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Post–World War II America: 1945–1959

Post-World War II Life and the Baby Boom

G.I. Bill

The G.I. Bill of Rights was passed to help veterans returning from the war reintegrate into American society with benefits such as low-cost mortgages and grants for education. However, African American veterans continued to face discrimination in the workplace.

The Servicemen's Readjustment Act, also known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, was passed by Congress in 1944 under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt (in office 1933–45). The goal was to assist World War II veterans reintegrating into society by providing them with certain benefits. Veterans were eligible for grants for education, low-interest mortgages, small-business loans backed by the government, hiring privileges, and unemployment benefits. The Veterans Administration (VA) was responsible for administering benefits related to education, mortgages, small-business loans, and unemployment.

World War II (1939–45) marked an end to the Great Depression (1929–39) and caused a severe labor shortage when millions of men went overseas to fight. When they returned from the war, many veterans sought higher education in universities and colleges or completed vocational training programs to enhance their employment opportunities. Forty-nine percent of students admitted to college in 1947 were veterans. Almost half of all returning veterans took advantage of educational programs offered under the G.I. Bill. The G.I. Bill also helped 2.4 million veterans purchase homes with the mortgage guarantee program. The suburbs were growing, and the value of the new homes built under the G.I. Bill created wealth for veterans. Prior to World War II, home ownership and college education were not accessible to the average American. The G.I. Bill, however, brought these two elements within reach of millions of Americans, thereby establishing a strong middle class.
The G.I. Bill, signed into law on June 22, 1944, provided benefits to veterans returning from war. These benefits included help with tuition, buying a house, and starting a business.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 515969
Not all veterans benefited equally, however. African Americans were limited in the educational programs they could attend, and educational and training institutions were still segregated. Housing was also segregated, and it was difficult to find a bank to issue a mortgage for a home in an African American neighborhood. African American entrepreneurs faced the same problem obtaining loans. They enjoyed more job opportunities during the war because of the labor shortage. But when the labor shortage ended, they were once again expected to take the same low wages they had been paid before the war. Unemployment benefits were terminated if a veteran was offered a job, so many African American veterans lost these benefits after being offered low-wage jobs. World War II did not improve conditions for African Americans, as they were denied the privileges and benefits enjoyed by their white counterparts. The G.I. Bill did not purposely discriminate against African Americans, but racism in American society and economic life continued after the war, and African Americans suffered because of it.

Rise of Suburbs

Following World War II, many white Americans moved into small, mass-produced homes in the suburbs. Racial segregation continued to persist even in the suburbs, where African Americans faced discrimination based on Jim Crow laws.

World War II veterans returned to the United States to find a housing shortage. Government programs like the G.I. Bill of Rights, which offered low-interest mortgages for veterans, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) program, which offered a mortgage insurance program, made building or buying a house an option for many Americans. However, conditions such as lot size and the cost of building materials made it difficult to build in urban areas, and thus many Americans turned to the suburbs. Suburbs are primarily residential areas adjacent to urban areas. The Interstate Highway System, developed under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s, further encouraged movement from the cities into the suburbs. Fewer than 44 percent of Americans owned their homes in 1940. This rose to nearly 62 percent in the 1960s.

To meet demand, home builders began employing mass-production techniques to develop the suburbs. Standardized floor plans and building materials made it easier to mass-produce homes and decreased the need for specialized laborers, which also lowered the cost of building. One of the most prominent new builders was William J. Levitt. Levitt built planned communities that would become emblematic of the postwar suburbia boom. Dubbed Levittowns, these housing developments featured small homes on small lots equipped with modern appliances that could easily be remodeled as small families grew.
Westchester, California, comprised several subdivisions in 1949. Such housing developments, which featured rows of similar homes with front lawns and sidewalks, contributed to the rapid rise of suburbs after the war.
Credit: University of Southern California Libraries/California Historical Society/USC Digital Library
Much like cities, suburbs were not immune to racial segregation. African Americans were denied access to the low-cost homes in the suburbs by means of both legal segregation—homes in Levittown were subject to deed restrictions that imposed limits on the property—and intimidation by violent hate groups and the average white American alike. Latinos faced similar discrimination in the western United States. Banks and real estate agents would often work together to show Latinos and African Americans homes exclusively in racially segregated areas. Some cities had designated "Negro expansion areas," but the "separate but equal" doctrine that ruled during the Jim Crow era meant the schools, services, and infrastructure in these areas were subpar. Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation for a period of nearly 80 years (1877–1954). Although these laws were exclusive to the South, discrimination against African Americans in the real estate sector was a national phenomenon after World War II. The Latino community won its first legal victory against discrimination in Mendez v. Westminster (1946). This landmark Supreme Court case abolished segregation of Mexican American children in California schools.

Baby Boom

The baby boom was a sustained spike in the birth rate in the United States in the decades following the war. The boom led to a rapid expansion of the real estate market and growing demand for services and infrastructure.

The United States experienced a decline in birth rates during World War I (1914–18) and the Great Depression (1929–39). Many Americans delayed marriage even through World War II. This birth rate decline came to an end during the period of economic prosperity after the war. The economic policies of the Roosevelt and Eisenhower administrations, such as Roosevelt's Second Bill of Rights and Eisenhower's balancing of the budget, which increased personal income by 45 percent, resulted in a hike in the birth rate between 1946 and 1964. This population increase is known as the baby boom. The increase affected almost every aspect of the economy and society. Growing families moved from urban areas into the suburbs, which led to growth in the housing sector and increased the demand for services and infrastructure. As adolescents and young adults, the baby boomers had a profound effect on popular culture. Many rebelled against the conformity demanded by their parents' generation. This generation championed individual liberties, having a significant impact on the civil rights movement among others.

