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THE 1950s

BIG IDEA: The 1950s are remembered as a good time for most Americans. The economy was doing well and people were happy to have new houses, cars, and modern appliances. However, there were underlying problems for some groups who were left out of these happy days, and because happiness also meant conformity.

Most Americans have happy memories of the 1950s. During the 1950s, the economy boomed. Middle class and blue-collar workers all did well. For the first time ever, most Americans could afford houses, cars, and new inventions like televisions. The interstate highway system was built, encouraging automobile purchasing, and the use of fertilizers led to abundant harvests. New advances in medicine helped people live longer.

Politically, the 1950s were stable. Eisenhower was president and he kept the government from spending too much, while also not reducing popular programs like Social Security. Although it was the height of the Cold War arms race, Eisenhower ended the Korean War and kept the nation out of any hot conflicts.

The G.I. Bill helped veterans of World War II buy houses and attend college. For the first time, both became common. Those same veterans came home and started families. Their children, the Baby Boomers, are one of the nation’s largest generations ever. To house these families, suburbs were built. Cities grew, shopping malls, and fast food restaurants sprung up. It was a time of huge population growth in California.

People in the 1950s became more religious. More Americans went to church. However, the Supreme Court also limited the influence of religion in schools, banning school prayer for example.

In the 1950s, there was tremendous pressure for people to live up to an ideal.  Families were supposed to have married parents, with a dad who worked and a mom who stayed home to raise polite children.  They were supposed to have a house in the suburbs and a car.

Television was new and promoted this idealized version of family. Sitcoms were popular. Westerns were also popular in which good could always triumph over evil.

Rock and roll was new in the 1950s. Although based on African American traditions like rhythm and blues, it was first popularized by Elvis Presley.

Not everyone enjoyed the prosperity of the 1950s. The elderly, women, African Americans and other minorities did not benefit from the G.I. Bill.

The Beatniks rejected the conformity of the 1950s. Centered in San Francisco and New York City, they preferred a new form of jazz called bebop and criticized mainstream culture. The Beat Generation created some of the best literature of the 1950s. Those who did not want to conform also popularized abstract expressionism, a new style in art. Some movies of the 1950s similarly portrayed the darker side of society.


BIG IDEA: The Counterculture of the 1960s was a youth movement that focused on finding oneself and breaking social rules, especially related to love, music, fashion and drugs. It was centered in San Francisco, influenced by the anti-war movement, and fueled by new music.

The counterculture refers to a time during the 1960s when many young Americans rebelled against the traditional rules of society. The idea of rebellion was not new. In some way, they were continuing the legacy of the Beat Generation of the 1950s. However, the hippies of the counterculture were much more widely known and far more influential.

Fueled by the emergence of the Baby Boomer generation as teenagers, the counterculture, its music, art, fashion, and political ideas shaped the entire generation.

The counterculture was centered in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco.  The climax of the entire movement was during the summer of 1967.  

Hippies rebelled against many social norms. They experimented with new drugs, especially marijuana and LSD.

The hippies broke social rules about sex and marriage. They practiced free love and participated in love-ins.

The Merry Pranksters were a group of hippies who travelled from California to New York in an old school bus. Joined by popular musicians, they tried to demonstrate the ideas of the counterculture and recorded their experience.

Some hippies rejected modern life all together and tried to create perfect societies in communes where they shared property, and sometimes, sexual partners.

Rock and roll changed with the counterculture. Psychedelic rock became popular, as did folk rock. Music was an important part of the identity of the decade and the movement. For some, the climax of the counterculture was the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969.

The Altamont Music Festival in 1969 was the opposite of the Woodstock Festival and showed all of the dark sides of the counterculture. The organizers hired a biker gang to run security, drug use was rampant, and violence ensued.


BIG IDEA: The federal government joined in the efforts to remake American society in the 1960s. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs were meant to end poverty, protect healthcare and protect the environment. The Supreme Court handed down important rulings about civil rights and criminal justice and the immigration system was significantly changed.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald while riding through Dallas, Texas in an open limousine. A man seeking to avenge the president’s death killed Oswald a few days later. The Warren Commission investigated the killing and found that Oswald had acted alone, but Kennedy’s death remains the subject of conspiracy theories.

The new president was Lyndon Johnson from Texas.  Johnson was a long-time member of Congress and a master at convincing others to agree with him.

Johnson continued many of Kennedy’s programs. He also wanted to improve the nation and believed America should be a Great Society.

Johnson declared a War on Poverty. He signed many laws that were designed to end poverty, mostly by giving people the education or support they needed to find jobs, rather than just by giving away money.

Johnson signed the ESEA, which provided federal funding for education. This was the first time the federal government got involved in funding local schools. He also created Head Start for low-income preschoolers and increased federal scholarships and loans for college.

Johnson created Medicare to cover health insurance for the elderly and Medicaid to provide health insurance for the poor. Both programs remain popular and account for about a quarter of the entire federal budget.

Johnson’s Great Society included federal funding for the arts, including funding for public radio and television.

