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In this book, David Farber grounds our understanding of the extraordinary history of the 1960s by linking the events of that era to our country's grand projects of previous decades. Farber's important study, based on years of research in archives and oral histories as well as in historical literature, explores Vietnam, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, the entertainment business, the drug culture, and much more. David Farberteaches history at the University of New Mexico and is the author ofChicago '68and co-author, with Beth Bailey, of The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii. In this book, David Farber grounds our understanding of the extraordinary history of the 1960s by linking the events of that era to our country's grand projects of previous decades. Farber's important study, based on years of research in archives and oral histories as well as in historical literature, explores Vietnam, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty, the entertainment business, the drug culture, and much more. "The best single volume we have on America in the 1960s. For those who came of age during those years . . . Farber's powerfully written book will resonate, sending chills of recognition. For those too young to know the 1960s, [it] will instruct."William M. Tuttle, University of Kansas "The Sixties in a finely crafted nutshell; David Farber's is the best synthesis yet to appear."Jonathan Alter,Newsweek "Quite simply, the history of America in the 1960s that we have long awaited. Persuasively argued and elegantly written, it illuminates the intersection of political, social, cultural, economic, diplomatic, and military dynamics during this tumultuous decade, Once again David Farber demonstrates that good history makes for good reading. I couldn't put the book down."Richard H. Immerman, Temple University
David Farber teaches history at the University of New Mexico and is the author of Chicago '68 and co-author, with Beth Bailey, of The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii.
Table of Contents
The Age of Great Dreams
THREE HUNDRED THOUSAND Americans stood shoulder to shoulder. They had been waiting in the cold for hours. Liquor was passed from hand to hand, but the crowd remained good-natured. At last the countdown began: 10 ... 9 ... 8 ... High above Times Square the illuminated globe began its descent. 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... The crowd roared. The 1960s had begun.
Throughout the nation, millions watched the scene on American-made television sets. They sang along with Guy Lombardo: "Should auld acquaintance be forgot ..." They drank, kissed, and banged on pots and pans, a rite whose meaning few knew: the noise was meant to scare off evil spirits.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, member of the West Point class of 1915, made no public statement to welcome the new decade. The general celebrated the New Year privately at his favorite retreat, the whites-only, men-only Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. There he laughed at the "nigger jokes" commonly told at places like that. One might imagine that the way the President celebrated the New Year spoke louder than any official words he might have uttered, but few Americans were looking to the President as the clock struck midnight and ended the 1950s.
Francis Cardinal Spellman, the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church in America, was out of the country when the 1950s came to a close. He was touring U.S. military bases in the Middle East, and took advantage of the opportunity to broadcast a New Year's message over Radio Free Europe to the hundreds of millions of people who lived behind the Iron Curtain. "By yourfortitude in a dark and desperate time," he told them, "you are cautioning the lukewarm of the free world not to take liberty for granted." The nation's leading theologians, like its politicians, saw the world cast in terms of the Cold War.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who had recently given up his pulpit in Montgomery, Alabama, to concentrate on the growing but still unfocused civil rights movement, spent New Year's Day leading a march on the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia. The Virginia government had elected to close down the entire public school system in Prince Edward County rather than obey federal court orders to integrate the schools. King's actions in Richmond went unnoticed by the mass media, the White House, and the overwhelming majority of Americans.
Most Americans celebrated the new decade very simply, taking the day off from work, sleeping late, watching TV, doing some work around the house, sharing a meal with family or friends. It is true that the fate of the nation was unclear, the changes of the past fifteen years immense. But it is also true that tens of millions of Americans, on New Year's Day 1960, did not expect or desire anything fundamental to change in the decade to come. Many believed they were living the American dream; they saw their lives swirling with possibilities. Some, far fewer in number, had already begun to nourish the seeds of change.
