Post War America, 1945-1990
The Age of Consumer Materialism
Following World War II, there was an era of great economic
expansion focused on providing the fruits of invention and industrialization
to an expanding American middle class. This expansion infused throughout American
- First the depression and then the wartime focus on munitions production during World War II left the American consumer deprived of the
inventive gadgets of industrialization that improved efficiency and made life
easier and leisure more common. This tremendous unmet demand fueled the postwar
- Huge corporations now controlled the business structure.
Long gone was the domination of individuals of the day of the robber baron.
The diffused corporate structure that had grown in the 1920s was now renewed
and perfected. When in 1955 Charles Wilson, former president of General Motors
serving as Secretary of Defense, proclaimed, "What is good for General
Motors is good for the country," he sounded just like the government
officials of the 1920s.
- The period marked the rise of the middle class.
- Returning soldiers set off the baby boom. Where 2.1
million babies had been born in the US in 1935 at the depths of the depression,
and 2.8 million in 1944 in the heart of World War II, by 1947 3.9 million
were born, and in 1960, 4.25 million. The pattern of "father (breadwinner), mother (homemaker),
2.5 children, and a dog" became the normal family.
- Increased higher education expanded training for the
corporate society. The GI Bill financed education for the returning military
personnel, doubling the percentage of Americans with college degrees between
1945 and 1970.
- The automobile emptied the middle class from the cities
into the suburbs. The expanding network of roads carried them into the cities to work during the day
and back out to suburbia in the evening.
- The growth of unions ensured that the industrial worker
would participate in this middle class life.
- The New Deal motive still motivated domestic policy.
Those who could not attain middle class wealth became dispossessed. They were
measured by the statistical measures established during the New Deal in agencies
of government such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Department of
Commerce. Government sought to redress their condition with programs targeted
- Massive programs built infrastructure
to assist in the expansion of the economy. Just as the Tennesee Valley Authority,
the Public Works Administration, and the Rural Electrification Project had
fuelled development during the New Deal, now the government constructed the
Interstate Highway System, greatly expanded airports throughout the country,
and built huge hydroelectric dams to assist the economic expansion.
- This was also a period of strong presidencies. FDR
had increased the power of the presidency with the motivational framework
of his inaugural. Now presidents exercised huge power.
- This is the age of the dominance of mass media and
mass communication. Television replaced radio. In 1948, only 0.4% of US households
had television sets, by 1954 it was 55.7%, and by 1958, 83.2%. The increasing
isolation of the move to the suburbs was being offset by television.
- This was a mass communication medium. At first only
one broadcast station would reach the home. As time passed this rose to three. The networks were
corporately owned, so their programming served the interests of the consumer
society and the corporate world. Access to even news and information programs
was strictly limited. At night, from the television set, Americans could hear
from no more than a handful of their fellow citizens, and mostly from those employed
by the corporate world.
- The broadcast networks were free to the consumers,
but financed through corporate advertising. Using the propaganda research
developed during World War II, the advertising world (called Madison Avenue,
or just Mad Avenue) churned out messages interrupting all television programming.
- Thus, the rhetoric of the consumer culture, conveyed
through mass media, was dominated by consumer oriented narcicism. Advertising
and programing celebrated dominate middle class values. Advertising created
demand for ever more elaborate material goods. These focused most intensely
on the American home, the automobile, and clothing or fashion. Consumption
was linked with pleasure and with sexual gratification. Happiness was depicted
in terms of material acquisition.
Public Life is submerged
Conditions of the time created a world of mass culture
rather than public life. Consumer products moved leisure hours to home instead
of the public square. Urban sprawl diminished the market, urban neighborhoods, and the rural town as
public spheres. Corporate hierarchical structure created a workplace without public energy. And mass communication provided an alternative to the sort of
information and opinions that in public life is organized very differently.
This was a mass culture. By 1966, mass communication was so dominate that Nicholas
Johnson, the head of the government agency overseeing communication, wrote a
very successful book called, How to Talk Back to Your Television Set.
The answer was not public life, it was "to turn it off." The rhetoric
of consumer materialism was primarily advertising.
Two rhetorics complicate the hegemony of consumer materialism
- From around 1950 through 1988, the Cold War, just
as much a total war as World War II, lay over the society. The economy was
strong enough to support both early, although later huge economic dislocations
resulted. Indeed, it was an open question whether the total war would bankrupt
the Soviet Union or the US first. The War ended when the Soviet Union's economy
collapsed and its political structure with it. The US economy survived but with the huge government debt that we have today.
