As the United States industrialized the role of the federal government expanded, especially in the New Deal Era of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s. At the same time, the U.S. became a global power for the first time, which led to a major expansion of the military, intelligence agencies and defense industries (the military-industrial complex, as Dwight Eisenhower called it in 1961), which was simply unprecedented in U.S. history. With programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the federal role in social welfare and regulation of the economy was far greater than it had ever been in the 19th Century. In the area of black civil right, the First Reconstruction after the Civil War abolished slavery and granted the freed slaves citizenship and voting rights for the first time, but this came to an end in the Compromise of 1877, and it was not until the Second Reconstruction of the 1950s and 1960s that these previous gains were restored.
The years 1945-60 really were an American High, to use the title of William O’Neill’s book, and the main reason for that was that every other great power in the world had been knocked so low by the Second World War. The Greatest Generation had indeed rendered a great service to their country and to those who had not yet been born: they had kept Adolf Hitler 3,000 miles away from the U.S. and helped destroy his regime forever, and there would have been no Affluent Society had this not occurred. In 1945-61, the U.S. simply had no economic rivals in the world, and most of the manufacturing on earth occurred in its industrial cities. No depression or financial crash occurred in the period from 1945-73 and recessions not as long as in the 1930s, the 1980s or the present (Minsky, 2008, p. 160). During this era “full employment was maintained, real wages rose constantly, economies were relatively stable, and wealth and income inequalities were reduced”, which was definitely not the case in the 1920s and 1930s or in the last thirty years (Skidelsky, 2010, p. 164). For whites at least, the U.S. offered unprecedented opportunities to live a middle class lifestyle and obtain higher education, a house in the suburbs, cars, televisions and appliances (O’Neill, 1986, p. 33). This was one of the features of the American Dream that Vice President Richard Nixon boasted of the great U.S. consumer society in his Kitchen Debate with Nitika Khrushchev.
In the Early Cold War from 1947-50, U.S. foreign policy was focused first on Western Europe and then secondarily on Asia, especially after the Communist revolution in China in 1949. North Korea did invade the South in 1950, with the backing of China and the Soviets, but the U.S. defeated this attempt and restored the status quo, which has lasted up to the present. With National Security Council Memorandum (NSC) 68 in 1950, the U.S. began to plan for waging Cold War on a global scale, which began to occur under the Eisenhower administration in 1953-61, particularly through covert operations by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It overthrew the government of Iran in 1953 when it nationalized the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (British Petroleum) and used this as a model for overthrowing the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala the next year (Schlesinger and Kinzer, 1982, p. 2). In Cuba, though, it failed to dislodge the government of Fidel Castro, despite many attempts. Africa for the most part remained peripheral to U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War, given that it remained mostly a British and French sphere of influence. One notable exception was the Congo in 1960, in which the U.S. cooperated with Belgium in overthrowing as assassinating the leftist nationalist Patrice Lumumba and installing Robert Mobutu as a friendly dictator. In Vietnam, the Truman and Eisenhower administrations supported the French effort to win back control of their colony in 1946-54, and after the French defeat at Dienbienphu, Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles arranged to divide Vietnam along North-South lines, and installed Ngo Dinh Diem as a ‘friendly dictator’ in South Vietnam.
Blacks and other minorities were largely excluded from the Affluent Society before the 1960s, since the suburbs were segregated and many were left behind in inner-city ghettos that would finally explode in the 1960s. In the South, Jim Crow segregation of public facilities and schools and denial of voting rights remained in place as they had been for decades. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) won a number of important victories for civil rights in Supreme Court cases during this era. By far the most important of these was Brown v. Board of Education (1954) which reversed the 1896 Plessey v. Ferguson decision and declared that segregated schools were inherently unequal (O’Neill, p. 244). Although the Court ordered desegregation and abolition of dual school systems in the South with all deliberate speed, a campaign of ‘massive resistance against integration continued until the early-1970s. In Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957-58, for example, Gov. Orville Faubus openly defied a federal court order to integrate Central High School and forced the Eisenhower administration to send in troops. As in other Southern states, Faubus then ordered the school closed, and in many areas the schools stayed closed for years as white parents removed their children to private or religious schools.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was founded in 1957 and headed by Martin Luther King until his assassination in 1968. It grew out of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which has organized a successful boycott of the segregated city bus system in 1955-56, which resulted in the city’s segregation laws being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Rosa Parks, the NAACP secretary in Montgomery, had become the test case to challenge segregated buses after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. Under King’s leadership, it would go on to win a number of important civil rights victories in the 1960s, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Gold 2011). Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act turned out to be the most effective law of all, since it banned discrimination by any organization, business, school or institution that had federal contracts or received federal money. This had a great effect on public schools, colleges and universities since almost all of them did, and were in danger of losing these finds because of ongoing segregation or discrimination. More than any boycotts, protests or sit-ins, this single provision broke the back of Jim Crow segregation in the South (Hasday 2007). This same provision was later applied to businesses and organizations that discriminated against women, the handicapped and other minorities. Unlike the First Reconstruction of 1867-77, the Second was never completely repealed by the reactionary and racist forces in the U.S., although they have certainly tried. Although violence against civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan continued, especially in Alabama and Mississippi, this type of federal intervention soon undermined the institutions and organizations in the South that had kept blacks as second-class citizens since the end of the First Reconstruction in 1877.
Gold, S.D. (2011). The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Marshall Cavendish.
Hasday, J. (2007). The Civil Rights Act of 1964: An End to Racial Segregation. Infobase Publishing.
Minsky, H.P. (2008). John Maynard Keynes: Hyman P. Minsky’s Influential Re-Interpretation of the Keynesian Revolution. McGraw-Hill.
O’Neill, W. (1986). American High: The Years of Confidence, 1945-1961. NY: The Free Press.
Schlesinger, S. and S. Kinzer. (1982). Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. NY: Doubleday, 1982.
Skidelsky, R. (2010). Keynes: The Return of the Master. Perseus Books Group.