Spanning countries across the globe, the antinuclear movement was the combined effort of millions of people to challenge the superpowers’ reliance on nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Encompassing an array of tactics, from radical dissent to public protest to opposition within the government, this movement succeeded in constraining the arms race and helping to make the use of nuclear weapons politically unacceptable. Antinuclear activists were critical to the establishment of arms control treaties, although they failed to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons, as anticommunists, national security officials, and proponents of nuclear deterrence within the United States and Soviet Union actively opposed the movement. Opposition to nuclear weapons evolved in tandem with the Cold War and the arms race, leading to a rapid decline in antinuclear activism after the Cold War ended.
Over the past seventy years, the American film industry has transformed from mass-producing movies to producing a limited number of massive blockbuster movies on a global scale. Hollywood film studios have moved from independent companies to divisions of media conglomerates. Theatrical attendance for American audiences has plummeted since the mid-1940s; nonetheless, American films have never been more profitable. In 1945, American films could only be viewed in theaters; now they are available in myriad forms of home viewing. Throughout, Hollywood has continued to dominate global cinema, although film and now video production reaches Americans in many other forms, from home videos to educational films.
Amid declining attendance, the Supreme Court in 1948 forced the major studios to sell off their theaters. Hollywood studios instead focused their power on distribution, limiting the supply of films and focusing on expensive productions to sell on an individual basis to theaters. Growing production costs and changing audiences caused wild fluctuations in profits, leading to an industry-wide recession in the late 1960s. The studios emerged under new corporate ownership and honed their blockbuster strategy, releasing “high concept” films widely on the heels of television marketing campaigns. New technologies such as cable and VCRs offered new windows for Hollywood movies beyond theatrical release, reducing the risks of blockbuster production. Deregulation through the 1980s and 1990s allowed for the “Big Six” media conglomerates to join film, theaters, networks, publishing, and other related media outlets under one corporate umbrella. This has expanded the scale and stability of Hollywood revenue while reducing the number and diversity of Hollywood films, as conglomerates focus on film franchises that can thrive on various digital media. Technological change has also lowered the cost of non-Hollywood films and thus encouraged a range of alternative forms of filmmaking, distribution, and exhibition.
Akram Fouad Khater
Between 1880 and 1940, more than 130,000 Arabs immigrated to the United States as part of the Great Migration of the long 19th century. They lived and worked across the breadth of the United States, fought its many wars, and were engaged in the transformative debates about labor, race, gender, and citizenship that raged throughout this time period. As they struggled to carve out a place in “Amirka” they encountered and fought efforts to racialize them as the uncivilized and undesirable “Other.” Their struggles not only contributed to shaping the United States and its immigration policies, but also confronted them with the conundrum of how to belong: to accept and seek admission into the existing system delineated by race, gender, and class, or to challenge the premises of that system. While there was not a singular response from this diverse community, the majority opted to fight for a place in “white” America even if in return this rendered them a liminal ethnicity.
Gabriella M. Petrick
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
American food in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is characterized by abundance. Unlike the hardscrabble existence of many earlier Americans, the “Golden Age of Agriculture” brought the bounty produced in fields across the United States to both consumers and producers. While the “Golden Age” technically ended as World War I began, larger quantities of relatively inexpensive food became the norm for most Americans as more fresh foods, rather than staple crops, made their way to urban centers and rising real wages made it easier to purchase these comestibles.
The application of science and technology to food production from the field to the kitchen cabinet, or even more crucially the refrigerator by the mid-1930s, reflects the changing demographics and affluence of American society as much as it does the inventiveness of scientists and entrepreneurs. Perhaps the single most important symbol of overabundance in the United States is the postwar Green Revolution. The vast increase in agricultural production based on improved agronomics, provoked both praise and criticism as exemplified by Time magazine’s critique of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in September 1962 or more recently the politics of genetically modified foods.
