History of the United States (1945–1964)

History of the United States (1945–1964)

The history of the United States from 1945 through 1964 covers the early Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement.

The period of United States history is seen as a period of active foreign policy designed to rescue Europe from the devastation of World War II and from Communism. On the domestic front, after a short transition, the economy grew rapidly, and the threat of a devastating nuclear war hung over the world. A race began to overawe the other side with more powerful weapons. Allied soldiers were sent to Korea to fight the forces of communism. The Soviets formed the Warsaw Pact of communist states to oppose the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance.

But for many people in the U.S., international tension was balanced by home comfort. Particularly after 1955, they enjoyed high wages, large fancy cars and home comforts like vacuum cleaners, washing machines, toasters, food mixers, electric irons—which were all made for labor-saving and to make housework easier. Inventions familiar in the early 21st century made their first appearance during this era. The live-in maid and cook, common features of middle-class homes at the beginning of the century, were virtually unheard of in the 1950s. Householders enjoyed centrally heated homes with running hot water. New style furniture was bright, cheap, and light, and easy to move around.

Cold War


When the war ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Soviet and Western (U.S., British, and French) troops were located along a line through the center of Germany. Aside from a few minor adjustments, this would be the "Iron Curtain" of the Cold War. As agreed at the Potsdam Conference, the Germans living east of the Oder-Neisse Line were expelled. In hindsight, the Yalta Conference signified the agreement of both sides that they could stay there and that neither side would use direct force to push the other out. This tacit accord applied to Asia as well, as evidenced by U.S. occupation of Japan and the division of Korea. With the onset of the Cold War, a brief postwar status quo emerged until the Communist takeover in China in 1949. Communist hegemony reigned over about one third of the world's territory while the United States emerged as the world's more influential superpower with respect to the other two thirds, of which some was being challenged by marxist movements.

There were fundamental contrasts between the visions of the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalism with democracy and communism with party dictatorship; those contrasts had been simplified and refined in national ideologies to represent two ways of life, each vindicated in 1945 by previous disasters.

The United States, led by President Harry S. Truman since April 1945, was determined to open up the world's markets to capitalist trade and to shape the postwar world according to the principles laid down by the Atlantic Charter: self-determination, equal economic access, and a rebuilt capitalist Europe that could again serve as a hub in world affairs. World War II resulted in enormous destruction of infrastructure and populations throughout Eurasia, with almost no country left unscathed. The only major industrial power in the world to emerge intact—and even greatly strengthened from an economic perspective—was the United States.

The United States also led the effort to assert its vision of the world with new international agencies: the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which were created to ensure an open, capitalist, international economy. The Soviet Union opted not to take part.

The Soviets, too, saw their vital interests in the containment or roll-back of capitalism near their borders. Joseph Stalin was determined to set up pro-Moscow regimes in Poland, Romania, East Germany, and Bulgaria, which contradicted his statements at Yalta when he assured "free elections" would go ahead in Eastern Europe. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1946 condemned Stalin for cordoning off a new Russian empire with an "iron curtain."

Containment and escalation

In the United States, containment of the Soviet Union soon became foreign policy doctrine, following the advice of State Department officer George Kennan, who argued that the USSR had to be "contained" using "unalterable counterforce at every point," until the breakdown of Soviet power occurred. This policy was further articulated in the Truman Doctrine Speech to Congress of March 1947, which argued that the United States would have to contribute US$4 billion (2005 currency) to efforts to "contain" communism. This came amid the crisis of the Greek Civil War (1946-1949), with perceived communists threats there, in Turkey and Iran. Truman warned that if Greece and Turkey did not receive the aid that they needed, they would inevitably fall to communism with the result being a domino effect takeover by communists elsewhere in the region. Truman won over the majority of his Democratic Party in Congress, and of the majority Republican Party as well. Senator Arthur Vandenberg led the GOP internationalists and overcame the opposition of Senator Robert A. Taft and the isolationists. Truman signed the Truman Doctrine into law in May 1947, which granted US$400 million in military and economic aid to Turkey and Greece.

After the Stuttgart speech of September 1946, the U.S. began slowly moving away from the Morgenthau Plan influenced occupation policy in Germany and towards a policy of reconstruction. [http://www.daz.org/enJamesFByrnes.html] In view of the deteriorating economic and political situation in Europe [http://time-proxy.yaga.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,887417,00.html] , in mid 1947 the United States initiated an economic reconstruction effort, first in Western Europe and then in Japan (as well as in South Korea and Taiwan) and in 1949 also including West Germany. [http://www.germany.info/relaunch/culture/history/marshall.html] The Marshall Plan allocated $12 billion to Western Europe. Stalin vetoed any participation by his satellites and responded by blocking access to Berlin, which was deep within the Soviet zone of Germany. Military confrontation loomed while Truman embarked on a provocative move that would humiliate the Soviets internationally: flying supplies into Berlin, over the Soviet Zone, during 1948-1949.

