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Lecture: The Early Cold War and the 1950s


Early Cold War

The Fifites




The Early Cold War

Document: Photo of Bikini Island H-Bomb Test Bravo (1955)

Origins During WWII

As I mentioned in the last lecture, Roosevelt, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union were in charge of planning Allied strategy. The fourth member should have been Charles deGaulle of France. But since France was occupied by the Nazis, deGaulle was directing the French Resistance (also known as the French Underground) to undermine Nazi control. He could not show his face in public in occupied territory, so was left out of strategy planning.

Winston Churchill of Britain was a historian, a far-seeing man during his second world war. He feared Stalin and the power of Soviet Communism, and was concerned that Stalin's ultimate plan was for the global domination of communism through Soviet military expansion. As it turned out, he was right, but no one knew that at the time.

Stalin didn't trust Churchill either. Great Britain commanded one of the largest capitalist empires in the world, and had a history (as did the U.S.) of wanting everyone to have a free-market economy (connected to Britain, of course) and a republican system of government. He was concerned that the ultimate plan of Britain and the U.S. was to expand their trading influence and promote capitalistic republics worldwide. He was right too. "Big Three: Stalin, FDR, Churchill"

At planning meetings, Churchill and Stalin rarely sat next to each other. There are very few photos that show the "Big Three" (as they were called) without Roosevelt in the middle. This was more than just a seating preference. Despite his own goals for the war, Franklin Roosevelt frequently found himself in the position of arbitrator and mediator between Churchill and Stalin. This is important to understanding the strategy that developed during the war, and why it provided a foundation for the Cold War.

Shortly after Pearl, the differences between British, American and Soviet strategy became clear. The British wanted to attack the Nazis and Italians at their weak points, wearing them down as they headed closer to the center of power, Berlin. The American military wanted to head straight for Berlin and bomb the hell out of them. The Soviets wanted a second front in France opened immediately, perceiving that Germany would be quickly weakened (and Soviet lives saved) if Germany had to fight on two fronts.

The Soviet perspective was well known. There was a joke that Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov only knew three English words: "yes", "no", and "second front".

But the U.S. had taken a long time to enter the war, and British casualties had been extreme too. When Churchill wanted the first move to be the recapture of North Africa, FDR agreed. Opening North Africa would prevent Italian and Nazi expansion on that continent, and open up a waterway to the USSR so aid could be shipped. Stalin was angry, demanding that the British and Americans land immediately in France and open up the second front. He was overruled, two against one.

After North Africa was secured, Churchill had wanted Italy to be next. Stalin again demanded France. FDR again sided with Churchill. The American military was frustrated, wanting to head for Berlin. Italy took much longer than anticipated, although Mussolini himself was eventually captured and killed by Italians trying to overthrow him.

Next Churchill wanted the Balkans. What he was trying to do was occupy Eastern Europe, circling around to Berlin so that Soviet troops couldn't dominate the east by themselves. But by now Stalin had been put off twice. FDR had a dream for a United Nations in which the Soviets would play a part, preventing future war between communists and capitalists. If the Soviets weren't treated with respect now, there would be trouble later. It's easy to see his point of view (I would have decided the same way). So D-Day was planned: the invasion of Normandy, France, by combined British and American troops, which would then head for Berlin. This took place in 1944, and the Soviets headed toward Berlin from the east at the same time, crushing Germany. "Germany Map"

As they made their way westward, the Soviets discovered the Nazi death camps, and liberated survivors. They were horrified by what they saw. So were Americans and British viewing the fewer concentration camps west of Berlin. But the fact is that most survivors in eastern Europe were rescued by Russian troops. Berlin fell, and the Allies occupied Germany and Berlin. Germany was divided into four sectors: British, French, American, and Soviet. Berlin was in the middle of the Soviet sector, and the Allies agreed to subdivide the city itself into British, French, American, and Soviet sectors too. No walls were built, but each part of the city was under the control of different occupying troops.

The democratic allies wanted Soviet troops to evacuate eastern Europe after the war and establish republican government. But Stalin instead encouraged the communist parties of each eastern European country to take over. With Soviet assistance, the local communist parties came into power all over eastern Europe, and Churchill made his famous speech about an "Iron Curtain" descending. It was nice of him not to point out that if his plan for the Balkans had been followed, Soviet troops would not have been in a position to pull down that curtain.

A Chronology of the Cold War

Usually, memorizing dates and chronology is not that important so long as you understand the sequence, the cause and effect of what takes place. The Cold War is an exception, since events follow each other very quickly. Departing completely from the pattern in order to demonstrate to you the flow of Cold War events, I'm going to write about all major events from 1945 into the 1960s, when the character of the Cold War really changes.

