Learning Content: Post-War Culture Shifts

Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved. . . .” —Benjamin Franklin, 1737




Continuity and Change: To what extent did the post-war era shape American cultural identity?

Principle: Freedom of Expression

As the United States emerged from World War II as a dominant world power, it also experienced a post-war boom that would drive many cultural changes for Americans. Economic prosperity and a growing middle class led to a culture of conformity in the 1950s before giving way to a counterculture steeped in drugs, sex, music, and protest. As counterculture enthusiasm waned, space opened for a new wave of conservatism.

In this module, you will analyze U.S. cultural identity over time. Following World War II through the rise of the conservative movement, you will review the content and materials with an eye to continuity and change as well as the constitutional principle of freedom of expression.

Activate Knowledge

On the Padlet below, address the following prompt:

  • Locate and share the most impactful cultural artifact (music/song, photograph, art, video) that you have used to teach U.S. culture after World War II. Why do you use this particular artifact? What do students connect to when they analyze it? Why is it useful and/or powerful in understanding U.S. culture?

If other participants have posted, engage by commenting, connecting, and questioning the content of their post.

To get started, double click on the Padlet or click the + button at the bottom right of the page and start typing in the box that appears.

Building Context

Continuity and Change: To what extent did the post-war era shape American cultural identity?

Principle: Freedom of Expression

Adapted from writings by Patrick Allitt, Emory University; Maurice Isserman, Hamilton College; and Kenneth J. Heineman, Angelo State University

Prosperity and the Baby Boom

The late 1940s and early 1950s were paradoxical. They were years of great geopolitical stress, danger, and upheaval, yet they were also a time of prosperity and opportunity for millions of ordinary American citizens. Far more babies were born each year than in the 1930s, resulting in the large “baby boom” generation. Millions of new houses were built to meet a need accumulated over the long years of the Great Depression and the war. Suburbs expanded around every city, creating far better and less-crowded living conditions than ever before. Levittown housing developments were just one example of the planned communities with mass-produced homes across the country that made homeownership within the reach of many, though mostly white families, thanks to cheap loans for returning veterans (See the Levittown Videos, 1947–1957 Primary Source). Wages and living standards increased, and more American consumers found they could afford their own homes, cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, and even television sets—TV was then a new and exciting technology. The entire nation breathed a sigh of relief on discovering that peace did not bring a return of depression-era conditions and widespread unemployment. (See The Sound of the Suburbs Lesson.)

Television became a staple in U.S. households during the 1940s and 1950s.

Full employment during the war years had strengthened trade unions, but for patriotic reasons, nearly all industrial workers had cooperated with their employers. Now that the war was over, a rash of strikes for better pay and working conditions broke out. In 1945, Truman expanded presidential power by seizing coal mines, arguing it was in the national interest because coal supplied electricity. He then forced the United Mine Workers to end their strike the following year.

Although coal miners won their demands, the power of organized labor waned over the next few decades. Republican members of Congress, whose party had triumphed in the 1946 mid-term elections, passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, aiming to curb the power of unions by banning the closed shop, allowing states to protect the right to work outside the union, setting regulations to limit labor strikes and excluding supporters of the Communist Party and other social radicals from their leadership. Truman vetoed the act, but Congress overrode the veto. In 1952, Truman attempted to again seize a key industry and forestall a strike among steelworkers. However, the Supreme Court decided in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952) that Truman lacked the constitutional authority to seize private property, and steelworkers won significant concessions.

New Roles for Women

American women, especially in the large and growing middle class, were in a paradoxical situation in the 1950s. In one sense, they were the most materially privileged generation of women in world history, wealthier than any predecessors. More had gained college education than ever before, and millions were marrying young, raising their children with advice from Dr. Spock’s best-selling Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946), and enjoying labor-saving domestic devices and modern conveniences like washing machines, toasters, and electric ovens. Affluence meant many middle-class women were driving cars of their own. This 1950s advertisement for Ford automobiles persuaded women to become a “two Ford family.” At the same time, however, some suffered various forms of depression and anxiety, seeking counseling, often medicating themselves, and feeling a lack of purpose in their lives.

