The 1950's are often depicted as the “Happy Days” era of modern America. How much of this is true?
I like when people compare decades who have not lived through them. Why don't these people check and see what the crime rate was in the 1950s? What was the rate of inflation? The jobless rate?
Perhaps these comparative judges are right, though, because it really is impossible to compare an entirely different world to the one in which we exist today. The America of the 1950s no longer exists. The people who populated it are almost all gone, but the ones still here are generally not as happy with their big,big, indebted government as they were with Eisenhower's in the 1950s.
During the 1950's America did reach a period of post-World War II bliss which was further fueled by the advent of new technologies, and pacified by the collective social desire of enjoying the new inventions, avoiding another war, and re-building America. Anyone born in the 1950s, the Baby boomers, would indeed agree that these were times of social awareness and community. Families found financial benefit from the jobs that came as a result of the increase in new technologies, and the American dream seemed much easier to get than ever.
Therefore, it is hard to argue that the 50's were indeed the "Happy Days" of America. However, we must also agree that they served as the "eye of the storm"- that placid and pacific moment right before everything breaks lose. What broke lose were the 1960's, namely after 1963. The 50's were indeed a different and unique period in American history.
It is important to note that the '50s were, objectively, not as "good" as today. The average American's standard of living was much lower then than it is now. However, we perceive it as "Happy Days" largely becaus we were ahead of the rest of the world and had no real challengers for our economic supremacy. This made us feel better than we do now even though our standard of living today is higher.
In addition, standards of living were rising rapidly. People had things much better than their parents had. This made us seem more prosperous even though we were not more prosperous in absolute terms than we are now.
So those were "Happy Days" not because they were better than today but because the US was dominant and because standards of living were rising rapidly. This made everything seem good in a way that today's world (where we are faced with competition from abroad and slower growth in our standard of living) does not.
I think that nostalgia has played a large part in why the 1950s received the label of "Happy Days." In comparison to the decades that preceded it and those that followed it, the 1950s did represent a period of "Happy Days." Post- war prosperity, domestic tranquility, the emergence of the baby- boom generation, and the idea that the "greatest generation" had settled helped to bring this idea of "happiness" as something intrinsic to the 1950s. Yet, the label of "happy days" might be dependent on who is telling the story. For wealthy, white men of the time period, it might be appropriate. Yet, the emergence of women as seen in works like Betty Friedan's might be one element that could be considered the opposite of the image of happiness. The fundamental social unhappiness of women could not be denied. Certainly, the emergence of the Civil Rights issue would be one other element that would contradict the nostalgic view, as well. Lynchings, church bombings, intimidation in the South and discrimination in the North do not represent "happy days." Finally, I think that the origins of the Vietnam War can be seen in this time period. The alliance that America forged with France during World War II included keeping the colonies of Indochina as a part of this agreement. There was a myopic vision present and this helped to sow the seeds of American involvement during the 1960s, a decision that would forever change American History and the perception of war. In this, there is not much in way of "happiness." Eisenhower's stewardship did not necessarily take an active and resolute stand against these elements, allowing a certain level of unhappiness to emerge against the backdrop of "Happy Days." Again, the answer is going to depend on whose point of view is being appropriated here.