In 1960, most Americans old enough to remember looked back at the fifteen years since World War II with a sense of amazement. Given the Depression before that war, America had an extraordinary postwar era. Between 1946 and 1960 every indicator of national wealth and prosperity had soared. The stock market entered the new year more than twenty times higher than it had been in the Depression year of 1932. The gross national product had increased about 250 percent since the end of World War II, and the median family income, adjusted for inflation, had almost doubled. What those numbers meant for a majority of Americans was a material life, in world-historical terms, of incredible abundance. In 1960, America was the richest nation the world had ever seen. Americans, though not without some doubts, expected that boom times would just keep on rolling. Economic wealth--coupledwith the faith that economic growth would continue and the fact that for many years it did--shaped the 1960s like no other single factor.
In 1960, in a nation of fewer than 50 million families almost 60 million automobiles were registered; big, flashy cars with powerful engines, chrome grilles, fabulous tail fins. The fact that between 1930 and 1948 the number of Americans who owned cars had not increased and that as late as 1950 most working-class families did not own a car made the new "auto-mania" a powerful indicator of 1950s prosperity. And in another sign of prosperity, by 1960 an overwhelming majority of Americans could sit back in their own homes and "push a button" (as ad after commercial after billboard accurately reminded them) and watch America's greatest entertainers on television, listen to a hi-fi record, or use any one of an arsenal of electrical appliances that few in the world could command. Few adult Americans who had weathered the Great Depression expected such luxury, much less expected it to become nationwide. But by 1960, telephones, televisions, refrigerators, and the electricity to power them were accepted as an American birthright, and fast cars and cheap gas were markers of the American way of life.
The locus of this new American affluence was undoubtedly suburbia. Well-to-do Americans had been living in suburbs for generations, but it was only after World War II that relatively inexpensive suburban housing boomed. The ranch-house bonanza was fostered by government subsidies and policies, builders' clever use of mass-production techniques, and middle-class prospective homeowners' faith in continued economic prosperity. Most of all, the postwar suburban boom was driven by the pent-up demand of millions of Americans whose dreams of owning a home had been frustrated by the economic turmoil and the social dislocations of the Great Depression and then World War II. As late as 1947, before new housing could catch up with demand, 6 million American families had lived doubled up with friends or family.
Between 1948 and 1958, 13 million homes were constructed; 11 million of them were built in the suburbs. By 1960, as many people lived in the suburbs as in America's central cities. These newsuburban developments--in places like Glenview, Illinois; Beechwood, Ohio; and Levittown, New York--were often lambasted by contemporary critics for their "ticky-tacky" houses and their general ambience of bland conformity. The great urbanist Lewis Mumford wrote in 1961: "The archetypal suburban refuge: a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same pre-fabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold." Mumford's sharp words about suburban conformity were not inaccurate but they hid as much as they revealed about Americans' love affair with the tract home subdivision.
The new suburbs were in many ways a conformist's dream--but the 1950s conformists were of a new breed and represented a major change in the American social landscape. In the new suburbs, the "melting pot" was being reinvented. By 1960, massive legal immigration to the United States had been shut down for almost forty years. In the 1950s and into the 1960s the children of European-born immigrants--many of whom had grown up in relatively parochial and exclusive ethnic communities--recast themselves, at least partially, in the nascent communities of suburbia as just plain middle-class white Americans.
Catholics and, with greater restrictions, Jews mixed with Protestants in these new communities. Farm-born people, many of whom had come to the cities during the factory labor shortages of World War II, moved next door to former city people. Even regional differences, once the greatest divide between white Americans, were moderated in the new communities, which looked nearly identical whether they were located in what had been cotton fields outside Smyrna, Georgia, or cornfields adjacent to Niles, Illinois. Many suburbanites did aim to blend in and to conform, but what the critics failed to note was that in their conformity they were inventing a new, even daring identity for themselves and their children. While many would rebel against this new identity in the 1960s, far more would find in it a sustaining vision of the good life.
