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Veterans, Ethnics, Blacks, Women
Many things that middle-class Americans took for granted by the 1960s scarcely existed for the 139.9 million people who inhabited the forty-eight states in 1945 or for the 151.7 million in 1950. Consider a few of these things: supermarkets, malls, fast-food chains, residential air-conditioning, ranch-style homes, freezers, dishwashers, and detergents. Also ballpoint pens, hi-fis, tape recorders, long-playing records, Polaroid cameras, computers, and transistors. And four-lane highways, automatic transmissions and direction signals, tubeless tires, and power steering. In 1945 only 46 percent of households had a telephone; to get long distance, people paid a good deal and asked for an operator. In 1950, 10 percent of families had television sets and 38 percent had never seen a TV program. Although 33 million of America's roughly 38 million households in 1945 had radios, these were for the most part bulky things cased in wooden cabinets, and they took time to warm up. Some 52 percent of farm dwellings, inhabited by more than 25 million people, had no electricity in 1945.(1)
The United States in 1945 had become a more urban nation than earlier in the century. The Census Bureau reported that 96.5 million people, or nearly two-thirds of the population, lived in "urban" areas in 50. But this definition counted as "urban" all places having 2,500 or more residents. The number living in places with 10,000 or more was 73.9 million, less than half the total population. And the number in places with 50,000 or more totaled only 53.3 million, a little more than one-third of thepopulation. In many of the towns and villages the elm trees still stood in stately power, not yet destroyed by blight. Most American cities presented architecturally stolid fronts featuring a good deal of masonry and little aluminum or glass. Only a few, such as New York and Chicago, had much of a skyscraper center. Suburbs had long surrounded major cities, but there had been relatively little residential building in the 1930s and early 1940s, and the fantastic sprawl of suburbia was only beginning by the mid-1940s. Culturally as well as demographically the United States remained in many ways a world of farms, small towns, and modest-sized citiesplaces where neighbors knew each other and in which people took local pride. Mail came twice a day to homes.
Many aspects of daily life for most Americans had changed little between the early 1930s and the mid-1940s, years of depression and war. There were 25.8 million cars registered in 1945, nearly one for every three adults. But this was only 2.7 million more cars than in 1929, when there had been 18 million fewer people. Not many Americans in 1945, as in 1929, dared to travel by air; if they lacked a car, they took a bus or a train, or they stayed close to home. Most still consumed "American" cuisine: roasts, fried chicken, burgers, fries, corn, tomatoes, pie, and ice cream.(2) People did not eat out much, and the TV dinner did not arrive until 1954. Americans dressed in clothes made from natural fibers, which needed ironing and wrinkled badly in the heat. Business and professional men always wore coats and ties in public and never (save when playing tennis) appeared in shorts. Almost everyone, men and women alike, wore hats outdoors. People still thought in small sums: annual per capita disposable income in current dollars was $1,074 in 1945. At that time it cost three cents to mail a letter and a nickel to buy a candy bar or a Coke. Relatively few Americans had hospital insurance or company pensions, though Social Security was beginning to become of some use to the elderly who had been employed. In 1945 urban families spent an average of $150 a year on medical care. All Americans did without such later developments as polio vaccines, birth control or hormone pills, and legal abortions, and they expected as a matter of course that their children would get measles, chicken pox, and mumps.
Young people listened avidly to popular new singers like Frank Sinatra, but so, too, did older Americans: as yet there was no sharply defined "teenage" music. Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," introduced in 1942, remained one of the best-selling songs ever, and Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, and the Andrews Sisters sang hit after hit in a thriving pop music business that turned out 189 million records in 1950, some 80 million more than five years before. "Country and western" music (no longer called "hillbilly") was also booming, with Hank Williams producing a series of million-record favorites before dying of drugs and alcohol in the back seat of a car on New Year's Day 1953. Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, led the charts in late 1950 with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."(3)
Until the late 1940s, movies continued to be a favored form of popular entertainment, attracting a weekly attendance of 85 to go million people a year between 1945 and 1949. Entertainment remained rather tame, at least by contrast to later standards: it was virtually impossible in the late 1940s to find nudity in films or magazines. No one at that time could have foreseen a popular culture featuring rock 'n' roll, let alone a world of big-selling magazines such as Playboy (which arrived on the newstands in 1953 with its famous centerfold of Marilyn Monroe). One historian has concluded: "The United States in 1950 still bore a resemblancealbeit a rapidly fading oneto the small-town America idealized in the Norman Rockwell paintings that graced the covers of the highly popular Saturday Evening Post."(4)
"A culture," the critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1951, is not a flow, nor even a confluence; the form of its existence is struggle, or at least debateit is nothing if not a dialectic." The sociologist Daniel Bell later elaborated on this theme of culture-as-contest in maintaining that the United States remained a "bourgeois" society in the postwar years, even as it was developing an adversarial "modernist" culture.(5) Their observations are relevant to American society and culture in the late 1940s, which were complex, diverse, and rent with anomalies and contradictions. The United States during these yearsand laterwas a bewilderingly pluralist society that rendered any static vision, such as Norman Rockwell's, largely irrelevant.