- From 1955 through 1975, the pressure that always accompanies
a suppression of public life surfaced with a vengence in social movements
that preoccupied the cultural history of the time. This was a general age
of reform with movements for lots of purposes from free speech to the emergence
of gay rights.
We will study the rhetoric that supported these two alternatives
to the dominance of advertising.
Beginnings of the Cold War
Roots before World War II
- 1930s was a contest between three ideologies
- Western multiparty democracy developing the welfare oriented state
- Communism, a worker-justified centralized economic state, represented
by the Soviet Union
- Fascism, the nationalistic-justified military state, represented by the
Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan
- World War II destroyed fascism, leaving the other ideologies to contest
the late 20th century. Initially, Russia signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, leaving
the West to oppose fascism alone as Hitler attacked France and England. France conquered
and England having won the battle of Britain, Hitler attacked Russia. Thus
formed the grand alliance of the West and Communist Russia against Fascist
Germany, Japan, and Italy. Defeat left the West and the Communist Soviet Union
as the dominant powers in the world.
- The alliance of the West and the Soviet Union was an uneasy one. Churchill,
leading England, distrusted Stalin, leading the Soviet Union. Roosevelt was
wary of Stalin, but pragmatic in the welcoming the power of the Soviet Union
in opposing the fascist powers
Planning for the end of World War II outlined expectations for the postwar era
- Militaries to be withdrawn when government restored in Europe
- Elections to choose governments in currently occupied nations
- Soviets to have influence in central and eastern Europe as a buffer to Germany
- United Nations to be
formed with triumphant Allies controlling Security Council
- Planning formalized at Yalta
In the postwar world these agreements were violated
- Armies remained in Europe
- To enforce its influence, the Soviet Union constructed Communist Parties
in central and eastern Europe to lead one-party states
- Indigenous Communist Parties also formed in other European countries. In
Greece and Turkey these parties threatened to take over the states with the
support of indigenous military movements .
- In 1949, Mao Zedong's Communist army and party took over China
- In 1950, the Communist North Koreans attacked the South beginning the Korean
In the United States, isolationism struggled with anti-Communism
- Demobilization of the Army began immediately as the American tendency toward
isolation began to be restored. People in the United States turned back to
building a consumer society with modern technological goods and a welfare
state to distribute economic power broadly. By 1948, defense spending had
fallen from 83 billion dollars in 1945 to 9 billion.
- In 1947, the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union, George Kennan,
wrote anonymously the "X"
article describing Soviet intentions to spread Communism. Kennan proposed
the policy known as "containment"
that called for economic and social resistance to this Communist pressure.
- In 1947, President Harry Truman, following containment, proposed
economic aid to Greece and Turkey, but added military assistance to the
Greek government resisting indigenous military forces supported by Soviet
aid. This was followed by the Marshall
Plan, in which the United States provided billions of dollars for European
recovery. This aid was welcomed in Western Europe and refused in the Soviet
- When China became Communist in 1949, containment was obviously broken and
the "Who lost China?" debate began in the United States. This search
led to charges that Communists had infiltrated the United States government.
- In 1950, Communist North Korea attacked South Korea and the Korean War began
as the typical Cold War hot war. The United States, authorized by the United
Nations, sent troops and the first postwar national confrontation began. By
the end of the year, China had entered Korea to resist United Nations' forces.
- The full dimensions of the Cold War were now in place.
What was the Cold War?
The Cold War lasted from 1946-47 through 1989-90. Several characteristics mark
The Cold War was total war, but cold. It infused itself throughout
the consciousness of the people. It was the society's central commitment.
It diverted the resources of the nation into its service. For example, the
following table indicates the rise of the Cold War:
||Military Budget of US Government
||Percent of total Budget
This chart (percent of budget) also reflects that the distortions of the economy were less total
than during World War II, but significantly diminished the nonmilitary uses
The period was marked by episodic hot wars and proxy wars. At the same time, actual military action was sporadic rather than constant.