In this new world, in which old differences of ethnicity and religion and region were often downplayed, the binding ties of national culture were magnified. The great events, World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War military draft, contributed to this nationalization. So many of the dads in the new suburbia had served their country, mingling with white men of all kinds from all parts of the country. But even more, a national culture of prosperity had become the great common denominator. The car one drove, the cigarettes smoked, the TV shows watched, the products consumed became a common language signaling who one was and wanted to be.
This new identity, in which differences were deliberately submerged, depended on magnifying other differences. In forging the new identity of white middle-class suburbanites, black Americans became more surely outsiders. In 1960, 82,000 people lived in Long Island's Levittown, the most celebrated of the new suburban subdevelopments, and not one of them was African-American. Black families were told by the developers openly not to bother trying to buy a home--they were not welcome. Racial segregation, in the North and West, as well as in the South, was a well-accepted fact of life in the new suburbs.
The differences between men and women were also magnified in the new suburbia. Two factors threw gender difference into stark relief. One was military service. For the men who had fought in World War II and the Korean War, or even those millions of men who had been in the mandatory peacetime draft, military service was a powerful tie that marked them off as different from their wives. Secondly, and more obviously, men went off to work and most of their wives did not. Women kept house and watched over the children. In the suburban cultural landscape in which difference had become an unpleasant word, the obvious differences in experience between men and women loomed larger than ever.
These gender differences, in suburbia and out, were further heightened by the family patterns of most 1950s families. In the postwar era, American men and women married at an average age younger than ever before or since; the average woman married when she was twenty years old, and 70 percent of all women weremarried by the age of twenty-four. And reversing the declining birth rates of well over a century, fertility rates boomed, rivaling those in India. At the peak of the baby boom era, the average number of children per family reached 3.8 (it is less than 2 today).
Americans' rush to young marriage and child rearing is not easily explained. European countries had no similar long-term postwar urge to be fruitful and multiply, nor did Americans react to the end of World War I with the same rush to marriage and domesticity. Historian Elaine May argues that the combination of widespread abundance following years of social and economic dislocation, coupled with the uncertainties of the Cold War, led to the near-frenzied search for a private "haven in a heartless world." Whatever the causes of the marriage rush and baby boom, a great many Americans in 1960 saw the flight to suburbia and the widespread availability of consumer goods as sure signs that America was a nation both blessed and bountiful.
Not that America in 1960 had no poor people. About 20 percent of Americans were poor. But even America's poor, contemporary commentators noted, were different. In Harlan County, Kentucky, one of the poorest, most isolated places in the United States, 67 percent of the families owned a television and 59 percent owned a car; no populous country in the world could match that. Put another way, Harlem's per capita income would have ranked it among the five richest nations in the world. Compared to the turn of the century or to the still-vivid hard times of the 1930s, the 1950swerea time of shared abundance and it seemed that the number of poor would shrink steadily. The seeming indifference to the plight of the poor at the close of the 1950s was not just meanspiritedness (though racism and prejudice played powerful roles); it was also caused by a vague faith in the happy notion that "a rising tide would lift all boats."
The eminent economist and social commentator John Kenneth Galbraith titled his 1958 best-seller about postwar AmericaThe Affluent Society, half in praise and half in criticism. Only twenty years earlier the president of the American Economic Association had warned the nation to expect "sick recoveries which die in their infancy and depressions which feed upon themselves and leave ahard and seemingly immovable core of unemployment." How wonderfully dated such advice appeared to be. While the economy had slowed down in the last years of the 1950s and even dipped into mild recession, by current standards it was still growing robustly and Americans luxuriated in pondering the meaning and purpose of their material abundance.
America's riches stood in sharp contrast to almost all of the rest of the world, and Americans and the rest of the world knew it. In Japan in 1960, the ravages of the first atomic-bomb attacks were still being felt; bland rice porridge was still all most Japanese could rely on for nutrition. Many West Germans, much better off than their Communist-controlled sisters and brothers in the East, could not regularly afford to heat water for baths. The Chinese were in the middle of a brutal famine, caused in large part by the cruel stupidity of the Maoist state-sponsored Great Leap Forward; as many as 50 million would die. Much of Latin America was mired in poverty; and intellectuals as well as peasants wondered if the social and economic revolution in Cuba, which had resulted in the nationalization of hundreds of millions of dollars of United States-owned assets, was lodestar to their economic and political future.