This situation was noticed by Betty Friedan, a popular journalist in the 1950s whose book The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, helped ignite the new feminist movement. Its principal claim was that in America in the 1950s, women lacked fulfilling careers of their own, and material abundance was no substitute. (See the Dr. Benjamin Spock and the Baby Boom Narrative.) A feminist movement emerged in the 1960s and 1970s seeking greater equality. In the postwar period, however, not all women shared the same experiences. Millions of working-class and poor women of all races continued to work in factories, retail, domestic, or offices as they had before and during the war. Whether married or single, these women generally did not share in the postwar affluence enjoyed by middle-class, mostly white, women who were in the vanguard of the feminist movement for equal rights for women.

By 1960, the United States was, without question, in a superior position to its great rival the Soviet Union—richer, stronger, healthier, better fed, much freer, and much more powerful. Nevertheless Eisenhower, in his farewell address, warned against the dangers of an overdeveloped “military-industrial complex,” in which American traditions of democracy, decentralization, and civilian control would be swallowed up by the demands of the defense industry and a large, governmental national security apparatus. He had no easy remedies to offer and remained acutely aware that the Cold War continued to threaten the future of the world.

Women’s Movement

Historians credit the civil rights movement with inspiring a “rights revolution” in the 1960s. Women’s fight for equality had been a powerful cause in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s suffrage in 1920, the women’s movement had lost momentum. In the 1960s, however, a “second wave” feminist movement took form, sparked in part by the 1963 publication of journalist Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique and its influence on middle-class white feminists (see the Betty Friedan and the Women’s Movement Narrative).

Friedan described a “problem with no name” that left some white suburban women dissatisfied with their lives: the unequal relationship of men and women grounded in the “mystique” that the primary function of women was in the domestic sphere, as wives and mothers. Friedan’s 1962 book, The Feminine Mystique, struck a chord with many women and soon sold a million copies (see the Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963 Primary Source.)

In 1966, a small group of female activists formed a new organization that, at Friedan’s suggestion, took the name National Organization for Women (NOW). Most of the women initially involved were established professionals, and NOW’s preferred approach to raising women’s rights issues was a combination of litigation and high-level insider lobbying with lawmakers. But younger women, many of them veterans of civil rights or campus activism, soon joined NOW as well and pushed the organization’s tactics, style, and issues in a more radical direction. Meanwhile, women’s caucuses and workshops sprang up in Students for a Democratic Society and other movement groups in 1966 and 1967, and women’s rights groups described their political outlook as “women’s liberation.” Another slogan associated with the reinvigoration of feminism was the belief that “the personal is political,” which is to say that women needed to challenge not only discriminatory public or workplace policies but also inequalities in relationships and in the home. This turned out to be one of the more enduring and profound of the many changes wrought by the 1960s.

Student Movements

In the spring of 1962, several dozen student delegates met in Port Huron, Michigan, to adopt a program for a radical new campus group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). After several days of debate, they arrived at a consensus and adopted the Port Huron Statement, a declaration of generational identity. SDS was the principal “New Left” organization in the 1960s that questioned the authority and legitimacy of society’s institutions.

For SDS, and for the New Left as a whole, civil rights were an inspiration and a model for the student movement and society. The Port Huron Statement advocated a “participatory democracy,” with a preference for grassroots and direct-action politics. In the summer of 1964, nearly 1,000 northern college students, mostly white, traveled to Mississippi to take part in Freedom Summer, a voter registration campaign spearheaded by SNCC. At the very start of the summer, three Freedom Summer volunteers, one black and two white, were abducted by local Ku Klux Klan members and murdered. It proved a formative experience for the students who were “putting their bodies on the line.”

In the fall of 1964, the University of California, Berkeley, banned on-campus political activities by students in outdoor public settings. A coalition of campus groups known as the Free Speech Movement (FSM) came together to challenge the ban (see the Protests at the University of California, Berkeley Decision Point). It was led by undergraduate Mario Savio, just returned from Freedom Summer. Many of the FSM’s tactics, rhetoric, and songs came directly from the civil rights struggle, including the use of direct-action civil disobedience. The climax of the campaign came when hundreds of students occupied Sproul Hall, Berkeley’s main administration building, and were arrested.