Reflecting that which occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, food production, politics, and policy at the turn of the twenty-first century has become a proxy for larger ideological agendas and the fractured nature of class in the United States. Battles over the following issues speak to which Americans have access to affordable, nutritious food: organic versus conventional farming, antibiotic use in meat production, dissemination of food stamps, contraction of farm subsidies, the rapid growth of “dollar stores,” alternative diets (organic, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, etc.), and, perhaps most ubiquitous of all, the “obesity epidemic.” These arguments carry moral and ethical values as each side deems some foods and diets virtuous, and others corrupting. While Americans have long held a variety of food ideologies that meld health, politics, and morality, exemplified by Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, among others, newer constructions of these ideologies reflect concerns over the environment, rural Americans, climate change, self-determination, and the role of government in individual lives. In other words, food can be used as a lens to understand larger issues in American society while at the same time allowing historians to explore the intimate details of everyday life.
Changing foodways, the consumption and production of food, access to food, and debates over food shaped the nature of American cities in the 20th century. As American cities transformed from centers of industrialization at the start of the century to post-industrial societies at the end of the 20th century, food cultures in urban America shifted in response to the ever-changing urban environment. Cities remained centers of food culture, diversity, and food reform despite these shifts.
Growing populations and waves of immigration changed the nature of food cultures throughout the United States in the 20th century. These changes were significant, all contributing to an evolving sense of American food culture. For urban denizens, however, food choice and availability were dictated and shaped by a variety of powerful social factors, including class, race, ethnicity, gender, and laboring status. While cities possessed an abundance of food in a variety of locations to consume food, fresh food often remained difficult for the urban poor to obtain as the 20th century ended.
As markets expanded from 1900 to 1950, regional geography became a less important factor in determining what types of foods were available. In the second half of the 20th century, even global geography became less important to food choices. Citrus fruit from the West Coast was readily available in northeastern markets near the start of the century, and off-season fruits and vegetables from South America filled shelves in grocery stores by the end of the 20th century. Urban Americans became further disconnected from their food sources, but this dislocation spurred counter-movements that embraced ideas of local, seasonal foods and a rethinking of the city’s relationship with its food sources.
While American gambling has a historical association with the lawlessness of the frontier and with the wasteful leisure practices of Southern planters, it was in large cities where American gambling first flourished as a form of mass leisure, and as a commercial enterprise of significant scale. In the urban areas of the Mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, and the upper Mid-West, for the better part of two centuries the gambling economy was deeply intertwined with municipal politics and governance, the practices of betting were a prominent feature of social life, and controversies over the presence of gambling both legal and illegal, were at the center of public debate. In New York and Chicago in particular, but also in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, gambling channeled money to municipal police forces and sustained machine politics. In the eyes of reformers, gambling corrupted governance and corroded social and economic interactions. Big city gambling has changed over time, often in a manner reflecting important historical processes and transformations in economics, politics, and demographics. Yet irrespective of such change, from the onset of Northern urbanization during the 19th century, through much of the 20th century, gambling held steady as a central feature of city life and politics. From the poolrooms where recently arrived Irish New Yorkers bet on horseracing after the Civil War, to the corner stores where black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers bet on the numbers game in the 1960s, the gambling activity that covered the urban landscape produced argument and controversy, particularly with respect to drawing the line between crime and leisure, and over the question of where and to what ends the money of the gambling public should be directed.
During the 20th century, the black population of the United States transitioned from largely rural to mostly urban. In the early 1900s the majority of African Americans lived in rural, agricultural areas. Depictions of black people in popular culture often focused on pastoral settings, like the cotton fields of the rural South. But a dramatic shift occurred during the Great Migrations (1914–1930 and 1941–1970) when millions of rural black southerners relocated to US cities.
Motivated by economic opportunities in urban industrial areas during World Wars I and II, African Americans opted to move to southern cities as well as to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. New communities emerged that contained black social and cultural institutions, and musical and literary expressions flourished. Black migrants who left the South exercised voting rights, sending the first black representatives to Congress in the 20th century. Migrants often referred to themselves as “New Negroes,” pointing to their social, political, and cultural achievements, as well as their use of armed self-defense during violent racial confrontations, as evidence of their new stance on race.