The atomic bomb, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, left the U.S. at the forefront of the new "arms race". Some have suggested this was one reason for using it, so that the world (especially the Soviets) would know that the U.S. was on top. Certainly Truman tried to threaten Stalin with it at the Potsdam Conference, even before he knew what it could do. Other reasons, of course, included not having to undergo American losses with an invasion of Japan (since the Japanese fought to the last man on every square inch of territory, causing unexpectedly large body counts in the Pacific), and testing the new toys. None of which, frankly, I've ever found a good excuse for annihilating two cities, and inadvertently causing massive amounts of radiation sickness and death from people having their eyes fry and skin fall off. But that's just my opinion.... again..

1945-1949: The U.N. to the Soviet Bomb

"U.N." In April 1945, the United Nations was founded in San Francisco, with the intention that its location be in the U.S. so that America would have to always be a member. The first hope was that the U.N. would take charge of disarmament. Since only the U.S. had the atomic bomb, this was a touchy subject. The Baruch Plan proposed that the U.N. take over all disarmament activity, with international investigations to ensure that no country built atomic weapons. This would effectively have frozen the situation with the U.S. being the only country with the knowledge of how to make an a-bomb. Unacceptable to the Soviets, the Baruch Plan was vetoed in the Security Council.

Understanding the Security Council is important to understanding the Cold War. The U.N. consists of a General Assembly, where each member state has one vote. But the Security Council can take any issue involving international security (such as potential war, embargo, etc.) and make it their own. The five permanent members of the Security Council have veto power; these are the victors of the war -- the U.S., the Soviet Union, (Republican) China, France, and Great Britain. The other members rotate from the General Assembly.

Although it had been hoped that the U.N. could act in international interests, it quickly became obvious that the U.S. and the USSR would use their veto power against each other, and that the Cold War would dominate the U.N. If the western republics wanted Stalin to remove support for communist governments in eastern Europe, for example (and they did), the USSR could simply veto the measure.

In 1946, it became apparent that Europe was in deep trouble economically. The destruction of the war had led to severe post-war depression, and many of these countries had not been doing well since 1929. As a result, left-wing solutions became popular, and with fascism discredited the communists started to look good. Although the U.S. had feared that Soviet military aggression would make Europe communist, it looked like Europe was going communist all by itself, voting radicals into office in all the republics.

To protect our trading partners and prevent the spread of Soviet Communism, the Marshall Plan was offered to Europe in 1947. Western Europe accepted $13 billion. Eastern Europe rejected"Marshall Plan goods" the offer as an attempt by the U.S. to buy with money what it could not earn with philosophy. Certainly the communists had a point: capitalism, unlike communism, is not a very sociable philosophy. It's based on competition and winner-take-all, not helping each other in troubled times. That's why so many people were voting communist and socialist after the war. The only chance for capitalism to succeed in this environment is if good times returned. Money ensured that good times returned. Thus the Marshall Plan, while it helped western Europe recover economically, proved to the Soviets that the U.S. would buy what it could not win (which is what communists had accused us of doing all along).

Document: George C. Marshall: The Marshall Plan (1947)


With West Germany receiving Marshall Plan money, East Germany remained poor and thus so did East Berlin. This became intolerable: East Berliners could look across the street and see prosperity. The Soviets blockaded in 1948, preventing all surface access to West Germany. The U.S. responded with the Berlin Airlift, flying all supplies into West Berlin until the Soviets stopped the blockade. (See the US Air Force's website on the Berlin airlift.)

1949 was truly a watershed year in the Cold War. Air samples from Soviet airspace showed that the Soviets had detonated their first atomic weapon, years ahead of schedule. Someone must have sold them the secrets; a "red hunt" ensued against all suspected U.S. communists, and some spies were discovered. With the Soviets having the bomb, the U.S. no longer had a monopoly on global destruction. Also in 1949, we "lost China" to Communists. This was the perspective of many Americans, who had counted on our government's financial support of Republican Chinese troops to prevent such an occurence. The government even had to publish a paper explaining why no amount of money could have stopped Mao Zedong's successful takeover.

This was because the war of the Chinese Communists against the Republican government had been going on since the early 1930s. It had just been interrupted by World War II, which had made it necessary for both sides to fight the Japanese. With the Japanese gone in 1945, the war had resumed. For 15 years, the communists had been working among the peasants, fomenting a popular revolution that had to succeed. But to Americans, the map of the world was "turning red".

Lastly, 1949 was the year the U.S. created NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization). NATO was made up ostensibly of all the republican nations bordering the north Atlantic, but since it also included Turkey and West Germany, everyone could see it was an alliance against communism. The alliance said that an attack on any country in NATO was an attack on every country in NATO. So if Portugal got bombed, the U.S. was at war. The problem with NATO was that it was a violation of the United Nations charter, which forbids any defensive alliances that might pull countries into another world war. Some American isolationists weren't happy that we were members of the U.N., much less NATO. There is a sign on Gopher Canyon Road in Fallbrook (and one on Union Avenue in Bakersfield) saying, "Get US out of the U.N."

