radio signals emanating from a satellite orbiting the earth. There could scarcely have been more surprise in learning that it had been put there by extra-terrestrials than that it was the product of the much-maligned Soviet scientific establishment. The 1957 bleeps of Sputnik raised the possibility that the US had fallen behind the Soviet Union in an area in which Americans had always thought themselves particularly (if not uniquely) equipped to compete —science and technology. If technology requires science and science requires education, was it possible American education was failing the country? For the first time since the 19th century Congress found itself debating and eventually enacting legislation designed to bolster American schooling and science. Under the National Defense Education Act of 1958 billions of dollars were pumped into American schools and universities to expand and modernize their facilities. This flow of funds continued well into the following decade, during which the American education system enjoyed unprecedented public support. Economic analysis of the connection between spending on education and economic development eventually showed that it was tenuous at best, while doubts about the social benefits of education, at least in the public mind, were strengthened by the student protest movements of the 1960s and other manifestations of youthful dissatisfaction with the society their parents had built.

While the overall trend in American economic growth continued upward through the 1960s into the 1970s, a succession of recessions raised concerns about the health of the economy. The sense that more stimulation of the economy was needed contributed to the appeal of John F. Kennedy, who contested and won the 1960 presidential election on a platform of restoring economic vigor to the nation. Several of his initiatives in office probably did have such an effect, although, like the New Deal initiatives of Roosevelt in the 1930s, much of this may have been induced by the spirit of confidence the new administration seems to have generated throughout the country. Large tariff cuts, increased government spending (especially on the space program), tax cuts and appeals to national pride, all helped generate a mood of renewed strength and purpose which survived even such disasters as the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. The Cuban Missile Crisis the following year provided another challenge, but this time one which was successfully weathered when the Soviet Union backed down in what many observers viewed as a game of "chicken" between the world’s two great nuclear powers. In its aftermath, nuclear tensions subsided and the Cold War began to wind down. Unfortunately, another war was already underway. 

The unpopular war in Viet Nam served as a focus for radical dissent from what many young people were telling one another, and anyone else who could be made to listen, was a hopelessly obsolete social and cultural system. Throughout the country romanticism was embraced, reason rejected. Government was seen to be corrupt and politics were to be avoided, except insofar as political methods could be used to destroy "the system." Free sex, drugs, and eastern mysticism were in. Collective responsibility was derided and individuals were exhorted to "do their own thing". 

The assassination of Kennedy in November 1963 contributed to the growing atmosphere of change and instability. Under his successor, Lindon Johnson, the escalation of the war in Viet Nam added to the tensions at home. The reckless, sometimes clandestine, pursuit of a war was financed in large part by inflation, while the resistance to the draft and the unequal participation of the privileged and the unprivileged exacerbated social conflicts. The violence that erupted as protesters demonstrated against the war (and anything else that came to mind) was widely condemned, but the assassinations in 1968 of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King suggested that it occupied a powerful place in the American way of doing things. 

Perhaps the most positive development to emerge from this turbulent period was the success of the civil rights movement in gaining blacks access to mainstream political, economic and social opportunity. Much progress had been made by the Kennedy administration in breaking the power of southern state governments to frustrate the equal rights rulings of the Warren Court. After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson carried on this effort, making effective use of his skills in manipulating Congress to get through voting-rights legislation which cleared the way for a huge voter registration campaign throughout the South. Such advances, however, did little to quell the growing dissatisfaction of blacks in other parts of the country, including the large cities, many of which became the scene of violent race riots. The sight of their cities burning led many northern whites to reconsider their position with respect to race relations and the late 1960s saw a swing away from support for liberal reform toward a much more conservative stance. The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 seemed to confirm this general political shift. Nevertheless, conditions for black Americans had improved and by the 1970s their involvement in the political process was coming to be taken for granted.

Under the Johnson administration large amounts of federal money were devoted to ameliorating conditions in urban America. Johnson’s "War on Poverty", announced with much fanfare in 1964 did result in massive spending on health, education and welfare benefits for the less advantaged. A program called Medicare was introduced in 1965 to provide the elderly with the financial means to obtain needed health services, although most Americans remained far from being able to contemplate the widespread system of publicly-funded health services which had been implemented in Canada and the countries of western Europe. This strategy of reform was not to survive the political consequences of the Viet Nam War, however, the fallout from which eventually overwhelmed Johnson’s Presidency. By the time Johnson decided the war was unwinnable and began winding down the effort in 1968, his political life was over and he chose not to contest the upcoming election. In 1969 Richard Nixon was back in office.

The Viet Nam war continued to dominate American political life through the early 1970s. Nixon adopted a general strategy of pulling the US out of international commitments as much as possible. In Viet Nam, this took the form of an attempt to bolster the South Vietnamese military to the point where they could carry on the conflict without direct American intervention. The effort failed and the war continued without success despite massive bombing of the North, an invasion of Cambodia, and recourse to unconventional military techniques. Nixon easily won reelection in 1972, running against a liberal Democratic opponent and early in its new term, the Nixon administration negotiated a cease fire. It appeared likely that extrication from the situation was immanent, although the bombing of targets in Cambodia was continued despite the agreement.

The Viet Nam debacle was upstaged In June 1972 by a bizarre domestic development, the so-called Watergate affair. A number of inept agents responsible to the President were arrested in the act of burglarizing the Washington offices of the national Democratic party. Over the next two years the ensuing investigation resulted in the resignation of large numbers of senior federal government officials, the vice-president and eventually the President himself. Before he left office, Congress terminated the military actions in South East Asia and, late in 1973, the US withdrew its forces, bringing the war to an end. Faced with impeachment as a consequence of the attempt to cover up the Watergate affair, Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974.