The 1950s - A Rare Golden Age Indeed
By David Bellm
Over the years it's become extremely common to view the postwar period
- the 1950s in particular - as America's Classic Era, a utopia to be
admired and emulated forever more. With its innovative spirit, boundless
energy, and seemingly limitless possibilities, many Americans have
adopted this unique, colorful era as the touchstone for the course of the
nation. They see this as a time when "everything was right" in America,
a period in which the United States really fulfilled its destiny as the
leader of the world in all respects that mattered.
We were after all, the technological leaders of the entire planet. No
one produced more cars, airplanes, locomotives, medicines, bombs, or
bridges than America during the 1950s. And we were also the cultural
leaders of the time. This was where Jackson Pollock stunned the art world
with his audacious breakthroughs in modern painting, while Elvis Presley
and Chuck Berry employed a daring new musical form called rock & roll
to induce hysterical, frenzied excitement among the masses. These
exemplary pursuits were framed by political and military initiatives that
strived with remarkable efficiency to raise the rest of the world to
almost our level and bolster them against the oppressive forces that still
remained in power in Europe.
Ours was a nation of seemingly all things good and admirable. We were
confident, powerful, smart, and ambitious. Why shouldn't we forever hold
the era up as an ideal to aspire to, a halcyon period in which we
finally "got it right," the kind of America we should compare all other
later iterations of our culture to?
But no matter how hard we try, we could probably never duplicate the rare
convergence of circumstances that produced the magic of the era anyway.
Much of the reason there was so much abundance in the 1950s, is that
the excess production of our war-inflated industrial base was by that
time chasing such a small number of consumers. Population growth in
America had been flat for a number of years. Families during the Great
Depression simply couldn't afford large families. Then, America entered
World War II, which severely limited the opportunities to start families.
And then there's the matter of America's unflagging optimism in the
1950s. Unlike almost any era except the 1980s, America in the 1950s was
desperate to be optimistic again. By 1946 we had lived under the blanket
of a general glumness for nearly two decades, first with the
Depression, then WWII. When those obstacles were finally removed, Americans
couldn't help but be consumed by an almost unstoppable longing to lead "The
At the same time, how could the United States not be the technological
leader of the world? There was, in fact, little of "The World" left
standing after it had been bombed into rubble the previous decade. America
found it easy pickings to dominate the world industrial scene - ours
was among the only significant industrial infrastructure left in any
And these are just a few simple examples of the many ways in which the
joys of 1950s America could really be best characterized as a being a
fluke -- an anomaly.
Now, don't get me wrong. I don't point out these things to make less of
the 1950s. It will forever be my favorite of all eras in American
history. It was the climactic moment when our nation was poised at the
summit, astride the world with a benevolent smile and a youthful energy
that still holds an obvious, immediate magic when studied decades later.
Rather, I say these things to point out that this was a rare aligning
of the planets - a one-in-a-million moment that produced spectacular
results that reverberated throughout the world, forever imprinting our
collective psyche in how things could be.
And that only makes the 1950s more special. This was a cherished epoch,
one which America will likely never see the likes of again.
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