The Immigration Act of 1924 was in large part the result of a deep political and cultural divide in America between heavily immigrant cities and far less diverse small towns and rural areas. The 1924 legislation, together with growing residential segregation, midcentury federal urban policy, and postwar suburbanization, undermined scores of ethnic enclaves in American cities between 1925 and the 1960s. The deportation of Mexicans and their American children during the Great Depression, the incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II, and the wartime and postwar shift of so many jobs to suburban and Sunbelt areas also reshaped many US cities in these years. The Immigration Act of 1965, which enabled the immigration of large numbers of people from Asia, Latin America, and, eventually, Africa, helped to revitalize many depressed urban areas and inner-ring suburbs. In cities and suburbs across the country, the response to the new immigration since 1965 has ranged from welcoming to hostile. The national debate over immigration in the early 21st century reflects both familiar and newer cultural, linguistic, religious, racial, and regional rifts. However, urban areas with a history of immigrant incorporation remain the most politically supportive of such people, just as they were a century ago.
In the post-1945 period, jazz moved rapidly from one major avant-garde revolution (the birth of bebop) to another (the emergence of free jazz) while developing a profusion of subgenres (hard bop, progressive, modal, Third Stream, soul jazz) and a new idiomatic persona (cool or hip) that originated as a form of African American resistance but soon became a signature of transgression and authenticity across the modern arts and culture. Jazz’s long-standing affiliation with African American urban life and culture intensified through its central role in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. By the 1970s, jazz, now fully eclipsed in popular culture by rock n’ roll, turned to electric instruments and fractured into a multitude of hyphenated styles (jazz-funk, jazz-rock, fusion, Latin jazz). The move away from acoustic performance and traditional codes of blues and swing musicianship generated a neoclassical reaction in the 1980s that coincided with a mission to establish an orthodox jazz canon and honor the music’s history in elite cultural institutions. Post-1980s jazz has been characterized by tension between tradition and innovation, earnest preservation and intrepid exploration, Americanism and internationalism.
Laura Isabel Serna
Latinos have constituted part of the United States’ cinematic imagination since the emergence of motion pictures in the late 19th century. Though shifting in their specific contours, representations of Latinos have remained consistently stereotypical; Latinos have primarily appeared on screen as bandits, criminals, nameless maids, or sultry señoritas. These representations have been shaped by broader political and social issues and have influenced the public perception of Latinos in the United States. However, the history of Latinos and film should not be limited to the topic of representation. Latinos have participated in the film industry as actors, creative personnel (including directors and cinematographers), and have responded to representations on screen as members of audiences with a shared sense of identity, whether as mexicanos de afuera in the early 20th century, Hispanics in the 1980s and 1990s, or Latinos in the 21st century. Both participation in production and reception have been shaped by the ideas about race that characterize the film industry and its products. Hollywood’s labor hierarchy has been highly stratified according to race, and Hollywood films that represent Latinos in a stereotypical fashion have been protested by Latino audiences. While some Latino/a filmmakers have opted to work outside the confines of the commercial film industry, others have sought to gain entry and reform the industry from the inside. Throughout the course of this long history, Latino representation on screen and on set has been shaped by debates over international relations, immigration, citizenship, and the continuous circulation of people and films between the United States and Latin America.
Emily K. Hobson
Since World War II, the United States has witnessed major changes in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) politics. Indeed, because the history of LGBTQ activism is almost entirely concentrated in the postwar years, the LGBTQ movement is typically said to have achieved rapid change in a short period of time. But if popular accounts characterize LGBTQ history as a straightforward narrative of progress, the reality is more complex. Postwar LGBTQ politics has been both diverse and divided, marked by differences of identity and ideology. At the same time, LGBTQ politics has been embedded in the contexts of state-building and the Cold War, the New Left and the New Right, the growth of neoliberalism, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As the field of LGBTQ history has grown, scholars have increasingly been able to place analyses of state regulation into conversation with community-based histories. Moving between such outside and inside perspectives helps to reveal how multiple modes of LGBTQ politics have shaped one another and how they have been interwoven with broader social change. Looking from the outside, it is apparent that LGBTQ politics has been catalyzed by exclusions from citizenship; from the inside, we can see that activists have responded to such exclusions in different ways, including both by seeking social inclusion and by rejecting assimilationist terms. Court rulings and the administration of law have run alongside the debates inside activist communities. Competing visions for LGBTQ politics have centered around both leftist and liberal agendas, as well as viewpoints shaped by race, gender, gender expression, and class.
