America in the 1950s: “The Best of All Possible Worlds”

  • Van Gosse


Two contrasting narratives sum up the paradox of the 1950s: on the one hand, marvelous consumer abundance and the realization of the “American Dream” for millions of families; on the other, political anxiety and enforced unity, all under the shadow of the Cold War. Two images are often used to represent this incongruity, that of new suburban lawns all over America being dug up to build bomb shelters, and of happy, well-fed children learning to “duck and cover” in their classrooms as a futile protection against Soviet nuclear attack.


Foreign Policy Communist Party Social Revolution Black Vote Liberal Leader 
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A Selected Bibliography

  1. William Chafe, The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) is the best general history of the postwar decades, and is effectively com-plemented by the essays inGoogle Scholar
  2. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930–1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), which demonstrate the particu-lar class character and limitations of the New Deal Coalition as it evolved from the 1930s to the 1960s.Google Scholar
  3. Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) is indispensable to getting at the fragility of Cold War liberalism, and its inability to acknowledge the consequences of both deindustrialization and racial polarization well before the “white backlash” of the 1960s, which has long been used by some journalists and scholars to put the onus for New Right’s electoral success on the supposed excesses of the black freedom movement.Google Scholar
  4. Of course, there is a vast corpus of work examining the Cold War itself. I findGoogle Scholar
  5. Thomas McCormick, America’s Half-Century: United States Foreign Policy in the Cold War and After (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995) most convincing, in his refusal to accept that the anti-Communist (or anti-Soviet) imperative was the central dynamic undergirding the United States’ rise to global domination. On the domestic frontGoogle Scholar
  6. Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988) is the classic study of how a new sexual ideology, intensely familist and pro-natalist, was closely connected to the larger imperatives of the Cold War. A terrific contrast is provided byGoogle Scholar
  7. Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), which examines the political economy, social spaces and ideology of the new world of southern California, and how it birthed a movement opposed to every manifestation of the New Left.Google Scholar
  8. The Red Scare has many chroniclers, but the definitive history isGoogle Scholar
  9. Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyisms in America (Boston: Little Brown, 1998).Google Scholar
  10. David Oshinsky, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (New York: Free Press, 1983) helps one understand McCarthyism itself, and why it was so effective.Google Scholar
  11. Harvey Levenstein, Communism, Anti-Communism, and the CIO (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981) is particularly acute regarding the intense battles within organized labor, andGoogle Scholar
  12. Philip Jenkins, The Cold War at Home: The Red Scare in Pennsylvania (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999) is a model local study.Google Scholar
  13. Norman Markowitz, The Rise and Fall of the People’s Century: Henry A. Wallace and American Liberalism, 1941–1948 (New York: Free Press, 1973) remains invaluable in understanding the disastrous Progressive Party campaign of 1948 and the lost ethos of New Deal leftism. For anyone who wants to explore the depth and complexity of the Popular FrontGoogle Scholar
  14. Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth-Century (London: Verso, 1996) is key.Google Scholar
  15. World War II is more and more understood as a pivot point in American politics, enacting social and demographic (and ideological) shifts that pointed towards the rise of new social movements. Important books which highlight this point of origin includeGoogle Scholar
  16. John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983)Google Scholar
  17. Mario T. Garcia, Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology and Identity, 1930–1960 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989) andGoogle Scholar
  18. Patricia Sullivan, Days of Hope: Race and Democracy in the New Deal Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), as well as Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis, and others listed later.Google Scholar

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© Van Gosse 2005

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  • Van Gosse

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