‘The Crucible’ versus ‘Life is Worth Living’: Cold War culture in 1950s America

Mad Men got me here. By that, I mean that it was watching the show about a 1950s New York City advertising firm that inspired me to study the culture of 1950s Cold War America. Observing Betty Draper struggle unhappily with a family and domestic life so singularly unsuited to her or Sal Romano hide his homosexuality because of societal expectations of the time raised important questions in my mind about the true nature of 1950s American society and culture. Unfortunately my research project wasn’t actually about Mad Men. Instead, it focused on what different historians have had to say about the period: a history of the histories written about it with an emphasis on their strengths and weaknesses and the similarities and differences between them. Was it a decade that should be remembered nostalgically for its safety, security and prosperity (as many ordinary people seem to do)? Or one in which the realities of the Cold War stifled dissent, creating an ugly and unprecedented culture of conformity in American society?

Bernard Levey family in front of second house

The earliest historical accounts of the decade were all reasonably consistent in their view; they perceived a striking conformity that permeated American culture and society throughout the 1950s. We can take one such book published in 1977 by historians Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak, The Fifties: The Way We Really Were, as representative of this. The authors saw the manifestation of this conformity in any number of ways, including in Americans’ re-embrace of religion and in the idolization of white, middle class family life in popular culture. Hence, there’s a chapter on ‘The Happy Home Corporation and Baby Factory’ and another titled ‘Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Protestants, Catholics and Jews’. They managed as well to label the decade in a way that has endured surprisingly well since – as ‘an Age of Conformity’.

The failing of these various early studies arguably lies in their tendency to overstate the degree to which the Cold War dominated United States culture and society. Miller and Nowak went so far as to claim that “absolute internal security and containment have remained fundamental U.S. objectives.” These books can’t just be dismissed as early studies that had it wrong because of this though. Indeed some of the arguments they made have endured and reappeared in later studies like Stephen Whitfield’s The Culture of the Cold War (1991). (In the bibliographical essay accompanying his book, Whitfield was particularly complimentary of another early study of the topic, David Caute’s 1978 book The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower.) There’s undoubtedly a strand of the historiography that understands America in the 1950s to have been a time of great conformity, is able to support sufficient evidence to support such a thesis and will continue to be able to do so.


More recently, historians have begun to challenge the idea that the 1950s was a decade dominated by absolute conformity. The collection of essays Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945 – 1960, edited by Joanne Meyerowitz, is an example of this. One chapter, Recapturing Working Class Feminism, explores the role that the Union movement played in the 1950s in furthering female worker’s rights as well as the feminist movement overall. Other essays discuss an impressive array of groups – lesbians, female abortionists, hangers-on to the Beats and even women Chinese immigrants in New York City – and their efforts to advance their respective causes.

Conservative cultural historian Irving Louis Horowitz’s 1996 journal article, ‘Culture, Politics and McCarthyism’, was similarly contentious. He presents a quite contradictory view of 1950s American society and culture. To Horowitz the impact of the Cold War was largely restricted to the elites of society (the media and academia). Most ordinary Americans didn’t experience its affects in their day to day lives. In fact, in his view even in the realm of elites the 1950s was a decade of cultural production unsurpassed by any other decade in the twentieth century. It included Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the theatre, Miles Davis in Jazz, John Updike in fiction and Edward R. Murrow in the media. The point? That there were individuals and groups who didn’t conform to the culture of 1950s America and who sometimes even challenged it.

For the historiography of the topic to offer a comprehensive picture of Cold War culture in the 1950s, historians need to undertake further historical studies in a vein more similar to Horowitz’s ‘Culture, Politics and McCarthyism’ than Whitfield’s The Culture of the Cold War. The ways in which the Cold War permeated American society and produced a culture of conformity in the 1950s has been well documented. What has yet to be fully understood is the extent to which this culture was also ignored and challenged by various individuals, groups and institutions.

Select Further Reading

Caute, David. The Great Fear. New York: Touchstone Books, 1979.

Cobble, Dorothy Sue. “Recapturing Working-Class Feminism: Union Women in the Postwar Era.” In Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945 – 1960 edited by Joanne Meyerowitz. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994, pp. 57 – 83.

Horowitz, Irving Louis. “Culture, Politics and McCarthyism.” The Independent Review 1 (1996): pp. 101 – 110.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Miller, Douglas and Marion Nowak. The Fifties: The Way We Really Were. New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Whitfield, Stephen. The Culture of the Cold War. Boston: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.