Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Popular Culture: 1950s" from VOA

This is Phil Murray. And this is Rich Kleinfeldt with THE MAKING OF A NATION -- a VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.

Today, we tell what life was like in American during the 1950s.

Imagine that you are visiting the United States. What would you expect to see?

In the 1950s, America was a nation that believed it was on the edge of nuclear war. It was a nation where the popular culture of television was gaining strength. It was a nation whose population was growing as never before.

After the terrible suffering of World War Two, Americans thought the world would be peaceful for awhile. By 1950, however, political tensions were high again. The United States and the Soviet Union, allies in war, had become enemies.

The communists had taken control of one east European nation after another. And Soviet leader Josef Stalin made it clear that he wanted communists to rule the world.

Joseph Stalin

The Soviet Union had strengthened its armed forces after the war. The United States had taken many steps to disarm. Yet it still possessed the atomic bomb. America thought it, alone, had this terrible weapon.

In 1949, a United States Air Force plane discovered strange conditions in the atmosphere. What was causing them? The answer came quickly: the Soviet Union had exploded an atomic bomb.

The race was on. The two nations competed to build weapons of mass destruction. Would these weapons ever be used?

The American publication, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, always showed a picture of a clock. By 1949, the time on the clock was three minutes before midnight. That meant the world was on the edge of nuclear destruction. The atomic scientists were afraid of what science had produced. They were even more afraid of what science could produce.

In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. The Korean conflict increased efforts in the United States to develop a weapon more deadly than an atomic bomb. That was the hydrogen bomb. The Soviets were developing such a weapon, too.

Many Americans were afraid. Some built what they hoped would be safe rooms in or near their homes. They planned to hide in these bomb shelters during a nuclear attack.

Other Americans, however, grew tired of being afraid. In 1952, the military hero of World War Two, Dwight Eisenhower, was elected president. The economy improved. Americans looked to the future with hope.

President Dwight Eisenhower

One sign of hope was the baby boom. This was the big increase in the number of babies born after the war. The number of young children in America jumped from twenty-four million to thirty-five million between 1950 and 1960. The bigger families needed houses. In ninetee fifty alone, one million four hundred thousand houses were built in America.

Most new houses were in the suburbs, the areas around cities. People moved to the suburbs because they thought the schools there were better. They also liked having more space for their children to play.

Many Americans remember the 1950s as the fad years. A fad is something that is extremely popular for a very short time one fad from the 1950s was the Hula Hoop. The Hula Hoop was a colorful plastic tube joined to form a big circle. To play with it, you moved your hips in a circular motion. This kept it spinning around your body. The motion was like one used by Polynesian people in their native dance, the hula.

Other fads in the 1950s involved clothes or hair. Some women, for example, cut and fixed their hair to look like the fur of a poodle dog. Actress Mary Martin made the poodle cut famous when she appeared in the Broadway play, "South Pacific."

Mary Martin in "South Pacific"

In motion pictures, Marilyn Monroe was becoming famous. Not everyone thought she was a great actress. But she had shining golden hair. And she had what was considered a perfect body. Marilyn Monroe's success did not make her happy. She killed herself in the 1960s, when she was 36 years old.

Another famous actor of those days was James Dean. To many Americans, he was the living representation of the rebellious spirit of the young. In fact, one of his films was called, "Rebel Without a Cause." James Dean died in a car accident in 1955. He was twenty-four.

The 1950s saw a rebellion in American literature. As part of society lived new lives in the suburbs, another part criticized this life. These were the writers and poets of the Beat generation, including Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. They said life was empty in 1950s America. They described the people as dead in brain and spirit.

Jackson Pollock represented the rebellion in art. Pollock did not paint things the way they looked. Instead, he dropped paint onto his pictures in any way he pleased. He was asked again and again: "What do your paintings mean?" He answered: "Do not worry about what they mean. They are just there ... like flowers."

In music, the rebel was Elvis Presley. He was the king of rock-and-roll.

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley was a twenty-one-year-old truck driver when he sang on television for the first time. He moved his body to the music in a way that many people thought was too sexual.

Parents and religious leaders criticized him. Young people screamed for more. They could not get enough rock-and-roll. They played it on records. They heard it on the radio. And they listened to it on the television program "American Bandstand."

This program became the most popular dance party in America. Every week, young men and women danced to the latest songs in front of the television cameras.

During the 1940s, there were only a few television receivers in American homes. Some called television an invention for stupid people to watch. By the end of the 1950s, however, television was here to stay. The average family watched six hours a day.

Americans especially liked games shows and funny shows with comedians such as Milton Berle and Lucille Ball. They also liked shows that offered a mix of entertainment, such as those presented by Arthur Godfrey and Ed Sullivan.

Comedian Milton Berle

People from other countries watching American television in the 1950s might have thought that all Americans were white Christians. At that time, television failed to recognize that America was a great mix of races and religions.

Few members of racial or religious minorities were represented on television. Those who appeared usually were shown working for white people.

A movement for civil rights for black Americans was beginning to gather strength in the 1950s. Many legal battles were fought to end racial separation, especially in America's schools. By the 1960s, the civil rights movement would shake the nation.

Dwight Eisenhower was president for most of the 1950s. He faced the problems of communism, the threat of nuclear war, and racial tensions. He had a calm way of speaking. And he always seemed to deal with problems in the same calm way. Some citizens felt he was like a father to the nation.

With Mr. Eisenhower in the White House, they believed that even in a dark and dangerous world, everything would be all right.

This program of THE MAKING OF A NATION was written by Jeri Watson and produced by Paul Thompson. This is Phil Murray. And this is Rich Kleinfeldt. Join us again next week for another VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.


1. The enormous growth in the number of babies born after the war became known as the "_____________________ ".
a: population blowout
b: hydrogen bomb
c: baby boom
d: stork congestion

2. The business that probably benefitted the most from the increase in population was ________________ .
a: television
b: house construction and sales
c: agriculture
d: advertising

3. One fear that didn't particularly concern Americans during the 1950s was ___________________.
a: nuclear war
b: relations with the Soviet Union
c: economic downturn
d: communist expansion

4. I wouldn't call ________________ a fad, would you? Gee, I hope not!
a: getting married
b: the hula hoop
c: the poodle haircut
d: polka dotted pant suits

5. What would happen to the hula hoop if you stopped moving your hips in a circular direction?
a: It would continue to spin
b: It would drop to the ground
c: It would begin to circle your neck
d: It would change color

6. The United States thought that it alone had the Atom Bomb until the year _________________ .
a: 1945
b: 1949
c: 1960
d: 1955

7. Poets and writers of the beat generation including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg felt that the prosperous life people were experiencing in the 1950s ____________________ .
a: wouldn't last
b: was a sharp contrast to the poverty of the 1930s
c: was in reality very empty spiritually and mentally
d: was a remarkable demonstration of American togetherness

8. During World War Two, the United States and the Soviet Union were ________________ .
a: fighting with each other
b: enemies
c: both neutral
d: allies

9. Two famous actors in the 1950s who unfortunately died young were __________________ .
a: James Dean and Marilyn Monroe
b: Marilyn Monroe and Mary Martin
c: James Dean and Elvis Presley
d: Mary Martin and Elvis Prestley

10. American Bandstand, Rock-and-Roll, and Elvis Presley were especially popular during the 1950s, only not with ___________________ .
a: most conservative religious leaders
b: young people trying to get ahead
c: music promoters in New York and Los Angeles
d: Disc Jockeys