America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, Third Edition, is the definitive interpretive survey of the political, social, and cultural history of 1960s America. For this edition, the authors have expanded coverage of youth movements and the New Left to include Latino and Asian radical movements, deepened their analysis of the emergence of feminism, and added discussions of the sixties in other countries. The chapters on religion and the revival of conservatism have been updated to include recent studies that underscore how broad and deep the conservative movement of the 1960s proved to be. Now featuring new images to better illustrate the era, America Divided, Third Edition, defines, discusses, and analyzes all sides of the political, social, and cultural conflicts of the 1960s in a swiftly moving narrative.
About the Author:
Maurice Isserman is Professor of History at Hamilton College
About the Author:
Michael Kazin is Professor of History at Georgetown University
In their new synthesis history of the United States in the 1960's, former student radicals Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin reinterpret the decade as a politically complicated "dramatization of our humanity," not a Baby Boomer morality tale of sex, drugs, and protest....By showing how black power and white backlash could resonate at the very same time, Kazin and Isserman help us understand why debates over the 1960's continue to divide the union today.
—Boston Review of Books
- Publisher's Weekly
Historians (and former 1960s radicals) Isserman (If I Had a Hammer) and Kazin (The Populist Persuasion) mount an intermittently convincing reinterpretation of the 1960s. They start off strong with the Civil War Centennial Commission's remarkable decision to avoid any mention of slavery or emancipation in its five-year-long celebration--vividly illustrating America's forced "normalcy" as the decade began. But they go on to present an erratic vision of the decade. For instance, they inexplicably relegate the huge 1963 March on Washington to a brief mention. And the popular song "Louie Louie" merits a longer discussion than such critical texts and events as SDS's Port Huron statement and the Supreme Court's Griswold decision. Further, they artificially separate their discussion of politics, culture and spirituality--three strands that were intimately linked in the era. The authors' revisionist take does offer some useful correctives, for instance, to the false notions that the War on Poverty was a massive giveaway program and that in the '60s liberalism held sway ("Of the three main branches of the federal government, liberals held the commanding heights... in only one branch, the judiciary... liberalism was neither sufficiently coherent as a political philosophy nor sufficiently well organized as a political movement, to realize many ambitions"). But the dearth of historical analysis of the "why" of this situation will leave many readers unsatisfied. In short, this is a sometimes useful if tepid and occasionally odd corrective to more lopsided views of the '60s. Photos. (Nov.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Isserman (If I Had a Hammer) and Kazin (The Populist Persuasion) are two of the keenest practitioners of the history of American people's politics. Both came of age in the 1960s, and each has a genetic link, respectively, to the Old Left and the grand liberal tradition of the 1930s. No better-suited collaborators could join to offer a history of the American Sixties. But while the book they offer is commendably balanced, the authors have not written a definitive text. Oddly, they cover most penetratingly terrain already well trod by more staid scholars: conventional electoral politics, Vietnam, the four presidencies, the assassinations. Their most important contribution comes in demonstrating the rise not only of a New Left but a new and persistent Right. By contrast, their writing on the advent of the counterculture, movement politics, and especially urban black nationalism is familiar and too brief. The authors seem to be aiming this book at the undergraduate survey-course market--each reference to Jim Crow is accompanied by a parenthetical definition--and apparently decided to economize on the very subjects still most unsettled by conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, this is recommended for academic, secondary school, and public libraries.--Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
