Historical Context

The Beat Movement got its start in the late 1940s and began losing momentum by the early 1960s, but the entire decade in between was a bountiful time for Beats. The members of the movement, keenly aware of the realities of the time, were not lulled into the sentimentality commonly associated with the 1950s. There is a distinct irony about the decade that many Americans old enough to remember those years often overlook. The nostalgia that has become synonymous with it—convertibles and road trips, hula-hoops and Elvis, TV and the technology boom, and “I Like Ike” pins on the lapels of happy suburbanites— tends to blur other events of the period that suggest anything but merriment and complacency. The Cold War with the Soviet Union, back yard bomb shelters, “duck and cover” exercises in grade school classrooms, the Communist revolution in Cuba, McCarthyism at home, and increased racial tensions all tell the story of a United States quite different from the wistful, fond memories that some older Americans still hold.

Although the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies in World War II, the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 resulted in Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to power and his eventual strengthening of Soviet political and military control over Eastern Europe. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons capabilities, and as tensions between the two world powers escalated, so did the buildup of arsenals on both sides. In the United States, personal tensions mounted as well, and some families constructed bomb shelters in their back yards while their children learned how to drop to the classroom floor and cover their heads in the event that bomb sirens sounded during school hours. In an attempt to improve relations, President Eisenhower and Khrushchev were to meet at a summit in Paris in 1959, but two weeks prior to the event, a U.S. spy plane was shot down over Russia. The summit still took place, but the Soviet leader stormed out before it was over, and another planned meeting between Khrushchev and Eisenhower in Moscow was canceled. Meanwhile, closer to home, Fidel Castro led a Communist revolution in Cuba and became that country’s ruler in 1959.

The Cold War and the threat of real war was a major impetus behind Eisenhower’s decision to launch the largest public works program in U.S. history—the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which would connect the nation coast to coast and provide emergency runways for military aircraft, as well as quicker evacuation...

(The entire section is 1037 words.)