Americans often refer to the 1950s as the Age of Consensus or the Golden Age for families, the economy, and American identity. This concept of a shared and cohesive American identity is the product of the concerted effort of a number of forces putting forth a narrative of unity and tranquility. Although some regional and ethnic divisions were reduced, postwar America experienced emerging pressures from women, African Americans, and homosexuals.[^] Wendy Wall argued that the American Way was a political project formulated in the 1930s to celebrate the American economic system as a counter to the New Deal and rising Fascism and Communism abroad.[^] The American Way as a cohesive identity had to be created to bridge American identities that were divided based on regional, racial, religious, and ethnic differences. Although a number of competing institutions, including private corporations, civil rights organizations, and governmental institutions, contributed to the discourse, Wall argues that the American value system that triumphed encouraged individuals to align with the white Protestant way of life.[^] The free enterprise economic system was a central component of the American Way, both as a celebration of individuals’ freedoms, as well as a direct opposition to the Communist threat. The ‘Self-Made Man,’ the central component of late nineteenth and early twentieth century masculinity, was revived and adapted to fit the new economic and familial atmosphere that prized teamwork.[^] New definitions of manhood, primarily though military service or breadwinning for the family, created acceptable motives to submit to centralized authority and work for advancement through established bureaucracies. White collar work, once considered a threat to manhood, was now an avenue for men to provide security for their family and engage in a larger ideological war. Only through a man’s success in the unique American free enterprise system could the United States protect itself from hardship or the evils of competing economic systems like Communism and Fascism.[^]
American involvement in WWII, and the Cold War soon after, was intended to provide protection from the perceived threats that had been lingering since the early 1930s - economic hardship, Fascism, and Communism. Involvement in WWII jumpstarted the economy and put American men back into the workplace, as well as front lines in Europe and the Pacific. The Cold War was fought through the global consumer economy, “hard” diplomacy, and through limited military conflict. The military brought about social and demographic shifts during the 1940s and 1950s that contributed to the unity and alignment of the American way with white middle class males. Prior to the Second World War, American culture was fraught with divisions, with lines being drawn between different regions, races, ethnicities, religions, and classes. Although these divisions lasted well beyond this period, dividing lines became more porous and flexible. War drew many rural Americans to cities, pulled defense workers and GIs to different regions, and mixed together men of different regions and classes in the same military units. The military continued to introduce GIs to fellow Americans from all different backgrounds in the years following WWII, and Harry S. Truman’s signing of Executive Order 9981 in 1948 fostered racial integration in the armed forces.
The middle class expanded rapidly in the postwar years, fueled by GI Bill-funded higher education and the Veteran’s Administration’s home loan programs. The suburban home, headed by a breadwinning male and homemaking wife became synonymous with Postwar America. Nuclear families were understood to be the bedrock of American society and, in popular conceptions, these families were all headed by breadwinning men, who fit all of the stereotypes about leadership, strength, intelligence, and earning potential. The growing suburban middle class began loosening many of the pre-conceived notions of region, class, ethnicity, and religion behind the broader definition of middle class America.[^] Suburbs became, ”…a meeting place for people of rural and urban backgrounds, for people of different class origins newly re-classed into the expanding middle…for people of different ethnic origins newly recast as ‘white.’”[^] The new “American culture” became defined as the white, middle class, nuclear family, with a male breadwinner as head of household.
The realignment of the white middle class behind common goals and identities hardly meant that divisions no longer existed. Bailey and Farber found that outside of the white, middle class suburbs, significant differences remained between the identities of individuals, and these individuals remained marginalized by the middle class and federal institutions, which held increasingly important roles in society.[^] Additionally, Bailey and Farber found that, “As claims of class and ethnicity and region were attenuated, the always crucial categories of race and genders seemed more fundamental than ever.”[^] This distinction between genders had been brought into sharp contrast with the war, Bailey and Farber argue, and a gulf developed between men and women because men were expected to fight and women were not.[^]
The relationship between high-level officials in the military and enlisted people of color was complex and strained throughout this time period. Military officials understood that African Americans composed a substantial and valuable portion of the military, and that positive relationships between races were important to the success of the nation. A number of pieces of propaganda from the federal government showed white and African Americans working together under the slogan of unity and a united cause. The issue of racial harmony was important to the creation of national unity and a unified effort, but these sentiments were little more than empty propaganda. The military tempered depictions of black masculinity, and did little to update progressive racial policies.
Despite calls for unity and coexistence, American troops remained segregated throughout World War II. Thomas Borstelmann found that during WWII, U.S. military authorities expanded segregation in determining policies for facilities being build outside the South.[^] In Europe, anti-miscegenation policies were officially implemented, intended to “protect” European women from African American men.[^] Even after Executive Order 9981 ended official segregation in the military in 1948, troops often remained segregated de facto, and minority men were relegated to lower positions.
In hindsight, the “Double V” campaign and the service and dedication of African American servicemen catalyzed progression towards racial equality, but change did not come quickly or without continued efforts. Many Americans acknowledged the contribution of non-whites to the effort, and the policies and brutal practices of Nazi Germany moved many Americans to protest racism.[^] However, many African American servicemen returned to the same poor conditions and mistreatment they had left, and many were targets of violence and harassment. Men of color were often denied the benefits of the GI Bill, and returned home to racism and redlining.