Korean War to the Warsaw Pact

"Tank"Certainly we got into another war right away. Korea had been a country occupied by the Japanese early in the war. They had attempted to erase Korean culture, forcing the adoption of Japanese names and the use of the Japanese language. At the very end of the war, Soviet troops had invaded Korea from the north. This had been a token expression of Soviet Allied support in Asia (the Soviet Union throughout the war had a secret treaty with Japan saying they would not attack, to avoid both parties fighting on two fronts). It was obvious Japan was losing, so the USSR finally lent a hand. American troops had already landed in the south, and the two Allied groups met in the middle. Like in eastern Europe, this meant that half the enemy had surrendered to the Russians, and half to the Americans.

In the north, the Soviets supported the establishment of the large Korean communist party as the government, and pulled out its troops. In the south, the U.S. wanted a republican government, but no one knew how to do it, so the troops had to stay. A divided Korea resulted, which the U.N. had partitioned into North Korea (not a member of the UN, even today) and South Korea (a member). In 1950, the North Korean government decided to reunify their country, and invaded South Korea.

President Truman wanted to stop them, but it was unlikely that he could get Congress to vote for war. So he decided to go to the U.N. instead, to create an international force. The U.N. charter calls for a standing permanent army, with people from all member nations. In fact, this has never been created, with the result that whichever countries are interested in a particular U.N. action create their own army under the U.N. auspices. Obviously, the Soviets would be prepared to veto any interference in Korea in the Security Council. "Korea Memorial"

But the Soviets were boycotting one meeting of the Council, because the U.N. had refused to allow Communist China to take over the seat held by Republican China (which had lost the war and was in exile in Taiwan). The U.S. brought up the Korean operation at the one session where the Soviets weren't there, so no one vetoed it. The Soviets never again missed a session.

Mostly Americans went to Korea; for many of them it was their second war in five years. They were at first successful under MacArthur's leadership, and easily pushed the North Koreans out of South Korea. But then MacArthur decided to continue into North Korea, to unify Korea under republican government, and Truman did nothing to stop him. Despite warning signs that the Chinese army was massing along the North Korean border, MacArthur didn't stop. 300,000 Chinese troops poured into North Korea, and chased the U.N. troops back to a little zone in the southern tip called the Pusan Perimeter. Reinforcements pushed the Chinese back to the original border between North and South. MacArthur wanted to drop the bomb on the Chinese and fight China; Truman said no and fired MacArthur. Many more men fought and died while the combatants sat around the peace table, arguing for three years who should sit in which seat. In 1953, the border was almost the same as it had been when the war started.

Hungary to the Cuban Missile Crisis

1953 was the same year that Stalin died in the Soviet Union. The communist leadership changed toward those who wanted reforms, what came to be called "de-Stalinization". Nikita Khrushchev took over, denouncing Stalin's murder of loyal Communist Party members and collaboration with Hitler before the war. Khrushschev wanted "peaceful coexistence" with the west, while at the same time persuading nations in Africa and Asia to adopt Soviet communism. In 1955, the USSR cemented the Warsaw Pact, a communist response to NATO. The Warsaw Pact was the alliance of all communist bloc nations; an attack on one was considered an attack on all. Partly this was to show the world that the Soviets would protect against any attempt to interfere in eastern Europe.

Some countries behind the Iron Curtain got overly enthusiastic about the change. Poland was able to skillfully gain some freedoms without alienating the USSR. Hungary, however, tried to install a liberal reformer (still a communist), eject Soviet troops, renounce the military alliance with the Soviets, and call for free elections. Soviet tanks rolled in and crushed the revolution in 1956. Americans responded with fear that the Soviets were getting out of hand.

In Germany, the "hole in the Iron Curtain" was leaking. You remember how Germany was divided after the war? People from eastern bloc nations could travel to East Germany, enter East Berlin, cross the street to West Berlin, and leave for the west by air or rail. By 1961, this had become a habit, a "brain drain" as all of eastern Europe's best scientists and thinkers left for university jobs in the west. The East German government decided to build a wall to prevent East Berliners from crossing into West Berlin. The Berlin Wall went up literally over night, separating families and causing many to risk shooting and injury crossing barbed wire before the wall was complete. The U.S. government decided not to start World War III over Berlin, although for several tense days East German tanks faced American tanks across the space where the Wall was being built. The Wall became a visible symbol of the Cold War, guarded heavily with document checks at the gates.