Landon R. Y. Storrs
The second Red Scare refers to the fear of communism that permeated American politics, culture, and society from the late 1940s through the 1950s, during the opening phases of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This episode of political repression lasted longer and was more pervasive than the Red Scare that followed the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I. Popularly known as “McCarthyism” after Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisconsin), who made himself famous in 1950 by claiming that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department, the second Red Scare predated and outlasted McCarthy, and its machinery far exceeded the reach of a single maverick politician. Nonetheless, “McCarthyism” became the label for the tactic of undermining political opponents by making unsubstantiated attacks on their loyalty to the United States.
The initial infrastructure for waging war on domestic communism was built during the first Red Scare, with the creation of an antiradicalism division within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the emergence of a network of private “patriotic” organizations. With capitalism’s crisis during the Great Depression, the Communist Party grew in numbers and influence, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program expanded the federal government’s role in providing economic security. The anticommunist network expanded as well, most notably with the 1938 formation of the Special House Committee to Investigate Un-American Activities, which in 1945 became the permanent House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Other key congressional investigation committees were the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Members of these committees and their staff cooperated with the FBI to identify and pursue alleged subversives. The federal employee loyalty program, formalized in 1947 by President Harry Truman in response to right-wing allegations that his administration harbored Communist spies, soon was imitated by local and state governments as well as private employers. As the Soviets’ development of nuclear capability, a series of espionage cases, and the Korean War enhanced the credibility of anticommunists, the Red Scare metastasized from the arena of government employment into labor unions, higher education, the professions, the media, and party politics at all levels. The second Red Scare did not involve pogroms or gulags, but the fear of unemployment was a powerful tool for stifling criticism of the status quo, whether in economic policy or social relations. Ostensibly seeking to protect democracy by eliminating communism from American life, anticommunist crusaders ironically undermined democracy by suppressing the expression of dissent. Debates over the second Red Scare remain lively because they resonate with ongoing struggles to reconcile Americans’ desires for security and liberty.
Peace activism in the United States between 1945 and the 2010s focused mostly on opposition to U.S. foreign policy, efforts to strengthen and foster international cooperation, and support for nuclear nonproliferation and arms control. The onset of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union marginalized a reviving postwar American peace movement emerging from concerns about atomic and nuclear power and worldwide nationalist politics that everywhere seemed to foster conflict, not peace. Still, peace activism continued to evolve in dynamic ways and to influence domestic politics and international relations.
Most significantly, peace activists pioneered the use of Gandhian nonviolence in the United States and provided critical assistance to the African American civil rights movement, led the postwar antinuclear campaign, played a major role in the movement against the war in Vietnam, helped to move the liberal establishment (briefly) toward a more dovish foreign policy in the early 1970s, and helped to shape the political culture of American radicalism. Despite these achievements, the peace movement never regained the political legitimacy and prestige it held in the years before World War II, and it struggled with internal divisions about ideology, priorities, and tactics.
Peace activist histories in the 20th century tended to emphasize organizational or biographical approaches that sometimes carried hagiographic overtones. More recently, historians have applied the methods of cultural history, examining the role of religion, gender, and race in structuring peace activism. The transnational and global turn in the historical discipline has also begun to make inroads in peace scholarship. These are promising new directions because they situate peace activism within larger historical and cultural developments and relate peace history to broader historiographical debates and trends.