The military’s muted and limited messages of unity were launched into a complex American public composed not only of African Americans and anti-racists, but also racists and segregationists. Borstelmann traces this pragmatic ambivalence throughout the middle part of the twentieth century in The Cold War and the Color Line. Regarding WWII, Borstelmann wrote, “When greater racial justice dovetailed with the needs of the war, it was pursued; when it did not, it was allowed to slide.”[^] These complications continued throughout the Cold War, as the nation balanced domestic unrest with racist and imperialist foreign allies.
Federal anti-racist propaganda was very simplistic in comparison to its other works - often a single poster illustrating African American men serving the nation in uniform or in the workplace.[^] The US military was aware of its multiracial composition and sought to benefit from it, but did not take the multiculturalism into consideration when constructing an American identity. The rhetoric of the American Way, though ostensibly inclusive and pluralistic, was strongly tilted towards the identities and values of the white middle class. Wendy L. Wall examined the creation of the “American Way” - the collective American identity put forth by the federal government, private business, and cultural institutions - and found, “An America pictured as a ‘nation of immigrants’ implicitly left out both American Indians and blacks. Even those who advocated the broader ‘nation of nations’ formulation often failed to recognize the unique history and challenges confronted by black Americans.”[^]
Although officials began to welcome and integrate people of color into the military and Americans’ attitudes and policies slowly evolved, the military still drew overwhelmingly upon white men and white middle class values and norms to define itself and the nation. Black masculinity remained a threat in the eyes of many white Americans, and depictions of strong black masculinity in ways that did not directly serve the needs of the nation contrasted with the military’s pragmatic ambivalence toward racial progress. Thus, depictions of black men heroically engaging in battle or using service for upward mobility in the same manner as their white counterparts are absent in these materials.
The emphasis on the capitalist system and the military-industrial complex raised the status of the American male in popular and intellectual discourse. Both of these archetypes were central figures in the understanding of American culture, as put forth by popular culture, the media, and other influential institutions. Many of these messages came from the US military itself, and the military’s position of power and authority reified its messages about manhood and military masculinity. With the stress of global warfare and the threat of nuclear war, the federal government sought to unite all Americans behind a cohesive American identity during WWII and the Cold War. This identity relied heavily upon the image of the middle class, straight, white American man, who served in the military defending the nation and returned home to support and lead his family. This alignment of idealized masculinity, the military, and Americanism raised the profile of American men and made American discourse even more male-centric. The power and idealism of the hegemonic male was deeply intertwined throughout three ‘battlegrounds’ between Western capitalism and Eastern Communism.
Laura Belmonte, in her book, Selling the American Way, examined the State Department’s creation and promotion of the “American Way.”[^] Belmonte found some very distinct differences in terms of family and gender roles in the State Department’s depictions of Americans and Soviets. Communism, the State Department releases argued, masculinized women and put them to work, destroying the family. American women, in contrast, were seen as fair and gentle, and dedicated to their families. One of Belmonte’s sources noted that 19 million American women worked outside the home, but that most women only worked until they were married. “Homemaking,” one text stated, “is still the goal of most American girls.”[^] It is clear that these releases and materials were part of the ideological battle between Capitalism and Communism, Belmonte added:
“Nonetheless, we cannot dismiss the propagandists’ defense of American families as mere rhetoric. In linking individual lives and international relations, US information experts recognized that Man’s longing and aspirations fuel political movements. In espousing their views on family life and gender, they articulated deeply held beliefs and political values. While their visions of America may not have adequately encompassed the socioeconomic diversity of the nation, they provide important insights into why US policy-makers took the fight against communism so seriously - and so personally.”[^]
The nuclear family, consisting of a working man and a homemaking woman, drew upon notions of traditional gender roles and the separate spheres of the workplace and home. This return to traditionalism, or at least the popular notion of traditionalism, smoothed over many of the anxieties and troubles for middle class Americans. Belmonte wrote, “In this era, many Americans embraced domesticity and traditional gender roles as an antidote to anxieties unleashed by atomic weapons and political instability. Sharing similar elite backgrounds, most U.S. political leaders extolled the nuclear family as the embodiment of democratic values.”[^] Hegemonic males were placed at the top of the social hierarchy, and benefitted greatly from the reinforcement of their position at the top of the American social hierarchy. Thus political, social, and cultural elites were putting their weight behind the power and perceived superiority of the white middle class male - as patriarch of the nuclear family and as masters of the American free enterprise system. Wall argues that American involvement in World War II was a boon to this ideology, and the language of The American Way became an essential part of American culture, as messages of unity and freedom contrasted against with Fascism and Communism.[^] Following World War II, the Cold War had the nation more steeped in the power and righteousness of the American Way than ever before, as all facets of culture were engaged in the global power struggle.
The essentialism of proper masculinity to American well-being expanded throughout American culture, fueled by the reinforcement of the institutions and archetypical roles of the nuclear family and the military. Nationalism became heavily infused with military masculinity, and foreign policy and political discourse were overtaken by masculinized terminology and imagery. In political discourse, men came to represent the nation on a higher level than they had previously, and the conflation of positive/male/strong in opposition to negative/female/weak became stronger and more prominent. This gendered polarization of terms and imagery also contributed to a masculine crisis, resulting in a backlash against ‘momism’ and homosexuality.