A thoroughly detailed, well-written history of the tumultuous recent past. Historians Isserman (Hamilton College; If I Had a Hammer, 1987) and Kazin (Georgetown Univ.; The Populist Persuasion) take a past-is-a-foreign-country approach to the events of the 1960s. Survivors of the time might get a chuckle at some of the data the authors see the need to explain: "The most common drug in the `60s was marijuana, nearly as ubiquitous in youth communities as was bottled beer everywhere else in America." "Motown became renowned for its tight orchestrations and catchy lyrics." "Martin Luther King Jr. occupied a unique place in American political life." But veterans of the era are evidently not the principal audience for this book, which seems intended for graduate students in American history. They are well served by the authors, who rigorously defend their view that the `60s were in fact a time of civil war, and not merely civil disobedience: The body count in Vietnam and in America's inner cities, they suggest, are argument enough. This war had its origins in the 1950s, they observe, in a time when a golden age of post-WWII prosperity ran counter to an escalating Cold War, which cost a fortune and led to the economic dislocations and spiraling inflation of the succeeding decade. One campaign in that war, centering on civil rights for ethnic minorities, began a decade earlier in such acts as Lt. Jackie Robinson's refusal in 1944 to sit at the back of a crowded bus. (Robinson would face a court-martial for his act of civil disobedience, and would soon thereafter break the color barrier in major-league baseball.) Yet a third front would open when a substantial number of young Americansrejected the values of their elders and the bankrupt promises of Presidents Johnson and Nixon. All combined, the authors write, to lead America to a period of unwonted civil violence. Isserman, a specialist in leftist politics, and Kazin, a student of modern conservativism, make a solid tag team. Their thoroughgoing research and vivid writing make this a book of interest to students and general readers alike. (45 photos, not seen)
From the Publisher
"An impressive achievement. The most comprehensive, comprehensible history of the American 1960s that I know."--Todd Gitlin, New York University
"When two accomplished historians of the caliber of Isserman and Kazin turn their talents to a survey of the Sixties, the result is an engrossing narrative and a highly intelligent analysis of the era's cultural, political, and social events. I found myself eagerly turning pages to see how they would handle the decade's key actors, moments, and trends, and was always rewarded with judicious and insightful treatments."--Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University
"America Divided is an indispensable history of the 1960s. Isserman and Kazin grapple with the abundant paradoxes of an era of youthful activism and resurgent conservatism, of sexual revolution and religious revival, of naive political optimism and growing distrust in government. Their compelling narrative helps make sense of the most contentious political and cultural debates of our time."-- Thomas J. Sugrue, University of Pennsylvania
"America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s is a riveting read, brimming with lively anecdotes, original insights, sharp analysis, and scrupulous scholarship. It is, far and away, the most compelling single volume history of the 1960s currently available. A superb book."--Douglas Brinkley, University of New Orleans
"This is the finest and most comprehensive history of The Sixties ever written. Professors Isserman and Kazin skillfully combine insightful analysis and captivating narrative to demonstrate how and why that political and cultural civil war haunts us yet. Their book is therefore more than another history: it is an act of engaged citizenship."--Nelson Lichtenstein, University of Virginia
We have entered a period of accelerating bigness in all aspects of American life.
—Eric Johnston, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 1957
Seven years after it ended, World War II elected Dwight David Eisenhower president. As supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, "Ike" had projected a handsome, confident presence that symbolized the nation's resolve to defeat its enemies. After the war, both major parties wooed the retired general before he revealed that he had always been a Republican.
In many ways, the country Eisenhower governed during the 1950s was still living in the aftermath of its triumph in history's bloodiest conflict. Millions of veterans and their families basked in the glow of a healthy economy-defying predictions that peace would bring on another depression. Long years of prosperity allowed Americans to dream that, for the first time in history, the problem of scarcity—which bred poverty, joblessness, and desperation—might soon be solved. But they also feared that a new and even more devastating world war—fought with nuclear weapons—could break out at any time. Affluence might suddenly give way to annihilation. The backdrop to the '60s was thus a society perched between great optimism and great fear.
As he prepared to leave the White House in the early days of January 1961, Ike was reasonably content with his own record in office. His final State of the Union address, read to Congress by a lowly clerk, boasted of an economy that hadgrown 25 percent since he entered the White House in January 1953. A recession that began in 1958 had hung on too long; over 6 percent of American wage earners still could not find a job. But, with unemployment insurance being extended for millions of workers, there seemed no danger of a return to the bread lines and homelessness of the 1930s.