Around the world people debated whether America's wealth was the cause of their problems or a symbol of what could be done. Most countries, in the eyes of the American government, were leaning the wrong way. Despite America's free-market success, few of the poor nations around the world fighting either the vestiges of European imperialism or the still-growing Western economic domination seemed convinced that the United States was or--more ominously--should be the model for their future. Few Americans had the historical knowledge to understand why they felt that way.
Richard Nixon, in one of those globe-hopping expeditions postwar Vice Presidents learned to endure, faced anti-American rage in its most visceral form while touring South America in 1958. He was taunted, jeered, and spit on by crowds who believed theUnited States' long-standing economic investment and political influence in their countries to be a major source of their troubles. In Caracas, a Communist-led mob broke through indifferent Venezuelan security and almost succeeded in pulling the Vice President out of his limousine. Nixon, who'd served in World War II, kept his cool. He also came to believe that few, if any, of the poorer countries were ready for American-style freedom and democracy.
Nixon, like the leading businessmen with whom both he and most of his Democratic counterparts worked, did believe that America's free-enterprise system could and should be sold to the rest of the world. It would be good for them, most political and economic leaders believed, and it was a necessity for American economic growth and prosperity. Just months before the 1960s began Vice President Nixon was given an unprecedented opportunity to sell America's free-market vision directly to America's great postwar enemy, the Soviet Union, and indirectly to the world via international mass media. In what became known as the "Kitchen Debate" many of the key issues the American people would themselves debate throughout the 1960s emerged in sometimes farcical, sometimes poignant terms.
For many among America's economic and political elites, the battle between Premier Khrushchev and Nixon during the Kitchen Debate marked the single most important public issue of their time--the confrontation with Communism. And while the Kitchen Debate was far more about symbols than substance it was an indicative marker in the battle between what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called "the children of light" and "the children of darkness." For in the eyes of many Americans it could be painted that starkly and that simply. The Leninist-Stalinist terrors that had bloodied the Soviet people for some four decades, the Iron Curtain that had fallen over Eastern Europe and the Siberian gulags made such a picture, in part, a realistic one. Of course, some in America knew that the paint was laid on a little thick. Beneath the broad brushstrokes of the Cold War, new nations in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere were struggling to escape imperialist webs and the superpowers' spheres of influence. And in the United States domesticinjustices and inequities made any claim to moral purity a highly dubious one.
The Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev took place at the United States Exhibition in Sokolniki Park in Moscow. The exhibition was part of a series of cultural exchanges that had been worked out in 1955, at the first major postwar superpower summit meeting since the 1945 Potsdam Conference. As historian Stephen Ambrose wrote, the exchange "reflected American optimism, the notion that anyone who knows us must love us." And what the Americans in charge of the exchange wanted the Soviets to know about American life was its material abundance.
The United States Exhibition featured a relatively modest model American home, built right in the park by a genuine Long Island builder, and its centerpiece was a full-scale typical middle-class kitchen. This kitchen was no futuristic, architecturally bold extravaganza. It was the kind of kitchen that millions of American suburban homeowners actually had: sink with hot and cold running water, full-size refrigerator-freezer, stove and oven, automatic washer, spacious counters and cabinets.
Nixon led Khrushchev to this kitchen and made it the leading exhibit central to his arguments about American superiority. The simple image flashed back to Americans seemed to say it all, the future of the world was being seriously discussed in the setting in which most of them started their day. This arena, Americans knew, was theirs. And Nixon understood this. He retorted to Khrushchev's stream of anti-American barbs not by talking about freedom or democracy but by saying calmly, "To us, diversity, the right to choose, the fact that we have a thousand different builders, that's the spice of life."
