US Post World War 2

The US, post-World War II, emerged as one of two dominant superpowers, abandoning its traditional isolationism and becoming increasingly involved in international relations. This era of American history saw the transformation of American society, an economic boom, the beginnings of the Cold War, and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. Why was it that the US did so well as a result of the war, and how exactly did American society change? 

US Post World War 2 US Post World War 2

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Table of contents

    Isolationism

    A policy of playing no role in the affairs of other nations

    Post War Era Timeline

    The economic, social, and political landscape of the United States after World War II two is usually referred to as the post-war period. The key developments of the era are laid out in the timeline below.

    Historians often debate how long the post-war period lasted. For the purpose of this article, we will consider the post-war era as spanning between 1945 and 1975.

    YearEvent
    1944The GI Bill was passed.
    1945The USA entered the United Nations.The US successfully tested an atomic bomb in July.
    1948-9The Berlin Blockade took place.
    1950-3The Korean War took place.
    1952The McCarran-Walter Act was passed.
    1954Operation Wetback was launched.
    1955The Montgomery Bus Boycott began.
    1955 - 1977The Vietnam War took place.
    1962Cuban Missile Crisis.
    1963Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Martin Luther King Jr gave his 'I have a dream' speech.
    1964The Civil Rights Act was passed.

    Economics in US post World War II

    After the war, the United States was in a better economic position than any other post-war nation. After all, they had only been involved in WWII for around three years out of six. Furthermore, none of the war was fought in the USA which meant that casualties were much lower than in European nations and infrastructure damage was non-existent. Of course, the USA still suffered losses - an estimated 400,000 soldiers were killed during the war, the attack on Pearl Harbour was a significant loss and America had to enforce rationing. Yet overall, it was on a much better footing than other nations in the post-war era.

    Rationing

    A control on the amount of a certain product that each person was allowed.

    When the war ended, many factories which had focused on wartime production were reconverted to mass-producing consumer goods, now with new technologies.

    The expansion of the middle class in well-paid jobs meant that there were more people with more money to spend, which they used to buy consumer luxuries. Equally, two of the largest workers' unions, the American Federation of Labour (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organisation (CIO) merged together and began to organise large-scale industrial action, giving workers better wages and therefore more money to spend.

    workers strike us post world war ii studysmarterFig. 1 - AFL-CIO workers' strike in Texas, 1967

    This wave of consumerism also provided job opportunities to those returning from military service. A key factor that prevented around 15 million American veterans from facing unemployment upon their return was the 1944 GI Bill (also known as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act). This act:

    • Provided medical care.
    • Offered government assistance to help veterans buy homes.
    • Helped with education, offering tuition, supplies, etc.

    This last point was very important, with around 8 million veterans gaining qualifications by 1956.

    Did you know? The income tax generated by veterans receiving higher wages due to these qualifications, and from the mortgages they took out to take advantage of new homes, greatly stimulated the US economy.

    Social Change after World War II

    As a result of the new economic prosperity in the United States after World War II, the standard of living and access to opportunities for Americans increased significantly (with some exceptions).

    How did US society benefit after WWII?

    Access to social welfare improved significantly as private insurance programmes such as the Blue Cross expanded their networks, giving more Americans access to medical protection. As well as the veterans who received education via the GI Bill, in general, the percentage of Americans graduating from university or high school increased, as did the number of universities opening every year.

    Working conditions

    By 1959, the vast majority of the American population had private pensions. Moreover, the 40-hour week and paid leave were introduced during this time, and the number of domestic holiday destinations and parks increased.

    Did you know? Although many Americans began to live the 'American Dream', this was not the case for everyone. The wealth gap between rich and poor was staggeringly large, unemployment was a big issue, and racial discrimination was widespread amongst employers.

    The Home

    As well as changes in society at large, the post-war period also saw changes at home. Many families left the city and moved to the suburbs for a quieter life. By 1960, around one-third of the population lived in the suburbs, attracted by lower house prices and interest rates. Greater prosperity and soldiers returning from war resulted in a 'baby boom' in the post-war period.

    Baby Boom

    A step rise in birth rates, especially after World War II.

    Huge housing developments emerged on the outskirts of cities, one of which was William Levitt's development on Long Island called 'Levittown'.

    levittown us post ww2 studysmarterFig. 2 - An aerial view of Levittown, Pennsylvania

    The role of women

    The war effort meant many women entered the world of work for the first time due to increased labour needs. However, when the war ended, women left the workforce as soon as they entered it, making way for veterans to take their jobs back. As a result, the idea of the "ideal woman" emerged, one who focused on marriage, children, and domestic duties.

    However, not all women were happy with having experienced freedom during the war only to be confined to the home on its end. This led to the rise of feminism; the dissatisfaction of women in the post-war period was famously described in Betty Friedan's best-selling book The Feminine Mystique (1963).

    Post World War II American culture

    After the war, American culture developed in new ways, made possible by the end of the war and technological developments. Radio had been popular during the war, but television was hot on its heels; equally, the Golden Age of Hollywood was still in full swing in the post-war era. Music began to change with the development of rock and roll, which became incredibly popular amongst young people.

    Art forms like literature and music helped social and political causes as well, as women and African Americans started to write about their experiences and the need for change.

    Did you know? The Vietnam War (1955-75) sparked a wave of anti-war protest songs, which were a popular way of expressing discontent with the government.

    African Americans

    African Americans did not experience the same prosperity as their white counterparts in the post-war period. In 1947, around 60% of African American families lived below the poverty line, and although it had been 80 years since the abolition of slavery by the end of World War II, systematic discrimination against Black Americans continued. The South in particular still had the Jim Crow laws, which legalised segregation until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    In the post-war period, the Civil Rights Movement took off. The timeline below demonstrates some notable events of the movement.