Moreover, Eisenhower could claim, with some justification, that his administration had improved the lives of most Americans. During his tenure, real wages had increased by one-fifth, the system of interstate highways was rapidly expanded, and new schools and houses seemed to sprout up in every middle-class community. To counter the Soviet Union, the Congress had found it necessary to boost defense spending and create what Eisenhower, a few days later, called a "military-industrial complex" whose "unwarranted influence" citizens should check. Nevertheless, the budget of the federal government was in balance. America's best-loved modern general had become one of its favorite presidents. Ike left office with a popularity rating of nearly 60 percent.
Dwight Eisenhower's America held sway over a Western world that, since the late 1940s, had been undergoing a golden age of economic growth and political stability in which the lives of ordinary people became easier than ever before in world history. U.S. political and corporate leaders dominated the noncommunist world through military alliances, technologically advanced weaponry, democratic ideals, and consumer products that nearly everyone desired—from Coca-Cola to Cadillacs to cowboy movies. At home, American workers in the heavily unionized manufacturing and construction industries enjoyed a degree of job security and a standard of living that usually included an automobile, a television, a refrigerator, a washing machine and a dryer, and long-playing records. A generation earlier, none of these fabulous goods—except, perhaps, the car—would have been owned by their working-class parents. TV and LP disks were not even on the market until the 1940s.
Most economists minimized the impact of the late-'50s recession and predicted that all Americans would soon share in the the benefits of affluence. In 1962, after completing a long-term study of U.S. incomes, a team of social scientists from the University of Michigan announced, "The elimination of poverty is well within the means of Federal, state, and local governments." Some commentators even fretted that prosperity was sapping the moral will Americans needed to challenge the appeal of Communism in the Third World. The New York Times asked in 1960, "How can a nation drowning in a sea of luxury and mesmerized by the trivialities of the television screen have the faintest prospect of comprehending the plight of hundreds of millions in this world for whom a full stomach is a rare experience?"
For the comfortable majority at home, the golden age seemed tarnished only by the omnipresent Cold War. Beginning a few months after the end of the Second World War, the United States and Soviet Union had employed both the force of arms and ideological conviction to persuade the vast majority of nations and their citizens to choose up sides. The two superpowers fought with sophisticated propaganda, exports of arms and military advisers, and huge spy services—an ever growing arsenal that burdened the poorer countries of the Soviet bloc more than the prosperous nations in the industrial West. Since 1949, when the USSR exploded its first atomic bomb, the specter of nuclear armageddon loomed over the fray.
In preparing for that ultimate war, the overarmed combatants exerted a terrible price. Both the United States and USSR tested nuclear weapons in the open air, exposing tens of thousands of their soldiers and untold numbers of civilians to dangerous doses of radiation from fallout. Both powers helped squash internal revolts within their own prime sphere of influence—the Caribbean region for the United States, Eastern Europe for the Soviets. In Guatemala and Hungary, the Dominican Republic and Poland, local tyrants received military assistance and economic favors as long as they remained servile. In the eyes of the U.S. State Department, any sincere land reformer was an incipient Communist; while, on the other side, any critic of Soviet domination was branded an agent of imperialism. The two sides were not morally equivalent: in the United States, the harassment of dissenters violated the nation's most cherished values, while in the USSR, the routine silencing and jailing of political opponents conformed with Communist doctrine.
By the late '50s, the death of Joseph Stalin and the end of the Korean War had diminished the possibility of a new world war. But anxiety still ran high. The United States, a commission funded by the Rockefeller brothers reported in 1958, was "in grave danger, threatened by the rulers of one-third of mankind." Two years later, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy warned, "The enemy is the communist system itself—implacable, insatiable, unceasing in its drive for world domination.... [This] is a struggle for supremacy between two conflicting ideologies: freedom under God versus ruthless, godless tyranny." Western European countries were rapidly shedding their colonies in Africa and Asia, and American leaders feared that native pro-Communist leaders were rushing to fill the gap.