Yale historian David Potter, writing in the 1950s, captured this postwar American faith in the power of the "push button" kitchen in a series of lectures on the theme of "the American character"--a theme which obsessed postwar intellectuals. He noted that Americans had long desired to spread a democratic faith around the world. But, he argued, that mission was a failed one; what people wanted was not our freedoms but our material comforts:"We supposed that our revelation was 'democracy revolutionizing the world,' but in reality it was 'abundance revolutionizing the world'--a message which we did not preach and scarcely understood ourselves, but one which was peculiarly able to preach its own gospel without words."
Nixon, toe to toe with the leader of world Communism, had only to wave his hand at the kitchen to call on the real power of the American dream. With a chuckle, the Vice President of the United States delivered his roundhouse right: "Isn't it better to be talking about the relative merits of our washing machines than of the relative strength of our rockets?"
If David Potter saw the ambivalences and tensions America's consumer capitalism unleashed in the world, social critic Daniel Bell, looking backward, recognized the domestic cultural changes that abundance was producing. He wrote inThe Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism(1976): "The character structure inherited from the 19th century, with its emphasis on self-discipline, delayed gratification and restraint, is still relevant to the demands of the techno-economic system; but it clashes sharply with the culture, where such bourgeois values have been completely rejected--in part because of the workings of the capitalist economic system itself." Bell saw in the postwar abundance--and especially in the rapid rise of a credit-card and installment-buying society (by 1960 Sears alone had more than 10 million credit customers)--society caught between two contradictory sets of values, one necessary for efficient production and the other necessary to justify expansive consumption.
Business consultant Ernest Dichter put the matter baldly in the 1950s when he told his corporate clients, "One of the basic problems of prosperity, then, is to demonstrate that the hedonistic approach to ... life is a moral and not an immoral one." Dichter meant that hardworking, decently paid factory workers should be taught that it was good, not bad, to go into debt to buy consumer goods, since general prosperity--based in large part on fruitful consumption--promised ever bigger paychecks down the road. Daniel Bell, however, understood that hedonism at home and at the new strip shopping centers might not so easily be turned offat the factory gates or the public school. A society that increasingly depended on selling an ideal of unrestrained pleasure might have difficulty defining the borders of responsible consumption, let alone inculcating an ethic of hard work, discipline, and respectability. By 1960 some Americans, especially the young, were pondering the mixed cultural messages.
Too much can be made of this purely materialist or consumerist portrait of America in 1960. Americans' materialism, like so much else in American culture, contained a core of idealism. Many Americans saw, in their rush to consume, a push toward a richer world, a limitless world in which people would be free to create themselves anew. Few realized how explosive such a vision would become for the nation.
The television commercials that Americans were by 1960 just learning to take for granted offered a fairly coherent vision of the merits of the materialist world. The commercials of the late 1950s and early 1960s featured a fantastic array of anthropomorphized products: dancing packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes, Muriel the burning "Blond Cigar," Ajax's suicidal "Bathroom Pixies," the jubilant "Speedy" Alka-Seltzer, marching Rheingold beer bottles ...The list goes on. Defying gravity, mortality, and even morality, these happy products sang to be America's supper. "The commercials," cultural historian Beth Bailey has written, "in the world they defined and presented, always told of a power to create a world like theirs: a world where anything can happen, but where what does happen is always good." Americans in the 1950s did not so much celebrate unbounded consumption for the physical comforts it provided--as hedonistic release--as they reveled in the world of new opportunities, new possibilities, and limitless hopes that economic success seemed to promise. Consumption did offer its hedonistic joys--those gas-guzzling, chrome-tipped, winged road chariots--but it also represented to many a set of happy opportunities earned through the sacrifices of World War II, the Cold War, and just plain old hard work.
Just as American materialism had its idealistic side, America's general abundance hid its gross economic inequality. Political activist and social critic Michael Harrington tried to strip away theveil and expose America's hidden or ignored poverty in his 1962 call to arms,The Other America: "The other America ... is populated by failures, by those driven from the land and bewildered by the city, by old people suddenly confronted with the torments of loneliness and poverty, and by minorities facing a wall of prejudice." These people, and others, too, made up America's impoverished minority.
