Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Columbia History of Post-World War II America

The Columbia History of Post-World War II America

Edited by Mark C. Carnes
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 544
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Columbia History of Post-World War II America
    Book Description:

    Every epoch bewilders those who live through it, but for Americans, the postwar era has been a time of breathtaking change and transition. With these comprehensive and engaging essays, this volume encourages readers to form a new perspective on a recent and highly debated period of American history.

    Contributors to this volume were chosen for their ability to conceive of topics in unconventional and provocative ways. Renowned scholars specializing in economics, foreign affairs, political science, and social and cultural history collectively reexamine the history of America since the end of World War II. Rather than divide this period into such traditional categories as "women," "television," and "politics," contributors take a cross-topical approach that emphasizes the interconnectedness of American life and society.

    Beginning with an analysis of cultural themes and ending with a discussion of evolving and expanding political and corporate institutions, these essays address changes in America's response to the outside world; the merging of psychological states and social patterns in memorial culture, scandal culture, and consumer culture; the intersection of social practices and governmental policies; the effect of technological change on society and politics; and the intersection of changing belief systems and technological development, among other issues.

    Many had feared that Orwellian institutions would crush the individual in the postwar era, but a major theme of this book is the persistence of individuality and diversity. Trends toward institutional bigness and standardization have coexisted with and sometimes have given rise to a countervailing pattern of individualized expression and consumption. Today Americans are exposed to more kinds of images and music, choose from an infinite variety of products, and have a range of options in terms of social and sexual arrangements. In short, they enjoy more ways to express their individuality despite the rise of immense global corporations, and this history imaginatively explores every facet of this unique American experience.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51180-3
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
    (pp. 1-8)

    This book seeks to explain the history of United States during the time that encompasses our lives. Chronicling these years would be a formidable task, even for a book as big as this one, but our purpose is not so much to recapitulate our times as it is to begin to explain what it all meant.

    This is no easy task. The complexity of the past renders it nearly incomprehensible, and its subjectivity mocks all who propose tidy conclusions. People experience events differently, and they interpret those experiences in different ways. No summary suffices. Our task is all the more...

  4. PART I Culture

    • 2. THE SPACES PEOPLE SHARE: The Changing Social Geography of American Life
      (pp. 11-35)

      In a corner on the second floor of the Museum of African American History in Richmond, Virginia, stands a bright-red lunch counter, an exhibit installed to commemorate Richmond’s first civil rights sit-in, which occurred in 1961. The exhibit celebrates the era when African Americans won the legal right to make equal use of the public spaces in their communities. Yet, seen from today’s perspective, it carries another message as well. Where is the five-and-dime store where the lunch counter used to stand? It is closed, as are all five of the other major downtown stores where the sit-ins took place....

      (pp. 36-56)

      In 1945, the most compelling images made in America were wondrously huge, larger than life, and seen by millions each week. They glided across movie screens at hundreds of local theaters and paraded through the hugely popular weekly newsmagazines Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post. These images caught the life of the country, sometimes with a maddening superficiality, sometimes with great profundity—yet they caught it. The country was in control of its visual culture. The story of the next fifty years was of the gradual erosion of that assurance. By the new millennium, the country’s images were far...

      (pp. 57-78)

      During the 1970s and 1980s, conglomerates bought out major companies in the American popular music industry, only to be bought out in turn by even larger conglomerates. For example, in 1988 the Sony Corporation purchased the CBS Records Group, which had recently acquired United Artists Music. The following year Warner Communications, which had already gobbled up influential independent music labels such as Atlantic Records and Elektra, was merged with the Time Inc. media empire. By 1991 six conglomerates were responsible for 91 percent of music sales in the United States. Music became one product alongside many others—cable television programs...

    • 5. BRINGING IT HOME: Children, Technology, and Family in the Postwar World
      (pp. 79-105)

      The end of the Second World War came with twinned explosions. The nuclear bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, Japan, ended the costliest foreign war in American history. The baby boom that began at the same time ended one hundred years of steadily declining birthrates. Both of these events would have long-lasting consequences, but unlike the searing fireball that mushroomed in the skies over Japan on August 9, 1945, the explosion in fertility in the United States caused neither havoc nor fear. Instead, it seemed to herald new hope and expectations about a much brighter future. Like its twin, however, it would...

