We have to remember the deep roots of post war American culture established in the 50s in order to really understand the social, political, and spiritual upheaval of the 60s in the United States and its effect throughout the world. The end of World War II marked a turning point, one that fundamentally reshaped the landscape of the western world. Finally, after half a century of war, there was peace on earth — or at least it seemed that way. In World War II, the nations on both sides were praying to their God for victory. In the end it was the God of the Allies who gave them the victory. From that point on, God and country went hand in hand in the victorious western countries, and especially the United States.
The allied countries had suffered enough in the two world wars and the great depression of the first half of the century. Now America was ready to enjoy their hard-earned prosperity. Gone was the anxiety that had held them back from buying life’s indulgences during the Great Depression and World War II. Americans were ready to forge their dreams into a universal vision of the future, a vision for the whole world to follow: the American Dream.
The end of World War II signaled the beginning of the Cold War, with the US employing a policy of containment of Russia and any other countries that violated the Truman Doctrine, which essentially stated: “The United States will defend free people and their free institutions at any place at any point in the world where outside communist aggression threatens that nation’s internal stability.” Along with this policy came increased government spending, which started the American economy rolling. Big government contracts were increasingly available for private American businesses as the policy of containment meant keeping ahead of the Russians in every way. This incentive fueled by the threat of nuclear war formed what President Eisenhower termed the “military-industrial complex.” Companies that had never held military contracts came to see the Department of Defense as their best customer. By the mid-1950s there were over 40,000 defense contractors working for the federal government. By the 1960s, more than half of all government expenditures went to the military. By the 1970s, the Department of Defense had more economic assets than the 75 largest corporations in America.
President Eisenhower, in his farewell address to the nation in 1961, warned that the growing relationship between defense contractors and the federal government was a threat to the well-being of America and its values. Many Americans ignored his warnings. After all, why worry when the economy was prosperous? Americans made up only 6% of the world population, yet they produced and consumed one third of the world’s goods and services. During the 1950s, America’s Gross National Product (GNP) increased 51%, largely fueled by Defense spending.
Along with increased government spending came another form of economic prosperity. Soldiers who came home from the war wanted to start a new life on their own. This prompted William Levitt to design and build two thousand suburban houses in May 1947. Thus “suburbia” was born. As construction spread to other areas, the economy continued to prosper. Factories flourished as they were being pushed to make refrigerators, washing machines, and dishwashers to equip the houses of Levittown and its many sister projects around the country. Auto makers responded to the demand of families who had moved to the suburbs and now required two cars per family. This led to 8 million cars being sold in 1955 alone. The growth of suburbia eroded urban neighborhoods that had for centuries supported the social and economic needs of families. Yet America thanked God for its growth and prosperity, little realizing the price to be paid in the eventual disintegration of both the family and the local community.
In the 1950s the American Dream had some very powerful components — a home in the suburbs, job security in a large corporation, and a new car every few years. It meant open doors of opportunity in education, business, leisure time, and a sense of security based on ever-increasing prosperity. GIs returning from World War II and the Korean War were eager to spend money and to have children. This was the “baby boom” generation, whose parents wanted to spare them the uncertainties they had endured in the first half of the twentieth century.
In the 1950s, 29 million new Americans were born — a birth rate comparable to that of India. To meet the consumer demands of this increasing population, American industry expanded at an amazing pace, turning out new cars, clothing, Frisbees, and a plethora of other consumer items with the help of factory automation technology.
In the 1940s, only 9% of Americans were considered to be “middle class.” By 1960, more than 30% of the population was middle class, with corresponding increases in the demand for education and housing. The year 1960 marked the first time in United States history that a majority of high-school aged people actually graduated from high school. Those who grew up in that decade believed that their education was the key to a successful and happy life. Their good education was going to land them a good job and lay the foundation for a secure future.
The biggest consumer revolution was the growth of the television industry. In 1946, there were 17,000 television sets in the nation, mostly in the East. By 1949, Americans were purchasing TV sets at the rate of 250,000 per month. By 1953, two-thirds of American homes had at least one TV. This new medium of communication and entertainment changed the world forever, making vast amounts of information on any topic available to every ordinary citizen.
The prosperity of the ’50s in the United States was unprecedented in history, and that desire for financial success and careless ease has been the underpinning of American culture ever since. American Christianity went right along with this growing culture of the American Dream. In fact there was virtually a seamless unity between the two. Indeed, God did get the credit for America’s prosperity and Christianity experienced tremendous growth because of it. “In God We Trust” was placed on American currency in 1955. “Under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954, reflecting President Eisenhower’s assertion that “our government makes no sense unless it is grounded on a deeply felt religious faith.”
These expressions of “God and Country” reflected the confidence Americans felt that America was God’s chosen land, and that “chosenness” was expressed in the level of economic prosperity the middle class was experiencing. The age-old values that America was founded on, of staying within the boundaries of conscience, gave way to measuring your connection to God by the prosperity you enjoyed. This way of thinking brought a sense of unity and prophetic destiny to the American people. Remember the good feelings we got from singing, “God Bless America”? God was indeed on their side and Americans could now become the saviors of the world in more ways than just sending her young men to fight for the causes of freedom throughout the world.
The understanding that God and the prosperity of the country went hand in hand, reinforced by media-propelled evangelists like Billy Graham, was the “prophetic vision” for the multitudes to relate to the modern culture and new world they were a part of. By 1960, over 30% of Americans lived in suburbs. The stereotypical images of suburbia presented so clearly to us by “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver” expressed the fact that the nation was becoming a conformist society: Levittown houses, housewives alone at home with their soap operas, children in public schools, husbands struggling their way up the corporate ladder, watching sports on TV, and backyard barbecues on the weekends...
The status quo became the program in the ’50s. Gant shirts, alligator belts, Bass Weejuns and Canoe were symbols of success and acceptance for the growing generation of baby boomers. Those few “cultural rebels” who despised the cultural underpinnings of “The Establishment” and who didn’t accept the established norms of ’50s America were looked upon with disdain.
Although Congress had added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” to the nation’s currency, real spirituality was hard to find in the culture of the American Dream. A gnawing emptiness began to grow in the baby-boom generation who were coming of age in the 60s, along with a deep resentment of the new war in Vietnam that was claiming the lives of so many of their friends and family. The horrors of that far-away and bewildering war invaded the living rooms of America like never before, thanks to their hundred million TV sets. Was this seemingly pointless war and the empty materialism of their middle-class inheritance the blessing of Billy Graham’s God?
For the ’60s baby boomers with their ’50s roots, God was dead and the American Dream was becoming a nightmare. They began to question their roots and look for real answers outside the mainstream, no matter what the cost. Little did they realize the power of those cultural roots that were emblazoned on their souls or the cost to them and to society for their attempt to find something real. The ’50s left its mark in a very deep way.
What is seen as the rebellion of the ’60s was really an attempt to break free from the power of their roots in the ’60s. It was not about doing drugs and hating God and rebelling against authority as an end in itself. The Movement of the ’60s is often seen that way. But the heart and soul of the Movement came from a stirring in the soul of a generation who wanted to be cut free from the binding power of a dead society with a dead God. In the early days, young people took drugs to expand their consciousness in hopes of finding a real answer. It was their response to the stirring. Their teachers didn’t have the answer and neither did the preachers.
The stirring didn’t go away, but did that stirring become a true Movement? Why couldn’t the baby boomers escape from their roots to become the true Movement that could bring lasting peace and justice to the earth? Will we ever have answers to these questions? Many from that generation still reflect on why the Movement never got off the ground.