Modern history

Conclusion: Cold War Politics and Culture

Following the end of World War II, the return of peace and prosperity fostered a baby boom that sent families scrambling for new housing and increasingly away from the cities. Suburbs grew as housing developers such as William Levitt built affordable, mass-produced homes in the suburbs and as the federal government provided new highways that allowed suburban residents to commute to their jobs in the cities. With increased income, consumers purchased the latest models in automobiles as well as newly introduced televisions, reshaping how they spent their leisure time. As the baby boom generation entered their teenage years, their sheer numbers and general affluence helped make them a significant economic and cultural force. They poured their dollars into clothes, music, and other forms of entertainment, which reinforced their identity as teenagers and set them apart from adults.

The increasingly distinct teenage culture owed a great deal to African Americans, who contributed to the development of rock ’n’ roll and revolutionized jazz, thereby providing a standard for teenage rebellion and attacks on mainstream values by the beats. Yet African Americans remained most focused on tearing down the legal and institutional foundations of white supremacy. First in the courts and then in the streets, they confronted segregation and disfranchisement in the South. By the end of the 1950s, African Americans had persuaded the Supreme Court to reverse the doctrine of “separate but equal” that buttressed Jim Crow; they also won significant victories in desegregating buses in Montgomery, schools in Little Rock, and lunch counters in Greensboro. Black teenagers reinvigorated the civil rights movement through their boldness and energy, opening the path for even greater racial changes in the coming decade.

In addition to struggles over racial equality, the 1950s witnessed serious tensions at home and overseas. Teenage cultural rebellion; sexual revolution; McCarthyite witchhunts; a bloody war in Korea; foreign crises in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia; clandestine operations in Iran, Guatemala, and the Congo—all of these confronted the citizens of Alan Freed’s and Grace Metalious’s America. Nevertheless, the popular image of the 1950s as a tranquil and innocent period persists, mainly because of the presence of President Dwight Eisenhower as a symbol for the age. A cheerful, grandfatherly patriarch, Eisenhower in this version of historical memory reflects a kinder and gentler time. The Republican Eisenhower provided moderate leadership that helped the country adjust to the changes it was undergoing. His critics complained that the nation had lost its spirit of adventure, had misplaced its ability to distinguish between community and conformity, had failed to live up to ideals of racial and economic justice, and had relinquished its primary place in the world. Nevertheless, most Americans emerging from decades of depression and war felt satisfied with the new lives they were building. Despite upheavals at home and abroad, they still liked Ike.

When Eisenhower left office in 1961, a new decade began with a Democratic president in charge. Yet the challenges that Eisenhower had faced and the diplomatic, social, and cultural forces that propelled them continued to confront his successors. During the following years, many of the teenagers and young people who had benefited from the peace and prosperity of the 1950s would lead the way in questioning the role of the United States in world affairs and its commitment to democracy, freedom, and equality at home.

Chapter Review


Identify and explain the significance of each term below.

Sun Belt (p. 649)

Levittown (p. 649)

National Interstate and Defense Highway

Act (p. 649) beats (p. 655)

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (p. 658)

Montgomery Improvement Association (p. 658)

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) (p. 659)

Little Rock Nine (p. 659)

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) (p. 661)

Modern Republicanism (p. 662)

New Look (p. 663)

mutually assured destruction (MAD) (p. 664)

Eisenhower Doctrine (p. 666)

Vietcong (p. 667)


Answer the focus questions from each section of the chapter.

1. What factors contributed to the economic and population growth of the 1950s?

2. How did economic and demographic trends in the 1950s contribute to the growth of suburbs?

3. What trends in American popular culture did the television shows and popular music of the 1950s reflect?

4. How did artists, writers, and social critics challenge the mainstream politics and culture of the 1950s?

5. What strategies did African Americans adopt in the 1950s to fight segregation and discrimination?

6. How and why did white southerners resist efforts to end segregation?

7. Why did Eisenhower adopt a moderate domestic agenda? What were his most notable accomplishments?

8. How did Eisenhower use the CIA and covert actions to protect and expand American influence around the world?



• Migration to Sun Belt swells region's population


• U.S. gross national product soars 250 percent; 60 percent of Americans achieve middle-class status; union membership reaches new high


• Alan Freed promotes rock 'n' roll with radio show and concerts


• CIA coup puts Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power in Iran


• Eisenhower adopts Modern Republicanism and expands domestic programs


• CIA plot results in a military takeover of Guatemala

• Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court ruling


• Montgomery bus boycott


• Jonas Salk develops polio vaccine

• Emmett Till murdered


• Grace Metalious publishes Peyton Place


• National Interstate and Defense Highway Act passed

• U.S. begins supporting anticommunist government of South Vietnam


• Martin Luther King Jr. and other black ministers form Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC)

• Eisenhower uses federal troops to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas

• Soviet Union launches Sputnik

• Congress approves Eisenhower Doctrine


• Eisenhower sends U.S. marines into Lebanon


• Fidel Castro takes power in Cuba


• U-2 spy plane shot down over Soviet Union

• Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed


• U.S. intervenes in civil war in Congo

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