    DateEvent
    1954The Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation in schools was unconstitutional.
    1955The Montgomery Bus Boycott began.
    1957A group of African American students was prevented from entering a school in Little Rock; President Eisenhower sent the army to protect them.
    1963250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
    1966The famous Black Panther Party was founded.

    The Civil Rights Movement is the greatest mass movement in US history, and was a key element of post-war US society, transforming the racial dynamics of America.

    civil rights march us post world war ii studysmarterFig. 3 - A Civil Rights march in Washington, 1963

    Immigration post World War II into the US

    Immigration was, as ever, a tricky situation in post-war America. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act upheld the immigration quotas put in place in 1924, which were very tight and favoured immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. With the advent of the Cold War, immigrants were screened more heavily to weed out potential Soviet spies.

    Operation Wetback (1954)

    Immigrants from Central and South America had a hard time after the war. For example, in 1954, President Eisenhower launched Operation Wetback, which aimed to send millions of Mexican immigrants back to Mexico, regardless of whether they were legal or illegal immigrants.

    Post-World War Global Landscape

    After the war, the US abandoned isolationism, marked by its entry to the United Nations in June 1945.

    The other superpower that emerged from the war was the Soviet Union (USSR), and the relations between these two nations would dominate international affairs for most of the 20th century.

    On 16 July 1945, just days before the Potsdam Conference where Truman was to meet with Joseph Stalin, the United States successfully detonated its first atomic bomb. This meant that the US had a nuclear monopoly (possessed all the world's nuclear weapons), which threatened the Soviet Union.

    The tensions between the US and the USSR meant that as soon as one war ended, a new one began - the Cold War. Initial reactions to the threat of spreading communism included:

    • In 1948, President Truman introduced the Marshall Plan to rebuild European nations after WWII to prevent the appeal of or imposition of communism.
    • In 1949, the United States formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to defend against communism.

    The Cold War consisted of numerous crises and proxy wars that only ended when the USSR collapsed in 1991. Some of the most notable events included the following, but the US fought communism worldwide.

    Proxy war

    An armed conflict fought between countries or non-state actors on behalf of other powers not directly involved

    Cold War policy was also dominated by the arms race - the constant push to have a higher quantity and quality of nuclear weapons. After the USSR successfully tested its own atomic bomb in 1949, the race well and truly began.

    The Cold War in the US

    The fear of communism also influenced events at home. For instance, the post-war Red Scare dominated US society, especially through what is known as McCarthyism. This was a period of investigating potential communist spies in the government and other institutions led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, often conducted without evidence.

    US Post World War II Conclusion

    America's post-war years marked a significant shift in government policy, foreign relations, as well as society and culture. Politics was dominated by the Cold War and the resulting proxy conflicts that came out of it, while economically America began to come out of its shell, abandoning the policy of isolationism.

    Socially, the post-war era marked the growth of the Civil Rights movement, with events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream speech' culminating in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Similarly, second-wave feminism began with the publishing of Betty Friedan's 'The Feminine Mystique', while music helped champion the cause of peace in the 1960s.

    US Post World War II - Key takeaways

    • After the war, The United States was in a better economic position than every other nation and decided to abandon the policy of isolationism.
    • The standard of living improved for most Americans, who now had access to health care, housing, education, consumer goods, paid vacations, higher wages and better working hours.
    • Not all Americans experienced prosperity, with many African American families still struggling. The post-war era saw the continuation of racial discrimination and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.
    • Culturally, television became incredibly popular and music changed with the development of rock and roll. Art forms like these were also used to champion social causes like Civil Rights and peace campaigns.
    • The end of the war brought second-wave feminism, as women were dissatisfied with their loss of freedom to work and the expectation of being a homemaker.
    • Due to the Cold War, immigration was cracked down upon, with tight quotas upheld that favoured North/Western European immigrants. There were government operations against Central and South American immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
    • The Cold War between the US and the USSR dominated the post-war global situation, with crises abroad and fear of communism at home.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 - The AFL-CIO strikers picketing, Laredo, Texas march, June 1967 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_AFL-CIO_strikers_picketing,_Laredo,_Texas_march,_June_1967_(10002758).jpg) by Pancho Medrano Papers (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Texas_at_Arlington_Libraries) Licensed by CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about US Post World War 2

    What did America gain from WW2?

    After World War II, the United States emerged as one of the two dominant superpowers, turning away from traditional isolationism and becoming increasingly engaged internationally. This era of American history saw the transformation in American society, an economic boom.

    Why did the US economy boom after WW2?

    Multiple factors led to the economic boom including:

    • Increase in employment during the war
    • Increased consumerism
    • 1944 GI Bill
    • The military-industrial complex

    What happened in the postwar era?

    The post-war era saw the transformation of the US through an economic boom, the growth of the suburbs, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cold War. The US completely changed, through a prosperous and protesting population, as well as abandoning isolationism and getting involved in international affairs.

    What social changes took place in the United States after World War II?

    The standard of living improved for most Americans, who now had access to health care, housing, education, consumer goods, paid vacations, higher wages and better working hours, and a baby boom ensued. 


    African Americans did not benefit as much from the economic boom and continued to experience discrimination, contributing to the Civil Rights Movement. 

    What happened to America after the World war 2?

    The post-war era saw the transformation of the US through an economic boom, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Cold War. The US experienced several significant cultural and social shifts as well, like feminism, civil rights, new music and media.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or False: 75% of the American population owned cars at the end of the 1950s.

    The Students for a Democratic Society looked uncomfortably to the future.

    What became more common in American households in the 1950s?

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