This chapter covers American society at midcentury from the premier performance of Elvis Presley in 1954
to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. This era enjoyed the prosperity of post-World War II
through the growth of suburban life and the emergence of youth culture. Americans reflected a fierce
desire for consumer goods and “the good life.” Deeply held popular belief in a continuously expanding
economy and a steady increase in the standard of living helped shape social life and politics throughout
the postwar era. Overall, the nation’s public culture presented a powerful consensus based on the idea
that the American dream was available to all who worked for it.
After reading this chapter you should be able to:
Discuss how postwar economic prosperity changed the lives of ordinary Americans.
Explain what role federal programs played in expanding economic opportunities.
Analyze the origins of postwar youth culture and discuss how teenage life was different from
Discuss how mass culture became more central to everyday American life in the two decades
following World War II.
Summarize how cold war politics and assumptions shaped American foreign policy.
Compare the domestic and international policies associated with John F. Kennedy and the New
American Society at Midcentury
The election of Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the tone of government as he sought a more conservative,
corporate commonwealth. During his presidency, the federal government built on the growing prosperity
to subsidize programs that helped Americans pursue higher education and buy homes, especially in new
suburbs. The suburban boom strengthened domestic ideals but also provoked criticism for creating a dull,
conformist lifestyle, among other things. During the 1950s, labor unions reached a peak of membership
and power. In part due to federal laws, higher education expanded greatly. At the same time, dramatic
improvements in medical care made it possible for Americans to live longer, healthier lives.
To answer the following questions, refer to the essay Ladies Home Journal, “Young Mother”
Ladies Home Journal, "Young Mother" (1956)
Mrs. Gould: As editors and parents we are extremely interested in this whole problem. The welfare of our society depends upon the
type of children you young mothers and others like you are able to bring up. Anything that affects the welfare of young families is
most crucial, and I do feel that the young mother, any young mother in our day, should get far more general recognition and attention
than she does-not so much for her own sake as for society as a whole, or just out of sheer common sense.
Miss Hickey: And understanding. I think there is a lack of understanding, too. Since it would take all day to tell what a busy woman
does all day . . . how about your high points?
Mrs. Petry: I would say in the morning-breakfast and wash time. I put the breakfast out, leave the children to eat it and run into the
bathroom-that is where the washer is-and fill it up. I come back into the kitchen and shove a little in the baby's mouth and try to keep
the others eating. Then I go back in the bathroom and put the clothes in the wringer and start the rinse water. That is about the end of
the half-hour there. I continue then to finish the wash, and either put them out or let them see one program they like on television, and
then I go out and hang the wash up.
Miss Hickey: You put that outside?
Mrs. Petry: Yes. Then I eat.
Mrs. Gould: Can you sit down and eat in peace? Are the children outdoors at that time or watching television?
Mrs. Petry: They are supposed to be outside, but they are usually running in and out. Somebody forgot something he should have
eaten, or wants more milk, or a toy or something. Finally I lock the screen door. I always read something while I'm eating-two meals a
day I read. When my husband isn't there, and if I am alone, or maybe just one child at the table, I read something quick. But I time it. I
take no more than half an hour for eating and reading.
Miss Hickey: You work on schedule quite a bit. Why do you do that?
Mrs. Petry: Because I am very forgetful. I have an orange crayon and I write "defrost" on the refrigerator every now and then, or I
forget to defrost it. If I think of something while I am washing, I write it on the mirror with an eyebrow pencil. It must sound silly, but
that is the only way I can remember everything I have to do. . . .
Miss Hickey: Mrs. Ehrhardt, your quietest half-hour?
Mrs. Ehrhardt: I would say . . . that when I go out to take the wash in. There is something about getting outdoors-and I don't get out
too often, except to hang out the wash and to bring it in. I really enjoy doing it. If it is a nice day, I stand outside and fold it outdoors. I
think that is my quietest hour.
Miss Hickey: How often do you and your husband go out together in the evening?
Mrs. Ehrhardt: Not often. An occasional movie, which might be every couple of months or so, on an anniversary. This year is the first
year we celebrated on the day we were married. We were married in June. We always celebrated it, but it might be in July or August.
It depends on our babysitter. If you cannot get anyone, you just cannot go out. I am not living near my family and I won't leave the
children with teenagers. I would be afraid it might be a little hectic, and a young girl might not know what to do. So we don't get out
very often. . . .
Miss Hickey: Let us hear about Mrs. Petry's recreation.
Mrs. Petry: Oh, I went to work in a department store that opened in Levittown. I begged and begged my husband to let me work, and
finally he said I could go once or twice a week. I lasted for three weeks, or should I say he lasted for three weeks.
