In America, economic prosperity and national optimism defined the 1950s, which were followed by the social upheavals of the 1960s, all under the shadow of the Cold War. These tumultuous decades were marked by two major wars -- the Korean War and the Vietnam War -- and the vigorous generation of post-World War II baby boomers. Five presidents led the United States through these two decades, each with markedly different worldviews, styles of leadership and policies.
President Harry S. Truman, who began his first term as president on April 12, 1945, ushered the United States into the 1950s. Military leadership defined Truman's tenure, as he made the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan in 1945 to bring an end to World War II. Truman also led the country through the bulk of the Korean War. Much of Truman's work in office focused on curbing the influence of the Soviet Union and transitioning the American economy from wartime to peacetime without a recession. This Democratic president's second term ended on January 20, 1953.
America Likes "Ike"
Republican president and World War II general Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower entered office on January 20, 1953 and left it on January 20, 1961. Early in his presidential career, Eisenhower helped end the Korean War. During the ensuing Cold War, Ike pursued a moderate domestic policy and maintained a balanced national budget. Eisenhower left America with a strong economy, progressive science and aerospace programs and gains in education and civil rights.
President John F. Kennedy succeeded Eisenhower on January 20, 1961. A spirited Democrat, the 43-year-old Kennedy was tasked with leading the United States through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Kennedy focused strongly on progressive issues including civil and human rights and the arts, and the volunteer Peace Corps was founded under his watch. Kennedy's presidency was cut tragically short when he was assassinated during the third year of his term, on November 22, 1963 while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
Transitioning with Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy's Democratic vice president, was sworn in on the day of Kennedy's assassination. While Johnson continued Kennedy's work by seeing new civil rights legislation passed, and attacked poverty with "Great Society" programs such as Medicare and urban renewal, his decision to draw America deeper into the Vietnam War was met with widespread protest. Johnson saw the country through most of the 1960s, leaving office on January 20, 1969.
The Controversial Nixon
Richard M. Nixon served as the last president of the 1960s, beginning his term on January 20, 1969. Nixon's accomplishments included improved rapport with both China and the U.S.S.R., the end of the draft and strong environmental policies. As the 1960s ended and the '70s began, the United States put men on the moon -- a goal set during the Kennedy administration -- and Nixon laid the groundwork for an end to the Vietnam War. However, Nixon was the only president in U.S. history to resign, ending his second term on August 9, 1974 due to his involvement in the Watergate scandal.
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