FMC Home Link PBS Program LinkFMC Book LinkViewer's Voices LinkInteractivity LinkTeacher's Guide
  Program Segments LinkInterviews LinkMeet the Host LinkCredits Link

FMC Logo 1
(abbreviated titles)

  Closing of the Frontier
  Scientific Racism
  The Children's Bureau
  Recent Social Trends

  The Great Depression
  The Gallup Poll
  World War II
  Suburban Nation
  Sexual Behavior

  The Feminine Mystique
  The Moynihan Report
  Broken Windows
  Middletown IV
  Census 2000


FMC Logo 2  

William O'Neill Interview


William O'Neill is a Professor of History at Rutgers University. 

He is the author of A Democracy at War: America’s Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II; American High: The Years of Confidence 1945-1960; and Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960’s. Professor O’Neill has also written on the history of divorce, feminism, and the 1960’s.

William O'Neill

New River Media Interview with: William O'Neill 
Professor of History, Rutgers University 
Author, A Democracy at War, and American High 

QUESTION: Did World War Two end the Depression? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: It's kind of a terrible irony, in a way, that the solution to America's problems was World War II. The 1930s had been a time of tremendous economic distress. And the unemployment rate was enormously high by any historic standard. It took until 1942 before full employment was reached. And so the war did what Lord Keynes, the great economist, had told President Roosevelt ought to be done; that is, the government should borrow and spend on a massive scale. 

And had they done that in the 1930s, they would have ended the Great Depression. But you couldn't get the money out of Congress for something like that. So when the war came, on the other hand, the congressional purse opened wide, and so you get a Keynesian solution to it; full employment, more than full employment by any previous standard, actually. Except for those who served in battle, the war was probably the best thing that had happened to the American people in the twentieth century to that point. For those at home, it meant unprecedented prosperity. Income levels had never been as high at any point in history before that time. 

QUESTION: What was life like on the home front? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: Well, there was a certain paradox about life at home during the war. On the one hand, the money was fabulous and people were saving at a terrific rate. In fact, most of the added income they got did go into savings because of rationing. You couldn't buy consumer goods because they didn't make them anymore. But it did involve a great deal of discomfort and sacrifice on the part of many Americans. 

Housewives in particular, I think, bore the brunt of the war more heavily than anyone else, because the things that had been relatively easy to do before the war - getting your children to the doctor, shopping for groceries, clothing, things of this kind - that became enormously difficult. Most people by that time outside of the cities already depended on the automobile for all these requirements, and during the war, I think the gasoline ration was three gallons a week, something of that sort. It was very tight rationing. Worse still, you couldn't get new tires. When you did go shopping, so much stuff was rationed, and the quotas changed from week to week, sometimes from day to day. And then, even if you got all the coupons right, half the time they'd be out of what you wanted. 

QUESTION: How did the war affect sexual mores? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: Well, what seems to have happened in terms of sexuality during the war is that there was some loosening because of the emergency and the nature of the thing, and the boys are going off to war and you might never see them again. And on the other hand, the boys, when they're home, had more money than before the war, because a lot of them were unemployed or underemployed. So there was a real loosening of sexual standards and what, by the standards of the day, you would call misconduct, we wouldn't now. But in those days, extramarital or even premarital sexual relationships were considered bad. 

According to Alfred Kinsey, who was making his sexual studies - he started in the late 1930s, and so he continued during the wartime period and into the post-war as well. And he found that for that period, the 1940s, about 26 percent of women were not virgins at the time of their marriage. This strikes me as quite a low figure, and my guess is that it understates the actual amount. And it doesn't have anything to do with the war, or marginally only with the war, I think, because, again, you have to remember that in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, premarital or extramarital sex was considered wrong and shameful, and you didn't want people to know about it. 

QUESTION: How would you characterize the war-time migrations, and how would they have changed the face of America? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: The war did cause a great deal of movement and changing of residences and population migrations and the like. Striking to the people at the time and that got the most reporting was the movement of blacks from the South to jobs. Most blacks still, as of 1940, a great majority of them still lived in southern states. There had been a migration during the First World War, but it was a short war. But the second war, it was really big. And so the pull of workers to the North and West was very great as well. 

Now, this included a lot of whites, too; poor whites in Appalachia and places like that. But the part that got noticed was the movement of blacks, because cities in the North and West, who up until that time had had virtually no blacks at all, now suddenly acquired significant minority populations; hence the race riots in Detroit, where I think more blacks worked in Detroit than any other city in the country - that is, blacks moving from the South to find jobs - because the automobile industry was not only the backbone of American industry as a whole but the backbone of the war effort, too. 