Johnson also passed laws to protect consumers, such as regulations on automobile safety, truth in packaging, and financial disclosures.

Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which ended national quotas for immigration and implemented a family reunification policy. This greatly increased immigration from Asia and Africa.

The Great Society and Johnson’s War on Poverty were limited because Johnson was also spending money to fight the Vietnam War. Conservatives criticize the Great Society programs as excessive government.

During the 1960s, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled on multiple cases that expanded civil rights, including Brown v. Board of Education, as well as cases that led to the creation of the Miranda Warning.


BIG IDEA: The environmental movement as we know it today started in the 1960s. Over time the focus has shifted from preserving natural wonders to preventing pollution to mitigating the effects of climate change. In recent decades, significant opposition to the environmental movement has emerged.

Americans have been concerned with preserving the environment since the Progressive Era when President Theodore Roosevelt launched the National Park Service and John Muir founded the Sierra Club.

During the Great Depression FDR implemented the CCC and dealt with the Dust Bowl and during the 1950s people worked to stop construction of a dam that would have partially filled in the Grand Canyon.

The modern environmental movement started when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring and helped Americans become aware of the dangers of the pesticide DDT. Her work led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

President Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson both cared about the environment and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were part of Johnson’s Great Society.

During the 1960s and 1970s the environmental movement grew. Earth Day was started and new non-governmental organizations were founded to fight for conservation.

In modern times, climate change is the most pressing concern. International agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement have implemented goals for carbon emission reduction. Different presidents have chosen to join or withdraw from these agreements.

Some people reject the overwhelming science that supports human-induced climate change. These climate skeptics were originally funded by business groups who will lose money if carbon emissions are reduced. Republican politicians, including President Trump, promote the ideas of climate skeptics and work to block environmental regulation. Most Democrats, like former Vice President Al Gore, advocate for regulations to limit climate change.


BIG IDEA: The fight for women’s rights is as old as the United States itself. At different periods there has been more excitement and successes. In the 1960s and 70s another wave of feminist zeal emerged. This Second Wave Feminism correlated with changes in reproductive rights and social expectations, especially related to the workplace.

Women have been fighting for equal rights since before the United States existed. In the early 1800s, women met at the Seneca Falls Convention and started working for the right to vote. However, at the same time the industrial revolution gave rise to the Cult of Domesticity, which established different roles for men and women in society. Women were supposed to stay at home to cook, clean, and care for children. Women finally won the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

In the 1960s, Second Wave Feminism started with the publication of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique. She criticized the Cult of Domesticity and challenged the idea that women should be happy as homemakers and mothers.

Laws such as the Civil Rights Act and Equal Pay Act gave women more rights. The National Organization for Women (NOW) started working to pass a constitutional amendment to guarantee women equal rights. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was never ratified because Phyllis Schlafly organized a movement to stop it. She argued that equal rights would hurt women.

Some radical feminists demonstrated by burning bras or protesting at the Miss America Pageant.

A major change for women in the 1950s was the legalization of birth control. This helped contribute to the sexual revolution of the counterculture and made sex outside of marriage much more common.

The legalization of abortion with the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling in 1973 was another major turning point for women. Abortion is still controversial and pro-life and pro-choice organizations and politicians continue to fight about it.

In the 1960s and 1970s, divorce laws changed so that women could divorce and maintain control of property and child custody. This greatly increased the rates of divorce since women could escape bad relationships and not have to leave their children or be cast into poverty.

Title IX guaranteed equal opportunities for girls in schools that received federal funding. This led to an increase in school sports for girls.

The glass ceiling is an imaginary boundary women cannot pass in government and politics.  So far, no woman has ever been president, only five have been on the Supreme Court, and few have ever been company CEOs.

Women can now serve in any role in the armed forces, but this is a recent change. The role women played in the 1991 Persian Gulf War helped break down these barriers.


BIG IDEA: There was a backlash in the 1970s and 80s to the extreme liberalism of the 1960s. Americans elected conservative politicians and the culture wars emerged as an element of partisan politics.

The Great Society programs were examples of the liberal idea that government should do a lot to fix problems in society. Also during the 1960s, the counterculture was challenging traditional social norms. In the 1970s, Americans turned away from these liberal extremes and embraced ideas that are more conservative. This was the Conservative Revolution.

The first champions of conservative ideas were academics and Senator Barry Goldwater who lost his campaign for president in 1964. They started the New Right. In 1980, Ronald Reagan won the presidency. He was a champion of conservative ideas about taxes, government spending, and social norms.

Reagan was supported by traditional Republican voters as well as some former Democrats who were upset about high crime, the poor economy, and the counterculture.

Reagan promoted trickle-down economics. He wanted tax breaks for the wealthy and businesses. He believed this would create economic growth because businesses would have more to spend to hire workers and that eventually everyone would benefit. Reagan also cut government spending and regulation.

In the 1980s, culture wars raged. Social conservatives tried to censor music and promoted conservative candidates in elections.

Reagan nominated conservatives to the Supreme Court.