Rap is the musical practice of hip hop culture that features vocalists, or MCs, reciting lyrics over an instrumental beat that emerged out of the political and economic transformations of New York City after the 1960s. Black and Latinx youth, many of them Caribbean immigrants, created this new cultural form in response to racism, poverty, urban renewal, deindustrialization, and inner-city violence. These new cultural forms eventually spread beyond New York to all regions of the United States as artists from Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, and Chicago began releasing rap music with their own distinct sounds. Despite efforts to demonize and censor rap music and hip hop culture, rap music has served as a pathway for social mobility for many black and Latinx youth. Many artists have enjoyed crossover success in acting, advertising, and business. Rap music has also sparked new conversations about various issues such as electoral politics, gender and sexuality, crime, policing, and mass incarceration, as well as technology.
Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence Speech” of July 1979 was a critical juncture in post-1945 U.S. politics, but it also marks an exemplary pivot in post-1945 religion. Five dimensions of faith shaped the president’s sermon. The first concerned the shattered consensus of American religion. When Carter encouraged Americans to recapture a spirit of unity, he spoke in a heartfelt but spent language more suitable to Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency than his own. By 1979, the Protestant-Catholic-Jewish consensus of Eisenhower’s time was fractured into a dynamic pluralism, remaking American religion in profound ways. Carter’s speech revealed a second revolution of post-1945 religion when it decried its polarization and politicization. Carter sought to heal ruptures that were dividing the nation between what observers, two decades hence, would label “red” (conservative Republican) and “blue” (liberal Democratic) constituencies. Yet his endeavors failed, as would be evidenced in the religious politics of Ronald Reagan’s era, which followed. Carter championed community values as the answer to his society’s problems aware of yet a third dawning reality: globalization. The virtues of localism that Carter espoused were in fact implicated in (and complicated by) transnational forces of change that saw immigration, missionary enterprises, and state and non-state actors internationalizing the American religious experience. A fourth illuminating dimension of Carter’s speech was its critique of America’s gospel of wealth. Although this “born-again” southerner was a product of the evangelical South’s revitalized free-market capitalism, he lamented how laissez-faire Christianity had become America’s lingua franca. Finally, Carter wrestled with secularization, revealing a fifth feature of post-1945 America. Even though faith commitments were increasingly cordoned off from formal state functions during this time, the nation’s political discourse acquired a pronounced religiosity. Carter contributed by framing mundane issues (such as energy) in moral contexts that drew no hard-and-fast boundaries between matters of the soul and governance. Drawn from the political and economic crises of his moment, Carter’s speech thus also reveals the all-enveloping tide of religion in America’s post-1945 age.
Rock and roll, a popular music craze of the mid-1950s, turned a loud, fast, and sexy set of sounds rooted in urban, black, working class, and southern America into the pop preference as well of suburban, white, young, and northern America. By the late 1960s, those fans and British counterparts made their own version, more politicized and experimental and just called rock—the summoning sound of the counterculture. Rock’s aura soon faded: it became as much entertainment staple as dissident form, with subcategories disparate as singer-songwriter, heavy metal, alternative, and “classic rock.” Where rock and roll was integrated and heterogeneous, rock was largely white and homogeneous, policing its borders. Notoriously, rock fans detonated disco records in 1979. By the 1990s, rock and roll style was hip-hop, with its youth appeal and rebelliousness; post‒baby boomer bands gave rock some last vanguard status; and suburbanites found classic rock in New Country. This century’s notions of rock and roll have blended thoroughly, from genre “mash-ups” to superstar performers almost categories unto themselves and new sounds such as EDM beats. Still, crossover moments evoke rock and roll; assertions of authenticity evoke rock. Because rock and roll, and rock, epitomize cultural ideals and group identities, their definitions have been constantly debated. Initial argument focused on challenging genteel, professional notions of musicianship and behavior. Later discourse took up cultural incorporation and social empowerment, with issues of gender and commercialism as prominent as race and artistry. Rock and roll promised one kind of revolution to the post-1945 United States; rock another. The resulting hope and confusion has never been fully sorted, with mixed consequences for American music and cultural history.
