The American Youth Revolt Project

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Last updated: November 9, 2019

During the years 1945-1970, Americans enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, as rapid economic growth provided most middle class white Americans with comfortable lifestyle that was envied around the world. There was a post-war ‘baby boom’.

Between 1945-1960 which increased the population by about 40 million. At the same time the gross national product (GNP), the total value of all goods and services produced in one year doubled. America was now producing half the world’s goods. The people of America became more affluent they moved to new homes in suburban communities. Not many people lived in the inner cities as fewer people were keen to live, shop or even work there.

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Many gadgets became simple every-day necessities such as TVs. By 1960, 90% of homes had TVs which in turn increased juvenile crime.The term ‘consumerism’ describes the theory that this steadily increasing purchase of goods, not only makes people happy, but ensures growth in the economy. The hire purchase increased by 800% between 1945-1957. However in Britain people were saving between 5-10% of their income and by 1960 Americans were only saving 5%. There average standing of living in America was three times of that of British people. Shopping became a normal activity and was encouraged to spend money.

Even President Eisenhower told people to ‘buy anything’ when sales were low. Moreover teenagers began to spend money on themselves and teenage fads become profitable, for example transistor radios and magazines. Those who lived in the 1930s recognised that the country was well and truly out of the Depression and now this was the age of ‘peace and prosperity’.ProsperityEmployment had reached 25% in 1933 and was still over 10% in 1941. Even so, it began to rise during the late 1950s and although the percentage figures appear relatively low, the 1958 figure still represents 2,859,000 people.Consumer goods in American families from 1948-1956 grow tremendously. For example in 1948 families owning cars was 54% and by 1956 it grew to 73%.

The statistics also show that in 1950 6,000,000 gallons of gin were sold which then dramatically rose to 19,000,000 which shows that a lot more people were drinking alcohol.Widespread PovertyNot everyone was impressed with this free-for-all which allowed large corporations to make immense profits and many individuals to do well, whilst neglecting important aspects of community life. Many Americans, particularly, but not exclusively blacks, remained underclass’s who were unable to share in the prosperity. In spite of the highest standard of living in the world, the distribution of wealth was so uneven that in 1959 the government said that 22% of the population lived below the poverty level.

White people still earned a lot more, for example in 1962 black income median was $5,429 compared to white income which was $10,168.Religion in the FiftiesOne aspect of middle-class suburban life was the rapid growth of church and synagogue congregations. Various reasons for this can be considered.

Firstly the Cold war threat to the USA from atheist Communists led some people to encourage parents to take their children to church as a defence against the spread of Communism, for example J. Edgar Hoover who was the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The second reason for this was the joining of organisations helped replace the friendships and sense of community that was left behind when people moved to the suburbs. Churches provided immediate friendship and countless social opportunities in a respectable and secure environment. By 1960 more than 65% of adults were regularly attending church compared to 50% in 1940.A women’s place in the fiftiesWithin a few years of the end of the war, women’s wages in factories, which had risen to two-thirds of those earned by men, fell back to 53% of men’s. Although the dominant view was that a women’s place was in the home, the needs of the consumer society distracted that women should go out to work in order to be able to help their husbands buy the gadgets now thought essential for the decent life, But although more women were going out to work than ever before, 40% by 1960, most of them were stereotyped ‘women’s occupations’ on low wages, such as office and shop work.The ‘Ideal Woman’ in 1956Life magazine described the ‘ideal’ woman as being, ‘a thirty-two year old pretty and popular suburban housewife, mother of four, who had been married at age sixteen, an excellent wife, mother, hostess, volunteer, and home manager who makes her own clothes, hosts dozens of dinner parties each year, sings in the church choir, works with the school PTA and Campfire girls and is devoted to her husband.

IN her daily routine she attends club or charity meetings, drives her children to school does the weekly grocery shopping, makes ceramics, and is planning to study French. Of all the accomplishments of the American woman the one she brings off with most spectacular success is having babies.’Youth CultureYoung people in the 1950s had far more money to spend on themselves than any previous generation of teenagers had had, and companies responded with new products specifically targeted towards them. In 1957 it was estimated that the average teenager had between $10-$15 a week to spend, compared with $1-$2 in the early 1940s.

Teenagers annual spending power climbed from $10 billion in 1950 to $25 billion by 1959.In 1956, Elvis Presley erupted onto the pop music scene, singing songs that broke all sales records, such as ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Hound dog’. The same year Elvis record sales were 10 million out of 90 million all together. Although he was popular with teenagers, parents resented his sensual style of performing, his long sideburns and permanent sneer. Many teachers and parents blamed this type of Rock ‘n’ Roll music for the crime. Elvis soon became an international symbol that united young people and ensured that America was the dominant influence in the world’s popular music.Many other young people dropped out of conventional society altogether to become ‘Beatniks’.

Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel ‘On the Road encouraged free sexual behaviour and rejection to parental morality which then appealed to young and rebellious teenagers. For many older Americans it was difficult to understand or tolerate this ‘generation gap’.The Hippy movement of the 1960sSome young people took up an entirely different kind of protest. They ‘dropped out’ and became hippies. They turned against the lifestyles of their parents and some turned to radical politics.

Their behaviour challenged the established values of older people. They decided not to work or to study therefore parents found it very difficult to understand or tolerate the behaviour of their children. They travelled around the country in buses and vans which they decorated with flowers or psychedelic designs.