The war in Vietnam provided a major new issue for the student movement. As the war escalated in the spring of 1965, so did debate at home over its wisdom. The anti-war movement, like the civil rights movement with which it overlapped, was primarily a moral cause. In April 1965, SDS organized a rally and march in Washington, DC, to protest the war (see Students and the Anti-War Movement Narrative). Much to the organizers’ surprise, 20,000 people turned out, the largest anti-war gathering to date (later protests in Washington, DC, brought out as many as 500,000).

As the war dragged on year after year, the idea of moving from simply marching against it to conducting some form of resistance grew more popular among youthful anti-war protesters. Some draft-eligible young men became draft resisters, which meant refusing to carry draft cards or submit to the draft if called, and several thousand went to jail or fled to Canada as a result.

The official slogan for the October 1967 March on the Pentagon was “From Protest to Resistance.” On October 21, approximately 75,000 protesters gathered before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, for a traditional rally. When that concluded, tens of thousands marched to the Pentagon, located across the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. Approximately 5,000 broke through lines of military police to reach the side of the building, where they prepared to spend the night. Some of the protesters were members of the “Yippies,” who promised (absurdly) to levitate the Pentagon to mock military institutions with public theater. Hundreds were arrested. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, a key architect of the Vietnam War, watched the spectacle from his office above, by then more disturbed by the war he had helped launch than by the protests against it (see the Image Analysis: March on the Pentagon, October 21, 1967 Primary Source).

An anti-war protester offers a flower to military police during the 1967 March on the Pentagon.


In the two decades after World War II, the average age at first marriage dropped, the birth rate soared, and 76 million babies were born. This generation of babies, born between 1946 and 1964, made up the “baby boom,” and as the baby boomers grew up, retailers eagerly catered to consumer demands for necessities (e.g., diapers, clothing, footwear) as well as diversions (e.g., toys, movies, records).

Before World War II, most Americans had not graduated from high school, let alone college. With the explosive growth of higher education in the postwar era, however, a college degree became a rite of passage for young people raised in middle-class households. The pre-adult, pre-workplace stage of life—adolescence—was, in effect, being extended for many young people, from the mid-teens to the early twenties.

Shown here in 1967, the Beatles—(right to left) Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney—rose to fame in the United States after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. (credit: “The Beatles magical mystery tour” by Parlop

As a result, young people increasingly defined their own tastes. A counterculture or “youth culture” distinctly at odds with middle-class culture took shape in the 1950s. On the eve of the 1960s, the “Beat Generation” of writers, poets, and others who clustered in bohemian neighborhoods like Greenwich Village in New York City and North Beach in San Francisco influenced the attitudes of the baby boomers through their writings and the example of their lives, especially in regard to sex, race, drugs, and music. The folk music craze of the early 1960s, which propelled songwriter-performers like Bob Dylan to celebrity, contributed to the baby boomers’ sense of generational identity and mission. The Beatles evolved from a wildly popular rock band who wore suits and ties to psychedelically garbed musicians with songs about imagined worlds of peace and love. Countercultural enthusiasms may have waned as baby boomers took on adult responsibilities, but there is no question they indelibly shaped post-1960s American culture.

Social movements

Nixon also presided over the growing influence of the conservative movement. Meanwhile, the Democratic New Deal coalition of ethnic workers, unions, blacks, Jews, and southerners began to divide. Affluent liberals challenged party regulars for control of the party and moved it to the left with the rights revolutions.

The 1960s African American civil rights movement inspired Latinos and Native Americans to establish such protest organizations as La Raza and the American Indian Movement. La Raza (“The Race”) wanted to unify all Hispanics under its banner and advocated, among other things, bilingual education in the public schools. The American Indian Movement staged armed protests at reservations to draw attention to tribal poverty and historic grievances over the confiscation of native lands. (See the American Indian Activism and the Siege of Wounded Knee Narrative.)

César Chávez, shown here in 1976, worked to unionize Mexican American farm workers in the United States.