The U.S. joined eleven other nations in 1949 to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), America's first "entangling" European alliance in 170 years. Stalin retaliated by integrating the economies of Eastern Europe in his version of the Marshall Plan, exploding the first Soviet atomic device in 1949, signing an alliance with the People's Republic of China in February 1950, and forming the Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe's counterpart to NATO.

In 1949, the communist leader Mao Zedong won control of mainland China, proclaimed the People's Republic of China, then traveled to Moscow where he negotiated the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship.

Confronted with growing Soviet successes, U.S. officials quickly moved to escalate and expand "containment." In a secret 1950 document, NSC-68, they proposed to strengthen their alliance systems, quadruple defense spending, and embark on an elaborate propaganda campaign to convince Americans to fight this costly cold war. Truman ordered the development of the Hydrogen bomb; similar Soviet nuclear development followed thereafter.

In the early 1950s, the U.S. drew plans to form a West German army, and proposals were made for a peace treaty with Japan that would guarantee long-term U.S. military bases for forward deployment of U.S. armed forces in East Asia.

The Truman Doctrine also contributed to America's first involvement in Vietnam. Truman attempted to aid France's bid to hold onto its Indo-Chinese colonies. The United States supplied French forces with equipment and military advisers in order to combat the communist Vietnamese independence movement Viet Minh in the First Indochina War.

Korean War

Stalin approved a North Korean plan to invade U.S.-supported South Korea in June 1950. President Truman immediately committed U.S. forces to Korea. He did not consult or gain approval of Congress but did gain the approval of the United Nations (UN) to drive back the North Koreans and re-unite that country. [ The Soviets were boycotting the UN at that time (because it would not admit the People's Republic of China) and so was not present to veto Truman's actions.]

After the early days of U.S. withdrawal and defeat, General Douglas MacArthur's success at the Battle of Inchon turned the war around. This advantage was lost when hundreds of thousands of Chinese entered an undeclared war against the United States and pushed the US/UN/Korean forces back to the original starting line, the 38th parallel. The war became a stalemate, with over 33,000 American dead and 100,000 wounded [http://siadapp.dior.whs.mil/personnel/CASUALTY/korea.pdf#search=%22deaths%20korean%20war%22] but nothing to show for it except a resolve to continue the containment policy. Truman fired MacArthur but was unable to end the war. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 campaigned against Truman's failures of "Korea, Communism and Corruption," promising to go to Korea himself and end the war. By threatening to use nuclear weapons in 1953, Eisenhower ended the war with a truce that is still in effect.

Eisenhower administration

In 1953, Stalin died, and after new 1952 presidential election, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the opportunity to end the Korean War, while continuing Cold War policies. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was the dominant figure in the nation's foreign policy in the 1950s. Dulles denounced the "containment" of the Truman administration and espoused an active program of "liberation," which would lead to a "rollback" of communism. The most prominent of those doctrines was the policy of "massive retaliation," which Dulles announced early in 1954, eschewing the costly, conventional ground forces characteristic of the Truman administration in favor of wielding the vast superiority of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and covert intelligence. Dulles defined this approach as "brinkmanship."

Both countries continued to try to expand their spheres of influence, using both overt and covert means. The new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, expanded Moscow's policy by establishing new relations with India and other key non-aligned, non-communist states in the Third World. Khrushchev also increased Soviet power by developing a hydrogen bomb and, by launching the first earth satellite in 1957.

At the same time, the Soviets consolidated their hold on many of their allies and clients. In 1953, Soviet troops put down the uprising in East Germany. This was followed, in 1956, in Hungary, with Soviet intervention to quell the Hungarian Revolution.

The Soviets garnered a huge victory when Khrushchev formed an alliance with Cuba after Fidel Castro's successful revolution in 1959.

This victory did not last, however. In 1961, the Soviets and their East German allies, built the Berlin Wall to stop East Germans from fleeing communist East Germany to the attractive, capitalist and subsidized West Berlin. This was a major propaganda setback for the USSR.

Moreover, Sino-Soviet ties were deteriorating.

The Soviet Union was not alone in its attempts to influence other nations. The United States thwarted Soviet intervention by wielding its nuclear superiority and using the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to help overthrow governments in Iran and Guatemala. In 1958, the U.S. sent troops into Lebanon for 9 months to stabilize a country on the verge of civil war. Between 1954 and 1961, Eisenhower dispatched large sums of economic aid and 695 military advisers to South Vietnam.

