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Technology in Postwar America

Technology in Postwar America: A History

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Technology in Postwar America
    Book Description:

    Carroll Pursell tells the story of the evolution of American technology since World War II. His fascinating and surprising history links pop culture icons with landmarks in technological innovation and shows how postwar politics left their mark on everything from television, automobiles, and genetically engineered crops to contraceptives, Tupperware, and the Veg-O-Matic.

    Just as America's domestic and international policies became inextricably linked during the Cold War, so did the nation's public and private technologies. The spread of the suburbs fed into demands for an interstate highway system, which itself became implicated in urban renewal projects. Fear of slipping into a postwar economic depression was offset by the creation of "a consumers' republic" in which buying and using consumer goods became the ultimate act of citizenship and a symbol of an "American Way of Life."

    Pursell begins with the events of World War II and the increasing belief that technological progress and the science that supported it held the key to a stronger, richer, and happier America. He looks at the effect of returning American servicemen and servicewomen and the Marshall Plan, which sought to integrate Western Europe into America's economic, business, and technological structure. He considers the accumulating "problems" associated with American technological supremacy, which, by the end of the 1960s, led to a crisis of confidence.

    Pursell concludes with an analysis of how consumer technologies create a cultural understanding that makes political technologies acceptable and even seem inevitable, while those same political technologies provide both form and content for the technologies found at home and at work. By understanding this history, Pursell hopes to advance a better understanding of the postwar American self.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51189-6
    Subjects: Technology, History, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    In 1941, media mogul Henry Luce, founder of both Life and Time magazines, famously proclaimed the American Century, calling on the American people “to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influences.”¹ Six decades later, Luce’s “duty” and “opportunity” came to look very imperial indeed, as America came to be known as the “homeland,” and its culture, including its technology, had been projected onto the rest of the world. As the world’s only superpower, the United States...

    (pp. 1-19)

    The two decades between World War I and World War II were laced with discussions about technology and its place in American life. The word “technology” itself probably came into common use during this period to replace the older terms “machinery” or the “useful and mechanic arts.” The new term was meant to stand for the aggregate of tools and machines that marked modern life, but its inclusiveness blurred the distinctions among the things to which it referred. Technology was in fact an empty category that could stand for anything or nothing; each American, hearing the word, could endow it...

    (pp. 20-38)

    The return of 14 million American military personnel, including 350,000 women, from overseas—and the laying-off of many thousands of American women from defense factories, mills, and shipyards—was widely understood to define a return to normal life for the nation. The economic dislocations and gender disruptions of the war years were to be replaced as quickly as possible, not with the status quo before the war, but with a prosperity earned by years of sacrifice. The fear that demobilization and cancelled defense contracts would plunge the nation back into economic depression proved unwarranted, as pent-up demand for durable consumer...

    (pp. 39-58)

    In 1941, the magazine mogul Henry Luce called on Americans “to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influences.”¹ That impact could be projected in many ways: through politics, economics, war, communications, and other vectors of power. As it turned out, many of these had in common an American desire and ability to impose its will through its myriad and marvelous technologies. Foreign aid to help rebuild Japan and Europe, especially Germany, and to support both the...

    (pp. 59-77)

    After World War II, the war’s dramatic new technologies were taken over by new or reorganized government agencies: the AEC, a reorganized Defense Department, and in 1958, NASA. During the Cold War, the research on nuclear technologies and the development of both nuclear and conventional arms and missiles were all understood in terms of a race with the Soviet Union for creation and deployment. Invention, rather than a negotiated compromise, became the preferred solution to the Soviet menace. Vast amounts of both money and scientific and engineering talent were diverted from civilian activities to the elaboration of often-baroque military technologies....

