Chapter 26 Postwar Europe and North America, 1945-1968
Section 5 Changes in Society and Culture
two decades after 1945
prosperity and anxiety. The prosperity resulted from widespread economic
growth in the West; the anxiety from the ever-present and growing danger
destruction. By the mid-1960s many people, particularly the younger
generation, began to
the society and values of
previous generation. The result was growing unrest in many Western
Age of Affluence
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
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.
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:
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
Culture of Protest
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.
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?"
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.
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:
have a dream that one day ...
children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and
Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of
old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we
are free at last!'"
in Western Europe.
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.
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.
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
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
life in the aftermath of a nuclear war; Eugene Burdick and Harvey
Wheeler's novel Fail-Safe
a frightening account of how a nuclear war might start by accident.
films dealing with nuclear war, probably the most influential and one of
the most hilarious was Stanley Kubrick's dark comedy, Dr. Strangelove,
I Learned to
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.
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
less than it seemed. His "Heirs of Stalin" saw the old system
waiting to make a comeback:
roses in retirement, but secretly consider
platforms rail against Stalin,
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.
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,
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
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.
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
leader of the Czechoslovakian reformers was Alexander Dubcek (ooos-chek).
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.
engage ourselves in the construction of a new model of socialist
society, profoundly democratic, and adapted to Czechoslovak
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.