Begin with an especially numerous and visible group: servicemen and their families. In all, 16.4 million Americans, the vast majority of them young men, joined the armed services during World War II. More than 12.1 million of them were still in uniform in early August 1945. This was nearly two-thirds of all American men aged 18 to 34 at the time. Young, numerous, male in a male-dominated culture, and eager to make up for time "lost" during the war (and, for many, during the Depression), the returning veterans placed a firm stamp on American culture and society during the 1940s and thereafter. Their experiences, while varying according to regional, racial, class, and personal circumstances, offer revealing angles of vision into cultural ambiguities in the postwar era.
Most of these young men had volunteered or been taken without a fuss by the draft. Like most Americans, they were deeply patriotic, and they had served because it was their duty. Many had fought bravely. But most of them, polls suggested, had not cherished idealistic notions about destroying fascism or building a brave new world. One poll in September 1945 found that 51 percent of American soldiers still in Germany thought that Hitler, while wrong in starting the war, had nonetheless done Germany "a lot of good." More than 60 percent of these men had a "very favorable" or "fairly favorable" view of Germansabout the same percentage that viewed the French in this way.(6) Many American soldiers also resented the special privileges enjoyed by officers.(7) Stars and Stripes said, "A caste system-inherited from Frederick the Great of Prussia and the 18th century British navy is hardly appropriate to the United States . . . the aristocracy-peasantry relationship characteristic of our armed forces has a counterpart nowhere else in American life."(8)
In late 1945 the soldiers and sailors wanted above all to come home, get out of the service, and rejoin their families. Many deluged hometown newspapers and members of Congress with demands for transport home and release from military duty. "No boats, no votes." Their wives and girlfriends were equally anxious to get on with "normal" life. Many wives sent angry pleas, along with baby booties, through the mail to Capitol Hill. An anonymous GI poet added:
Please Mr. Truman, won't you send us home? We have captured Napoli and liberated Rome; We have licked the master race, Now there's lots of shipping space, So, won't you send us home? Let the boys at home see Rome.(9)
The clamor of GIs largely succeeded. Demobilization proceeded at a very rapid pace. By June 1946 the number in service had dropped to 3 million, and Congress had agreed to authorize an army of only I million by July of 1947. For a while the returning troops were treated as heroes. But like veterans throughout history, they found that life had gone on without them. Many, yanked from home for years, deeply resented civilians who had stayed out of the service and prospered. Seizing chances to move ahead, more than 8 million "vets" took advantage of the "52-20" provision of the GI Bill of Rights, which provided $20 per week for up to fifty-two weeks of unemployment (or earnings of less than $100 a month). A form of affirmative action (a phrase of later years), the GI Bill cost $3. 7 billion between 1945 and 1949.(10) Other veterans, including thousands who had married hastily while on wartime leave, could not adjust to married life. The divorce rate in 1945 shot up to double that of the prewar years, to 31 divorces for every 100 marriagesor 502,000 in all. Although the divorce rate dropped in 1946 and returned to prewar levels by the early 1950s, its jump in 1945 exposed the rise of domestic tensions in the immediate aftermath of war.
Many of these tensions were captured in a revealing Hollywood film, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor, it won nine Academy Awards. As befitting a product of Hollywood, it ended on an upbeat note by affirming the quest for security of three veterans returning to Boone City, an archtypical American community. But the title is also ironic and the story disquieting-so much so, in fact, that the right-wing House Committee on Un-American Activities later considered questioning the writer Robert Sherwood about the script.