By the end of the decade, the most immediate threat to the United States seemed to come from an island located only ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Cuba had long been an informal American colony; U.S. investors owned 40 percent of its sugar and 90 percent of its mining wealth, and a major American naval base sat on Guantanamo Bay, at the eastern tip of the island. On New Year's Day of 1959, this arrangement was shaken: a rebel army led by Fidel Castro overthrew the sitting Cuban government, a corrupt and brutal regime that had lost the support of its people. At first, the new rulers of Cuba were the toast of the region. The bearded young leader—well- educated, eloquent, and witty—embarked on a speaking tour of the United States and, in Washington, met for three hours with Vice President Nixon.
But Fidel Castro was bent on a more fundamental revolution than American officials could accept. His government soon began executing officials of the old regime and confiscating $1 billion of land and other property owned by U.S. "imperialists." When the Eisenhower administration protested, Castro signed a trade agreement with the USSR and began to construct a state socialist economy. Anticommunist Cubans, many of whom were upper class, began to flee the island. By the time Ike left office, a Cuban exile army was training under American auspices to topple the only pro-Soviet government in the Western Hemisphere.
At the time, communism appeared to be a dynamic, if sinister, force in the world. Since the end of the world war, its adherents steadily gained new territory, weapons, and followers. U.S. officials were also concerned over reports that the Soviet economy was growing at double the rate of the American system. The other side was still far behind, but the idea that the USSR and its allies in Cuba, China, and elsewhere might capture the future was profoundly disturbing. A high-level commission announced that the Soviets had more nuclear missiles than did the West. And, in 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, a tiny unmanned satellite that seemed to give them a huge edge in the race to conquer space. All this threatened the confidence of Americans in their technological prowess, as well as their security. The year before Sputnik, Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev had boasted, "We shall bury you." It didn't seem impossible.
Responding to the perception of a grave Communist threat, Congress did not question the accuracy of the missile reports (which later proved to be false) or the solidity of the alliance between Moscow and Beijing (which was already coming apart). Lawmakers kept the armed services supplied with young draftees and the latest weapons, both nuclear and conventional (which also meant good jobs for their districts). The space program received lavish funding, mostly through the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and positive coverage in the media. Billions also flowed into the coffers of American intelligence agencies. In the Third World, any stalwart nationalist who sought to control foreign investment or questioned the value of U.S. bases was fair game for the Central Intelligence Agency's repertoire of "covert actions."
The Cold War also chilled political debate at home. Liberals learned to avoid making proposals that smacked of "socialism," such as national health insurance, an idea their Western European allies had already adopted. To question the morality of the Cold War sounded downright "un-American." The need for a common front against the enemy made ideological diversity seem outmoded if not subversive.
But not all Americans at the dawn of the decade shared a world view steeped in abundance at home and perpetual tension about the Cold War abroad. "The American equation of success with the big time reveals an awful disrespect for human life and human achievement," remarked the black writer James Baldwin in 1960. Emerging in the postwar era was an alternative America—peopled by organizers for civil rights for blacks and women, by radical intellectuals and artists, and by icons of a new popular culture. These voices did not speak in unison, but, however inchoately, they articulated a set of values different from those of the men who ruled from the White House, corporate headquarters, and the offices of metropolitan newspapers.
The dissenters advocated pacifism instead of Cold War, racial and class equality instead of a hierarchy of wealth and status, a politics that prized direct democracy over the clash of interest groups, a frankness toward sex instead of a rigid split between the public and the intimate, and a boredom with cultural institutions—from schools to supermarkets—that taught Americans to praise their country, work hard, and consume joyfully. Dissenters did not agree that an expanding economy was the best measure of human happiness and empathized with the minority of their fellow citizens who had little to celebrate.
To understand the turbulent events of the 1960s, one must appreciate the contradictory nature of the society of 180 million people that was variously admired, imitated, detested, and feared throughout the globe. To grasp how and why America changed economically, politically, and culturally in the 1960s, one must capture something of its diverse reality at the start of the stormiest decade since the Civil War.
