A Clean Break With The Past

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In terms of inner change, of change in American attitudes and American values, these last five years have surely been the crucial ones in the quarter century since V-J Day. And these changes, which I propose to examine here as cheerfully as possible, seem of such a magnitude that every American except the very young, the very empty, and the very enclosed must now, to some extent, feel himself a foreigner in his native land.

Better than statistics, as a starting point for a study of moods, are words. The 1947 Britannica Book of the Year gave a list of words that, according to its authorities, “became prominent or were seemingly used for the first time” in either 1945 or 1946. Predictably enough, some of the listed words were of only ephemeral usefulness and have vanished without leaving a trace; for example, athodyd (a ramjet engine), cuddle seat (a contrivance for carrying small children, both word and device introduced by Australian war brides), and Huff-Duff (a navigation aid for ships and planes that was quickly superseded). But a surprising number of the new coinages survive, and a listing of some of them gives a remarkable picture of the preoccupations of the time: atomic cloud, be-bop, buyers’strike, existentialism, fact finder (as in a labor dispute), fissionable, gray market, iron curtain, operation (as in Operation This-or-That), push-button (as a metaphorical adjective), shock wave, sitter (for babysitter), truth serum, U.N., UNESCO .

Fact finder, fissionable, sitter: talismans of the time, casting strange shafts of light into the future. It was a time of getting settled. That, of course, meant more than veterans coming home; it also meant industrial workers demanding the raises that had been deferred by wartime controls, and therefore strikes. In November, 1945, there began a series of crippling strikes in key industries. Meanwhile, as the government vacillated on price controls, meat disappeared from grocery shelves for days at a time because of speculative withholding by suppliers. None of these inconveniences held back the business of nest building. The year 1946 stands out as the all-time record year for marriages in the nation’s history, not only relative to population but in absolute numbers—2,291,000 marriages all told, or almost 700,000 more than in 1945, and almost twice as many as there had been in the deep Depression years before the war. The first nest in 1946 was usually an apartment rather than a house ; material shortages held up the beginning of the great postwar home-building boom, but even so, construction of one-family dwellings tripled between 1945 and 1946. And whatever their nature, the new nests were quickly fruitful. The national birth rate went up 20 per cent in 1946 over 1945 (that November, New York City actually ran out of birth certificates) and another 10 per cent in 1947 over 1946, as the celebrated postwar baby boom got under way.

So the ex-serviceman, in college on the GI Bill, with his pregnant wife struggling to make a palatable dinner on short meat rations in their barracks apartment, was earnestly trying to sop up the knowledge that would get him a civilian job, with no thought farther from his mind than questioning, much less protesting against, the social framework or the institution in which he worked. Nest-building time is not a time for rebellion. Also in 1946 the government was paring back its budget from 1945’s one hundred billion to sixty billion dollars, and the next year it would spend less than forty billion; the infant United Nations was trying out its unsteady legs at the optimistically named Lake Success on Long Island; there were four lynchings in the South; the Bikini bomb tests were appalling us, and the Cold War was taking shape; radio was still the great national diversion, with Jack Benny first in the Hooperatings, Fibber McGee and Molly second, and—incredible as it now seems —Amos ’n Andy seventh. And while all these quaint happenings were in process, the word existentialism was coming into the American language.

Of such was the nest-building mood, the nation’s first in the postwar period. There have been five more since then that I can distinguish: the Korean-war mood, the McCarthy mood, the Eisenhower-prosperity mood, the Kennedy go-go mood, and finally the present one of paralysis, gloom, and reappraisal.