César Chávez (Figure 15.4) formed the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 to organize Mexican Americans as a union and a political force, staging a nationwide boycott of grapes to publicize the plight of itinerant farm workers who picked them (see the César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and the United Farm Workers Narrative, and the Art as Protest: Images from the United Farm Workers of America, 1973–1978 Primary Source). In 1966, feminists, including Betty Friedan, helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW championed an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, which Congress sent to the states for ratification in 1972. The ERA, its supporters insisted, would guarantee women higher salaries and gender equality. Feminists also won the legalization of abortion as a result of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. (See the The Birth Control Pill Narrative.) In 1969, gay rights became a national political issue as a result of a violent clash between police officers and gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City. (See the The Gay Liberation Movement Narrative.)

View the BRI Homework Help video on Roe v. Wade to learn more about the case.

Whether feminist, gay, Latino, African American, or American Indian, such organizations and movements embraced a politics of identity (race, gender, or sexual orientation) and not necessarily of social class—with the exception of Chávez, who championed low-paid migrant workers. Each movement found its way into the Democratic Party and transformed liberal politics. Labor union members, southern whites, and northern working-class Catholics felt marginalized because the Democratic Party was shifting away from traditional New Deal liberalism. The Democratic New Deal political coalition fractured at the same time the conservative movement was ascendant.

The Rise of Conservatism

Although Carter tried to move to the right on U.S. foreign policy, requiring young men to register for a nonexistent draft and boycotting the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, he pleased no one. Conservatives, including Sun Belt libertarians, southern evangelicals, and the Democrats who had voted for Nixon in 1972, wanted tougher measures against the Soviet Union and Iran. Democratic liberals, on the other hand, believed Carter had overreacted in his responses to both countries. Liberals not only rejected his more conservative foreign policy, they believed he knew nothing about domestic policy. They were convinced that regulations and more federal spending programs, including taxpayer-subsidized national health insurance, could cure what was ailing the nation’s economy.

During the 1980 Democratic primaries, Carter barely beat back a challenge on the left from Massachusetts senator and dynastic heir Edward “Teddy” Kennedy, a brother of the late president. Democratic liberals showed little enthusiasm for Carter, expecting that even if Reagan won the 1980 election, he would prove a failure, paving the way for Kennedy in 1984. The American people, liberals argued, did not want what Reagan offered—namely a rollback of welfare programs, a federal crackdown on crime, and increased defense spending. However, the conservative movement was ready to bring a new vision to the federal government after the decline of the New Deal liberal order.

The 1980s Economy and Society

In the 1980s, the economy returned to rates of growth that had been common before the oil shock of 1973. The digital revolution in computers began, and the process of deindustrialization—the transition in employment from industry to the service sector—continued. Partly because many American industrial jobs went overseas to countries with cheaper labor, the proportion of American workers in labor unions declined significantly, changing the dynamics of labor-management relations. Moreover, many industrial towns across the United States were hit hard by widespread unemployment. At the same time, women joined the workforce in rapidly increasing numbers and entered new fields. A new and much-satirized archetype emerged, the “yuppie” (young urban professional), as the symbol of what critics saw as a new era of greed. Others saw the era differently, as a rebirth of freedom and opportunity. (See the Tech Giants: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates Narrative.)

Like the nation’s foreign policy, its growing economy during the decade was tempered by shortcomings. These included rising income inequality (a trend that had begun in the early 1970s), a crisis in the savings and loan industry that required an expensive government bailout, and a steep, though short-lived, stock market decline in late 1987. The federal debt also grew significantly during the decade, with a number of factors contributing. Defense spending increased, as did automatic entitlement spending on social programs. Tax cuts slowed the growth of government tax revenue, and the recession of 1981–1982 reduced revenue as well. The annual deficit then fell with the booming economy and spending restraint, though the federal debt continued to grow. After a new spurt in the early 1990s, the federal deficit shrank throughout the decade after several deficit-reduction packages were adopted during the Bush and Clinton administrations, aided by a stock market and economic boom fueled by growing technology companies and low interest rates.