In the course of readjusting to civilian life the movie's three veterans encounter, sometimes bitterly, what they perceive as the runaway materialism and lack of patriotism of postwar American society. One veteran (Fredric March) gets a job as a loan officer at a bank, only to be chastised by higher-ups for softness to struggling veterans seeking assistance. "Last year," he complains, "it was kill Japs. This year it's make money!" He ultimately copes, with the help of his understanding wife (Myrna Loy) and his grown children. The second vet (Dana Andrews) at first cannot find his wife (Virginia Mayo), whom he had married after a brief courtship during the war. When he locates hershe is a nightclub performerhe realizes that she is tough and self-centered. Soon she leaves him. He finally lands menial "women's work" in a heartless chain store, but there he encounters a grouchy male customer who criticizes the war and all who fought in it. Furious, the veteran slams him in the jaw and is fired. In the end he finds a job helping a company use discarded war planes for the building of prefabricated houses. The third veteran lost both hands in the war and manages with hooks instead. But he feels useless in an acquisitive society, faces terrible problems of readjustment, and survives only because of the love of his loyal girlfriend next door.(11) Though the ending is schmaltzy, there was bite enough in the film to distinguish it from a Norman Rockwell vision of the nation. The Best Years of Our Lives captured rather well the stresses encountered by many veterans and their families in the immediate aftermath of war.
THE EXPERIENCES of America's diverse ethnic and racial groups, while defying easy categorization, also revealed some of the tensions of postwar American society. The nation's population of 139.9 million in 1945 included nearly 11 million foreign-born and 23.5 million people of foreign-born or mixed parentage. Most of these 34.5 million people, 25 percent of the population, were of European descent, including some 5 million whose roots were in Germany, 4.5 million from Italy, 3.1 million from Canada, 2.9 million from Poland, 2.8 million from Great Britain, 2.6 million from the USSR, and 2.3 million from Ireland (Eire). Substantial numbers also hailed originally from Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and Norway. Many more Americans, of course, had European roots dating from the third generation or farther back. Negroes, as most people then called African-Americans, numbered nearly 14 million, or 10 percent of the population. The census identified a much smaller number, 1.2 million, as people of Mexican background, though there were many others (no one knew how many) who made themselves scarce at enumeration time. The Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were concentrated in a few places, mostly in Texas, the Southwest, and southern California. In Los Angeles they were already numerous enough during the war to frighten white residents, who launched gang attacks on them in the streets. By contrast Asians, mast of whom had long been excluded from the United States by racist immigration laws, were numerically tiny in 1945: Chinese-Americans numbered around 100,000, Japanese-Americans around 130,000. There were approximately 350,000 people who told the census-takers that they were Indian (Native American).(12)
Some of these people, such as Japanese-Americans, suffered greatly during the war. Others, such as the majority of Indians, continued to live in an especially dismal poverty. But many other ethnic groups were better off in the late 1940sor at least felt a little more at home-than in the prewar era. The war, in so many ways a powerful force in the domestic history of twentieth-century America, was an engine that accelerated acculturation. Millions of Negroes and first- and second-generation Americans served in the armed forces or pulled up stakes to work in defense plants, thereby leaving their enclaves and mixing for the first time with "old-stock" white people. Having joined in the war effort, they also came to identify more emotionally with the United States. As Cold War tensions mounted over the next two decades, many European-Americans, especially those who had roots behind the iron curtain, emerged as among the most patrioticand super-patrioticof United States citizens.(13)
Still, it was wrong to assume, as many hopeful observers did at the time, that the war and acculturation were working some kind of amalgamating magic. Regional tensions and differences, especially North versus South, remained profound. So did ethnic feelings. Laws from the 1920s had drastically reduced legal immigration, thereby cutting the percentage of foreign-born people in the United States in 1945 to around 8 percent. This was the lowest percentageto that timein twentieth-century American history. But the nation was still far from having become a melting pot in which ethnic and religious differences had fused into a common "American" nationality.(14)
Religious differences, indeed, remained very strong in the 1940s. Some 71.7 million Americans, more than half the population, said they belonged to religious groups in 1945, roughly 43 million of them in Protestant denominations, 23 million Catholic, and nearly 5 million identifying themselves as Jewish.(15) These people inhabited an increasingly secular world in which theological dictates carried less weight than in earlier generations but in which church membership was nonetheless increasing, from 49 percent of the population in 1940 to 55 percent in 1950 (and to an all-time high of 69 percent by 1959)(16) Whether church-going much affected personal behavior of course sparked many debates, but the upward trend in attendance was noteworthy and impressive. More and more Americans obviously considered it important to their self-identities to be members of an organized religion. Few Western populations, including the Catholic countries of Europe, came close to matching America's record of church-going in the postwar years.