In the short term, it was tough for blacks who moved, well, tough for everybody, actually, who moved, because the housing shortage and these other things made just even everyday life more difficult than it had been. So for blacks who would move to cities, usually, in the North and in the West, the short-term difficulties were very great. They had all the usual problems of finding a place to live and how to get around if you needed a car and coping with the rationing and all this sort of thing, plus they got discriminated against, of course, on a major basis, and in places where racial etiquette hasn't been established. 

The long-term benefits, however, from this were enormous. One figure that always leaps out at me: the NAACP, the National Association [for the Advancement] of Colored People, had [only] 50,000 members in 1940, and that wasn't because race relations were wonderful. It was because blacks couldn't afford the dues. Five years later, there were 500,000 members, a tenfold increase in a five-year period, and that becomes a really powerful force, because it finally got the money to be able to pursue cases at great length. 

I saw a very good historical study a few years ago that compared how black GIs fared in later years compared to male blacks their age who did not go into the service. Their educational level, their income levels, were far greater than the group that was used by comparison. So the success of blacks in the post-war period, economically and in terms of fighting for civil rights, had its origin right there in the war. And many of the leaders in the post-war period, local leaders, were veterans. They had become leaders because of their service experience. 

QUESTION: What changes did it bring in terms of women working? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: The effect of the war on women who were already employed or who were looking for work was as good for them as it was for men, because now, all of a sudden, good jobs in defense plants, union jobs particularly in defense plants and elsewhere, now became available to them. The pre-war female workforce had a surge in job opportunities and income. 

The other effect of the war was that it brought about three million additional women into the workforce, women who had not been looking for work before the war and who probably would not have gone into the workforce otherwise. It's hard to know what that means. There's a lot of disagreement among historians, because in the short term, this was a very transitory thing. The women who got better jobs in defense plants, the women who came in from outside the workforce, who had not worked previously, they all got laid off in 1945, you know, just the minute the war is over. Even before the war was over, the layoffs actually had begun. And after V-J Day, then they become massive. 

QUESTION: What was the effect of the war on family and marriage? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: In some ways, it's difficult to say. We know the figures, for example; the marriage rate starts to go up when the United States enters the war, and the birth rate starts to go up, too. And although that's not apparent at the time, the birth rate is going to keep on going until about 1958, so it starts in the war, but it's something that continues long afterwards. 

During the war, the divorce rate fell somewhat because it was difficult. Everything was difficult during the war, and getting a divorce was difficult. It soared in 1946, and there was just a huge spike. And everybody presumes that that's because marriages had failed, but they didn't have an opportunity to go through the process of getting a divorce until after the war. 

Then the divorce rate falls. It falls back fifteen years, something on that order. So the war was hard on family life, no question about it. It was hard on children. A lot of two-parent families now become one-parent families, and often that one parent is working because the amount that the service husband can send back is not enough to support the family, and so many of them had to go to work and try to find child care. So there were disruptions of this kind where family life was concerned. But the fall in the age of marriage, the increase in the birth rate and the decline in the divorce rate, all of these persisted long after the war. 

QUESTION: What did the war mean in terms of two things: first, big government, and then big business? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: The effect of the war on the federal government is an interesting topic, because it might go contrary to what you would suppose. There had been a significant extension of government activities during the 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal created new agencies and there were more federal employees than before and the budget grew and the like. 

In fact, Roosevelt was actually a pretty conservative man. People who hated him. Right-wingers who hated him at the time always thought that was outrageous when somebody tried to say that, but he really was. He never liked to go further than he had to, to get a solution. And so what he did during the war, rather than expanding existing government agencies. Some had to be expanded; I mean, the War Department and the Navy Department had to get bigger. But to the degree possible, he met the special requirements of the war by creating temporary agencies, which were designed to go out of business at the end of the war and did. 

So the long-term effect of the war upon the federal bureaucracy, except for the Defense Department, which, of course, didn't exist during the war but was created in 1950, the military became significantly larger on a permanent basis. And so the bureaucracy associated with that became larger as well. But almost all the other war agencies went out of business, and people left government service and that was that. There was very little long- term effect. 

