Chapter 26 Postwar Europe and North America, 1945-1968

Section 5 Changes in Society and Culture


The two decades after 1945 were a time of both prosperity and anxiety. The prosperity resulted from widespread economic growth in the West; the anxiety from the ever-present and growing danger of nuclear destruction. By the mid-1960s many people, particularly the younger generation, began to question the society and values of the previous generation. The result was growing unrest in many Western countries.

The Age of Affluence

During the 1950s and 1960s, the standard of living in most of North America and Western Europe reached its highest level in history. The countries of the Soviet bloc lagged behind, but the post-Stalin emphasis on consumer goods demonstrated a new attention to the lives of ordinary individuals.


Boom times in the West. Throughout most of the 1950s and 1960s, the economies of the West experienced strong and steady growth, providing jobs and steady incomes to growing populations. The United States led the way. Economic growth in the United States was in part spurred by two factors: (1) the expansion of automobile production, which fostered the enormous growth of suburbs, and (2) the emergence of new tech­nologies, such as television and dozens of new household appliances. In Western Europe, Marshall Plan funds helped get the national economies of the war-torn countries back on their feet. Consumer confidence and carefully considered government policy helped keep the recovery going through the 1950s and 1960s.

The result of booming economies was the full blossoming in much of Western Europe of the consumer culture that had begun to emerge during the 1920s. In Britain, for example, consumer credit (loans tied to the purchase of consumer goods) tripled between 1957 and 1965. In 1965 British viewers purchased 13 million television sets, nearly 1,000 times the number purchased in 1947. In France the Citroen 2CV automobile became a French counterpart of the Ford Model T. By the early 1970s some 70 percent of French adults owned an automobile. Household appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines came to be seen as necessities. One French woman described the changes these consumer goods brought to European women in the 1970s:  

"Charter trips and organized travel; in my day that didn't even enter into your wildest dreams .... Blue jeans and the T-shirts, instant mashed potatoes, the transistor radio you can buy for next to nothing, the boyfriend who has a Citroen 2CV he bought second­hand, and off you go to the country."

Tougher times in the East. The people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union did not enjoy the same prosperity as westerners. Lacking U.S. reconstruction assistance, the Communist bloc recovered more slowly from the war. In addition, the Eastern European countries had generally not been nearly as developed as the West even before the war. Many areas had not industrialized.

      Nevertheless, consumer-oriented economic policies under Khrushchev had some effect. A burst of housing construction, starting in 1956, contributed to the sense that things were getting better. So did increases in wages, lengthened maternity leaves, higher pensions and disability benefits, and shorter workweeks. But even these reforms left many problems untouched. New housing was poorly constructed, and workers still had to stand in long lines for scarce and inferior goods. About the only thing that kept the people of the Communist bloc from complaining more than they did was a lack of knowledge about the prosperity of the West.

The Generation Gap

The most obvious characteristic of the postwar generation in the West was its great size. Because of economic depression and war, during the 1930s and 1940s millions of couples had put off starting families. By the end of the war, there existed an extraordinarily large group of people ready to have children. (The situation was different in the Soviet Union because of the much greater num­ber of wartime deaths.) The result was the large generation born between the late 1940s and the early 1960s-the generation of the baby boom.

Many of the younger people identified themselves quite differently from their parents' generation. The older generation, having experienced material hardship, appreciated what they now had; the younger generation, knowing only prosperity, often took it for granted. The older generation found it easy to focus on what was finally right in their lives, while the younger generation tended to concentrate on what was wrong. In the West these differences came to be called the generation gap.

A distinctive culture developed among the young, generally emphasizing youthful tastes in fashion, music, and styles of living. Many young people chose clothing that set them off from their parents-starting with blue jeans and moving on to mini-skirts, tie-dyed 'Tshirts, and love beads. They listened to different music-from Elvis Presley to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. Many developed an attitude of suspicion toward their parents' generation. A commonly heard warning was "Don't trust anyone over thirty."

The prosperity of the period made the youth culture possible. More than ever before, young people had money to spend on clothes, music, and other forms of entertainment. The chance to attend college also enabled many young people to postpone their entry into the world of work.


The Culture of Protest

In his 1961 inaugural address, President Kennedy urged young Americans to take an active role in their government, saying: "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans .... " But this invitation was short-lived-for many people, it ended with the assassination of the president in 1963. Disillusioned with politics, young people contributed to the growth of a broad culture of protest. They protested against the unjust and violent policies of governments and what they saw as the conformity of their parents' generation, and for more equality in society.


The antiwar movement. A pressing issue for many young people, both in the United States and other countries, was the Vietnam War. As the U.S. role in the fighting escalated during the mid-1960s, opposition to the war, particularly among college students, escalated as well. Students marched and held rallies, condemning the war as cruel and unjust. Protesters besieged the White House during the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, chanting: "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

Equal rights. Broader and longer lasting than the antiwar movement was the struggle for equal rights. In the United States after World War II the struggle first focused on civil rights for African Americans. In December 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, an African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to obey a segregation law that required her to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person. Parks's defiance led Montgomery's African American community to boycott the city buses.