It was difficult, moreover, to find much of an ecumenical spirit among these religious Americans. Protestant denominations still evoked strong loyalties in the 1940s and early t950s. Conservative evangelical groups became more active, forming in 1947 the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and benefiting from the formidable recruiting talents of spellbinders like the youthful Billy Graham, then in the conservative wing of American Protestantism.(17) Anti-Catholic feelings remained strong. Paul Blanshard's polemically anti-Catholic American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949) was a best-seller for six months. It attacked the Catholic Church for what Blanshard considered its support of reactionary governments, its repressive attitude toward questions of personal morality, and its hierarchical organization, all of which Blanshard said were intrinsically un-American. Blanshard focused especially on the inflammable contemporary issue of state aid to parochial schools, which the Supreme Court upheld by a 5-to-4 decision in 1947.(18) Jews, too, felt the sting of criticism and exclusion. They confronted systematic discrimination in gaining entrance to prestigious colleges, universities, and professional schools, and in securing teaching tenure. It was hardly surprising that most Jews and Catholicsmany of them among the first- and second-generation immigrant populationclung, often resentfully, to their churches, synagogues, clubs, and neighborhoods.
Many of these "new-stock" Americans, though relatively poor at the close of World War II, had acquired property, which they cherished as a sign of their social mobility and which further deepened their commitment to their neighborhoods. (In Chicago, foreign-born residents actually had higher rates of home-ownership than others in the city).(19) These and other first- and second-generation Americans embraced often quite separate subcultures featuring neighborhood festivals, schools, churches, and above all their extended families.(20) They cherished their own cuisine and modes of dress and supported a flourishing foreign-language press. In the early 1940s there were 237 foreign-language periodicals in New York City, 96 in Chicago, 38 in Pittsburgh, and 1,000 in the nation as a whole, with a circulation of 7 million. Roughly :z million people, one-seventh of the population, told census enumerators in 1940 that English was not their native tongue.(21)
The lives of black Americans in the late 1940s, like those of America's more recent immigrants, also improved on the average. Thanks in part to the rapid mechanization of cotton production in the early 1940s, which ultimately threw millions of farm laborers out of work, and in part to the opening up of industrial employment in the North during the wartime boom, roughly a million blacks (along with even more whites) moved from the South during the 1940s. Another 1.5 million Negroes left the South in the 1950s. This was a massive migration in so short a timeone of the most significant demographic shifts in American historyand it was often agonizingly stressful.(22) The black novelist Ralph Ellison wrote in 1952 of the hordes of blacks who "shot up from the South into the busy city like wild jacks-in-the-box broken loose from our springsso sudden that our gait becomes like that of deep-sea divers suffering from the bends."(23)
Still, many of the migrants gradually reaped unprecedented benefits. The number of Negroes employed in manufacturing jumped from 500,000 to 1.2 million during the war. The percentage of employed black women who worked as domestic servantsbefore the war one of the few jobs they could getdeclined from 72 to 48 during the same period. Blacks also advanced on other fronts, which seem token in retrospect but represented notable achievements at the time. In 1944 for the first time a black reporter was admitted to a presidential press conference; in 1947 blacks gained access at last to the Senate press gallery.(24) Thanks in part to legal pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Supreme Court in 1944 outlawed the "white primary," a ploy that had enabled states in the South to exclude blacks from all-important Democratic primary races.(25) In 1946 the Court ruled against segregation on conveyances engaged in interstate travel.(26) In 1945 Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed the black baseball star Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract. It was understood that if he was good enough he would become the first Negro player in modern times to play in the Big Leagues. In 1947 he did, beginning a career of stardom with the Brooklyn team.(27)
Many of these changes came because blacks themselves demanded them. As early as 1941 A. Philip Randolph, head of the all-Negro sleeping-car porters, union, had threatened a "march on Washington" if the federal government did not act against rampant discrimination in the armed services and publicly contracted employment. To prevent the march, President Roosevelt gave in and issued an executive order against such treatment. He also set up a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to oversee things. The order was widely evaded, but Randolph's boldness nonetheless encouraged blacks to pursue further protest. The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper, demanded a "Double V" during the war, victory over fascism and imperialism abroad and over racism at home. Civil rights leaders recognized that ordinary blacks were growing more and more restless and angry. Roy Wilkins, a leader of the NAACP, wrote a fellow activist in 1942, "It is a plain fact that no Negro leader with a constituency can face his members today and ask full support for the war in light of the atmosphere the government has created."(28) The groundswell of protest was indeed growing: membership in the NAACP, by far the most important civil rights organization, increased from 50,000 to 450,000 during the war.
