In the decade and a half after World War II, the United States ex- perienced phenomenal economic growth and consolidated its position as the world’s richest country . Gross national product (GNP), a measure of all goods and services produced in the United States, jumped from about $200,000-million in 1940 to $300,000-million in 1950 to more than $500,000-million in 1960 . More and more Americans now considered themselves part of the middle class .

The growth had different sourc- es . The economic stimulus provided by large-scale public spending for World War II helped get it started . Two basic middle-class needs did much to keep it going . The number of automobiles produced annually quadrupled between 1946 and 1955 . A housing boom, stimulated in part by easily affordable mortgages for returning servicemen, fueled the expansion . The rise in defense spending as the Cold War escalated also played a part .

After 1945 the major corporations in America grew even larger . There had been earlier waves of mergers in the 1890s and in the 1920s; in the

1950s another wave occurred . Fran- chise operations like McDonald’s fast-food restaurants allowed small entrepreneurs to make themselves part of large, efficient enterprises . Big American corporations also de- veloped holdings overseas, where la- bor costs were often lower .

Workers found their own lives changing as industrial America changed . Fewer workers produced goods; more provided services . As early as 1956 a majority of employ- ees held white-collar jobs, working as managers, teachers, salesper- sons, and office operatives . Some firms granted a guaranteed annual wage, long-term employment con- tracts, and other benefits . With such changes, labor militancy was under- mined and some class distinctions began to fade .

Farmers — at least those with small operations — faced tough times . Gains in productivity led to agricultural consolidation, and farming became a big business . More and more family farmers left the land .

Other Americans moved too . The West and the Southwest grew with increasing rapidity, a trend that would continue through the end of the century . Sun Belt cities like Houston, Texas; Miami, Florida; Al- buquerque, New Mexico; and Phoe- nix, Arizona, expanded rapidly . Los Angeles, California, moved ahead of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the third largest U .S . city and then sur- passed Chicago, metropolis of the Midwest . The 1970 census showed


that California had displaced New York as the nation’s largest state . By 2000, Texas had moved ahead of New York into second place .

An even more important form of movement led Americans out of in- ner cities into new suburbs, where they hoped to find affordable hous- ing for the larger families spawned by the postwar baby boom . Develop- ers like William J . Levitt built new communities — with homes that all looked alike — using the tech- niques of mass production . Levitt’s houses were prefabricated — partly assembled in a factory rather than on the final location — and modest, but Levitt’s methods cut costs and allowed new owners to possess a part of the American dream .

As suburbs grew, businesses moved into the new areas . Large shopping centers containing a great variety of stores changed consumer patterns . The number of these cen- ters rose from eight at the end of World War II to 3,840 in 1960 . With easy parking and convenient eve- ning hours, customers could avoid city shopping entirely . An unfortu- nate by-product was the “hollowing- out” of formerly busy urban cores .

New highways created better ac- cess to the suburbs and its shops . The Highway Act of 1956 provided $26,000-million, the largest public works expenditure in U .S . history, to build more than 64,000 kilometers of limited access interstate highways to link the country together .

Television, too, had a powerful impact on social and economic pat-

terns . Developed in the 1930s, it was not widely marketed until after the war . In 1946 the country had fewer than 17,000 television sets . Three years later consumers were buying 250,000 sets a month, and by 1960 three-quarters of all families owned at least one set . In the middle of the decade, the average family watched television four to five hours a day . Popular shows for children included Howdy Doody Time and The Mickey Mouse Club; older viewers preferred situation comedies like I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best . Ameri- cans of all ages became exposed to increasingly sophisticated advertise- ments for products said to be neces- sary for the good life .


The Fair Deal was the name given to President Harry Truman’s domes- tic program . Building on Roosevelt’s New Deal, Truman believed that the federal government should guaran- tee economic opportunity and social stability . He struggled to achieve those ends in the face of fierce political op- position from legislators determined to reduce the role of government .

Truman’s first priority in the immediate postwar period was to make the transition to a peacetime economy . Servicemen wanted to come home quickly, but once they arrived they faced competition for housing and employment . The G .I . Bill, passed before the end of the war, helped ease servicemen back into ci- vilian life by providing benefits such




as guaranteed loans for home-buy- ing and financial aid for industrial training and university education .

More troubling was labor unrest . As war production ceased, many workers found themselves without jobs . Others wanted pay increases they felt were long overdue . In 1946, 4 .6 million workers went on strike, more than ever before in American history . They challenged the automo- bile, steel, and electrical industries . When they took on the railroads and soft-coal mines, Truman intervened to stop union excesses, but in so do- ing he alienated many workers .

While dealing with immediately pressing issues, Truman also provid- ed a broader agenda for action . Less than a week after the war ended, he presented Congress with a 21-point program, which provided for pro- tection against unfair employment practices, a higher minimum wage, greater unemployment compen- sation, and housing assistance . In the next several months, he added proposals for health insurance and atomic energy legislation . But this scattershot approach often left Tru- man’s priorities unclear .

Republicans were quick to attack . In the 1946 congressional elections they asked, “Had enough?” and vot- ers responded that they had . Re- publicans, with majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928, were determined to re- verse the liberal direction of the Roosevelt years .

Truman fought with the Congress as it cut spending and reduced taxes .

In 1948 he sought reelection, despite polls indicating that he had little chance . After a vigorous campaign, Truman scored one of the great up- sets in American politics, defeating the Republican nominee, Thomas Dewey, governor of New York . Re- viving the old New Deal coalition, Truman held on to labor, farmers, and African-American voters .

When Truman finally left of- fice in 1953, his Fair Deal was but a mixed success . In July 1948 he banned racial discrimination in fed- eral government hiring practices and ordered an end to segregation in the military . The minimum wage had risen, and social security programs had expanded . A housing program brought some gains but left many needs unmet . National health in- surance, aid-to-education measures, reformed agricultural subsidies, and his legislative civil rights agenda never made it through Congress . The president’s pursuit of the Cold War, ultimately his most important objective, made it especially difficult to develop support for social reform in the face of intense opposition .

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