Then it was discovered that the Soviets were involved in Cuba, a country that had recently gone communist under Fidel Castro. A futile and embarrassing attempt was made to "liberate" Cuba in 1961, when CIA-trained Cuban exiles attempted to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. In 1962, an American U-2 spy plane flying a routine mission over Cuba photographed missile platforms being set up by the Soviets. At this time, there were not yet ICBMs, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that could hit the U.S. from the Soviet Union. Medium-range and intermediate-range missiles were cheaper anyway; we had set some up in Turkey (so that's why they're part of NATO) pointed at Moscow. The Soviets wanted some in Cuba pointed at Washington. When President Kennedy asked Khrushchev about the platforms, he was told they were for SAM's (surface-to-air missiles) for Cuba's defense. But the photos clearly showed that they were for large missiles, surrounded by SAMs.

Kennedy and his advisors decided to set up a quarantine, stopping and examining any Soviet ships entering Cuban waters for missile parts. The world waited, holding its breath as the first Soviet ship approached the quarantine line. If the ship had run the blockade, World War III might have begun in the Caribbean. But the ships stopped, and turned back as they were instructed. At the same time, however, construction was continuing on the missile platforms, and it's very likely Cuba already had enough to attack the U.S. Americans bit off all their fingernails with this one, but in the end Khrushchev backed down and pulled out the missiles, a move that saved the world but cost him his career.

1964 onward

From 1964, the Cold War was something everyone knew about as a background to American life. No one built bomb shelters anymore like they had in the 50's; the arsenals of a-bombs and h-bombs had become so large and potentially destructive they were beyond anyone's comprehension. Vietnam would be an issue beginning in 1965, and it would be another failed attempt to stop the spread of communism.

Popular culture reflected the Cold War as a sort of on-going obsession; even comedy took a stab at it from time to time:

"War Songs"

Although this performance dates from 1965, Tom Lehrer started writing parody songs in college during the 50s, and attained a cult following. This one, which focuses on World War III, provides an excellent perspective on cold war satire.  Lyrics

Red-hunting versus Civil Rights

You have read about McCarthyism in the 50's; there's just a couple of things I need to add.

Be sure you know your Senators from your Representatives. Joseph McCarthy was a Senator from Wisconsin. He conducted the Senate hearings that investigated the State Department and the Army for communists during the Korean War. HUAC is the House Un-American Activities Committee, run by the House of Representatives. They were the ones who went gunning for reds in Hollywood.

Yes, there were real communists in Hollywood, and they felt they should be permitted to be communists under the Bill of Rights. But the Smith Act, passed in 1940 before U.S. entrance into the war, had extended the powers of the old Espionage Act. It made it a crime to, according to historian Howard Zinn, "advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence, or to join any group that advocated this, or to publish anything with such ideas". The Smith Act effectively made any Communist Party affiliations illegal, although the party itself was not outlawed. Arrests could be made for distributing Marxist-Leninist literature, such as the 1848 Communist Manifesto; the leaders of the American Communist Party were put in prison, and most of its organizers went underground.

HUAC questioned anyone suspected of being a communist, and many Representatives participated because it gave them great publicity. They encouraged interviewees to "name names", tell the committee the names of people they knew or suspected of being communists. Some (like the Hollywood Ten) "pled the Fifth", refusing to testify against themselves under protection of the Fifth Amendment. Author Lillian Hellman said, "I refuse to cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion". Those objecting to the committee were very well spoken; Albert Maltz is an example. As you read his testimony, think to yourself:

Document: Albert Maltz: Testimoney Before HUAC (1947)


Even liberal politicians supported the anti-communist crusade, including President Truman, who authorized the Justice Department to conduct intrusive investigations into people's private lives. The fear of communism, and the willingness to allow almost any actions to prevent it, reached unbelievable proportions. President Truman did, however, veto the Internal Security Act of 1950).

Document: Harry S. Truman: Veto of the Internal Security Act (1950)


Even the American Civil Liberties Union expelled one of its charter members, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, for being a member of the Communist party, and refused to defend its own board members when they were attacked. It even avoided participation in the Rosenberg case, when many (including Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Einstein, and the sister of Vanzetti) supported the Rosenbergs.

Pop Culture: Shelters, Body Snatchers, Trends in Jazz

But people built bomb shelters in their backyard. Bill Moyers, in his television series A Walk Through the 20th Century tells of the college classes his wife had to take. She spent an entire semester's class in nutrition planning how to feed the entire state of Texas in the event of nuclear attack. The government, Moyers said, wanted to keep Americans walking the fine line between panic and complacency. "Body Snatcher Poster"

It's hard to imagine how far it went. Even Thomas Jefferson, the third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, was declared inappropriate reading (he wrote things like, "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing") and pulled from school libraries. Popular magazines ran articles on how to tell if a co-worker was a communist. Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer enjoyed killing "commies". Air raid drills were held in school: get under the desk, cover your head, don't look toward the window. Movies were made like, "I Married a Communist". Massive military spending was justified, although it was later discovered that there had been no "missile gap", that the U.S. was way ahead in the military stockpile game.

One of the most popular films of the time was the science-fiction classic, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers".