Hippie clothes, with long hair and mystical religions, became fashionable, along with the use of drugs and permissive sexual behaviour. They talked about peace and love and used the slogan, ‘make love not war’. Many of them were middle class white college students and attended open-air concerts to listen to musicians such as Bob Dylan.For many Americans this was deeply disturbing form of protest than student radicalism. The parents of hippies had brought their children up to believe in the virtues of working hard in school and then working hard at a career to earn money to get a big house, car etc.

Their behaviour, in particular their use of drugs, frequently brought them into confrontation with the police. As Newsweek magazine reported in 1969, ‘To the students, most policemen have became ‘pigs’, brutal representations of an uptight power structure’.The older generation were the ones who had fought to preserve American ideals of democracy in the Second World War and the Korean War. Now the teenagers were rejecting their lifestyles. They were refusing to join the army and fight in Vietnam.

They were angry about it and also hated racism. They had no faith in established politicians and in many ways people thought that the USA was in crisis.Music was a very important part of this youthful rebellion.

The British invasion pop groups including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones changed the pop music scene. The songs were about peace, free love, and drugs. Huge outdoor rock festivals attracted thousands of hippies. The largest was at Woodstock in 1969. About half a million young people turned up to hear the music, use the cheap marijuana, and swim nude in the lake. It was a rock festival, but it also a celebration of an ‘alternative’ drop-out lifestyle mixed with a strong element of anti-war protest.Many of the flower children themselves grew tired of their riches-to-rags existence and returned to school to become lawyers, doctors, politicians, and accountants.

The search on the part of alienated youth for a better society and a good life was strewn with both coming and tragic aspects, and it reflected the deep social ills that had been allowed to fester throughout the post-World War II period.The Student Movement of the 1960sThere were many different groups involved in student protests. One of the main organisations was Students for Democratic Society. It was set up in 1959. The aim to start with was to obtain students to have more of a say into how their courses and universities were run. They wanted an end to many college rules and restrictions imposed on them. By the end of 1960 100,000 members had joined the group. The student protests were not isolated from other protest movements.

They were deeply involved in the civil rights campaign and the women’s movement. Idealistic young students had been appalled at the injustices experienced by black people. However parents and politicians reacted with fury, accusing students for being ungrateful for the benefits American society gave them. Police and even soldiers were used to break up protests.In 1964 radical students in many different universities organised rallies and marches to support the civil rights campaign. Many universities tried to ban to ban the protests that the students started on campus. Students just responded with a ‘free speech’ campaign to demand the right to protest.

Up to half of Berkley’s 27,500 students were engaged in the Free Speech Movement.Across the USA the students were rejecting the values and the society that their parents had created. Society was often referred to as ‘the system’ or the machine. Any individual or group whom students saw as victims of the machine could count on the support of student groups and could expect to see demonstrations in their support. Student groups also backed campaigns for nuclear disarmament and criticized US involvement in South America.

The supported the black civil rights movement, taking part in marches and freedom rides.Moreover student radicalism was not only in the USA. Similar protests were taking place in Europe. For example in Northern Ireland students protested to secure civil rights for Catholics. This set off a chain reaction and eventually resulted in the Troubles. Student demonstrations in France in 1968 caused enormous damage to cities all over the country.VietnamAt first only two out of the 100 US Senators voted against the Tonkin Solution showing that the opposition was quite small.

85% of Americans voted and approved of Johnson’s war policy. However this all changed as casualties increased people started to see the devastation in Vietnam which caused the criticism of the war to increase. In October 1967, 35,000 anti-war demonstrators took part in march in Washington DC. They shouted, ‘Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ Americans were deeply divided by the war. Many times protestors burned the US flag. Nearly half of the American people were opposed to these anti-war protests. Many older people could not understand why so many people were unwilling to support the war as they had fought in the Second World War against the Communists in Korea.Some young Americans just simply refused to go and fight.

The system known as the ‘draft’ (Selective Service System) selected those who had to join up. ‘Draft dodging’ became widespread. Protesters publicly went into hiding.

By 1968 about 10,000 of them had moved out of the USA into Canada. Others travelled to live in Sweden and a few in England. However in 1977 President Jimmy Carter granted a pardon so that they could return to the USA.The most serious incident in the anti-war protests occurred on 4 May 1970. Universities had exploded in angry protest after President Nixon extended the war by attacking Vietnam’s neighbour, Cambodia. At Kent State University, Ohio, hundreds of students threw stones and jeered at National Guardsmen (soldiers) sent in to keep order.

Without warning the troops fired a volley of shots that left four defenceless students dead and a further nine wounded.People could not believe that such violence had occurred at a University. Students at four hundred and fifty colleges and universities immediately went on strike. The father of one of the dead students, 19 year old Alison Krause, made the emotional comment, ‘My child was not a bum.’ However the violence carried on and a few days later two students at another university who were protesting against the killings at Kent State were shot dead by the police. This was the turning point in the war and in the words of one historian, ‘the blood spilled at Kent gave the war in Vietnam the dark stain civil war and, in time, made it insupportable.’The father of Alison Krause said ‘his daughter resented being called a bum because she disagreed with someone else’s opinion.

She felt that crossing into Cambodia was wrong. Was this a reason for killing her? Have we come to such a sate in this country that a young girl has to be shot because she disagrees deeply with the action of the government?’ Richard Nixon felt utterly dejected when he read what the father wrote, ‘my child was no a bum.’

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