As war came near, Franklin Roosevelt established as a target the construction of 50,000 military aircraft. Not in one year; I think it was to be spent over a period of time. And everybody, including the senior officers in the military, said, "This is a ridiculous figure. We're never going to produce 50,000 military aircraft." By 1944, the United States was producing 75,000 military aircraft every year. The grand total was well over 200,000. Nobody in the world came remotely close to figures like that. 

QUESTION: How were we able to accomplish this production miracle? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: Well, the production miracle came about in several ways. One was there was a tremendous amount of unused plant as a result of the Great Depression. I don't know what the figure was, but probably something like about a third of the industrial plant in the country was just not being used at all. 

There was some additional construction, and particularly in areas like aircraft manufacturing and ship-building, where the pre- war capacity was nothing like what you needed. Steel production, on the other hand, was handled pretty much by existing plant. Some of these were there; they just were underused. Then they went to triple shifts, of course. Factories that had been running one shift in the pre-war period went to triple shifts if they could get the people to do it. And there are big efficiencies involved in this kind of thing where you don't have to restart furnaces or whatever they do. 

It turned out the potential workforce was bigger than had been anticipated. It certainly has been true in previous eras that the workforce is always larger than the government figures indicate that it is, because they don't count these people who want to work but just can't find jobs. So, in fact, you got more than 100 percent employment during the war, because everybody who wanted to work could. And, of course, they hadn't anticipated using women on the scale that they did as well. 

In fact, one of the big areas, I think, of failure in war-time planning was that General Marshall set the size of the Army too low for various reasons, but one of them was he didn't think there was a big enough pool of eligible men. So what you had by 1944 was a military manpower shortage. Had they realized how effective women could be as workers and these people who came out of nowhere, had they realized that the civilian workforce had a lot more potential, you could have had a bigger Army. And the Army ground forces and service forces at their peak had about five million men. They really needed about a million more to solve this manpower crisis, and it could easily have been done had the planning started sooner, because the civilian population just turned out to be much more productive than had been believed. 

QUESTION: In what ways did the economic experience of the war lay the foundation for the 1950s boom? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: The United States had already been the world's greatest industrial nation for a long time. During the war, the United States economy grows by leaps and bounds because demand is so great from the federal government. The United States is growing and getting richer at a time when everybody else is getting poorer, so that in 1945, when the war ends, the United States is the only first-class economy left in the world. It's the only one. And it retains that position for 10, 15 years after the war. So you couldn't ask for a better start to the peacetime for Americans. 

The prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s dates from the war. I think we can constantly say the economy would have recovered sooner or later. But the speed and the size of the recovery was determined by the war. When the war ended, there were great fears at the time that this was just a dream and we would awaken when the war ended and go back to having the Great Depression again. But, of course, we didn't for several reasons. There were massive layoffs, and people expected that and they were worried about it. The defense plants, a lot of them just closed and, you know, the whole workforce goes, and those that remained in business scaled way back. And so there's millions of people who are being let go as a result. At the same time, the services are demobilizing, and something like ten million men come back who potentially could have entered the workforce. Well, that didn't happen. 

QUESTION: How important was the G.I. Bill? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: As much as any other single thing, the success of America in the post-war period and the success of all Americans, really. The immediate beneficiaries were the young men and women of the war generation, because the men, for the most part, it was men who got the GI Bill. But the benefits extended throughout the whole economy, and so everyone benefited from this piece of legislation. Congress put together the GI Bill, which enabled any veteran who could qualify to go through college. It wasn't lavish by any means. They had to scrimp and save. They usually had part-time jobs as well as being full-time students; but nonetheless, people who would never have gone to college under the old system were enabled to do so by the GI Bill. And that, of course, gives you a more skilled workforce than before. 

With the GI Bill, you could buy a house for nothing down. No down payment at all was required. And far-sighted builders, like William Levitt and others, recognized that with a government-guaranteed loan and no payment down and this housing shortage, which is just critical. It was terrible in 1945, and then in 1946 these ten million guys came back from the service, and so, you know, the housing market was just terribly overstrained. 

And big-time builders like Levitt, they realized that with the GI Bill, there was a quick fix to this problem, and they just started building houses by the thousands. Builders who before the war had built maybe ten houses [at a time] would be building a thousand houses at a time in the case of people like Levitt. And there are all these young families that are being formed, because what the veterans did after the war was, instead of going in succession, as people had done before them - first you graduate from high school or college, whatever it is that you're going to, and then you get engaged and then you get married and then you have children, and there's intervals between all these things and it takes a number of years - the veterans, as I said, typically served three years; that's the average length of stay in the military. 