A surge in the birth rate after a war is not uncommon. There was a small population increase following World War I, but it was short-lived and offset by a global influenza outbreak. The baby boom after World War II, however, lasted nearly 20 years and had a significant impact on American society.

U.S. Birth Rate per 1,000 Population, 1909-69

The sharp rise in births after World War II boosted the American economy by generating increased demand for services and suburban housing.

Consumerism Following World War II

American consumerism flourished after World War II as manufacturing shifted away from military production to consumer production, with advertisers targeting mainly women living in the suburbs. These same women were under pressure to conform to traditional gender roles.

Demand for manufactured goods during World War II helped put an end to the Great Depression. The economy was still strong when the war ended. Many veterans came home to find there were plenty of jobs to be had and wages were higher than they had been before the war. The scarcity many Americans experienced during the Great Depression and the lack of consumer goods available during the war, when American manufacturers focused production on the war effort, left Americans eager to spend. More and more Americans were moving to the suburbs to buy homes with mortgages backed by government programs administered by the Federal Housing Administration and the G.I. Bill. These homes needed refrigerators and ovens, and their owners needed automobiles to drive to and from work. Buying a newer, bigger car every few years was seen as the duty of every good citizen. Consumer spending in the 1950s was seen as a patriotic duty. A strong economy depended on consumer spending.

American consumers also wanted the goods that would make their lives more convenient—vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and toasters. What’s more, because women made the majority of the purchasing decisions for their families, advertisers targeted women in advertisements for goods that would make housekeeping easier. Such ads often showed smiling, flawlessly made-up women cooking or cleaning in spotless dresses and high heels. Such ads reflected society's notion of the woman's role in the family.
Advertising in the 1950s often targeted women, depicting them as well-dressed and happy homemakers surrounded by the latest appliances and devices.
Credit: State Archives of North Carolina/Courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Carolina Power and Light Photograph Collection. Audio Visual Materials.
Conformity to gender roles meant women, particularly those from the middle class, were pressured to remain at home to tend to the children in post–World War II America. Those who remained in the workforce often did so out of economic necessity. Nevertheless, both poor and middle-class suburban women faced incredible social pressure to become homemakers. One significant effect of this pressure was a pervasive discontent among women, who wanted to do more than cook, clean house, and tend children. The condition was referred to as the housewife's syndrome. The medical-industrial complex particularly targeted unhappy housewives by marketing a variety of pills to help them get through the day. The common diagnosis was "nerves" or anxiety, and the most common treatment was a prescription for drugs known as tranquilizers. The most popular tranquilizer was Miltown, which rapidly became the most widely prescribed drug in American history. Seventy-five percent of U.S. doctors were prescribing Miltown for their patients by 1960. Miltown and similar medications were nicknamed mother's little helpers, and their use among housewives was so prevalent that the term entered popular culture. The rock group the Rolling Stones had a hit with a song called "Mother's Little Helper," which contained lyrics such as "Doctor, please,/some more of these." Novelist Jacqueline Susann dubbed them "woman's best friend."

Labor Movement Goes Mainstream

Membership in labor unions increased in the 1940s and 1950s. As unions gained political power, businesses and conservative politicians used legislation to undermine them.

A labor union is an association formed by workers in a particular industry or trade to fight for improved working conditions, wages, and benefits. The first labor unions were established in the United States in the 19th century. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was formed in 1886 to represent the interests of members of trade unions made up of skilled laborers. Other labor unions that had attempted to organized unskilled workers, such as the Knights of Labor (1869), did not survive long in the 20th century. The AFL refused to organize these unskilled workers, which gave rise to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935. The CIO successfully organized the steel and automobile industries in the United States, representing a significant number of industrial workers.

The AFL and CIO merged in 1955 to form the AFL-CIO, believing that combining forces would make them stronger and more efficient. The merger was a delayed response to the Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947. The Taft-Hartley Act was anti-union legislation. It preserved collective bargaining rights but otherwise diminished the power of labor unions by placing restrictions on political union contributions, specifying unfair union practices, and requiring unions to give advance notice if they were going to strike. The AFL-CIO reached a membership exceeding 17 million. Increased membership meant increased political power. However, businesses and conservative politicians interested in protecting business interests felt threatened by such a powerfully organized workforce. In response to the merger of the AFL and CIO, Congress passed the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959. Landrum-Griffin was a move to curb big unions, especially the Teamsters. Among other provisions, it stipulated certain rights for union members, required union leadership to disclose financial dealings and possible conflicts of interest, and regulated leadership elections. Despite efforts by the government to break up unions, union membership continued to increase throughout the 1950s. Membership in a union was the norm for industrial and trade workers in the United States during this period.

U.S. Union Membership and Wealth Distribution in the 20th Century

Supported by legislation protecting labor rights, union membership rose steadily throughout the mid-20th century. This trend ended as a result of President Reagan's antilabor stance, allowing income to shift back into the hands of the wealthy.