Mrs. Gould: You mean you worked in the daytime?
Mrs. Petry: Three evenings, from six until nine, and on Saturday.
Mrs. Gould: And your husband took care of the children during that time?
Mrs. Petry: Yes, but the third week, he couldn't stand it anymore, Saturday and all. In fact, I think he had to work that Saturday, so I
asked if I could just come in to the store during the week. My husband was hoping they would fire me, but they didn't. But I could see
that it wasn't really fair to him, because I was going out for my own pleasure.
Mrs. Gould: In other words, your working was your recreation.
Mrs. Petry: Yes, and I enjoyed it very much.
Miss Hickey: Why did you feel you wanted to do this?
Mrs. Petry: To see some people and talk to people, just to see what is going on in the world. . . .
Miss Hickey: How about your shopping experiences?
Mrs. McKenzie: Well, I don't go in the evening, because I cannot depend on Ed being home; and when he is there, he likes to have me
there too. I don't know. Usually all three of the children go shopping with me. At one time I carried two and dragged the other one
along behind me in the cart with the groceries. It is fun to take them all. Once a man stopped me and said, "Lady, did you know your
son is eating hamburger?" He had eaten a half- pound of raw hamburger. When corn on the cob was so expensive, my oldest one
begged me to buy corn on the cob, so I splurged and bought three ears for thirty-nine cents. When I got to the check-out counter, I
discovered he had eaten all three, so he had to pay for the cobs.
Miss Hickey: You go once a week?
Mrs. McKenzie: Once a week or every ten days now, depending on how often I have the use of the car. That day we usually go to the
park, too. . . .
Miss Hickey: Tell us about your most recent crisis.
Mrs. McKenzie: I had given a birthday party for fifteen children in my little living room, which is seven by eleven. The next morning
my son, whose birthday it had been, broke out with the measles, so I had exposed fifteen children to measles, and I was the most
unpopular mother in the neighborhood.
He was quite sick, and it snowed that day. Ed took Lucy sleigh riding. Both of them fell off the sled and she broke both the bones in
Mrs. Gould: Did she then get the measles?
Mrs. McKenzie: She did, and so did the baby. . . . My main problem was being in quarantine for a month. During this time that all
three had measles and Lucy had broken her arm, we got a notice from the school that her tuberculin test was positive-and that meant
that one of the adults living in our home had active tuberculosis. It horrified me. I kept thinking, "Here I sit killing my three children
with tuberculosis." But we had to wait until they were over their contagion period before we could all go in and get x-rayed.
Miss Hickey: And the test was not correct?
Mrs. McKenzie: She had had childhood tuberculosis, but it was well healed and she was all right. About eight of ten have had
childhood tuberculosis and no one knows it.
Mrs. Gould: It is quite common, but it is frightening when it occurs to you. Were your children quite sick with measles?
Mrs. McKenzie: Terribly ill.
Mrs. Gould: They had high temperatures?
Mrs. McKenzie: My children are a great deal like my father. Anything they do, they do to extreme. They are violently ill, or they are
as robust as can be. There is no in-between. . . .
Dr. Montagu: There is one very large question I would like to ask. What in your lives, as they are at present, would you most like to
see changed or modified?
Mrs. Ehrhardt: Well, I would like to be sure my husband's position would not require him to be transferred so often. I would like to
stay in place long enough to take a few roots in the community. It would also be nice to have someone help with the housework, but I
don't think I would like to have anyone live in. The houses nowadays are too small. I think you would bump into each other. Of
course, I have never had any one in, so I cannot honestly give an opinion.
Mrs. Townsend: At the present time, I don't think there is anything that I would like to change in the household. We happen to be very
close, and we are all very happy. I will admit that there are times when I am a little overtired, and I might be a little more than
annoyed with the children, but actually it doesn't last too long. We do have a problem where we live now. There aren't any younger
children for my children to play with. Therefore, they are underneath my heels just constantly, and I am not able to take the older
children out the way I would like to, because of the two babies.
Miss Hickey: You have been in how many communities?
Mrs. Townsend: I have lived in Louisiana, California, New York, and for a short period in Columbia, South Carolina. . . .
Miss Hickey: Mrs. Petry, what would you change?
Mrs. Petry: I would like more time to enjoy my children. I do take time, but if I do take as much time as I like, the work piles up.
When I go back to work I feel crabby, and I don't know whether I'm mad at the children, or mad at the work or just mad at everybody
I would also like to have a little more rest and a little more time to spend in relaxation with my husband. We never get to go out
together, and the only time we have much of a conversation is just before we go to bed. And I would like to have a girl come and do
I am happy there where we live because this is the first time we have stayed anywhere for any length of time. It will be two years in
August, and it is the first home we have really had. That is why my husband left the Navy. I nearly had a nervous collapse, because it
seemed I couldn't stand another minute not having him home and helping, or not helping, but just being there.