We set out a few material facts, benchmarks of what had been achieved and what was lacking in American society. Of course, the meaning of any particular fact depends upon where one stands, and with what views and resources one engages the world.
A massive baby boom was under way. It began in 1946, right after victory in World War II, and was ebbing only slightly by the end of the '50s. In that decade, an average of over 4 million births a year were recorded. Teenaged wives and husbands in their early twenties were responsible for much of this unprecedented surge. The baby boom, which also occurred in Canada and Australia, resulted from postwar optimism as well as prosperity. None of these English-speaking nations had been damaged in the global conflict, and most of their citizens could smile about their prospects. Western Europe, in contrast, was devastated by the war, and people remained wary of the future. Economies there recovered quickly and then grew at a more rapid pace than in the U.S.—but birthrates in England, France, Germany, and Italy still lagged at prewar levels.
Millions of young American families settled in the suburbs—in new developments like Levittown on Long Island and in the previously agricultural San Fernando Valley adjacent to Los Angeles. Large contractors erected acres of tract houses whose inexpensive price (about $7000) and gleaming electrical appliances almost compensated for the absence of individual character. Hoping to create instant communities, developers also built schools, swimming pools, and baseball diamonds. The federal government smoothed the way by providing low-interest, long-term mortgages, and new highways to get to and from work and shopping centers.
As a result, millions of men and women who had grown up in crowded urban apartment houses or isolated, agrarian towns now possessed, if they kept up their payments, a tangible slab of the American dream. Tract names like "Crystal Stream," "Stonybrook," and "Villa Serena" lured city dwellers with the promise of a peaceful, bucolic retreat. By 1960, for the first time in U.S. history, a majority of American families owned the homes in which they lived. Home ownership did seem to require an endless round of maintenance and improvements. "No man who owns his house and lot can be a Communist," quipped developer William J. Levitt, "He has too much to do."
The suburbs were more diverse places than their promoters' publicity suggested. White factory workers and their families joined the migration along with "organization men" who rushed to the commuter train, ties flying and briefcases in hand. And suburbanites tended to live near and socialize with others of the same class. Status distinctions by neighborhood, lot size, and the quality of parks and schools defied the notion that every suburbanite belonged to the same "middle class."
However grand or humble the house, most Americans were earning enough to pay the mortgage. By 1960, the real hourly wage of manufacturing workers had doubled since the beginning of World War II. The rise in personal income, which occurred despite periodic recessions, was accompanied by a steady increase in the number of women entering the paid labor force. Women over 45 led the way, swelling the professions and the ranks of office workers. The number of married women with jobs had risen since the war. But the family "breadwinner" was still assumed to be male; fewer than 250,000 women with small children worked outside the home.
American women, no matter their circumstances, were still expected to become cheerful housewives and mothers. In 1951, Seventeen magazine advised its young readers to be "a partner of man ... not his rival, his enemy, or his plaything. Your partnership in most cases will produce children, and together you and the man will create a haven, a home, a way of life."
But the growing number of women in the workforce was beginning to undermine the domestic ideal. In 1960, CBS televised a documentary about the "trapped housewife," and the New York Times described a class of educated women who "feel stifled in their homes.... Like shut ins, they feel left out." With more children around, even new appliances didn't lessen the time spent on housework. Family "experts" counseled every wife to help her husband "rise to his capacity." In response, journalist Marya Mannes criticized the suppression of intelligent women by calling up fears of their advancing Soviet counterparts: "We have for years been wasting one of the resources on which our strength depends and which other civilizations are using to their advantage."
In their bedrooms, some women did enjoy a new kind of freedom. The widely read Kinsey Report on female sexuality suggested that as many as half of all American women had intercourse before marriage and reported that one-quarter of married women had had sex with someone besides their husband. By decade's end, over 80 percent of wives of childbearing age (18 to 44) were using some form of contraception; the total was higher among women with at least a high school education. And, in 1960, the federal government allowed marketing of a birth control pill—the first reliable contraceptive that did not interfere with "natural" intercourse.