    (pp. 78-97)

    World War II saw the apotheosis of modern industrial might. Mass production had allowed the United States and its allies to outproduce the Axis powers, an accomplishment that provided the allied powers an indispensable base from which to launch their military operations. However, the Industrial Revolution had not yet worked its course, even in the factories of the United States. In the 1950s, the term “automation” was coined to refer to significant increases in using automatic machines and “saving” labor. Social commentators and labor unions both deplored the possibility of “workerless factories,” which Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. explored in his first...

    (pp. 98-117)

    In 1947, Kiwanis International issued the first of what it planned to be a series of leaflets “prepared in the interest of the American Way of Life.”¹ The Cold War was just beginning, but it was clear that if the American way of life was worth saving from communism, Americans should be clear about what needed to be defended. The cover, in red, white and blue, carried the title “It’s Fun to Live in America,” and featured three drawings. At the top, given pride of place, was a family-sized convertible, with Dad driving, Mom at his side, and a backseat...

    (pp. 118-133)

    At the end of the twentieth century, statistics showed that the United States was exporting electronics to the rest of the world at a rate amounting to $181 billion, making the country what David Lazarus of the San Francisco Chronicle called “the tech toy store to the world.” The leading markets were our closest neighbors: first Canada ($29.3 billion), then Mexico ($21.9 billion). Japan was the third-largest market ($16.1 billion) with the United Kingdom taking $10.8 billion. Of the next six countries, two were European and four Asian. American electronics manufacturers not only sold abroad—accounting for 26 percent of...

  11. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 134-154)

    A quarter century of fun and vanguardism in technology was not without its price: A series of problems associated with American technological supremacy accumulated over the years, and by the end of the 1960s, it led to something of a crisis of confidence. Rachel Carson’s widely influential Silent Spring cast grave doubt on the miracle of DDT, one of the most ubiquitous and heralded of wartime advances. The threat of nuclear war was never far from the minds of those in the postwar generation, and the hot war in Vietnam, pitting as it did the full might of American arms...

    (pp. 155-173)

    The years around 1970 witnessed a remarkable variety of attempts to regain control of the nation’s technology, shifting it from one set of controls to another. The Nixon administration’s efforts early in the decade to push through a program to build the SST led the Democratic Congress to establish an Office of Technology Assessment, which was designed to advise lawmakers on the costs and benefits of new technological possibilities. Beginning on the private level, groups of social critics began to campaign for what they called appropriate technologies (AT). The OPEC-induced fuel shortage focused AT initiatives on energy sources, especially solar...

    (pp. 174-192)

    The electrical engineers and physicists who attempted to create “an electronic environment for war,” to use historian Hunter Dupree’s phrase, built better than they knew. Not only are smart bombs, fly-by-wire airplanes, battlefield laptops, and even the videophones of embedded reporters all descendents of that World War II–era effort, but the domestic environment has been transformed as well. Computers, transistors, and integrated circuits insinuated themselves into every crevice of daily life, doing much more than the complex mathematical calculations for which they were originally designed. By the end of the century, the newly wired society was already giving way...

    (pp. 193-211)

    In the 1970s, the broad national questioning of technology and its costs coincided with America’s losing the war in Vietnam. If that defeat was associated with a perceived feminization of the country, as has been suggested, then it paralleled the way in which appropriate technology (AT) and technology assessment had been characterized as unmanly. In the 1980s, the antidote for such gendered self-doubts proved to be the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who urged the nation to “stand tall again.”

    In April 1979, Jimmy Carter was in the White House and solar panels were installed on the roof of the West...

    (pp. 212-230)

    In the last decade of the twentieth century, a piece of graffiti appeared proclaiming that “Time and Space are so not everything happens at once, and not all to you.” It was an entirely convincing and comforting formulation, but it was already becoming archaic. The annihilation of time and space, the project begun by modernity two centuries ago, had reached the point by the twenty-first century where it was almost literally true that everything happens at once, and it all happens to us.

    The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote in 1988 that “America is the original version of modernity.”¹ It...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 231-258)
    (pp. 259-270)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 271-280)