Question for Discussion: What
major political and cultural concerns during
Reading: Loewen, pp. 219-229; Hoffman,
pp. 323-332; The Liberal Consensus (web)
Making Sense of the Sixties:
Seeds of the 1960s
American Society and Culture
in the 1950s
Popular Culture in the 1950s
The Cold War in the 1950s
1. America in the 1950s
2. America's Cold War crusade in
3. The Cuban Missile
1. What does Hodgson mean when he argues that
the 1950s were an "age of consensus"?
2. Does Hodgson's argument about the 1950s
being an age of "liberal consensus" help us understand
rise of McCarthyism in the 1950s?
3. According to Hodgson, what are the basic
beliefs and values of the liberal consensus in the 1950s?
4. Why do you think Americans were so optimistic
about their society and future in the 1950s?
5. Does Hodgson's argument about the liberal
consensus in the 1950s help us better understand the causes of the
1960s social and political rebellions?
6. What does President Eisenhower mean by
"the military-industrial complex"?
7. Why does Eisenhower fear that the rise
of the military-industrial complex threatens American democracy?
8. Is Eisenhower warning that the United States'
role in the Cold War threatens American democracy at home?
9. According to Loewen, what does the United
States' support for military dictatorships and anti-democratic governments
in Third World countries tell us about American commitment to democracy
in the 1950s and 1960s?
10. Why don't more Americans know about the
United States' support for military dictatorships and anti-democratic
governments throughout the Cold War?
11. According to Loewen, why does the United
States support these anti-democratic governments during its Cold
War crusade to make the world safe for democracy?
12. Do you think the United States is really
committed to democratic rights and national independence during
the Cold War?
"When I began
doing my documentaries at NBC in 1961 we lived in a consensus society.
Those were the days of the cold war. There was an enemy outside,
the communists, Nikita Khrushchev, the red chinese....back then
there was a general agreement in the United States about what was
right and what was wrong about the country. Nobody really questioned
the system....We had a common set of beliefs and common values."
.....Fred Freed, TV Producer
In the 1950s there was tremendous pressure
on Americans to conform to certain assumptions and values. During
the height of the Cold War, any one who did not share these so-called
"American values" could be and often was accused of being
a communist. America represented freedom, democracy, individual
rights, economic opportunity, equality, private property, and free
enterprise. Looking back at the 1950s, Fred Freed said: "Back
then there was general agreement in the United States about what
was right and what was wrong about the country. Nobody really questioned
the system....we had a common set of beliefs and common values."
(Chafe, 101) In his essay, "The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus,"
Godfrey Hodgson argues that this common beliefs and values that
Americans held in the 1950s were in fact a "liberal consensus"
that described America as a perfect society that worked and did
not suffer from any major conflicts or problems.
Young children, teenagers, and adults
were bombarded with cultural and social messages reinforcing this
liberal consensus in the 1950s. They were told that America was
free and good and the Soviet communists were totalitarian and evil.
Many young Americans even came to believe that if there were problems
lurking in American society they must be the result of communist
infiltration. One minister, Jack Impe, even charged that Rock-n-Roll
music was part of a communist conspiracy to undermine the values
of America's youth. Unlike the 1960s, many Americans in the 1950s
unquestionably believed in the government, their society, and their
Let's look at some of the core values
and assumptions at the heart of this liberal
consensus. Hodgson argues that there are six core assumptions
at the heart of this American consensus on values and beliefs:
1. That American free enterprise is
democratic and provides abundance and opportunities for all Americans.
2. That economic growth and increased
production was ending class divisions in America and meeting the
needs of all classes and peoples in America.
3. That because of economic growth,
abundance, and increased opportunities all Americans were becoming
4. Government and society can solve
5. The main threat to American society
comes from outside the United States, comes from the global communist
conspiracy against the Free World and capitalism. The United States
must therefore engage in a prolonged struggle against communism.
6. It is the duty and destiny of the
United States to bring its economic and political institutions and
free-enterprise system to the rest of the world.
(See Chafe, 104-105)
The problem created by the liberal
consensus and 1950s optimism and conformity about America and its
values was that it did not prepare young people and other Americans
for some of the harsh realities of American society and culture.
I will argue that it the growing contradiction between the values
of the liberal consensus and the increasing social problems that
challenge American in the 1950s and 1960s that leads many young
people to challenge their government and society. During the 1960s,
they will continually ask why their government and society does
not live up to its ideals and values. Are the values and beliefs
of the liberal consensus just lies? Are Americans hypocrites? Or
does America need to be reformed so that it can indeed live up the
values and principles at the heart of this liberal consensus? These
are the question American students and young people will try to
answer in the social and political debates that created the tumultuous
American society of the 1960s.
Let's look at some of the contradictions
that America faced in the 1950s that were not addressed and explored
by the liberal consensus. Because of McCarthyism, many Americans
were afraid that if they spoke up or challenged their government
and society they would be accused of being communists. In fact,
school boards banned books such as Catcher in the Rye and
Peyton Place because some people believed they were written
by communists. Ministers and conservatives charged that Rock-n-Roll
musicians were part of a communist plot. And because of their fear
of McCarthyism, many high school teachers mindlessly led their students
through "nuclear war" drills in which they talked about
the possibility of the students being annihilated in a nuclear war.
