Introduction to the Postwar Era (1945–1970)

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Introduction to the Postwar Era (1945–1970)

Three important political events define the period between the end of World War II in 1945 and 1970: the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. These three events provide the overarching framework for a rich array of social and political changes that took place in America during that time.

The United States emerged from World War II in a strong position in world politics. Because the war was not fought on American soil, the nation’s infrastructure was largely untouched. In contrast, the cities and economies of Western Europe suffered such a degree of destruction that it would require years and billions of dollars to repair. The biggest postwar concern of U.S. foreign policy was the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union, the world’s only other “superpower.” Curbing the spread of communism became the chief principle behind every foreign policy decision. The United States poured vast sums of money into the war torn economies of Europe and sent financial and military assistance to many Third World countries in hopes of keeping them from turning to communism.

The first major Cold War flare-up was the Korean War (1950–1953). During the early 1960s Cuba was a flashpoint for Cold War conflict, with the Cuban missile crisis bringing the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war in 1962. Meanwhile, fear of communism was a major domestic issue during much of the 1950s as well. Unsubstantiated accusations by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) and hearings conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities ruined the careers of many innocent citizens based on warped notions of the magnitude of the communist threat within U.S. borders.

By the middle of the 1950s the civil rights movement emerged as a powerful force for social change in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared school segregation unconstitutional, helped to jump-start the movement. In addition to landmark civil rights legislation, laws were enacted to protect the environment and consumer safety. Important Supreme Court rulings expanded personal privacy rights, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression.

The nation suffered tragedy when President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) was assassinated in November 1963. For many this event signified the end of innocence in American national consciousness. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973), launched a number of important social programs, collectively called the Great Society. Aimed at addressing poverty and racial injustice, the programs included Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and Head Start. These domestic accomplishments were overshadowed, however, by Johnson’s escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. By the final months of Johnson’s term, opposition to the Vietnam War had grown fierce enough to play a central role in his decision not to seek reelection.

By the late 1960s the United States was a nation in conflict with itself. The civil rights movement had largely disintegrated, as the rise of more radical groups, which rejected Martin Luther King Jr.’s (1929–1968) pacifist approach, alienated many former supporters. Rioting erupted in several major cities. Vietnam had become an enormously unpopular quagmire. Nevertheless, the United States rose above the upheaval of the era and emerged from it with a greater understanding of its own identity.

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Introduction to the Postwar Era (1945–1970)

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Introduction to the Postwar Era (1945–1970)