Though often portrayed as a boring decade that served as an uneventful lead-in to the tumultuous 1960s, the '50s laid the groundwork for trends that would change the world. Weary from the global conflict of World War II, people in the 1950s turned away from wartime priorities and hardships. Cultural, technological and political trends foreshadowed what the world would become in the latter part of the century.
All Shook Up
Rock and roll music burst onto the scene in the mid-1950s. Although the older generation did not fully approve of the rhythms and emotional intensity, young people loved it. Rock music merged predominantly black styles with predominantly white styles to create an American style -- which hinted at big changes to come in race relations and the sexual revolution. Once baby-boomers -- the largest generation in American history-- fully embraced it, rock and roll was here to stay.
A Virtual Gathering Place
Television went from being a rich man's toy in the 1940s to a household necessity in the 1950s. In the process, it became a sort of national gathering place. Regional cultures and ways of speaking began to fade as people from across the country watched the same programs. With only three big networks, viewers' choices were limited, but all were familiar with the same few shows -- and these created things everyone could talk about with each other. Everyone loved Lucy. This set the stage for a truly national experience and conversation when big news stories happened.
To the Moon
The space race began on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union stunned the world by successfully launching an unmanned satellite, Sputnik I, into low-Earth orbit. It shocked and energized the United States, which launched its own successful satellite within a few months. Within a year, the United States created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA. Manned orbits followed within a few years, and the first man landed on the moon less than 12 years later. The space race launched an explosion in technology and dramatically altered military technology, ushering in the age of missiles.
On the Road
In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed an act to build a system of interstate highways crisscrossing the United States. He did it as a matter of national interest and defense -- to improve the transportation of goods and people in ordinary times and the ability to get emergency services to areas of crisis quickly. Interstate highways made it possible to set up warehouses for products that could easily be shipped anywhere in the country. It also made travel over long distances quick and cheap. The average family was able to take vacations by car to spots that previously had been too distant and inaccessible. Car manufacturers began to promote the possibility of adventurous family vacations in their ads.
The Truman Doctrine, announced in a speech by President Harry Truman in 1947, committed the United States to offer military assistance to any nation threatened by communism. In the 1950s, this began a period of fierce, but muffled, competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Called the Cold War because the two major powers never came into direct armed conflict, it sparked several decades of battles in which the Soviet Union backed one side and the United States the other, called proxy battles. The first such battle came in Korea, beginning in 1950. The proxy battles of the Cold War defined American-Soviet relations for the next four decades until the Soviet Union collapsed.
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