By and large, they were forgotten Americans in 1960. As a sociologist noted only a few years later: "During the 1940s, the 1950s, and the first years of the 1960s, the topic of poverty was virtually nonexistent." But while academics and policymakers, along with the majority of the American population, were looking aside in the 1950s, the nature of poverty was changing rapidly. Poverty had been predominantly a rural problem before World War II, but by 1960 about 55 percent of the poor lived in cities and another 30 percent lived in small towns. In part, this demographic change was the result of new farming technologies which had driven many poor farm laborers off the land and into urban America. The invention of the mechanical cotton picker in 1943, James T. Patterson notes, within a few years displaced some 2.3 million farmworkers. Most of them were African-American. Because of the racist system under which they had lived and worked, they came into the cities with few useful vocational skills and painfully low levels of formal education. The prejudice and discrimination they discovered in the cities, combined with the handicaps they brought with them from the rural backwaters, made it very difficult for most of these internal migrants to take advantage of the general economic good times.
Even African-Americans with better educations and skills found adequate-paying jobs in white America hard to find. In the South, skilled and semiskilled jobs in the growing corporate and industrial sector remained almost completely off-limits to black men and women. Job opportunities were only slightly better in the North.
A young black woman in Camden, New Jersey, for example, learned from a white woman with whom she had graduated from high school about a secretarial position at the Campbell Soup Company. The young woman, near the top of her graduatingclass, applied for the posted job: "I was told that office jobs were not available, but if I wanted to work in the canning department I would be hired. I never did get an office job." In the South, she might well not even have been offered the factory job.
In the early 1960s, more whites than blacks were poor and on some form of public assistance. But a majority of poor whites (who were a very small percentage of all whites) lived out of sight in rural areas or were homebound older people. The African-American poor, while fewer in number, had become highly visible in America's inner cities and were, on average, much younger than poor whites. James Patterson writes that in the 1930s most Americans envisioned poverty in the guise of "the white yeoman staggered by circumstances"; in the 1940s and 1950s "people thought of the poor--whites as well as blacks--as a dwindling minority that would soon wither away. But by the early 1960s the stereotype was likely to evoke visions of 'hard core' black welfare mothers with hordes of illegitimate children."
America in 1960 was a place in which competing "truths" were on a collision course. Both economic abundance and racism were widespread. Suburbs were booming while inner cities festered. America's global mission seemed limitless even as its international reputation wavered. The demands of production and the ethos of consumption pushed and pulled against one another. Beneath the seeming consensus that ruled 1950s America, rival interests--most particularly Big Labor and Big Business--worked hard to resolve such competing truths in their own favor. America's corporate citizens--such as General Motors, Du Pont, General Electric, and IBM--were by 1960 the big winners in shaping the nation to their own interests. Since the debacle of the Great Depression, corporate managers and large shareholders had been working hard to fully recapture not only the nation's political agenda but also public opinion. Using their well-entrenched positions in the centers of American policymaking, and spending millions in the process, corporate interests largely succeeded in translating their excellent postwar economic performance into favorable legislation and good press.
"Engine" Charlie Wilson, who left the presidency of GeneralMotors to become President Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense, gave the most boiled-down version of the winning corporate credo when he told the world, "What was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa." The 1950s were glory times for America's corporate men; they took, not without some justice, credit for the postwar abundance. And to a large extent, under the "hidden hand" presidency of General Eisenhower (who had never voted before becoming President) America's Big Business men ran the executive branch of government. Their truths often seemed to pass for the nation's truths.
Of course, in 1960 corporate America was no monolith. Texas oil interests and most New York financiers agreed on little and the factions and feuds among the corporate elite were as important as the general ignorance most Americans shared about their operations. Still, the most widespread patterns America's corporate giants set bear examination. Some of their truths were so much taken for granted, and shared by so many Americans, that they were essentially undiscussed matters of "common sense." And unlike the 1980s and 1990s, when economists and politicians focused on the economic vitality and job-producing utility of small businesses and entrepreneurs, during the 1950s and 1960s experts of all kinds understood America's megacorporations as the mainstay of economic progress and national wealth.
