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Learn About the Postwar Era

During the early 1970s, films like American Graffiti and television shows like Happy Days began to portray the 1950s as  a carefree era before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, and Watergate--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 momentous changes. 

Across the globe, 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, in which 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.

Not only a period of anxiety, the postwar period was also a time of 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.

Television’s images of the 1950s were bland. The stock situation comedy centered on a white suburban family with a happily married husband and wife and two or sometimes three well-adjusted children.  Father Knows Best was the classic example of this genre. It’s theme son was entitled: “Just Around the Corner There’s a Rainbow in the Sky.” Sit-coms like this were not documentaries. In fact, the postwar era was characterized by tension, diversity, and unsettling social changes.

NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security
To learn more

Handouts and fact sheets:

Origins of the Cold War

Recommended lesson plan:

Eisenhower: The Contentious 1950s


Test your knowledge about the Postwar era.

Recommended books:

William O'Neill, American High: The Years of Confidence, 1945-1960
This survey of the social and political history of the postwar period rebuts many common assumptions about the 1950s.

David Halberstam, The Fifties
A panoramic view of the 1950s by a leading journalist, which contains vivid sketches of Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, Martin Luther King, Jr., Joseph McCarthy, Ray Krok, U-2 pilot Frances Gary Powers, Charles Van Doren, and many others.

Recommended film:

On the Waterfront
This story of an ex-prize fighter who wrestles with a decision about whether to inform about mob corruption on the New York waterfront can be interpreted as director Elia Kazin’s defense of his decision to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
This science fiction films deals metaphorically with issues of infiltration and mind control raised by the Cold War, as well as with issues of conformity in a mass society.

learn more film

Recommended Website:

CNN: The Cold War
This website contains transcripts of the documentary’s episodes supplemented with primary source documents, rare archival footage, and interviews with leading figures during the Cold War.


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