Robert O. Self
Few decades in American history reverberate with as much historical reach or glow as brightly in living mythology as the 1960s. During those years Americans reanimated and reinvented the core political principles of equality and liberty but, in a primal clash that resonates more than half a century later, fiercely contested what those principles meant, and for whom. For years afterward, the decade’s appreciators considered the era to have its own “spirit,” defined by greater freedoms and a deeper, more authentic personhood, and given breath by a youthful generation’s agitation for change in nearly every dimension of national life. To its detractors in subsequent decades, the era was marked by immature radical fantasies and dangerous destabilizations of the social order, behind which lay misguided youthful enthusiasms and an overweening, indulgent federal government. We need not share either conviction to appreciate the long historical shadow cast by the decade’s clashing of left, right, and center and its profound influence over the political debates, cultural logics, and social practices of the many years that followed.
The decade’s political and ideological clashes registered with such force because post–World War II American life was characterized by a society-wide embrace of antiradicalism and a prescribed normalcy. Having emerged from the war as the lone undamaged capitalist industrial power, the United States exerted enormous influence throughout the globe after 1945—so much that some historians have called the postwar years a “pax Americana.” In its own interest and in the interest of its Western allies, the United States engaged in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union over the fate of Europe and no less over the fate of developing countries on every continent. Fiercely anticommunist abroad and at home, U.S. elites stoked fears of the damage communism could do, whether in Eastern Europe or in a public school textbook. Americans of all sorts in the postwar years embraced potent ideologies justifying the prevailing order, whether that order was capitalist, patriarchal, racial, or heterosexual. They pursued a postwar “normalcy” defined by nuclear family domesticity and consumer capitalism in the shadow cast by the threat of communism and, after 1949, global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. This prevailing order was stultifying and its rupture in the 1960s is the origin point of the decade’s great dramas.
The social movements of that decade drew Americans from the margins of citizenship—African Americans, Latina/o, Native Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians, among others—into epochal struggles over the withheld promise of equality. For the first time since 1861, an American war deeply split the nation, nearly destroying a major political party and intensifying a generational revolt already under way. Violence, including political assassinations at the highest level, bombings and assassinations of African Americans, bombings by left-wing groups like the Weathermen, and major urban uprisings by African Americans against police and property bathed the country in more blood. The New Deal liberalism of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman reached its postwar peak in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and then retreated amid acrimony and backlash, as a new conservative politics gained traction. All this took place in the context of a “global 1960s,” in which societies in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere experienced similar generational rebellions, quests for meaningful democracy, and disillusionment with American global hegemony. From the first year of the decade to the last, the 1960s were a watershed era that marked the definitive end of a “postwar America” defined by easy Cold War dualities, presumptions of national innocence, and political calcification.
To explain the foregoing, this essay is organized in five sections. First comes a broad overview of the decade, highlighting some of its indelible moments and seminal political events. The next four sections correspond to the four signature historical developments of the 1960s. Discussed first is the collapse of the political consensus that predominated in national life following World War II. We can call this consensus “Vital Center liberalism,” after the title of a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or “Cold War liberalism.” Its assault from both the New Left and the New Right is one of the defining stories of the 1960s. Second is the resurgence, after a decades-long interregnum dating to Reconstruction, of African American political agency. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was far more than a social movement for civil rights. To shape the conditions of national life and the content of public debate in ways impossible under Jim Crow, black American called for nothing less than a spiritual and political renewal of the country. Third, and following from the latter, is the emergence within the American liberal tradition of a new emphasis on expanding individual rights and ending invidious discrimination. Forged in conjunction with the black freedom movement by women, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and homophiles (as early gay rights activists were called) and gay liberationists, this new emphasis profoundly changed American law and set the terms of political debate for the next half century. Fourth and lastly, the 1960s witnessed the flourishing of a broad and diverse culture of anti-authoritarianism. In art, politics, and social behavior, this anti-authoritarianism took many forms, but at its heart lay two distinct historical phenomena: an ecstatic celebration of youth, manifest in the tension between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation, and an intensification of the long-standing conflict in American life between individualism and hierarchical order.