By 1960, most of America's corporate managers had moved subtly away from the conventional wisdom of pre-Great Depression Big Business. Then businessmen had insisted that the managers of the business corporation must focus all their energies on maximizing return on capital and that to do so they must not be hindered by government intervention. By 1960, many corporate executives, while far from renouncing the imperative of the bottom line, believed also in the maintenance of a rational, efficient organization able to secure its labor force through negotiated contracts and to please its shareholders by paying steadily improving dividends. In the postwar years, America's corporate giants, often in concert with the federal government, worked hard and well in using those beliefs to create what they and their allies saw as "the American Century."
America's business leaders exploded into new markets, mass-produced new goods, and rapidly sped up the restructuring of their internal organization and way of doing business. At a time when many of America's international competitors, especially in Japan and Germany, could only rebuild and regroup after the physical, economic, and social devastations of World War II, America's corporate leaders, fat from World War II "cost-plus" contracts, were diversifying, decentralizing, and moving fast into international markets. Instead of competing with each other over price and quality, most of America's biggest manufacturers raced with one another to produce new products and new marketing strategies. The result was economic expansion and massive profits.
The auto industry led the way, and GM, in terms of how it was managed and what it produced for consumers, was emblematic of the 1960 corporate vision. In 1960, it was in the middle of an astoundingly successful economic run. The company practically minted money; between 1946 and 1967, GM had average yearly profits of 20.67 percent based on net worth. According to automobile historian James Flink, GM's profitability was built on "Sloanism," the structure and style of business forged in the 1920s by organizational genius and longtime GM leader Alfred P. Sloan. Sloanism depended on three basic principles: "a car for every purse and purpose," rapidly introduced styling changes, and a corporate structure that combined decentralized management with highly rationalized financial controls.
Looking back, a 1982 National Research Council study on the U.S. auto market revealed how a winner would become a loser: "by the late 1950s manufacturing had become a competitively neutral factor ... . [N]one of the major [auto] producers sought to achieve a competitive advantage through superior manufacturing performance." For America's corporate giants, price cutting was anathema and quality was far from "Job One." Nonetheless, when major corporations went to America's exploding financial markets to raise money, "the capital was tapped for investment," notes historian Ron Chernow, "not financial manipulation" (unlike the 1980s). While America's corporate leaders would hurt America in the long run by not more aggressively pursuing manufacturingexcellence during these boom times, they succeeded in driving the domestic economy, selling American-made products internationally, and providing American workers with the highest wage scale in the world.
General Motors' economic mega-triumph in the postwar era was sweet vindication for semiretired honorary GM chairman Alfred Sloan, who could in 1960 still remember being vilified during the New Deal years; President Franklin Roosevelt had jauntily referred to America's premier corporate executive as "a low comedy figure." In 1960 America, GM represented, in the words of Alfred Sloan, the triumph of "the white-collar man."
At GM, and most other major corporations, white-collar triumph did not mean blue-collar woes. In the 1950s, America was not mired in an economic zero-sum game, nor were the wealthy pirating money from working people. The economic pie was genuinely increasing for the vast majority of Americans.
GM's unionized assembly-line workers--many without high school diplomas--drove new cars, bought cottages by the lake, and looked forward to guaranteed raises and generous pensions. High wages meant that very few UAW workers' wives worked (nor could they, by and large, get high-paying jobs, given the sexism male employers and employees took for granted). The United Auto Workers, protected by laws passed during the New Deal, had demanded and received a smorgasbord of wages and benefits; complacent management, rather than face strikes at a time of high demand for their products, went along. As auto executive Lee Iacocca recalled: "In those days we could afford to be generous. Because we had a lock on the market, we could continually spend more money on labor and simply pass the additional costs along to the consumer in the form of price increases." By 1960, only Volkswagen of Germany had really cracked the American auto market by selling the very inexpensive, stripped-down, but mechanically sound Beetle. No other country was producing cars that could compete in the American mass market (Japanese manufacturers still specialized in three-wheeled micro-trucks).
