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Overview of the Post-War Era
Digital History ID 2923

In 1945, the United States was a far different country than it subsequently became. Nearly a third of Americans lived in poverty. A third of the country's homes had no running water, two-fifths lacked flushing toilets, and three-fifths lacked central heating. More than half of the nation's farm dwellings had no electricity. Most African Americans still lived in the South, where racial segregation in schools and public accommodations were still the law. The number of immigrants was small as a result of immigration quotas enacted during the 1920s. Shopping malls had not yet been introduced.

Following World War II, the United States began an economic boom that brought unparalleled prosperity to a majority of its citizens and raised Americans expectations, breeding a belief that most economic and social problems could be solved. Among the crucial themes of this period were the struggle for equality among women and minorities, and the backlash that these struggles evoked; the growth of the suburbs, and the shift in power from the older industrial states and cities of the Northeast and upper Midwest to the South and West; and the belief that the U.S. had the economic and military power to maintain world peace and shape the behavior of other nations.

The Cold War

After World War II, the United States clashed with the Soviet Union over such issues as the Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe, control of atomic weapons, and the Soviet blockade of Berlin. The establishment of a Communist government in China in 1949 and the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950 helped transform the Cold War into a global conflict. The United States would confront Communism in Iran, Guatemala, Lebanon, and elsewhere. In an atmosphere charged with paranoia and anxiety, there was deep fear at home about “enemies within” sabotaging U.S. foreign policy and passing atomic secrets to the Soviets.

Postwar America

During the early 1970s, films like American Graffiti and television shows like “Happy Days” portrayed the 1950s as a carefree era--a decade of tail-finned Cadillacs, collegians stuffing themselves in phone booths, and innocent tranquility and static charm. In truth, the post-World War II period was an era of intense anxiety and dynamic, creative change. During the 1950s, African Americans quickened the pace of the struggle for equality by challenging segregation in court. A new youth culture emerged with its own form of music--rock ‘n' roll. Maverick sociologists, social critics, poets, and writers--conservatives as well as liberals--authored influential critiques of American society.