      (pp. 106-130)

      Work, as God informed the misbehaving Adam and Eve, is humankind’s lot in life, and it is a dreary one at that. The subject is off-putting. And apart from its dullness, work—especially work in recent decades—does not call out for scholarly scrutiny. Most of us have an intuitive sense of what work entails and how it has changed. We may recall when repairmen tinkered with automobile engines and vacuums and refrigerators; now they mostly replace parts. Salesmen (and some women) knocked on doors; now automatic dialers and spammers flood us with offers. Retail clerks keyed in numbers at...

      (pp. 131-154)

      The military forces of industrial and postindustrial societies in the twentieth century possessed a divided mind—generally subordinated to the larger political systems they supported, sophisticated in organization and training, and advanced in technology, yet committed to a primal sense of identification as warriors. Anthropologically, they were simultaneously modern and traditional, and these two distinctive sensibilities did not always interact smoothly. In fact, the antimodernist dimensions within military thought expressed both the continued interest in older ways of motivating men for battle and a concerted reaction against the supposedly devitalizing tendencies within a way of life thought to be increasingly...

      (pp. 155-178)

      As president, Harry Truman spoke little publicly of death, and more often of prospective death in a new war than past death in World War II or the Korean War. As president, Bill Clinton spoke frequently of death—in past wars, in troubled places such as Northern Ireland and the Middle East, after disasters, and among notable figures. Truman issued one brief Memorial Day statement; Clinton never failed to give Memorial Day addresses, usually several. The difference owed to more than Clinton’s loquaciousness (Truman was plainspoken but talkative), his skill as mourner-in-chief, or a presidency inclined by the 1990s to...

      (pp. 179-198)

      Consider two cultural markers. The first is a photograph taken in the late 1950s or early 1960s of poet W. H. Auden, cultural historian Jacques Barzun, and literary critic Lionel Trilling, huddled around a table, pencils in hand. They are meeting to discuss selections for the Readers’ Subscription Book Club, a highbrow competitor to the Book of the Month Club. While the Readers’ Subscription is a moneymaking enterprise, the connection here between commerce and culture is apparently without tension, largely hidden from view. Guardians of the gates of culture, Auden and company recommend literary works that are appropriate and edifying....

  5. PART II Politics

    • 10. DOMESTIC CONTAINMENT: The Downfall of Postwar Idealism and Left Dissent, 1945–1950
      (pp. 201-225)

      In the aftermath of the First World War, a widespread mood of supercharged martial patriotism quickly gave way to disillusionment. In 1919, a brushfire of unrest crackled across America—vicious race riots, mob violence, strikes and strikebreaking, mass roundups of radicals and aliens, union busting. Some overenthusiastic veterans belonging to the newly organized American Legion acted as enforcers of “100% Americanism,” beating up Socialists and Wobblies and bullying immigrant fruit pickers into working for low wages. Bombs set off in Washington, D.C., by persons unknown, triggered the Palmer Raids, which resulted in the illegal detention and deportation of hundreds of...

    • 11. WITHOUT RESTRAINT: Scandal and Politics in America
      (pp. 226-254)

      “What began 25 years ago with Watergate as a solemn and necessary process to force a president to adhere to the rule of law, has grown beyond our control so that now we are routinely using criminal accusations and scandal to win the political battles and ideological differences we cannot settle at the ballot box. It has been used with reckless abandon by both parties.” So lamented Representative Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) during the debate over impeaching President William Clinton in 1998. By then, scandal had become a driving force in politics. Many of Schumer’s colleagues resembled weary soldiers surveying a...

      (pp. 255-284)

      At the opening of the twentieth century, Americans confidently welcomed change. They thrilled at the possibility of taking flight in an airplane or traveling across the country in an automobile. They marveled at the discovery of radio waves and expectantly awaited the day that they could listen to music transmitted wirelessly from concert halls located thousands of miles away. To be sure, not all of the changes of the new century looked promising, communism in Russia being the most obtrusive example. But Americans expected the greatest changes to involve technology, and they viewed these as almost wholly positive. Despite the...