And most of them at the time regarded this as three lost years, just taken away by - they didn't blame the government; they understood the crisis - but nonetheless, the lost years. And so, instead of doing things in sequence, they did them all at once. They went to college, became engaged, got married and started having children all at the same time; tremendous increase in the birth rate, of course, but also a tremendous need for housing. And, again, the grateful government is making that housing possible. 

The GI Bill benefited the veterans and their families in the first instance, of course, but it benefited the whole country in the long term because the better-educated and better-trained workers and businessmen and the like and managers who came out of this experience and who never would have been managers or skilled workers or whatever except for the GI Bill, their earning power went up greatly because of it. And thanks also to the generous home-loan features of the GI Bill, it meant that they became enormous consumers. And so, in the end, there's hardly anybody in the country who doesn't benefit from this exploding economy, which is based, in part, on the GI Bill. 

QUESTION: What's your characterization of the post-war years? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: Well, I use the term American High for a book title because I really see them as wonderful years for Americans generally. The bad things about the 1950s are very well-known, because there are people who have a vested interest in denigrating the period. But things like racism and sexism, and so on, were not invented in 1950. They had always been there. So the down side of the 1950s were the things that had always been wrong with America. 

But the 1950s saw conditions generally improve enormously, and again, for almost everyone. For one thing, the crime rate goes down. Setting the war years aside, because they skew everything, but if you look at the long term, the crime rate starts to fall in the late 1930s, early 1940s, and it continues to do so until the late 1950s. The homicide rate was lower every year during this whole period. So in terms of security of life and limb, which is certainly an important consideration of life, this was an extremely safe period. And we have not gotten back to those crime levels in the 1990s. 

The divorce rate falls. It's falling at the end of the war and it keeps falling throughout almost all of this period. So the divorce rate in the 1950s is about half what it was in the 1990s. Almost every other demographic figure that you wanted to bring up improved during this period. And, of course, incomes increased, and continued throughout the period. The schools boom because of the huge surge of children coming into them. And it was just a period in terms of health, well-being, safety, security, economics. It was the best of times in many ways. 

QUESTION: Do you think the 1950s is an unfairly maligned era? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: Historians have been very unkind to the 1950s, and part of that is that people who are left-wing today have a vested interest in representing today as a period of enlightenment because of the rise of feminism and the success of the civil rights movement and the like. Of course, there's a price paid for these gains which their proponents don't like to acknowledge. 

Well, in the 1950s what you had was hardly any illegitimate children. The white illegitimacy rate was about 2 percent; today it's about 20 [percent]. It's a big increase for blacks as well. So you have this horde of fatherless children, essentially, who did not exist in the 1950s, when most families had two parents who remained for life. That was the standard experience that most children had when they grew up. And they went to schools in safe neighborhoods because it was pretty safe almost everywhere. Family life was probably never better than it was during this period. 

QUESTION: Is the move to suburbia a significant move at the end of the war and through the 1950s? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: Suburbia, as we know it today, really comes into existence in the late 1940s and 1950s. There had been suburbs of cities for a long time, but these were suburbs that were created by the extension of trolley lines or rail lines of some sort, and they generally tended to be affluent communities like Scarsdale and the mainline towns of Philadelphia and places like that. So these were limited to a relatively small number of people. 

Suburbia becomes a mass phenomenon that not only the middle class but the upper working class can afford as well. That is strictly a post-World War II phenomenon, and made possible, to a large extent, by the GI Bill and the generous housing commission and the support that it gave veterans for housing. So suburbia, as we know it today, came into being for the first time in the 1950s, and it involved literally millions and millions of families. And the basis for it was laid really just in the first five years after the war. So this is something new, and Americans did not quite know what to make of it. 

QUESTION: Did one hear criticisms of the suburbs? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: The bad reputation that the 1950s enjoys is partly a function of the social criticism of the time. And the argument was essentially the same. Some were more sophisticated than others, but it was that in the past Americans had been rugged individualists and lived fearlessly independent lives and now Americans were just being all molded into the same form and being turned out machine-like, identical products, living in their identical houses and their identical subdivisions and in their identical cars, and the like. 