The total commitment spawned national confrontations and military diplomacy,
but left periods when military deaths were insignificant overall. The Korean
War and the Vietnam War killed nearly a 100,000 Americans. Fought in the
service of containment, these wars ended in stalemate and loss for the United
States. The better strategy was proxy wars in which the United States and
the Soviet Union sponsored sides in wars that devastated particular nations
but did not involve significant military losses by the two superpowers.
Examples were the Greek Civil War, the Chinese Civil War, the Indochinese
War (precursor to the Vietnam War), the Angolan Civil War.
The period was marked by the terror of nuclear war. MAD (Multually Assured Destruction), a doctrine that held that if both superpowers could kill millions of people in the other nation war was unlikely, rationalized
the threat of nuclear war as essential to peace. The thick record of nuclear
devastation documented at Hiroshima was generally suppressed, but the vision
of nuclear devastation that took its place lay over everyone's day-to-day
The period left a heavily ordered society. The two-valued and polemic
nature of the Cold War meant that there was a strong pressure toward conformity.
At the same time, the motivational power of this conformity was strong.
The interstate highway system was built as the "National Defense Highway
Act" with provisions in the law giving priority to military traffic
and assuring exits at military installations. After the Soviets placed the
satellite Sputnik in orbit in 1957, the "National Defense Education
Act" provided low interest loans to students to compete with Soviet
technological knowledge and advancement.
The competition was also cultural. When Vice-President Richard Nixon "debated" Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev in Moscow, a confrontation known as the "Kitchen Debate, Nixon pointed to the dishwashers and refrigerators surrounding them and claimed that this demonstrated the superiority of the American system. As late as 1980, the victory of the US Olympic Hockey team over the Soviet team (The Miracle) was a source of evidence of the triumph of the United States.
The fight against Communism attained nearly
the status in the American consciousness that the settlement of the West had
had as a dominant motivational structure in the 1800s.
The Reemergence of Public Life:
Movements of the 1960s
The suppression of public life and the dominance in society of mass communication nearly
always results in a building pressure that eventually erupts into a renewal
of public communication. So it was during the era of consumer materialism. The
most active period of social movement rhetoric in the 20th century was the 1960s.
This period roughly begins with a build-up from the Brown v. Board of Education
of Topeka Supreme Court Decision of 1954. This desegregation decision began
the Civil Rights movement. By 1960, multiple movements were gathering steam in
the United States. After 1970 and the Kent State killings (when four anti-Vietnam War demonstators were killed on the campus of Kent State University by National Guardsmen), social movements
began to decline and by the fall of Saigon that ended the Vietnam War in 1975
the most active period was over. Of course, movements continue to our day just
as there have always been some active reform movements in America. But the most
active period was over.
Conditions Given Voice in 60s Movements
The rhetoric of the 60s movements had
several conditions of the society that it attempted to convert into power for
- American Apartheid. Despite
the ending of chattel slavery in 1865, American culture -- particularly in
the South -- had reestablished a cultural system based in racial superiority.
Discrimination against non-EuroAmericans and even some ethnic EuroAmericans
was common social practice established and promoted by discursive practices.
Many movements sought to confront this system.
- Disparity in Wealth. In 1960,
one in five Americans lived in conditions described by the federal government
as "poverty." Many movements were egalitarian movements seeking
to convert this disparity into support for social change.
- Institutional Terror. In the
midst of the Cold War, large amounts of resources went into building military
power. In his Farewell Address, President Eisenhower had warned in 1961 of
a "Military-Industrial Complex" dedicated to absorbing the wealth
of the society into a non-productive weapons of war. The conditions of quasi-War
also encouraged attention to quasi-military structures within established
power structures. Movements attempted to identify this military power and
what they called the diversion of resources into destructive ends. They depicted
"Amerika" as a militaristic world power, too quick to suppress dissent
at home and abroad.
- Materialism. The movements of
the 1960s were not simply movements uniting the lesser endowed classes of
American society. The children of the American middle and even upper classes
were eager participants and often the leaders of these movements. They found
that the material satisfactions of their wealthy status did not produce satisfaction
with their lives. Many movements addressed non-material issues and framed
motivation for movements in alternatives to the central place of materialism.
- Feminism. The women's movement, largely dormant
since achieving the vote in 1920, came roaring back to life with an intense
critique of consumer materialism. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique became a central rhetorical document of the feminist movement. When Friedean founded the National Organization of Women and took the movement in a more political direction, Ms. magazine provided the cultural rhetoric that changed American society.