What vision of Suburban American life is formed from these accounts?
What seems to be the prescribed roles for women in these accounts?
After World War II, increasing attention was directed at American youth. The rising birthrates in the late
1930s onward made young people a potent market. Teenagers gained a special status. They developed
their own culture, especially rock ‘n’ roll music that drew heavily on black music and made black
performers popular among white youth. Tensions arose over the status of teenagers and was partly
reflected in an increase in juvenile delinquency.
Mass Culture and Its Discontents
The rise of television contributed to the development of a mass culture that reflected many of the
conformists tendencies of the postwar era. Criticism of mass culture came from the right and the left. The
Beats offered strong dissent of conformity both in their writing and their lifestyles.
The Cold War Continued
The waging of the Cold war changed when Eisenhower became president. He focused on using massive
retaliation to resolve disputes. Summit meetings between Eisenhower and Khruschev lessened tensions.
Eisenhower's policy also employed covert action in several nations as Eisenhower feared a domino effect
of communism in Asia. When his term ended, Eisenhower left office warning against the growing military-
To answer the following questions, refer to Dwight D. Eisenhower's Dwight D. Eisenhower,
Decision Not to Intervene at Dien Bien Phu (1954).
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Decision Not to Intervene at Dien Bien Phu (1954)
Dwight D. Eisenhower to Alfred Gruenther, April 26, 1954
As you know, you and I started more than three years ago trying to convince the French that they could not win the Indo-China war
and particularly could not get real American support in that region unless they would unequivocally pledge independence to the
Associated States upon the achievement of military victory. Along with this-indeed as a corollary to it-this administration has been
arguing that no Western power can go to Asia militarily, except as one of a concert of powers, which concert must include local
To contemplate anything else is to lay ourselves open to the charge of imperialism and colonialism or-at the very least-of
objectionable paternalism. Even, therefore, if we could by some sudden stroke assure the saving of the Dien Bien Phu garrison, I think
that under the conditions proposed by the French, the free world would lose more than it would gain.
Dwight D. Eisenhower to Swede Hazlett, April 27, 1954
In my last letter I remember that I mentioned Dien Bien Phu. It still holds out and while the situation looked particularly desperate
during the past week, there now appears to be a slight improvement and the place may hold on for another week or ten days. The
general situation in Southeast Asia, which is rather dramatically epitomized by the Dien Bien Phu battle, is a complicated one that has
been a long time developing. . . .
For more than three years I have been urging upon successive French governments the advisability of finding some way of
"internationalizing" the war; such action would be proof to all the world and particularly to the Viet Namese that France's purpose is
not colonial in character but is to defeat Communism in the region and to give the natives their freedom. The reply has always been
vague, containing references to national prestige, Constitutional limitations, inevitable effects upon the Moroccan and Tunisian
peoples, and dissertations on plain political difficulties and battles within the French Parliament. The result has been that the French
have failed entirely to produce any enthusiasm on the part of the Vietnamese for participation in the war. . . .
In any event, any nation that intervenes in a civil war can scarcely expect to win unless the side in whose favor it intervenes possesses
a high morale based upon a war purpose or cause in which it believes. The French have used weasel words in promising independence
and through this one reason as much as anything else, have suffered reverses that have been really inexcusable.
James C. Hagerty, Diary, Monday, April 26, 1954
Indochina. The President said that the French "are weary as hell." He said that it didn't look as though Dienbienphu could hold out for
more than a week and would fall possibly sooner. Reported that the British thought that the French were not putting out as much as
they could, but that he did not necessarily agree with their viewpoint. "The French go up and down every day-they are very volatile.
They think they are a great power one day and they feel sorry for themselves the next day." The President said that if we were to put
one combat soldier into Indochina, then our entire prestige would be at stake, not only in that area but throughout the world. . . . The
President said the situation looked very grim this morning, but that he and Dulles were doing everything they could to get the free
countries to act in concert. In addition, he said "there are plenty of people in Asia, and we can train them to fight well. I don't see any
reason for American ground troops to be committed in Indochina, don't think we need it, but we can train their forces and it may be
necessary for us eventually to use some of our planes or aircraft carriers off the coast and some of our fighting craft we have in that
area for support."
Explain Eisenhower’s reasoning for desiring an “internationalized” war effort.