Although seemingly not similar to the heavy-handed anti-

commie films of the time, which weren't at all popular, this film was nevertheless about the fear of communism. In the movie, aliens come from outer space in plant pods. As the pods mature, they grow into exact replicas of the individuals they are near, killing the real people when they mature to replace them. It's impossible to tell who is and who isn't an alien (read: communist). They take over the entire community; no one is safe. Click on the image on the right to see the film clip.

In general, movies about aliens taking over became very popular during this time, and I think you can see parallels even today. We make films about what we're afraid of, especially science fiction movies. Then it was communism, now it's disease, or other disasters perceived of as beyond human control.

As a break from Cold War culture, I want to note the maturity of jazz during this era as a musical form, with such performers as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie "Bird" Parker, and Sarah Vaughan. Notice the level of sophistication compared to earlier examples of jazz.


This is a composition entitled "Dizzy Atmosphere", written and performed by Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), with Charlie Parker (one of the greatest saxophonists). These musicians are part of the be-bop tradition.

"Torch Song"

The torch song gained popularity in the 30s and 40s with Billie Holiday and other blues and jazz singers. Torch songs are sentimental ballads of unrequited love, often sung in a sensual manner. Vaughan was known for her excellent range (she could have sung opera) and controlled technique. This number, "Loverman (Oh, Where Can You Be?)" was sung with the Dizzy Gillespie quintet in 1945.  Lyrics

The Fifties

Not everyone conformed, including the Beats. Document: Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Dog (1958) (audio by the poet himself)


The Cult of Conformity

There is a parallel here to the attempt to return to "normalcy" in the 1920s after World War I, but with an important difference. In many ways, 1920s society evolved into a freer and more independent form. But the Cold War gave post-World War II America a different feel, more shadowed by fear of the bomb and communism than frantically desperate. "Poster: You're Not Just One of a Crowd"

The retreat was into conformity, particularly in the white middle class that dominated 50's culture. Men were expected to attend college, especially men who had served in the war and were covered by the G.I. Bill. They wanted to marry women who were glamorous, sophisticated, but dedicated to them and to raising children in a well-kept suburban home. The baby boom was a phenomenon, as families with two or three children raised by an at-home mother became the norm. Father became an "organization man", trying to climb the career ladder in business: the image was going from being a mail clerk to being president of the company.

Anti-communism was the backbone of the conformity trend. Despite the counterculture represented by individualists like the Beats, the mainstream was unconsciously developing a culture emphasizing the similarity of all good Americans. It's ironic that in an effort to resist communism, seen as the ultimate in having one's ideas controlled by others, a culture was created in which one's image and expectations were set by others. "Family in Bomb Shelter"

Trends came and went. At first it was trendy to have a bomb shelter in your backyard, then it was trendy to disdain shelters. It was trendy throughout the fifties for men to smoke cigarettes at work and drink hard liquor after work. Evenings spent as a family in front of the television were considered "quality time". But most social trends were not questioned. It was expected that the husband would go to work and the wife would stay home, and that both would find fulfillment in these roles.

Women and the "Back to Home" Movement

You'll recall that 80% of women said they would have liked to have kept their war-time jobs if it had been possible. But they all realized it was not possible; they had to return to the home so that the returning G.I.'s would have jobs to come back to. Fashion reflected the change of role. But then, it always does reflect the role of women in a culture, so let's start with a lesson in the history of fashion. "Woman in 19th c. Dress"

When we began the course, in Victorian times, women wore constricting clothing that covered them from neck to toe. It was considered indecent to view a woman's arm or leg (they called them "limbs"), so under the skirts women wore petticoats and bloomers, plus stockings and high-top shoes. The hourglass figure was emphasized, even to the extent of requiring corsets to force in the waist (some women had their lower rib removed for comfort) and large hoops under the skirt. I have noticed that in times of restrictions on women's roles and sexuality, the hourglass figure is culturally accepted. It's as if the women's fertility is being emphasized, and freedom of movement is secondary to this image. "Woman in Flapper Dress"

In the 1920s, the flappers shocked everyone with their makeup, knee-length dresses with no waist, and exposure of legs and arms. The boyish figure became the fad. Not coincidently, the 20's was a time of votes for women and the understanding of a female sex drive. During the 30's, when women took on a matriarchal role, the looseness of the dresses persisted so they could move easily. In the 40's, the uniform look dominated, and the slim skirt was restrictive, so women in factory work wore pants (called slacks, first worn in public persistently by actress Katherine Hepburn). Again, this reflects the role of women as wage-earners, people of social importance. "Christian Dior Model"

