Free enterprise seemed an odd way of describing an economy in which a few large corporations dominated key sectors. Until well into the twentieth century, most ordinary Americans had been deeply suspicious of big business, associating it with images of robber barons who manipulated politics, suppressed economic competition, and treated their workers unfairly. Americans, wrote David Lilienthal, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, must abandon their traditional fear that concentrated economic power endangered “our very liberties.” Large-scale production was not only necessary to fighting the Cold War, but it enhanced freedom by multiplying consumer goods. “By freedom,” wrote Lilienthal, “I mean essentially freedom to choose.... It means a maximum range of choice for the consumer when he spends his dollar.” By the end of the 1950s, public-opinion surveys revealed that more than 80 percent of Americans believed that “our freedom depends on the free enterprise system.”
TV became the most effective advertising medium in history. Here, an advertisement for Ford, one of the largest American corporations, is being filmed. The background evokes the idea of driving on the open road as a form of individual freedom.
The United States, declared Fortune magazine, anticipating Vice President Nixon’s remark in the 1959 kitchen debate, had achieved the Marxist goal of a classless society. A sharp jump in the number of individuals investing in Wall Street inspired talk of a new “people’s capitalism.” In 1953, 4.5 million Americans—only slightly more than in 1928—owned shares of stock. By the mid-1960s, the number had grown to 25 million. In the face of widespread abundance, who could deny that the capitalist marketplace embodied individual freedom or that poverty would soon be a thing of the past? “It was American Freedom,” proclaimed Life magazine, “by which and through which this amazing achievement of wealth and power was fashioned.”