The first major strain among the NATO alliance occurred in 1956 when Eisenhower forced Britain and France to retreat from their invasion of Egypt (with Israel) which was intended to get back their ownership of the Suez Canal. Instead of supporting the legitimate claims of its NATO partners, the Eisenhower administration claimed that it opposed French and British imperial adventurism in the region by sheer prudence, fearing that Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's standoff with the region's old colonial powers would bolster Soviet power in the region.

Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cold War reached its height during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tense confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States over the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba. The crisis began on October 16, 1962, and lasted for thirteen days. It is regarded by many historians as the moment when the Cold War was closest to exploding into a devastating nuclear exchange between the two superpower nations.

"Affluent Society" and the "Other America"

The immediate years unfolding after World War II were generally ones of stability and prosperity for the White American middle class. The United States managed to turn its war machine into a consumer culture overnight. The growth of consumerism, the suburbs, and the economy, however, overshadowed the fact that prosperity did not extend to everyone. Many Americans continued to live in poverty throughout the Eisenhower years, especially older people and non-white ethnic/racial minorities.

At the center of middle-class culture in the 1950s was a growing demand for consumer goods; a result of the postwar prosperity, the increase in variety and availability of consumer products, and advertising. Affluent Americans in the 1950s and 1960s responded to consumer demand for automobiles, dishwashers, garbage disposals, televisions, and stereos. To a striking degree, the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s was consumer-driven (as opposed to investment-driven).

As the population of suburbia, with its increased mobility, swelled to account for a third of the nation's population by 1960, U.S. auto manufacturers in Detroit built more automobiles, as the U.S. grew more dependent on foreign oil sources. The growth of suburbs was not only a result of postwar prosperity, but innovations of the single-family housing market. William Levitt began a national trend with his use of mass-production techniques to construct a large "Levittown" housing development on Long Island. Meanwhile, the suburban population swelled because of the baby boom. Suburbs provided larger homes for larger families, security from urban living, privacy, and space for consumer goods.

Most suburbs were restricted to whites. While few African Americans could afford to live in them, even affluent African Americans with the wherewithal to afford a home in the suburbs faced informal and formal barriers. The few African Americans who ventured into suburbs were generally shunned in both passive and overt ways. Touted for their sense of community, suburbia has been attacked by later critics for its conformity and homogeneity. Indeed, suburbs were inhabited by many of similar age and background.

Civil Rights Movement

Following the end of Reconstruction, many states adopted restrictive Jim Crow laws which enforced segregation of the races and the second-class status of African Americans. Supreme Court cases such as "Plessy v. Ferguson" 1896 accepted segregation as constitutional.

tatus of African Americans in the Deep South

Voting rights discrimination remained widespread in the South through the 1950s. African American sharecroppers were often evicted by white farmers for attempting to vote. Voter registration boards used practices such as limiting the number of eligible African American voters, holding African American applicants to a higher standard of accuracy than whites, allowing white applicants to register in their cars and in their homes, processing black applicants last, establishing separate registration offices in different parts of the courthouse, offering assistance only to white applicants in completing the registration form and not notifying African American applicants about the status of their applications.

Southern blacks who resisted segregation, especially sharecroppers, could be evicted for registering to vote. Rural blacks lived in constant fear of their employers, who vowed to fire them; of white "citizens' councils," who adopted policies of economic reprisal against demonstrators; or of white vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, which exerted an often-unchecked reign of terror across the South, where lynching of African Americans was a common occurrence and rarely prosecuted. Nearly 4,500 African Americans were lynched in the United States between 1882 and the early 1950's.

"Brown v. Board of Education" and "massive resistance"

In the early days of the civil rights movement, litigation and lobbying were the focus of integration efforts. The U.S. Supreme Court decisions in "Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka" (1954); "Powell v. Alabama" (1932); "Smith v. Allwright" (1944); "Shelley v. Kraemer" (1948); "Sweatt v. Painter" (1950); and "McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents" (1950) led to a shift in tactics, and from 1955 to 1965, "direct action" was the strategy—primarily bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, and social movements.

"Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka" was a landmark case of the United States Supreme Court which explicitly outlawed segregated public education facilities for blacks and whites, ruling so on the grounds that the doctrine of "separate but equal" public education could never truly provide black Americans with facilities of the same standards available to white Americans. One hundred and one members of the United States House of Representatives and 19 Senators signed "The Southern Manifesto" condemning the Supreme Court decision.

In 1951, a suit was filed against the Board of Education of the City of Topeka in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas on behalf of Linda Brown, a third grade student from Topeka, Kansas, who was forced to walk a mile to her segregated black school, while a white school was only seven blocks from her house. Brown's suit had the backing of the NAACP, whose chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall (who was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967) argued the case. The district court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, citing the U.S. Supreme Court precedent set in "Plessy v. Ferguson" 1896, which allowed state laws requiring "separate but equal" facilities in railway cars for blacks and whites.