This is probably the stupidest vein of social criticism ever developed in the history of social criticism so far as I can tell, because who are they talking about? They are talking about the "greatest generation." Now, they weren't called that in 1950. We call them the greatest generation now. The guys who won World War II were the ones who are buying these houses and living in the subdivisions. They're the same people. So how can they be cowering conformists and people lacking any convictions of their own, in one decade, [whereas] in the earlier decade they're the greatest generation. No, they're the same people and they have the same aspirations that Americans have always had. 

One of the things that William Whyte [author of Organization Man] and some others were so struck by when they went to the suburbs is the degree of cooperation and the way in which the people shared things with each other. If one person had a lawn mower on the block, everybody would borrow it. Somebody had a set of china, it would be loaned out to the neighbors when they had dinner parties. And they founded social organizations. This particular suburb [Whyte] went to in Chicago, which was about five years old, already had sixty volunteer groups, everything from the Boy Scouts to the Red Cross. You know, it just sprung up literally overnight. And he liked that. You know, he specifically says that the sharing and the cooperativeness and the high value that these people place on getting along and being neighborly, and so he sees the attractive side of that. 

And I think it was something that was a generational characteristic of the time, but was being wrongly identified. What it is, the men and women of the war generation had lived a collective life for on average three years during the war of a sort that no generation since the Civil War had done. The men had lived in barracks and ships and places like that, where you had to learn how to get along, where if you went around being a rugged individualist - it could cost you your life. The women had had a somewhat similar experience. The men are gone. They often doubled and tripled up because of the housing shortage. The unmarried women usually shared housing with other women. And so they were used to living in cramped quarters. Again, you have to get along to go on. 

When the men went to college, they moved into, in many cases, tiny, tiny trailers. Every university had married student housing, which was called "Fertile Valley" or something like that. And the people there are crammed in together. They're living in very tiny quarters. At the University of Minnesota a lot of them lived in trailers that did not have hot water or any bathing or bathroom facilities. There's a little bit of heat, but if you want to go to the bathroom, wash your clothes, do the dishes, you have to go to a communal center where there are latrines and things like that. 

So this is a generation that by the time they finally get out of college or whatever they're doing, and buy their house, they have for years been sharing and caring and cooperating, and they have had to do it out of necessity, but they have come to value it in a way that I think no other generation in the twentieth century did. And it seems very ill reward to malign them for traits that were a part of what made them great. 

QUESTION: Do you think there's a class bias in the criticism of the people who moved to the suburbs in the early 1950s? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: Yes, because it's also a class that normally would not have lived in a suburb. Suburbs were too expensive and difficult to get to prior to the war. The ubiquity of the automobile, the GI Bill, the massive housing projects of people like Levitt enabled lower middle class and upper working class Americans, who previously could never have afforded to go to a suburb or even to buy a house necessarily, to have a free-standing house of their own and a lawn and a car and a TV set and a nice school for their kids. And yes, I think some of it is just snobbery. 

The war generation was criticized for being too conformist, for having bad taste in houses, because they bought these inexpensive tract houses that were finally becoming available. They liked to work for corporations. They valued security. It was believed that they valued security more than previous generations had done. I don't know how you'd prove a thing like that, but it was asserted constantly. 

And one of the books, Riesman's Lonely Crowd developed a metaphor that was used constantly during this period, and he said, "In the past the American was guided by a gyroscope. He had his internal guidance. The American is guided by his internal gyroscope, and these are moral values and they keep him on a straight path. And that's what made this country great." And then he says, "The people of today", the war generation he's talking about, "The people of today on the other hand have radar sets instead of gyroscopes. They are constantly scanning to see what others are doing so that they may do exactly the same as others do and have the same ideas and go through the same performance." 

Now this is a very clever book. I mean, I loved that book when I read it in college. And Riesman is an admirable man and wrote many other fine works. But I think this is just wrong. It's idiotic, as a matter of fact, because what every historian knows, although they don't all like to admit it, is that most people in America in a given ethnic class, physical place have been pretty much the same, had the same values as their neighbors did. Americans have always clustered. I mean, we've been multi-cultural from the very beginning, but most of that has been cultural enclaves: WASPs live here and Catholics live there and the blacks live here, and generally people in each of these subgroups shared the values of their others. 

The number of rugged, fearless, independent-minded thinkers and doers in this country, as in every country, has always been very small. And it didn't disappear in the 1950s either. I mean, there were people who were innovating and creating new businesses and the like. 

QUESTION: Weren't these new suburbs mostly white, and was there not a social cost to that? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: The new suburbs were mostly white, because the population of the United States at that time was 90 percent white. It is, however, also true that housing had always been very segregated in the United States. There's nothing new about a bunch of white people going out and living in a new community, because that had been going on from the very beginning. 