The spread of prosperity encouraged most citizens to identify themselves with the "middle class." Americans were assured by the mass media and other authorities in business and government that the days of backbreaking labor for little reward were over. Supposedly, getting to and from the job was now more arduous than anything one did while at work. In 1960, Time published a cover story entitled "Those Rush-Hour Blues" in which a psychiatrist stated that commuters (their maleness assumed) actually enjoyed traffic jams and crowded trains. "The twice-daily sacrifice of the commuter to the indignities of transportation satisfied something deep within the husband's psyche," explained Dr. Jose Barchilon. "In modern society, there are few opportunities for the breadwinner to endure personal hardship in earning the family living, such as clearing the forest or shooting a bear."
In reality, for millions of workers—in mines, in factories, and at construction sites—work remained both hard and dangerous. But, thanks to newly powerful labor unions, it was better compensated than ever before. The labor movement was essential to raising millions of wage earners into the middle class. A third of the nonagrarian labor force was unionized, and smart employers learned that the best way to stave off pesky labor organizers was to improve the pay and benefits of their own workers before unions gained a foothold. Even the barons of the mighty steel industry could not humble Big Labor. In 1959, industry spokesmen announced they would no longer permit the United Steel Workers to block job-eliminating technological changes. But the union called a strike and, after a four-month walkout, its members prevailed.
Heavy industries like steel were still the core of the American economy. Metals and automobiles produced in the U.S. dominated world markets— although the West Germans were beginning to pose some serious competition. And the technological auguries were excellent. New inventions from digital computers to Tupperware were propelling electronics, aircraft, and chemical firms to growth rates superior to those of older companies like Ford and U.S. Steel.
The Cold War was also helping transform the economic map. Military contracts pumped up the profit margins of high-tech firms like Hewlett-Packard and General Electric. Opportunity shone on entrepreneurs and skilled workers alike in a vast "Gunbelt" stretching from Seattle down through southern California and over to Texas. This was the civilian half of the military-industrial complex Eisenhower had warned about—and it was drawing population and federal money away from the old manufacturing hub in the East and Midwest.
And all over the country, more and more Americans were working in "white-collar" jobs. Gradually but surely, the economy was shifting away from the industrial age toward an era dominated by service and clerical employment. In 1956, for the first time, jobs of the newer types outnumbered blue-collar ones.
The term "white collar" masked huge differences of pay, skill, and the autonomy allowed a worker on the job. A kindergarten teacher's aide had neither the comfortable salary nor the freedom to teach what and how she liked that most college professors took for granted. And sharing an employer was less significant than whether one managed investments for a huge commercial bank or, instead, handed out deposit slips or cleaned its offices. "My job doesn't have prestige," remarked bank teller Nancy Rodgers, "It's a service job ... you are there to serve them. They are not there to serve you."
In any economy, however successful, there are losers as well as winners. For a sizable minority of citizens, the American dream was more a wish than a reality. State university branches multiplied, as the number of college students increased by 1960 to 3.6 million, more than double the number 20 years before. Yet less than half the adults in the U.S. were high school graduates. Lack of schooling did not disqualify one from getting a job in a factory or warehouse, but the future clearly belonged to the educated. Already, a man who had graduated from college earned about three times more than his counterpart who had dropped out at the lower grades. Where union pressure was absent, wages could be abysmally low. In 1960 farm workers earned, on average, just $1038 a year. In the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi Delta, many poor residents owned a television and a used car or truck—but lacked an indoor toilet and a year-round job.
The central cities many Levittowners had quit were already on the road to despair. African Americans who moved to the metropolises of the North seeking jobs and racial tolerance often found neither. Black unemployment stubbornly tallied nearly double the rate for whites. Following World War II, black migrants filled up old industrial cities like Detroit and Chicago that were steadily losing factory jobs to the suburbs. Few white settlers on the crabgrass frontier welcomed blacks as prospective neighbors. In 1960, not one of 82,000 Long Island Levittowners was an African American—even though New York state had passed a civil rights law in the mid-1940s.