If the teachers challenged these drills, they could be called communists
and lose their jobs. In addition, Black leaders and Blacks who challenged
segregation and racial inequality were accused of being communists.
As a result of McCarthyism, many young people began to wonder if
America was really the free country that it claimed to be.
In addition to McCarthyism, Americans
increasingly watched on TV in the 1950s the Civil Rights struggle
in the South. They saw Blacks being denied service in whites-only
facilities and saw Blacks brutally beaten for challenging this colorline.
Americans saw white mobs attacking and beating up young Blacks students
and their parents who were simply trying to get an equal education
in the South. But Americans also listened to the arguments and demands
of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement like Martin Luther King
who declared that American cannot be free as long as Blacks aren't
free. If Blacks weren't free, many young people asked, could America
really be a free society? Didn't massive American racism and racial
violence demonstrate the larger contradictions at the heart of a
supposedly free American society?
Many Americans also feared the growth
of the federal government and large corporations in the 1950s. Many
workers believed that they were merely cogs in a giant machine that
did not respect their existence or rights. Critics of corporate
America referred to the army of "men in grey flannel suits"
who were trapped in dead-end, anonymous jobs and lives. Even President
Eisenhower by the early 1960s was beginning to express these fears
about what he called the growing power and influence of the "military
industrial complex." Eisenhower worried that the massive growth
of federal government power, the American military, giant corporations
dependent on making military hardware and weapons, and politicians
and community's dependence on military spending threatened American
democracy. He worried that because of this growing power of the
military industrial complex public policy could "become the
captive of a scientific-technological elite." Eisenhower concluded
that it was the job of American leaders to protect and preserve
our democracy and democratic institutions from the growing power
of this military industrial complex.
Like Eisenhower, many Americans began
to worry about the increasing power and influence of the "national
security state" on American society. In order to fight and
win the Cold War, the federal government created a vast, secretive
intelligence and military establishment that few Americans understood
and supported. In the 1950s, as a result of the Cold War, it seemed
to many Americans that they, and even the Congress of the United
States, were increasingly shut out of and prevented from making
the major decisions that confronted America. By the early 1960s,
it was increasingly clear that the President and the executive branch
of government had increased its power at the expense of Congress
and American democracy.
Let's look at some contradictions at
the heart of America's Cold War struggle to preserve and protect
freedom in the United States and throughout the world. According
to Loewen, the American government in the 1950s and 1960s began
to carry out many actions that were undemocratic and violated the
basic principles that America stood for in the Cold War. In 1953,
the United States and the CIA overthrew a democratically elected
government in Iran and installed a brutal dictator the Shah of Iran,
who ruled Iran with American support until he was overthrown in
1979. In 1954, the United States overthrew the democratically-elected
government in Guatemala, and we have supported the brutal Guatemalan
military rulers ever since. In 1958, the United States rigged an
election in Lebanon that later led to a thirty years civil war.
The United States had the democratic leader of Zaire, Patrice Lumumba,
assassinated in 1961. Finally the United States tried to overthrow
the communist leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, and even tried on a
number of occasions to assassinate him in the early 1960s. This
gets even more bizarre when we take into account that the CIA hired
the Mafia to kill Castro. By the early 1960s, it is increasingly
clear to some Americans that the United States has become an arrogant
power that threatens and denies the democratic rights of peoples
throughout the world. Many young people in the 1960s wondered how
America could be a democratic nation and yet deny basic democratic
rights to other people. Can a democratic society overthrew the government
of another democratic society? Can America really be free if it
denies basic rights and freedoms to other peoples?
Finally, it was increasingly clear
to many Americans by the early 1960s that not all Americans were
becoming middle class. Despite the economic growth and abundance
created by the booming American economy in the 1950s, many Americans
were suffering from poverty, hunger, and despair. How could America
be a free society if millions of Americans were denied the freedom
and opportunity to become economically successful and pass this
success on to their children? The recognition of poverty, racism,
and economic inequality in the early 1960s caused many young people
to question the values of the liberal consensus. They began to wonder
whether Americans were being honest with themselves about the real
social and political problems facing America.
Out of these increasing questions and
social and political contradictions, many American young people
and college students began to challenge Americans and politicians
to face up to these problems and solve them. Instead of becoming
cynical and disillusioned by the real contradictions that faced
American society, many young people and Americans in the 1960s challenged
Americans and the United States to live up to its values and ideals.
The students and young people committed themselves to reforming
America and helping the United States live up to the grand vision
of America described by the liberal consensus. By the end of the
1960s, as a result of increasing social and political conflict,
many young people and some Americans concluded that American society
could not so easily be reformed. Maybe the United States was not
the ideal society they had been taught that it was. The contradiction
between the ideals and complacency of the 1950s liberal consensus
and the larger reality of social and political conflict in American
society helped create the tension, disillusionment, cynicism, and
idealism of students and young people in the 1960s and 1970s.