Demographic trends also changed the United States. In keeping with economic deindustrialization, the nation saw a continued shift of population from the Rust Belt states of the Northeast and Midwest to the Sun Belt states of the South and West as people moved in search of jobs and opportunity. There was also a new burst of immigration, this time from Latin America and Asia. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was a compromise reform that gave amnesty to illegal immigrants then in the United States and imposed penalties on businesses for hiring illegal immigrants in the future. A few years later, the Immigration Act of 1990 attempted to connect immigration more closely to job skills by easing the way into the country for more highly educated workers.

The ongoing “culture war” between liberals and conservatives over social values was multifaceted. The debate over abortion continued, with two Supreme Court decisions, Missouri v. Webster (1989) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), narrowing but not overturning Roe v. Wade (1973), which had legalized abortion. A debate over family structure and single motherhood erupted when Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the television show Murphy Brown for featuring a single mother. The emergence of AIDS in the 1980s brought to the forefront questions about society’s acceptance of homosexuality. College campuses became ground zero in battles over diversity, multiculturalism, the teaching of western civilization courses, and affirmative action, which had been an object of controversy even before the Supreme Court’s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision in 1978.

Affirmative action and quotas in employment also returned as an issue due to a 1989 Supreme Court decision and subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which was criticized as promoting quotas. The plight of people with disabilities seeking to use public services was addressed when Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The act banned discrimination against people with disabilities, required employers to make reasonable accommodations, and mandated accessibility for public accommodations. Religion remained part of the “culture war,” as the “religious right” continued to organize to influence the Republican Party and the Democratic Party became increasingly secularized. (See the Is Affirmative Action Justified? Point-Counterpoint.)

Analyzing Resources for Principles and Skills

Continuity and Change: To what extent did the post-war era shape American cultural identity?

Principle: Freedom of Expression

There is a wealth of resources available in our Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness digital textbook. The resources are organized into different categories including:

📎 Inquiry Organizer: Summary of chapter objectives and resources

📖 Chapter Introductory Essay: In-depth overview of significant events in the time period

🔎 Narratives: Shorter essays on a dramatic story or individual

📍 Decision Points: Narratives that describe a pivotal decision in history

💬 Point-Counterpoints: Differing sides of an argument presented by scholars or historical figures

✒️ Primary Sources: Firsthand accounts from the time period

📝 Lessons: Instructions and handouts to engage students in the classroom

✏️ Unit Essay Activity: Culminating essay based on AP LEQs to assess chapter objectives

Using the provided reflection questions, review the following resources:

  1. 📍 Free Speech and the Student Anti-War Movement Decision Point
  2. ✒️ Levittown Videos, 1947-1957 Primary Source Activity
  3. 🔎 William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement Narrative

Then choose at least two more resources to review. In the discussion, you will be asked to share your reflections of these resources.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What do these resources reveal about freedom of expression, culture shifts, and cultural identity?
  2. How do these resources help in understanding how culture changed to stay the same throughout the second half of the 20th century?

Other Resources

Instructional Plan

Comparison: How did federal wartime policies challenge civil liberties from World War I to the present day?

Principle: Freedom of Expression

The following instructional plan is an example of a conceptual teaching approach, centered on an overarching essential question. Not all resources on this topic available in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness have been included. Review the plan using the provided reflection questions.

  • To what extent are the constitutional principles and historical reasoning skills evident in the materials and activities used in the instructional plan?
  • To what extent does the conceptual focus of this instructional plan help students answer the essential question: To what extent did the post-war era shape American cultural identity?
  • What adjustments might you make to better address the constitutional principles and/or historical reasoning skills?
  • What adjustments might you make to the timeframe, guiding questions, and/or instructional activities for it to suit your classes?
  • How will these adjustments positively change the student outcome for understanding and using these principles and/or skills?

What’s Next

Before you engage in the assessment for this module, you will participate in a discussion with the course instructor and other course participants.

For our discussion, we will reflect on the following questions:

  • Explain what these resources reveal about freedom of expression and U.S. cultural identity in the second half of the 20th century.
  • Describe how these resources help in understanding the continuity and change in U.S. culture and identity.
  • Explain which resources helped you most in answering the guiding question: To what extent did the post-war era shape American cultural identity? Why?
  • How might you change or adjust those resources to suit your classes? Are there any resources you feel like could be added?