Out West, Mexican Americans—the nation's second largest minority—were struggling to achieve a modicum of the economic fruits that most whites enjoyed. Less than one-fifth of Mexican-American adults were high school graduates (a lower number than for blacks), and most held down menial jobs—in the cities and the fields. During World War II, to replace citizens drafted into the military, the federal government had allowed U.S. farmers to import workers from Mexico, dubbed braceros (from the Spanish word for "arms"). The end of the war alleviated the labor shortage, but the political clout of agribusiness kept the bracero program going—and it severely hampered the ability of native-born farmworkers to better their lot.
These problems remained all but invisible in the business and political centers of the East. Outside the Southwest, Americans regarded themselves as living in a society with only two races—white and black. The federal census did not even consider Mexican Americans a separate group.
A growing chorus of writers blasted the hypocrisies of the era. In their eyes, America had become a "mass society" that had lost its aesthetic and moral bearings. Critic Lewis Mumford condemned surburbia, too broadly, as "a treeless, communal waste, inhabited by people in the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods from the same freezers." Sociologist C. Wright Mills indicted a "power elite" for fostering a system of "organized irresponsibility" in which "the standard of living dominates the style of life." Mills joined with radical economists Paul Sweezy and Seymour Melman in arguing that "a permanent war economy" geared to fighting the Cold War was imperiling democracy even as it promoted growth. But such criticisms did not engage most Americans, for whom private life was all consuming.
Nor did they convince the most powerful politicians in the land. The primary business of government, Democratic and Republican leaders agreed, was to keep the economy growing and the military strong. Conservatives and liberals in both parties squabbled over details: whether, for instance, to fund a new wing of B-52 bombers or more science programs in the public schools. But rarely did any senator question the wisdom of policing the world (as had Robert Taft, the GOP's leading conservative, in the late '40s).
The previous generation of lawmakers had fought bitterly over the social programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and Harry Truman's Fair Deal. But the first Republican president since FDR accepted a limited welfare state as the new status quo. Dwight Eisenhower wrote from the White House to his conservative brother Edgar, "Should any political party attempt to abolish social security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history."
By the end of the decade, Roosevelt's party was making something of a comeback. In the 1958 congressional election, Democrats gained their biggest margins since the beginning of World War II. In the midst of the recession, Republicans who ran against union power went down to defeat in the populous states of Ohio and California. Liberals in Congress and in advocacy groups like Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) got busy drafting plans for higher minimum wages, government health insurance for the elderly, and other extensions of the New Deal. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court—headed, ironically, by a chief justice (Earl Warren), whom Eisenhower had appointed—was aggressively expanding the definition of individual and group "rights" to favor demonstrators against racial inequality and persons convicted on the basis of evidence gathered illegally. A public which, according to polls, admired Eleanor Roosevelt more than any woman in the world, seemed amenable to another wave of governmental activism.
But despite the Democrats' surge, the party remained an uneasy coalition of the urban, pro-union North and the small-town, low-wage South. Big city machines, originally established by Irish Catholics, continued to wield a measure of power in the two largest cities—New York City and Chicago—as well as in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Below the Mason-Dixon line, most whites still voted against the ghost of Abraham Lincoln—although in 1956, Eisenhower, who assured southerners he wanted "to make haste slowly" on civil rights, did win the electoral votes of five former Confederate states. In 1960, the GOP could count only seven congressmen from the South—and virtually no state or county officials. American women had won the vote in 1920 but rarely did they figure significantly as candidates or campaign managers.
Republicans were still the party of Main Street and Wall Street—of American business, large and small, and of voters who cherished the rights of private property and were leery of "big government." Party allegiance tended to follow class lines. The wealthiest stratum of Americans voted heavily for the GOP, as did most voters with college degrees and professional occupations. Blue-collar workers, particularly those who harbored bitter memories of the Great Depression, favored the Democrats by a 4-1 margin. The legacy of old battles over restricting immigration and instituting Prohibition also played a part. Outside the white South, native-born Protestants tilted toward the Republicans, while Catholics and Jews—who were closer to their foreign-born roots—usually favored the Democrats.