The differences in the 1950s in this regard have to do with the fact that it's being done on such a big scale and that it's going further down the social class line than it ever had before. Also, although these suburbs are still white, they are being integrated not racially but religiously, because before the war Jews usually lived in Jewish neighborhoods and Catholics in Catholic neighborhoods and Protestants in Protestant neighborhoods. And housing covenants, which were very common. To buy a house in a certain neighborhood you would have to sign an agreement that you would not sell to a person of another race or to a Jew or in some cases to a Catholic. 

So what's happening in the 1950s is that you're getting not racial integration, but you are getting the integration of the white population in a way so that they break down and so you don't get Irish Catholic suburbs, for example, or occasionally Jewish suburbs, but usually because they've been there beforehand. You got on that level, on the religious and ethnic level these suburbs were remarkably integrated compared to the housing they replaced. 

QUESTION: How do you explain the fact that equal rights for blacks and women had to wait until the 1960's as opposed to occurring in the 1950's? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: I think the success of the civil rights movement came about as early as it could have. What you got was a young black post-war population that could afford to join the NAACP and that was ready to act and to march and to protest. And the leaders of this, to a considerable extent, and the followership too, of course, to a considerable extent are the black members of the war generation. The great event, of course, was the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and 1956, but that didn't take place in a vacuum. The fact is that the NAACP was working in a lot of areas, and its lawyers had been getting victories in court, striking down segregated this and segregated that. 

The origins of the women's movement is fairly easy to explain. The militant feminist movement had its origins in the white New Left, which was very sexist in its nature, and the male leaders liked to be very macho and the women all had to pour coffee and make the beds and serve their sexual needs and so forth. So a group of them broke off, white left-wing, white young women broke off and started what was called the Women's Liberation Movement. And that came about because there's a big student movement and women as part of the whole emphasis on liberation. 

But this is a very small number of women and they're dealing with a problem that is of sexism, let's say, and certainly unfair standards where women are concerned and the like. Where the support for that comes from is kind of hard to explain. That is, you know why Betty Friedan was upset, because she was this very bright well-educated woman in the 1940s and1950s who was being unfairly held back because of her gender, and so she's got a lot of employment grievances there, and presumably other women her age do too. 

QUESTION: In general, in what ways did the 1950s set the stage for what would then happen in the 1960s? 

WILLIAM O'NEILL: I believe that the relative lack of political activity, if you exempt McCarthyism, and the lack of interest generally in politics in the 15 years after the war are a function of the fact that this is really a period of reconstruction. In terms of public buildings and roads and things like that, nothing has been done for four years, because of the war, except for essential military purposes, and the country is run down. The housing stock has to be rebuilt. All these millions of people, who have been in the army and out of the army and in the workforce and laid off, it's a tremendous churn that's going on here. 

My understanding of this fifteen-year period from the end of the war is that it was essential to the reconstruction of the country, which means literally the physical rebuilding or building anew of much of the country, and to absorb the social changes, the population movements and the like that had taken place during the war and the Depression. And fifteen years is not a terribly long period of time in which to do all this. 

Some of the social changes of the 1960s are evident in the 1950s. The civil rights movement is the classic example. From the time of the Montgomery bus boycott, that is from 1955 on, nobody in America can escape the fact that blacks are really angry about segregation and discrimination and that they want big changes made. You can't ignore that. Everybody knows it. So the civil rights movement, you can't tell how this is going to turn out. In 1955 nobody would have guessed that there would be a thing called "Black Power" and that whites would get kicked out of the civil rights movement and so on. But any fool could see, I think, that this was an issue that wasn't going to go away. 

Now, where feminism, women's rights generally are concerned I don't see anything in the 1950s that prefigures what's going to happen later. There just doesn't seem to be any explanation for it all. Nothing in the 1950s would lead one to believe that there's going to be a sexual revolution. There were the two Kinsey reports, which were very controversial, but I can assure you are not pornographic and are not going to incite anyone to lust as a result of reading them. The censorship in terms of sexual material was very tight still in the 1950s. So in retrospect you can find a few little things, Hugh Hefner, Alfred Kinsey, but when the sexual revolution comes, I think the term revolution is not inappropriate here. It just burst like a bomb and it seems to come out of nowhere.


PBS Program | Trends of the Century | Viewer's Voices | Interactivity | Teacher's Guide