Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

Question for Discussion:
What were Americans'
major political and cultural concerns during
the 1950s?

Reading: Loewen, pp. 219-229; Hoffman,
pp. 323-332; The Liberal Consensus (web)

Video: Making Sense of the Sixties:
Seeds of the 1960s

Daily Class Web Links

American Society and Culture in the 1950s

Popular Culture in the 1950s

The Cold War in the 1950s

Daily Class Outline

1. America in the 1950s

2. America's Cold War crusade in
the 1950s

3. The Cuban Missile Crisis

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?

Daily Class Notes

"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 culture.

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 middle class.

4. Government and society can solve social problems.

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.

© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 8 Nov. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/liberal.htm
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