The result of these alignments was a legislative system unfriendly to serious change—whether in a liberal or conservative direction. Key posts in Congress were held by southern or border state Democrats who had, in most cases, accrued decades of seniority: the Speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and the chairmen of committees with power over tax and appropriations bills. Howard Smith of Virginia, who had first been elected to Congress in 1930, headed the mighty Rules Committee. Smith was able to block most proposals he disapproved from even coming to the House floor. And he despised civil rights bills. Like all but a handful of Southern congressmen, Smith represented a district in which few blacks were allowed to vote—and he intended to keep it that way.
Not every southerner was so uncompromising. Both House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson were shrewd Texas moderates who retained their power by balancing demands from different wings of their party. But most southern Democrats and nearly all Republicans routinely united to defeat new programs to aid big cities, racial minorities, and the poor. The mechanisms of government were purring along nicely, so why disturb them? As even liberal McGeorge Bundy, then a Harvard dean (and soon to become a federal policymaker) intoned, "If American politics have a predilection for the center, it is a Good Thing."
If mainstream politics in the 1950s lacked fire and daring, the same cannot be said of popular culture. The postwar absorption with leisure generated a vital search for new ways to spend all that free time and disposable income. In the past, Americans had fought major battles over who would control the workplace and how to distribute the fruits of their labor. Mass movements of small farmers and wage earners had pressured the powerful to recognize unions, subsidize crop prices, and establish Social Security and a minimum wage. Cultural differences motivated some mass movements, the Prohibitionists being a prime example. But after World War II, nearly every public conflict turned on a matter of cultural taste—in music, in one's style of dress and hair, slang and intoxicant of choice, and sexual behavior.
Popular music—especially rock and roll and the rhythm and blues from which it sprang—became a major arena of generational strife. The young people who listened to, danced to, and played rock and R and B were implicitly rejecting the notion that creativity obeyed a color line. Leaping over racial barriers were black artists like Willie Mae (Big Mama) Thornton and Chuck Berry, Mexican Americans like singer Richie Valens (born Valenzuela), Greek-American bandleader Johnny Otis (who identified himself as black), white Southern Baptist Elvis Presley, and Jewish-American song writers Mike Stoller, Jerry Lieber, and Carole King. Lieber and Stoller wrote "Hound Dog" for Big Mama Thornton, who made it a hit with black audiences in 1954 before Elvis covered it in 1956—and sold millions of copies.
Established record companies tried to resist the onslaught. National music awards usually went to more innocuous recordings, despite the higher sales of rock. In 1960 Percy Faith's "Theme from A Summer Place," a string-filled waltz, won the Grammy for best song of the year—beating out Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely," the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me," "Stay" by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, and Chubby Checker's "The Twist." Faith's music would soon be heard mainly in elevators; while the other songs became rock classics and are still played by disk jockeys throughout the world.
Satire also appealed to growing numbers of adolescents. Mad comics Published sharp putdowns of advertisements, Hollywood movies, television shows, suburban culture, and the military. Edited by Harvey Kurtzman (who had once drawn cartoons for the Communist Daily Worker), Mad ridiculed nearly everything that established middlebrow magazines like Life and Reader's Digest took for granted—particularly the mood of self-satisfaction. "What, Me Worry?" asked Alfred E. Neuman, the gap-toothed idiot with oversized ears and freckles whose comic image beamed from every issue of Mad. High school readers also snapped up novels about alienated youth. Most compelling was The Catcher in the Rye (1951), J.D. Salinger's tale about a teenager named Holden Caulfield who drops out of his prep school to wander dyspeptically around New York City. "Phonies," Caulfield called the adults who plagued his unhappy, if materially privileged, life.