- Historic Sites
Have Americans slid backward since the sunny, prosperous years after World War II, as so many feel? To find out, an English-born historian compares our recent past with earlier times, and in the process learns something about our likely course into the next century.
February/March 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 1
There have been plenty of periods in American history when GNP growth was similar to what it was in the 1950s and 1960s. The 1980s, if you measure in terms of GNP growth, was a very prosperous decade, as is the 1990s. What was novel about the postwar era was not only a sustained economic expansion that lasted for the better part of thirty years—which was unique in American history—but the social cohesion that accompanied it. Now, I suppose I have to respond to the predictable objections that center on one, McCarthyism and two, racial contention. Okay, this wasn’t a Utopia. But it was a period in which more Americans lived more like one another than ever before, because there was virtually no immigration. It was a period in which the population was much more evenly dispersed than it had ever been. It was a period in which there was a common external enemy, which has been rare in American history.
I’ve never argued that this was a placid time. Twenty-seven million people leave the farms and the cities and move to the suburbs, and there’s enormous demographic change; people move from one part of the country to another in huge numbers, first West and later South. White people move into the South; black people move out of the South. Something as simple as conscription is an extraordinary jolt to the system. Young men are yanked away from their family and friends for two years in a way that has never happened before in any sustained peacetime period. But almost everyone thinks of it as a relatively quiescent period, and it was—which suggests that sustained economic growth was one factor that provided the social cohesion that got the United States through a period that would otherwise have been extremely tumultuous. So the social changes and the economic changes were intimately linked.
You just mentioned the Army. Historians have argued that the European mass armies served as integrating institutions during the stresses of industrialization; the nineteenth-century French phrase was “The Army is the school of the nation.” Did compulsory military service have that effect in postwar America?
Absolutely. First of all, wartime has that effect. One of the great cultural clichés of World War II—and like all the best clichés, it is largely true—was that people from very different backgrounds were jumbled together. Armed forces aren’t democracies, but they can be melting pots, and the fact that nearly every young man served the colors in that period made for national cohesion, just as the wartime victories made for national pride. Both the pride and the mass army long outlasted the war itself, as did the melting.
Also, I am impressed every time I go back and look at the impact of the GI Bill in those years—not simply because it kicked the economy up to a completely different productive level by giving millions and millions of young men greater skills than they had had earlier, though it certainly did that, but also because it created an environment in which people from all kinds of social classes could for a few years enjoy the same experiences.
The creation of a new common culture was also the work of broadcast television, which became the great postwar mass cultural phenomenon, so that everyone watched “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners.” Add on top of all this a sense of external threat from international communism and the Soviet Union, and on top of that a virtual absence of any substantial immigration, and now you have the conditions under which unprecedented national cohesion can be expected to flower.
But if the greatest integrators in America are exactly what you say—television and the instruments of the mass culture—surely those are still with us. Many people think they’re homogenizing the culture more and more thoroughly.
There’s a big difference between television as it was in the 1950s, when three networks defined the agenda, whether it was social, cultural entertainment, comedy, or political, and the situation that we have now, where there is a plethora of electronic media voices, both within and beyond television. I remember watching a tape of a Rolling Stone interview with Michael Bloomfield, the great Chicago guitarist who played with Paul Butterfield, shortly before he died. He said, “We all listened to the radio; black kids in Chicago listened to the same radio station as white kids, so when Paul and I, white Jewish kids from the suburbs, went down to the South Side, we all knew what to do.” That’s inconceivable now. Today you couldn’t possibly create the conditions in which people have precisely the same cultural references. Some people would be listening to the radio in Spanish, some people would be listening to it in Chinese.
Are you sure? Marketing data show that gangsta rap is largely consumed by middle-class white adolescents in suburbs. Cultural homogenization is still going strong.
I don’t want to over-egg the pudding, as they would say in Britain. There are still extraordinarily strong common cultural reference points in America. But the current situation does put less pressure on minority cultures to assimilate.
What about people’s earnings? Did the golden age see a narrowing between wage levels?