      (pp. 285-310)

      In 1948, Harry S. Truman stood off the Soviet Union during the Berlin blockade, recognized the new state of Israel, aligned his presidency with goals of the civil rights movement, and ran a reelection campaign that almost no one thought he could win—all without having to give a thought to women as voters, politicians, or officeholders. This did not mean that gender was absent from politics in the 1940s. In fact, it was everywhere. Few noticed the deeply gendered nature of politics, because male control of the public sphere seemed to represent the natural order. No woman sat on...

    • 14. WHICH SIDES ARE YOU ON? Religion, Sexuality, and Culture-War Politics
      (pp. 311-339)

      Two distinct constellations of issues divided Americans and defined their politics in the late twentieth century. The first involved moral questions like abortion and homosexuality, the second economic questions like taxation and government regulation. Rather than being simply left or right, Americans evolved a complex politics in which it was possible to be morally left but economically right, or vice versa. As with postwar ideology, so with postwar revolutions. Americans experienced two upheavals within the span of a single generation. The pronounced moral shift of “the 1960s” was followed two decades later by the pronounced economic shift of “Reaganism.” By...

    • 15. THE NEW ALCHEMY: Technology, Consumerism, and Environmental Advocacy
      (pp. 340-365)

      During the twentieth century, Americans struggled to reconcile their concerns for the environment with enthusiasm for technology-driven progress. In the first half of the century, both in times of scarcity and abundance, assumptions about technology shaped environmental activism. The postwar period added a new element to this long debate. Herbert Marcuse of Brandeis University argued in his book One-Dimensional Man that America had entered a condition of “post-scarcity,” which he defined as a subversive trend whereby technology became an engine of mass consumption and false consciousness leading to a world of one-dimensional people who defined themselves through material consumption of...

      (pp. 366-401)

      The 1963 March on Washington marked not only the achievement of national legitimacy for Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, but also the convergence of the civil rights movement with a large portion of the American labor movement. The march, whose full title was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was the joint project of civil rights organizations and various labor unions, including the United Automobile Workers (UAW), arguably the most important and influential union in the United States. The UAW contributed a substantial portion of the money and organizers for the march and for...

    • 17. WHAT PRICE VICTORY? American Intellectuals and the Problem of Cold War Democracy
      (pp. 402-424)

      In February 1941, Henry Luce, the influential publisher of Time and Life magazines, wrote a famous editorial defining a new vision of American internationalism. Boldly titling his essay “The American Century,” Luce argued that even as the Nazis dominated Europe and Japan controlled the Pacific, the United States could reshape the political order of the world. Isolationism, he insisted, was a bankrupt philosophy grounded in self-deception. As long as Americans failed to recognize their interdependence with the rest of the world and denied the reality of their country’s preeminent power, they would merely stand on the sidelines of history while...

  6. PART III Government

    • 18. MANAGERIAL CAPITALISM CONTESTED: Government Policy, Culture, and Corporate Investment
      (pp. 427-454)

      In the years following World War II, the liberal state imposed institutional and cultural constraints on the investment strategies of big business. Before the war, social and political disputes centered on progressivism’s and then liberalism’s response to industrialization, particularly increased social-class conflict associated with the growth of wage labor, greater dependence on what has been called “managerial capitalism,” and the gradual development of state and federal governmental institutions to match the scale of corporate power. During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reshaped progressivism’s reform tradition to institute a liberal constitutional regime in which government for the first time was...

      (pp. 455-476)

      Since World War II, education has become an increasingly important facet of American life. For example, today almost all children complete high school, and more than half will receive at least some college education. At the same time, the federal government has become increasingly more involved in the provision of financial aid and the issuing of regulations. With growing politicization since the 1970s, education has emerged as an important national domestic political issue between Republicans and Democrats.

      Americans have traditionally relied on education to transmit cultural values, alleviate serious social problems, and enhance citizenship. Indeed, they often have exaggerated the...

    (pp. 477-480)
  8. INDEX
    (pp. 481-522)