How might someone consider the 1950s to be a tale of two Americas or a decade of paradox?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As Dickens writes of the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

The same could be said of the 1950s.

First, there were, metaphorically speaking, two "cities:" that of white America and that of black America. For whites, it was decade of great prosperity and peace: the Depression was over, World War II was over, the economy was strong, unions were strong, the United States was a respected superpower. Many whites saw their living standards rise as they moved from cities to suburbs and bought cars and consumer goods.

Black America, however, did not participate fully in this prosperity, especially in the South. This was still a decade of segregation: segregated beaches, bathrooms, lunch counters, and water fountains. Voting rights were denied to blacks in many Southern states. People could legally refuse to sell a home to a black person. Discrimination was open and widespread. Blacks, despite the Civil Rights movement, were still a very disadvantaged group.

While the 1950s was a season of light--the US built a sophisticated highway system and embarked on the space program--it was also a period of darkness with McCarthyism and "red scares" for a time dominating the political landscape.

It was spring of hope as people believed, perhaps as they never have since, in the power of technology to unequivocally improve human life. It was also a winter of despair as people for the first time, with the immensely powerful hydrogen bomb, faced the specter of nuclear annihilation.

Such a decade of paradox and contradiction came to a head in the decade that followed.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The 1950s were a decade of prosperity in the United States. At the same time, it was a decade of discontent. Because different people experienced the decade in such different ways, we could say the decade was a tale of two Americas.

Today in the United States, supporters of Donald Trump want to “make America great again.” Many feel the 1950s were a time when America was great. One major reason why people feel this way is because the United States' economy was growing and no other country’s economy was nearly as strong as ours. Because of this, Americans were starting to enjoy a better standard of living and the knowledge that no other country's citizens lived better than they did. The problem, however, is that the people enjoying this prosperity were mainly white Americans (who also made up a higher percentage of the population than they do now). America was great for many of them, but less so for some other groups.

The two main groups who would have felt America was not great were minorities (mainly African Americans) and women who wanted more from life than to remain in their traditional roles. For these people, the 1950s were not a great time. African Americans still faced legalized segregation and discrimination. Racism was an accepted aspect of American society. For women, opportunities to do anything other than homemaking or relatively menial jobs were scarce. Both groups did not feel America was a great place for them.

In this sense, the story of the United States in the 1950s is a story of two Americas. White, traditionalist America enjoyed economic prosperity. People from that group knew they dominated the society in the country that dominated the world. This was a great time for them. For others, however, the 1950s were a decade of oppression and lack of opportunity. Thus, different groups truly experienced the 1950s in the US in different ways.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial