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The United States after 1945


governor Thomas E. Dewey
governor Thomas E. Dewey

In the post-World War II decade, the United States was the richest nation in the world. After a brief period of postwar adjustment, the economy boomed. Consumers demanded goods and services. Businesses produced more to meet this demand, and increased production led to new jobs. Federal foreign aid programs, such as the Marshall Plan, provided overseas markets for U.S. businesses. Finally, the government spent large amounts of money by providing loans, fighting the Cold War, and funding social programs. Government spending plus consumer demand led to an era of widespread prosperity, rising living standards, and social mobility.

As the nation demobilized, President Harry S. Truman faced a political battle. A one-time courthouse politician who owed his political success to the Democratic political machine of Kansas City, Truman had been a liberal senator and loyal New Dealer. Assertive and self-confident, he capably assumed the presidency after Roosevelt’s death at the end of World War II. But in 1946, Truman encountered the Republican-dominated 80th Congress, the first time Republicans won control of both houses since 1928.

In 1947 Congress passed the Labor-Management Relations Act, known as the Taft-Hartley Act, over Truman’s veto. The act was a restrictive labor law that handicapped labor and boosted employer power. For instance, it banned closed shops, thereby enabling employers to hire nonunion workers; it revived the labor injunction as a way to end strikes and boycotts; and it allowed states to pass right-to-work laws that forbade making union membership a condition of hiring.

Congress also rejected Truman’s efforts to improve civil rights for African Americans. It refused to pass federal antilynching laws or to abolish the poll tax. In 1948, however, Truman integrated the armed forces by an executive order. He also ordered an end to discrimination in the hiring of federal employees. Southern Democrats never liked Truman.

At the Democratic convention of 1948, they withdrew from the party to form a states’ rights party, the Dixiecrats. Truman also faced a challenge from the left, when Henry Wallace ran as the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. Both of these challenges took Democratic votes from Truman, and most observers expected that his Republican opponent, New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, would defeat him. But the scrappy president won reelection. The 81st Congress continued to reject his social and economic proposals, known as the Fair Deal. Legislators defeated, for instance, a measure for national compulsory health insurance. Still, Truman succeeded in raising the minimum wage, extending social security coverage, and building low-income housing.

Elected president by big margins in 1952 and 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyed immense popularity. A pragmatic, centrist Republican, Eisenhower believed in smaller government, fiscal conservatism, and a businesslike administration.

Eisenhower continued some New Deal policies. He expanded social security, raised the minimum wage, and backed a huge public works program, the Federal Highway Act of 1956, which provided funds for the Interstate Highway System. He also cut defense spending and presided over an era of peace and prosperity.

Earl Warren as chief justice of the Supreme Court
Earl Warren as chief justice of the Supreme Court

In 1953 Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as chief justice of the Supreme Court, an appointment that began a new era in judicial history. The Warren Court transformed the American legal system by expanding civil rights and civil liberties. In the 1950s the Court broadened the rights of the accused and overturned the 1949 convictions of Communist leaders who had been tried under the Smith Act. Most important, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the Warren court declared that school segregation violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Concluding that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” it declared segregated schools unconstitutional. In 1955 the Court ordered the states to desegregate schools “with all deliberate speed.” However, many people resisted school integration. In 1957 the governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, tried to block the enrollment of nine black students into Little Rock High School. In response, Eisenhower, never a strong civil rights supporter, reluctantly sent federal troops to desegregate the school. The Brown decision began a new era in civil rights.

The Eisenhower administration also ushered in the age of modern space exploration. In 1958 Congress formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to oversee a civilian space program. NASA’s birth reflected the Cold War competition between the United States and the USSR for supremacy in space. The Soviets launched Sputnik 1 (an artificial satellite) in October 1957. The United States followed with Explorer 1 in January 1958. In 1961 the Soviets hurled the first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit. The same year, Alan Shepard, one of seven American astronauts trained in Project Mercury, went into space on a suborbital flight. In 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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