Despite the disruptions, rebellions, and challenges to authority in the decade, the political and economic elite proved remarkably resilient and preserved much of the prevailing order. This is not to discount the foregoing account of challenges to that order or to suggest that social change in the 1960s made little difference in American life. However, in grappling with this fascinating decade we are confronted with the paradox of outsized events and enormous transformations in law, ideology, and politics alongside a continuation, even an entrenchment, of traditional economic and political structures and practices.
The decade of the 1980s represented a turning point in American history—a crucial era, marked by political conservatism and an individualistic ethos. The 1980s also witnessed a dramatic series of developments in U.S. foreign relations, first an intensification of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and then a sudden relaxation of tensions and the effective end of the Cold War with an American victory. All of these developments were advanced and symbolized in the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), a polarizing figure but a highly successful political leader. Reagan dominates our memories of the 1980s like few other American leaders do other eras. Reagan and the political movement he led—Reaganism—are central to the history of the 1980s. Both their successes and their failures, which became widely acknowledged in the later years of the decade, should be noted. Reaganite conservatives won political victories by rolling back state power in many realms, most of all in terms of taxation and regulation. They also succeeded in putting America at the unquestioned pinnacle of the world order through a victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, although this was unforeseen by America’s Cold Warriors when the 1980s began. The failures of Reaganite conservatism include its handling of rising poverty levels, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and worsening racial tensions, all problems that either Reaganites did little to stem or to which they positively contributed. In foreign affairs, Reaganites pursued a “war on terror” of questionable success, and their approach to Third World arenas of conflict, including Central America, exacted a terrible human toll.
The 1950s have typically been seen as a complacent, conservative time between the end of World War II and the radical 1960s, when anticommunism and the Cold War subverted reform and undermined civil liberties. But the era can also be seen as a very liberal time in which meeting the Communist threat led to Keynesian economic policies, the expansion of New Deal programs, and advances in civil rights. Politically, it was “the Eisenhower Era,” dominated by a moderate Republican president, a high level of bipartisan cooperation, and a foreign policy committed to containing communism. Culturally, it was an era of middle-class conformity, which also gave us abstract expressionism, rock and roll, Beat poetry, and a grassroots challenge to Jim Crow.
In the decade after 1965, radicals responded to the alienating features of America’s technocratic society by developing alternative cultures that emphasized authenticity, individualism, and community. The counterculture emerged from a handful of 1950s bohemian enclaves, most notably the Beat subcultures in the Bay Area and Greenwich Village. But new influences shaped an eclectic and decentralized counterculture after 1965, first in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, then in urban areas and college towns, and, by the 1970s, on communes and in myriad counter-institutions. The psychedelic drug cultures around Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey gave rise to a mystical bent in some branches of the counterculture and influenced counterculture style in countless ways: acid rock redefined popular music; tie dye, long hair, repurposed clothes, and hip argot established a new style; and sexual mores loosened. Yet the counterculture’s reactionary elements were strong. In many counterculture communities, gender roles mirrored those of mainstream society, and aggressive male sexuality inhibited feminist spins on the sexual revolution. Entrepreneurs and corporate America refashioned the counterculture aesthetic into a marketable commodity, ignoring the counterculture’s incisive critique of capitalism. Yet the counterculture became the basis of authentic “right livelihoods” for others. Meanwhile, the politics of the counterculture defy ready categorization. The popular imagination often conflates hippies with radical peace activists. But New Leftists frequently excoriated the counterculture for rejecting political engagement in favor of hedonistic escapism or libertarian individualism. Both views miss the most important political aspects of the counterculture, which centered on the embodiment of a decentralized anarchist bent, expressed in the formation of counter-institutions like underground newspapers, urban and rural communes, head shops, and food co-ops. As the counterculture faded after 1975, its legacies became apparent in the redefinition of the American family, the advent of the personal computer, an increasing ecological and culinary consciousness, and the marijuana legalization movement.