The 1950s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview

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The 1950s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview

After the difficult years of World War II (1941–45), Americans settled into what they hoped would be a long lasting peace. Unfortunately, this was not to be. In 1950, just five years after the war's end, the United States found itself involved in another shooting war. This one was in Korea. The U.S. military forces were under the supervision of the United Nations and were pitted against the Communist North Koreans and Chinese. In 1953, an armistice (truce) was signed, with no side designated as victor.

The United States also became locked in a cold war (a war of opposing ideologies) with the Soviet Union during the decade. While no guns were fired, the threat of a confrontation leading to all-out nuclear war remained ever present throughout the decade. This fear was demonstrated in many ways. For one thing, a "Red Scare" swept the country, during which people suspected strangers and neighbors alike of being "subversives," or supporters of communist principles and ideals. At a very public level, this was seen in what became known as the age of McCarthyism. At the start of the decade, Joseph McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin, earned headlines by accusing certain Americans of being communist sympathizers, or Communist Party members. Many of McCarthy's targets were U.S. government employees. Entertainers and other public figures were also suspects. For a time, McCarthy was one of the most powerful and feared men in the country, as he played on the anxieties of Americans regarding the communist threat and inspired others to join him in his campaign to uncover communist sympathizers in every walk of American life. By mid-decade, however, he had been discredited.

Two significant espionage cases dominated the headlines, both of which involved the alleged passing of secrets to the Soviet Union. One focused on Alger Hiss, a former U.S. State Department official. Hiss was accused of stealing government documents, which ended up in the hands of the Soviets. He was convicted of perjury and did time in jail, but maintained his innocence for the rest of his life. The other notorious case centered on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a married couple charged with passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. Both were tried and found guilty of espionage. In 1953, they were executed.

In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, a satellite, into space. The United States could not ignore the fact that it had been beaten in the race to be the first nation to place a satellite in space. Several questions now gnawed at Americans of all political persuasions. Had the Russians also developed superior nuclear weapons? Would they be willing to use them?

On the national political scene, the Democrats controlled the White House at the beginning of the decade. The president, Harry S Truman, had came into office upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Truman won the 1948 election, but chose not to run for reelection four years later. Republican Dwight Eisenhower earned an easy victory in the 1952 presidential race, beating Democrat Adlai Stevenson. The 1956 election saw the same two opponents, and the same results.

Of all the domestic political issues facing the United States during the 1950s, the one that was most far-reaching involved the escalating Civil Rights movement. Until the 1950s, America was almost completely a segregated society. Blacks and whites went to separate schools, ate at different restaurants, and lived in different neighborhoods. However, separate did not necessarily mean equal. The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas U.S. Supreme Court decision decreed that separate was unequal with regard to segregated schools. This decision would be a milestone in equal rights for black Americans in all aspects of national life.

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The 1950s Government, Politics, and Law: Overview