Explain Eisenhower’s opinion regarding the commitment of American military forces in
John F. Kennedy and the New Frontier
The election of John F. Kennedy changed the direction of the nation. His New Frontier represented a return to liberal,
activist politics but faced opposition from Congress. Still, Kennedy successfully implemented several social programs
and energized the space program. In foreign policy, Kennedy followed the cold war policies. He tried to ease tensions
with the Soviets but confronted several crises. His assassination sent the nation into shock.
John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address (1961)
My fellow citizens:
We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom-symbolizing an end as well as
a beginning-signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God
the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all form of
human poverty and to abolish all form of human life. And, yet, the same revolutionary beliefs for
which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe-the belief that the rights of man come
not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from
this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of
Americans-born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a cold and bitter peace, proud of
our ancient heritage-and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to
which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today.
Let every nation know, whether it wish us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden,
meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and success
This much we pledge-and more.
To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful
friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of new co-operative ventures. Divided, there is
little we can do-for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.
To those new states whom we now welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our world that one
form of colonial control shall not have passed merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We
shall not always expect to find them supporting our every view. But we shall always hope to find
them strongly supporting their own freedom-and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly
sought to find power by riding on the tiger's back inevitably ended up inside.
To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass
misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required-
not because the Communists are doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If
the free society cannot help the many who are poor, it can never save the few who are rich.
To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge-to convert our good words
into good deeds-in a new alliance for progress-to assist free men and free Governments in casting
off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile
powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion
anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain
the master of its own house.
To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where
the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support-
to prevent its becoming merely a forum for invective-to strengthen its shield of the new and the
weak-and to enlarge the area to which its writ may run.
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a
request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction
unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.
We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can
we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.
But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from their present course-
both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread
of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of
mankind's final war.
So let us begin anew-remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness and sincerity
is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring the problems that divide us.
Let both sides for the first time formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and
control of arms-and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of
Let both sides join to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore
the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and
Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah-to "undo the heavy
burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free."
And if a beachhead of co-operation can be made in the jungles of suspicion, let both sides join in
the next task: creating, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are
just and the weak secure and the peace preserved forever.
All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor
in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our
course. Since this country was founded, each generation has been summoned to give testimony to
its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered that call encircle the globe.
Now the trumpet summons us again-not as a call to battle, though embattled we are-but a call to
bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in
tribulation"-a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war
Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, north and south, east and west, that
can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending
freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility-I welcome it. I do
not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.
The energy, the faith and the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and
all who serve it-and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country will do for you-ask what you can do for
My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can
do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or of the world, ask of us the same high standards of
strength and sacrifice that we shall ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with
history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and
His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
Identify and analyze the foreign policy laid out in this address.
In what ways is this speech a call for a new beginning?
Indicate the country by its corresponding letter on the map____Venezuela _____ Cuba ______Costa Rica ______Dominican
Republic _______Guatemala _____ Panama
For each item above, use the letter that shows the correct part of the image.
____ CIA directed overthrow ________ Riots against visitors _____ Canal Zone riots (1964)
_____ Naval blockade during missile crisis (1962)
_______ Revolution and U.S. Marine intervention (1964-1965)
________ Bay of Pigs invasion (1961)
Why did the United States intervene in Guatemala and what were the
consequences of this intervention?
How did the Cuban missile crisis affect relations between the United States and
the Soviet Union?
What would have been good questions to ask of Senator McCarthy or, perhaps more importantly, of the
many people who were persuaded by his anticommunist campaigning? How can we reconcile the witch-
hunts of the 1950s with the American political ideal of freedom of association, and the reality that
Communist party membership was never illegal in the United States?
Do we expect each other always to understand the information provided by retailers, such as
the size of a car engine? The number of megabytes or gigabytes in a computer? The odds
against winning a lottery?
If the ideal of uniformity in the 1950s was oppressive and led to the
victimization of communists or possible communists (not to mention others
such as the Beats), are there lessons to be learned about the dangers of
conformity? How might you, with the good vision of hindsight, alter the 1950s'
approach to uniformity to avoid its abuses?
Between 1952 and 1963, the United States experienced substantial growth and change. Prosperity and government
action helped stimulate the rise of suburbs and a distinctive suburban life that was subject to some criticism. During
these years, a youth culture emerged, focusing on teenagers and epitomized by the rise of rock ‘n’ roll music.
Television also became a fixture on American homes and helped develop a mass culture that reflected conformist
trends but also was strongly criticized. Eisenhower’s foreign policy stressed massive retaliation and overt action, but
also featured reduced tensions with the Soviet Union. The election of John F. Kennedy represented a return to
domestic liberalism. Amid several crises, the basic cold war strategy remained, though Kennedy sought better Soviet
New Review quiz on the APUSH class site.