But in the 50's, the New Look (introduced by Parisian designer Christian Dior in 1947) was all the rage. It featured a slimmer jacket on top, with a pinched in waist and huge voluminous skirts, plus high heels. Obviously as much of a fertility symbol as you could get, with the shape forced by girdles. Women loved the new style, particularly the large skirt representing freedom from rationing and shortages. Makeup was popular (during the war, women had to refill their metal lipstick cases), and companies simply couldn't produce nylon stockings fast enough (during the war, women had drawn a seam on their legs because no stockings were being made and it was considered a sign of poverty not to wear them). Pants returned in the form of "pedal pushers" by the mid-50s, but mostly for celebrities and the younger set. "Naughty Picture"

Even among women who were not "respectable", the shape of fertility was featured. Before there was Penthouse and Playboy magazines, there were pin-ups, "naughty" posters of half-dressed women. During the war, pin-ups were pretty tame and featured the likes of Betty Grable showing her famous legs to the boys overseas. During the 50's, they became much more risqué. But, like homosexuality, it was considered a "no-no" to want to look at pictures of half-naked women, or to express any sexual desires other than that for one's spouse. The repression of sexuality during this time was what led to the shock at Elvis' sexy hip motions, and the desire of teens to become sexually active. "Woman in Kitchen"

At home, many women had conveniences they had never had before. The massive consumer production following the war led to the creation of mass production housing, and unbelievable varieties in shoes, clothing, kitchen appliances, and cars.

Everybody wanted to spend money and enjoy "the good life". You wanted a home of your own, the car in the Ford or GM line you could afford (on credit), a backyard barbeque, and every possible homey comfort. Dishwashers, rotisseries, blenders, electric knife sharpeners and can openers dominated the kitchen.

Women were expected to be expert in each appliance, and to prepare nutritious (in the 50's, that meant Minute Rice) meals for their family three times a day. A wife was the sole childcare while hubby was at work, and Dr. Mom when her family was ill. She cleaned and cooked and did laundry to create a comfortable environment for her man to come home to. After work, he would find a drink handed to him by a wife dressed impeccably, followed by dinner and the opportunity to kiss his freshly-bathed children before they went to bed at 8.

Document: Ad: All detergent (1957)


Well, some women, mysteriously enough, did not find this lifestyle satisfying, but the cult of conformity did not permit such expressions of discontentment. Some became ill with complaints that were difficult to diagnose, and many were prescribed tranquilizers for nervous stress, without consciously knowing what was wrong. Betty Friedan called this, "the problem that has no name".

As you read the document, think to yourself:

Document: Betty Friedan: The Feminine Mystique (1963) (audio)


Popular Culture

Pop culture during the 50's was, to a certain extent, based on stereotypes and the shattering of the stereotypes. The more I learn about the 50's, the more I sense a dichotomy to everything: you were either a good girl or you weren't, you were smart or dumb, communist or anti-communism, in or out, hip or square. To a certain extent this reflects a generation gap seen in such cultural representations as "Rebel Without a Cause", but it appears in other areas too.

Movies: Doris and Marilyn

Two of the most popular actresses of the 50's were Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe. "Pillow Talk photo"

Doris Day tended to play a dingy housewife, but she was an excellent actress and was equally good in sophisticated comedies and even thrillers, such as Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. But she is best known for her housewife and romantic comedy roles, but even these show the complexity of the stereotyped female.

In Pillow Talk, Day stars with Rock Hudson, and she's playing a single career woman, an interior decorator (note the connection to female domesticity). She lives in an apartment building and her phone is on a "party line", a line shared with other customers. Her line is shared with a playboy (Rock Hudson) who ties up the line wooing his many women while she needs the phone for business calls. Ultimately, when he meets her he pretends to be a rich, humble Texan cowboy so she won't know who he is. Naturally they fall in love and it all works out. But many of the laughs come from her unique situation as a working woman, not from his as a Lothario.

In this scene from Pillow Talk, Doris Day's character deals with the problems of sharing a party line. Eventually, the two fall in love, but only because Rock Hudson's character disguises his identity when he meets her.

Doris Day's character discovers the deception, unknown to Rock Hudson, who has hired her to redecorate his apartment. In this ending scene from the film, Rock Hudson's character sees his redecorated apartment for the first time.

In most of Day's roles in comedies, her characters remain pure and wholesome, seemingly untainted by real sexuality.


Enjoy this scene from The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn Monroe was a phenomenol screen presence. Her stereotypical role was that of the sex goddess, but it was a role she played to perfection because of her unique combination of innocence and sexuality. Unlike the "vamps" of the 1920s and the "femme fatales" of film noir, where sexuality had a dangerous and dark side, Marilyn's "dumb blonde" act was completely non-threatening to men. The curves of her body were an exaggerated hour-glass that she came by naturally, and she was irresistible.

