In January 1961, shortly before leaving office, Eisenhower delivered a tele vised Farewell Address, modeled to some extent on George Washington’s address of 1796. Knowing that the missile gap was a myth, Ike warned against the drumbeat of calls for a new military buildup. He urged Americans to think about the dangerous power of what he called the “military-industrial complex”—the conjunction of “an immense military establishment” with a “permanent arms industry”—with an influence felt in “every office” in the land. “We must never let the weight of this combination,” he advised his countrymen, “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” Few Americans shared Ike’s concern—far more saw the alliance of the Defense Department and private industry as a source of jobs and national security rather than a threat to democracy. A few years later, however, with the United States locked in an increasingly unpopular war, Eisenhower’s warning would come to seem prophetic.

By then, other underpinnings of 1950s life were also in disarray. The tens of millions of cars that made suburban life possible were spewing toxic lead, an additive to make gasoline more efficient, into the atmosphere. Penned in to the east by mountains that kept automobile emissions from being dispersed by the wind, Los Angeles had become synonymous with smog, a type of air pollution produced by cars. Chlorofluorocarbons, used in air conditioners, deodorants, and aerosol hair sprays, were releasing chemicals into the atmosphere that damaged the ozone layer, producing global warming and an increase in skin cancer. (Both leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons had been invented by General Motors research scientist Thomas Midgley. He “had more impact on the atmosphere,” writes one historian, “than any other single organism” in the history of the world.) The chemical insecticides that enabled agricultural conglomerates to produce the country’s remarkable abundance of food were poisoning farm workers, consumers, and the water supply. Housewives were rebelling against a life centered in suburban dream houses. Blacks were increasingly impatient with the slow progress of racial change. The United States, in other words, had entered that most turbulent of decades, the 1960s.

Residents of Los Angeles don gas masks at a 1954 luncheon to protest the government’s failure to combat the air pollution, or “smog,” that hung over the city.

Andy Warhol’s 1962 painting Green Coca-Color Bottles uses one of the most famous international symbols of American consumerism both to celebrate abundance and to question the sterile uniformity of 1950s consumer culture. Asked why he painted Coke bottles, he replied that artists paint what they see. Previous artists painted landscapes and city buildings; he painted things present in American life wherever one looked.


1. Explain the meaning of the “American standard of living” during the 1950s.

2. Describe how the automobile transformed American communities and culture in the 1950s.

3. Identify the prescribed roles and aspirations for women during the social conformity of the 1950s.

4. How did the growth of suburbs affect the racial lines of division in American society?

5. Explain the ideological rifts bet ween conservatives in the 1950s. Why did many view President Eisenhower as “not one of them”?

6. What was the new “social contract” bet ween labor and management, and how did it benefit both sides as well as the nation as a whole?

7. How did the United States and Soviet Union shift the focus of the Cold War to the Third World?

8. What were the most significant factors that contributed to the growing momentum of the civil rights movement in the 1960s?

9. How did many southern whites, led by their elected officials, resist desegregation and civil rights in the name of “freedom”?

10. Explain the significance of American race relations for U.S. relations overseas.


1. What was the role of consumerism in ideas of American freedom in the 1950s?

2. To what extent was the Cold War a struggle to promote freedom in the world, and how did it affect the freedoms of Americans at home?

3. What were the arguments posed by social critics of Cold War society and culture?

4. What basic freedoms did African-Americans seek through the civil rights movement of this period?

5. According to President Eisenhower, what dangers were posed by a military-industrial complex?

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