Above all, the winner's truth that emerged from the 1950s was that capitalism worked. "People's Capitalism," business boosterscalled it, with reason. Little attention was paid to the fact that in the 1950s a decreasing number of Americans actually gained greater control of the nation's capital assets. And outside union circles, few people contested the federal government's antipathy to furthering the national growth of labor unions, which had been pivotal in securing high wages in America's basic industries. Even less contested were the corporations' policies of racial and gender discrimination. Corporate executives and shareholders, self-described leaders in the American way of life, it was clear by 1960, were not going to do anything about racism or sexism by themselves. What stood out in the minds of most Americans in 1960 was that abundance seemed to be a national achievement and capitalism a triumphant system. Not that all Americans, even in 1960, accepted this triumph as complete. Amid general public self-congratulation, some artists and writers tried to shake things up by challenging the moral and spiritual worth of all the wealth. David Riesman'sThe Lonely Crowd(1954), Sloan Wilson'sThe Man in the Gray Flannel Suit(1955), William Whyte'sThe Organization Man(1956), John Keats'sThe Crack in the Picture Window(1957), and Vance Packard'sThe Status Seekers(1959) were just a few of the many books that challenged the status quo. The sharpest and, in many ways, most prescient attack on the net worth of People's Capitalism came from a small pack of self-proclaimed "Dharma bums," a.k.a. Beats, a.k.a. Beatniks, who'd fled corporate suburbia for a life of hard kicks and still minds. Poet Allen Ginsberg rammed home the Beats' outrage at an America grown old at midcentury: "Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen." The last had not been heard of Allen Ginsberg and his vision of a blasted America lost in its lust for money and power.
John Updike, a critic much closer to the center, wrote less rhapsodically but no less bitingly: "I drive my car to the supermarket, / The way I take is superhigh, / A superlot is where I park it, / and Super Suds are what I buy." And while few Americans at the dawn of the 1960s would have put their feelings socritically, many Americans did wonder about the larger meaning of the nation's prosperity. As historian Robert Collins has written: "During the latter part of the Ike age Americans grew increasingly fearful that the nation had lost its way in the blaze of its own prosperity. The result was an outburst of public soul-searching and numerous attempts to articulate an agenda of national goals that would be worthy of history's most powerful democracy."
President Eisenhower, sensing the public's uneasiness and committed to a "corporate commonwealth," had no ready answers and so appointed the President's Commission on National Goals. It came up with little. Nelson Rockefeller, immensely wealthy grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, fueled his presidential ambitions by using one of his philanthropic foundations to fund a grand investigation, the Special Studies Project, which aimed to "clarify the national purposes and objectives." The reports made headline news and two became best-sellers.Life, the most popular magazine in America, devoted a series of "think" pieces in 1960 to the problem of "national purpose." Archibald MacLeish, poet and onetime director of America's World War II propaganda bureau, toldLife's millions of readers what few probably wanted to hear: "We feel that we've lost our way in the woods, that we don't know where we are going--if anywhere."
At the coming of the 1960s, many Americans yearned for a greater sense of national purpose and both presidential candidates would center their campaigns on providing it. Still, a majority of Americans had good reason to look back at the 1950s with a feeling of personal triumph. America's gray flannel corporate men, well-paid labor union members, suburban homeowners, and big farmers, as well as the car customizers, country clubbers, powerboaters, Wednesday-night bowlers, and so many others, had reason to celebrate an American High as they looked forward to another decade in what many considered the American Century. The wealth-producing efficiency of the postwar American economic system--People's Capitalism--would be an ur-reality that shaped much of the political and cultural terrain of the 1960s.
Copyright © 1994 by David Farber