During the early 1960s many people staged sit-ins and other forms of demonstrations against legalized inequality. One of the largest protests was the August 1963 March on Washington. Civil rights leaders, such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., stirred the consciences of millions. Before a crowd of over 200,000 people, King proclaimed:

 I have a dream that one day ... all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"

Revolt in Western Europe. The dissatisfaction of some Europeans spanned a spectrum of issues, and it produced a series of political explosions. For example, university students throughout Western Europe protested the war in Southeast Asia, as well as university overcrowding. During the spring of 1968, a wave of violent demonstrations swept France, West Germany, and Italy.

The center of the demonstrations was Paris, where a German exchange student, Daniel Cohn-Bendit (nicknamed Danny the Red), led fellow students out of the classroom to protest French educational policy. The protest spread after police resorted to violence to break up the demonstration. Within days industrial workers joined the protest, bringing their own complaints, such as demands for higher wages. Before long, millions of people were on strike across the country.

The May Events, as the uprising was called, nearly toppled the de Gaulle government in France. Although de Gaulle managed to hold on to power for a while longer, the unrest in France, combined with the protests in the other Western European countries, demonstrated the degree to which many people had become alienated from mainstream society.

Literature and film. While most of the protests took place in the political arena, books, movies, and television also served as vehicles for airing grievances and calling for change. A recurrent theme was the danger of nuclear war. Nevil Shute's best-selling book On the Beach depicted life in the aftermath of a nuclear war; Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's novel Fail-Safe presented a frightening account of how a nuclear war might start by accident.

Of films dealing with nuclear war, probably the most influential and one of the most hilarious was Stanley Kubrick's dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The film reaches a high point with the image of an American cowboy-pilot rid­ing a hydrogen bomb down to its Russian target, waving his hat and yelling at the top of his lungs.

Dissent in the East. Protest was not confined to the West. However, behind the Iron Curtain, protest was more difficult and dangerous. None­theless, in the communist countries brave people known as dissidents spoke out against their gov­ernments. Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (yef-tuh-SHENG-koh) thought de-Stalinization was less than it seemed. His "Heirs of Stalin" saw the old system waiting to make a comeback:

"Some of his heirs

tend roses in retirement, but secretly consider

their retirement temporary.


from platforms rail against Stalin,


at night,

yearn for the good old days."

                One of the most outspoken of all the Soviet dissidents was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (sohl-zhuh-NEET-suhn). One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn's novel of life in the Stalinist labor camps, created a sensation in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. Dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn and the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Andrei Sakharov (SAH-kuh-rawf), were imprisoned or exiled for their protests.

Reform and Reaction

The civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s produced important changes in U.S. race relations. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka outlawed segregation in schools. The 1964 Civil Rights Act banned racial discrimination in most business activities. The 1965 Voting Rights Act guaranteed African Americans and other minorities the right to vote. These measures and others like them ended the practice of racial discrimination in government activities and went far toward doing the same in public matters in general.

               The civil rights movement also encouraged demands for an end to other forms of inequality, particularly against women. In Europe, for example, Simone de Beauvoir, a leading French socialist writer, compared the position of women in male-dominated European society to that of the colonial peoples in the European overseas empires. Her influential book, The Second Sex, first published in 1949, rejected the traditional notion of women as biologically infe­rior to men. "What particularly signalizes the situation of woman," she wrote, "is that she-a free autonomous [independent] being like all human creatures-nevertheless finds herself in a world where men compel her to assume the status of Other."

                In 1963 the American feminist author Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique, summa­rized the frustration some women felt with society's expectations of them, calling the modern household a "comfortable concentration camp." Friedan was instrumental in the establishment of the National Organization of Women (NOW) in 1966. NOW and other women's groups lobbied on behalf of equal pay for women, greater political representation, improved childcare, reproductive rights, and other measures of special interest to women.  

Reform and Repression in the Eastern Bloc. As in the West, so in Eastern Europe the 1960s saw growing pressure for reforms. Reformers fared less well in the Communist bloc, however, than their counterparts in the democracies of Western Europe. In Czechoslovakia, for example, demands for reform sparked a violent reaction.

The leader of the Czechoslovakian reformers was Alexander Dubcek (ooos-chek). Born in 1921, Dubcek became a member of the Slovak resistance during the war and also of the outlawed Czechoslovak Communist Party. Dubcek remained a loyal Communist through the 1940s and 1950s, even taking a graduate degree at the Higher Party School in Moscow. Yet when he became First Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in January 1968, he decided to back away from the harsh repression that still characterized the Communist government’s policies. Easing censorship, he allowed greater freedom of speech and political participation, and even laid plans for a new constitution for the country. Dubcek summarized his aims in a party statement in April, at the begin­ning of what was being called the Prague Spring. 

"We engage ourselves in the construction of a new model of socialist society, profoundly democratic, and adapted to Czechoslovak conditions." 

Bearing in mind the example of Hungary in 1956, however, Dubcek was more cautious in challenging the authority of the Soviet Union. He explained that the Czechoslovakian government merely wanted to demonstrate that it was "capable of exercising political direction by means other than bureaucratic and police methods." Nevertheless, other voices were less cautious than Dubcek's. The lifting of censorship brought demands for full democracy and calls to defend Czechoslovakia from the Warsaw Pact. This was more than the Soviets could tolerate.

In August 1968 Soviet Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sent in the Red Army. Soviet tanks and other Warsaw Pact units crushed the reform movement of the Prague Spring. This armed reaction established what came to be called the Brezhnev Doctrine: the Soviet Union would use force when necessary to ensure the survival of communism – and the hold of the Soviet Union – in Eastern Europe.