In most of her movies some man is trying to seduce her; usually he becomes the villain and the man who gets her out of his clutches becomes the hero. Her helplessness in these roles brought out the protective instinct in men; presumably this was needed after years of self-reliant women working in factories (although Marilyn herself had worked as a paint sprayer in a defense plant before she was "discovered"). Despite a natural talent for acting, she was not taken seriously as an actress. She tried to get involved in serious roles, even starting her own production companies, but was discouraged by the industry and by her fans, who loved the sexy blonde act.

The Quiz Show Scandals

"Quiz Show Host" The $64,000 Question was a quiz show, like Jeopardy is today, where the contestants answer questions and compete for prizes. It debuted on CBS television in 1955, and became popular because of the size of the prize and the intensity of the competitors. The show had a lot of suspense, because winners could quit the show at any level of their winnings up to the $64,000. This was tempting, because if a winner decided to go to the next plateau and missed a question, s/he forfeited all winnings up to that point. Questions were kept secret and brought into the studio under armed guard. The show created a craze for trivia, and almost one-third of the country watched the show regularly. Contestants became so famous they were offered jobs and roles in movies. The show's creator became president of CBS. Advertisers made a fortune.

Then, the following year, an imitation show called 21 appeared, using a similar format. On 21, contestants competed against each other directly, and there was an attempt to make it a more intellectual environment. One contestant, Charles van Doren, became very popular because he was intellectual, handsome, and his father and uncle had won Pulitzer Prizes for literature. He defeated Herbert Stempel on the show, and won $129,000 over 14 weeks, then got a job on the Today show talking about academic subjects.

Since the quiz shows emerged, there had been suspicions that they might be rigged. Certainly producers tended to tailor questions either toward or against what they believed to be the knowledge of the player, but Van Doren himself claimed that no questions had been asked that producers knew he knew the answers to. But Stempel, who had been defeated by Doren and had spent the prize money he'd won before the defeat, said he'd been humiliated by the show's producer. Stempel had been encouraged to act like he was lower-class and he wasn't, and he had been coached in every answer and, finally, told to take a dive to Van Doren. A House subcommittee investigation ultimately heard the confession of Van Doren, who had repeatedly denied being involved in any corruption. He testified that he had been permitted to research the answers to questions, and had been told it was necessary because nobody could defeat Stempel although the viewers were bored with him.

Van Doren lost his jobs at NBC and Columbia University, the latter causing a protest on his behalf. Investigators discovered that all but one contestant on both of the popular quiz shoes accepted the money and the deal when they knew the show was fixed. Historian Richard Tedlow believes that the worst crime of the scandals has to do with television, which from the beginning had been a medium without a message. The ultimate betrayal was to try to market intellectualism, when the purpose of television is to sell the products of its advertisers.

I'm not going to tell you, as I did with the Black Sox, that this incident undermined forever Americans' faith in an institution. Television was not an institution yet in 1956; it was just becoming one. Although Van Doren and the producers of a few quiz shows were ruined, the idea that TV should be a moral medium did not develop. And it still hasn't.

Theme Parks

Theme parks can be used as time capsules of the past, a condensation of what middle-class Americans find diverting. Although Coney Island and many other amusement parks were opened during the Progressive era, what I consider to be the first genuine theme park (where each area focuses on a theme) emerged in the 50's Disneyland, the dream of Walt Disney, opened in 1955. It featured Fantasyland (with flat buildings that looked like a stage set), Frontierland (including a steamboat and river rafting), and Tomorrowland, the evolution of which provides a history of the future. Looking at Tomorrowland (indeed, the development of all of Disneyland) provides a snapshot of the 50's, and a hint of what was diverting to Americans from then to now. "Tomorrowland Poster"

Some of the earlier attractions in Tomorrowland included "Adventure Through Inner Space", which took riders on seats through recreations of cell life and made you feel like an amoeba, and "Mission to Mars", which had a capsule seating arrangement and reenacted the fictional takeoff (the seats rumbled), flight, and arrival on Mars, all viewed through round screens above and below. The "Carousel of Progress" was a theatre in the round, which turned to take audiences to different rooms showing families and technology in past, present, and future times. The People-Mover was a slow train on a track, taking people around the park on a system that would, it was promised, one day take us around shopping malls and schools. The Skyway took people in buckets over the park on a string and through Matterhorn mountain, which had the bobsleds as a roller coaster. The "Tiki Room" had mechanical birds singing Polynesian songs. The submarine ride took you on a scientific journey of discovery, a la Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea". All of this implied faith in technology, and the wonder involved in progress created by scientists and technicians.

During the 70's, the Circle-Vision circular movie screen was a hit, showing "America the Beautiful". "Carousel of Progress" became "America Sings", with animatronic animals singing hits from past decades as a musical history. The People-Mover went through movie-screened areas to simulate speed, featuring images from the sci-fi Disney movie, "Tron". "Space Mountain" debuted as a fast roller-coaster in the dark. The "Tiki Room" started selling Dole pineapple spears. The stores in each "land" sold products related to the theme (silver rings at New Orleans Square, African carvings in Adventureland), at good prices. So Disneyland at that time emphasized value during stagflation and escapes into the music of the past and the computer technology of the future.