Governor Orval Eugene Faubus of Arkansas used the Arkansas National Guard to prevent school integration at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, and Governors Ross Barnett of Mississippi and George Wallace of Alabama physically blocked school doorways at their respective states' universities. E.H. Hurst, a Mississippi state representative, stalked and killed a black farmer for attending voter registration classes. Birmingham's public safety commissioner Eugene T. "Bull" Connor advocated violence against freedom riders and ordered fire hoses and police dogs turned on demonstrators. Sheriff Jim Clark of Dallas County, Alabama, loosed his deputies on "Bloody Sunday" marchers and personally menaced other protesters. Police all across the South arrested civil rights activists on trumped-up charges. All-white juries in several states acquitted known killers of local African Americans.

Civil rights organizations

Although they had white supporters and sympathizers, the modern civil rights movement was designed, led, organized, and manned by African Americans, who placed themselves and their families on the front lines in the struggle for freedom. Their heroism was brought home to every American through newspaper, and later, television reports as their peaceful marches and demonstrations were violently attacked by law enforcement. Officers used batons, bullwhips, fire hoses, police dogs, and mass arrests to intimidate the protesters. The second characteristic of the movement is that it was not monolithic, led by one or two men. Rather it was a dispersed, grass-roots campaign that attacked segregation in many different places using many different tactics.

While some groups and individuals within the civil rights movement—such as Malcolm X—advocated Black Power, black separatism, or even armed resistance, the majority of participants remained committed to the principles of nonviolence, a deliberate decision by an oppressed minority to abstain from violence for political gain. Using nonviolent strategies, civil rights activists took advantage of emerging national network-news reporting, especially television, to capture national attention and the attention of Congress and the White House.

The leadership role of black churches in the movement was a natural extension of their structure and function. They offered members an opportunity to exercise roles denied them in society. Throughout history, the black church served as a place of worship and also as a community "bulletin board," a credit union, a "people's court" to solve disputes, a support group, and a center of political activism. These and other functions enhanced the importance of the minister. The most prominent clergyman in the civil rights movement was Martin Luther King, Jr. Time magazine's 1964 "Man of the Year" was a man of the people. His tireless personal commitment to black freedom and his strong leadership won him worldwide acclaim and the Nobel Peace Prize.

Students and seminarians in both the South and the North played key roles in every phase of the civil rights movement. Church and student-led movements developed their own organizational and sustaining structures. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded in 1957, coordinated and raised funds, mostly from northern sources, for local protests and for the training of black leaders. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, founded in 1957, developed the "jail-no-bail" strategy. SNCC's role was to develop and link sit-in campaigns and to help organize freedom rides, voter registration drives, and other protest activities. These three new groups often joined forces with existing organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), founded in 1942, and the National Urban League. The NAACP and its Director, Roy Wilkins, provided legal counsel for jailed demonstrators, helped raise bail, and continued to test segregation and discrimination in the courts as it had been doing for half a century. CORE initiated the 1961 Freedom Rides which involved many SNCC members, and CORE's leader James Farmer later became executive secretary of SNCC.

The administration of President John F. Kennedy supported enforcement of desegregation in schools and public facilities. Attorney General Robert Kennedy brought more than 50 lawsuits in four states to secure black Americans' right to vote. However, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, concerned about possible communist influence in the civil rights movement and personally antagonistic to Martin Luther King Jr., used the FBI to discredit King and other civil rights leaders. Hoover's COINTELPRO program aimed at disrupting dissident political organizations through propaganda, infiltrators, assassination and arrests. The civil rights movement was one of its primary targets.

Kennedy administration

Kennedy was president for only about 1,000 days. This brief tenure was marked by such notable events as the acceleration of the United States' role in the space race; the beginning of the escalation of the American role in the Vietnam War; the Cuban missile crisis; the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba—events that aggravated the Cold War with the USSR; attack of the Freedom Rides; mob violence directed at James Meredith during the integration of the University of Mississippi; the jailing of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Birmingham campaign; and the appointment of his brother Robert F. Kennedy to his Cabinet as Attorney General.

President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald, apprehended for the crime, was fatally shot by Jack Ruby before he could be formally charged or brought to trial. Four days after Kennedy and Oswald were killed, President Lyndon Johnson created the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination.

After Kennedy's assassination, Johnson served out the remainder of the term in a manner he felt was consistent with Kennedy's agenda. He convinced Kennedy's cabinet to serve out the rest of the term, including Robert Kennedy (despite the acrimonious relationship between Johnson and Kennedy). He also used his considerable political savvy to ensure passage the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These actions allowed Johnson to easily win the 1964 presidential election.


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