Students of the "Negro problem" in the early 1940s had grand expectations about the potential for this groundswell. This feeling especially gripped the scholars who collaborated with Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish social scientist who published in 1944 An American Dilemma. This was a much-acclaimed study of race relations in the United States. The "dilemma," Myrdal thought, stemmed from the historic conflict between the "American Creed" of democracy and equality and the reality of racial in justice. Myrdal amply documented the power of such injustice, identifying the "vicious circle" of prejudice and discrimination that had victimized black people in the United States. But he had faith in American ideals, and he was optimistic about the future. Negroes, he argued, could no longer be regarded as a "patient, submissive majority. They will continually become less well ,accommodated., they will organize for defense and offense. They will become more and more vociferous." Whites, he added, would surely resist change. "The white man can humiliate the Negro; he can thwart his ambitions; he can starve him." But whites did "not have the moral stamina to make the Negro's subjugation legal and approved by society. Against that stands not only the Constitution and the laws which could be changed, but also the American Creed which is firmly rooted in the Americans, hearts." Not since Reconstruction, Myrdal wrote with emphasis, "has there been more reason to anticipate fundamental changes in American race relations, changes which will involve a development toward American ideals."(29)
With the advantage of hindsight it is clear that An American Dilemma had its limitations as analysis. Myrdal and his collaborators were first of all too affirmative, too optimistic about the potential of the "American Creed." White racial prejudice and structural discrimination proved to have great staying power. Second, Myrdal assumed that whites would lead the way to change: like most people in the 1940s, he underestimated the rage and determination of blacks, who were stirring to take matters into their own hands. As Ellison's black protagonist exclaimed in Invisible Man, "You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you're part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them [whites] recognize you.(30) This did not happen much in the 1940s, but it did in the 1960s, when advocates of "black power" pushed whites out of the civil rights movement.
Myrdal also accepted conventionally unflattering views of African-American culture. "In practically all its divergences," he wrote, "American Negro culture is not something independent of general American culture. It is a distorted development, or a pathological condition, of the general American culture." An American Dilemma deplored the "high Negro crime rate," as well as the "superstitition, personality difficulties, and other characteristic traits [that] are mainly forms of social pathology. " Myrdal concluded, "It is to the advantage of American Negroes as individuals and as a group to become assimilated into American culture, to acquire the traits held in esteem by the dominant white Americans.(31)
During the racial confrontations of the 1960s, An American Dilemma encountered rising criticism from activists and scholars who disputed Myrdal's optimism about white liberalism, as well as his negative statements about certain aspects of African-American culture. In the mid- and late 1940s, however, the study received virtually unsparing praise. W.E.B. Du Bois, the nation's most distinguished black historian and intellectual, hailed the book as a "monumental and unrivaled study." So did other black leaders, ranging from the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, whose criticisms of lower-class black culture influenced Myrdal's arguments, to the novelist Richard Wright, whose bitter autobiography, Black Boy, appeared in 1945. Prominent white intellectualsthe theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, the sociologist Rollert Lynd, the historian Henry Steele Commagerconcurred in this approbation. The near unanimity in support of Myrdal's message reflected the rising expectations among liberals for racial and ethnic progress at the close of the war.
Amid this atmosphere of hope, activists for racial justice pressed for change on a number of fronts in the mid- and late 1940s. One front was to desegregate the military. Some blacks, like Bayard Rustin, refused to submit to the draftpartly on pacifist grounds, partly in protest against Jim Crow in the armed services. He went to prison for his temerity. Most American Negroes, however, were ready and willing to fight: they composed 16 percent of Americans enlisted in the armed services during the war, though they were only 10 percent of the population. Approximately a million Negroes served between 1942 and 1945. But they confronted discrimination at every turn. The navy accepted Negroes only for menial tasks, often to serve as mess attendants. The army took in blacks but set up segregated training camps and units and refused to train blacks as officers. It also assumed that Negroes were poor fighters and hesitated to send them into combat. Secretary of War Stimson explained that blacks should serve under white officers, because "leadership is not imbedded in the Negro race yet and today to make commissioned officers lead men into battlecolored menis only to work a disaster to both."(32)
By 1944 the protests of blacksfor Randolph and other leaders military desegregation was a top priorityhad a modest effect on the armed services. The navy slowly moved toward integrated units. The army, at a loss for manpower during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, pressed blacks into combat, with positive results. But segregation persisted in the army, and racial tensions became intense. "My God! My God!" army chief of staff General George Marshall exclaimed, "I don't know what to do about this race question in the Army." He added, "I tell you frankly, it is the worst thing we have to deal with. . . . We are getting a situation on our hands that may explode right in our faces."(33) Though Marshall did nothing about the situation, he correctly assessed the more militant mood. A black Alabama corporal explained in 1945, "I spent four years in the Army to free a bunch of Dutchmen and Frenchmen, and I'm hanged if I'm going to let the Alabama version of the Germans kick me around when I get home. No sirreee-bob! I went into the Army a nigger; I'm comin' out a man."(34)