In the 80's, "Adventure Through Inner Space" gave way to "Star Tours", based on the 1977 movie Star Wars. Instead of being made small, the audience is thrashed around as if on a hyperspace mission to blow up the Death Star (a reflection of our Cold War views of the Evil Empire?). The Circle-Vision screen showed a film on the beauty and mystery of China. Some idiot on "America Sings" was messing around and got smashed as it was turning, so it was closed, and remained dormant for the decade. The Skyway was removed because it was considered dangerous. Fantasyland was made three-dimensional, so it looked like a more "realistic" pretend European fairy village. So Disneyland went "upscale" during the borrowed prosperity of the 80's, reflecting both our ability to acknowledge other cultures selectively (China was communist, after all, although the film emphasized pre-commie culture) and a desire for modern family values.

In recent years, Tomorrowland has undergone complete revision, and now features a large rocket-car ride that's purely for thrills. I recently heard that they plan to remove the "Tiki Room" to make way for a food court. Instead of retaining uniqueness and value, each store now sells Disney-ware (Pooh bears, videotapes). Commercialism and convenience became Disneyland's hallmarks during the 90's, reflecting those ideas as the new cultural diversion. But one attraction has actually gone "back" to the original idea of the 50's: the large carousel building (the original "Carousel of Progress") is now "Innoventions", and features computer technology and how it improves various aspects of our lives. I think Walt would have liked that; it's a very 50s approach to technology.

Broadway Musicals

Broadway musicals had actually come into their own during the 1920s, with "Showboat". Prior to this musical, written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, most stories with music were presented in variety theatre and music halls. The action in the play would often stop for a song (which sometimes had nothing to do with the story). But in the newer musicals that went to Broadway, the songs were intertwined with the story.

Another big difference, especially in musicals where Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyrics, was their willingness to deal with social issues. Many people mistakenly think of musicals as fluffy pageants with inconsequential stories like boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. But part of the "Showboat" story involved the fact that the main female character was half-black, and hiding that fact. The story opens on the Mississippi River, with black people loading and unloading riverboats, and the opening song is a history lesson in itself. According to Bruce Eder in the liner notes for the movie soundtrack, in 1927 the overture began with "Niggers all work on the Mississippi River"; in the 1936 film it was "Darkies all work on the Mississippi"; in the 1946 revival it was "Colored folks work on the Mississippi"; in the 1951 movie they cut the song all together.

During the 50s, the most significant socially relevant musical was "South Pacific", by Hammerstein and Richard Rogers. Based on a story by James Michener about World War II action in the Pacific, the musical featured two story lines, both of which dealt with racism. One involves Nellie Forbush, a U.S. nurse who falls in love with a French planter. When she discovers that he has two bi-racial children from a Polynesian wife who has since died, she is unable to continue the relationship. She is unable to deal with her discomfort about the kids not being white, although she has no idea why she feels this way and is horrified by her own prejudice. The second story line involves an American G.I. who falls in love with a Polynesian girl and wants to marry her, but is aware of the struggle they will face if he brings her home to the States.

In this short song which many wanted Hammerstein to cut from the show (he refused), the French planter and the G.I. have been talking about their troubles with racism. The G.I. sings about how racism and prejudice is taught, rather than being something you're born with. "South Pacific" was one of the longest running musicals on Broadway; its first run lasted from 1949 to 1955.  Lyrics

Music: Latin, Rock'n'Roll and Country Western


During the fifties, a great deal of Latin American influence came into the music of the U.S., particularly from Cuba. For the previous twenty years, jazz musicians had benefited from Cuban folk music, and had developed the mambo. The mambo evolved into the cha cha, which was outrageously popular as a ballroom dance from the late 50s. This one is called "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White".


One of the early practitioners of the form was Chuck Berry. Berry combined his own black cultural influences with a flair for satirical lyrics, and his songs were carefully crafted. This one is "Johnny B. Goode", very popular with teens in 1957. Lyrics



Elvis, of course, was the King. He combined a feel for southern blues with a black sound, even though he was white. Presley himself attributed his sound to the gospel music of the south. "Hound Dog" is one of the early rock'n'roll Presley numbers to hit #1 on the charts.


"Country"Patsy Cline

At the same time as rock'n'roll and Latin music were influencing the music scene, country-western music was becoming popular among mainstreamlisteners. One reason was Patsy Cline, a country singer with a knack for crossing over into the pop charts. "Crazy" was written by Willie Nelson, and was one of his first hits. Although Patsy Cline was initially against recording the song because it seemed to be too weak for her style, eventually she adapted it and made an outstanding recording. It is one of the most enduring country songs, and set the trend for strong female singers in the genre.  Lyrics




All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.