Post-war United States
The United States became the world's leading superpower as World War II ended in 1945. The following decades brought economic and social prosperity, remembered for counterculture, rock'n'roll, the Civil Rights Movement, the Space Race, the rise of suburban communities, and the development of nuclear technology.
The late 1940s had record high birth rates, creating a generation called the Baby Boomers. The Baby boom was a phenomenon throughout the Western world and ended elsewhere - as in the US - with the widespread availability of the contraception pill as well as an economic downturn in the 1960s. As these people are retiring during the 2010s, there is much nostalgia for the post-war decades.
This article focuses on locations important for American history from 1945 to present day.
- I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy." – Martin Luther King, Jr.
While World War II in Europe ended in May 1945, and the Pacific War in August the same year, much of Europe and East Asia was devastated, with the United States and the Soviet Union remaining as major rivals. The Cold War lasted until the Soviet Union was dissolved at the end of 1991, with "proxy wars" such as the Korean War and the Vietnam Wars or the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent US aid to the Mujahedin, as well as ongoing tension in Europe.
The rise of automobile ownership in the 1950s changed the face of America. Motorcars were primitive in the Roaring Twenties (Henry Ford and his "Tin Lizzie" Model T might have gotten up to 25mph on a good day, if any decent roads were to be found); the Great Depression brought much road building as a make-work project for unemployed workers, but few could afford new vehicles. World War II halted civilian vehicle manufacturing as the "arsenal of democracy" turned to making the implements of war, leaving a massive pent-up demand for mass-produced autos once the conflict ended. As the middle classes soon had a car in every driveway, population in the post-war era began to shift from the cities to suburbs. Drive-in cinemas and drive-in restaurants began to appear at roadside, along with inexpensive motels with bright neon signage competing for travelers increasingly taking to the open road. As network radio stars migrated to television in the 1950s, motorists began to expect lodgings with a television in every room. US Route 66 in particular has become symbolic of this era, in which the principal highways were surface streets which led right downtown, often as Main Street in every tiny village. Anyone could easily start an independent business at roadside to vie for travelers' dollars. As traffic increased to unmanageable levels, Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System began to gradually bypass many of these old roads with motorways through the 1950s and 1960s. The last piece of US Route 66 was bypassed in Williams (Arizona) in 1984; in some locations, towns died overnight. Attempts to revive the "historic route" for marketing as nostalgia tourism began soon after, with some properties restored to their original appearance in this era.
The 1950s were idealized in nostalgia as having been an era of prosperity after the hardships of the war and depression, but this view is simplistic. Persons of color often encountered discrimination in lodging and food service when traveling; by the 1960s, African-Americans were stepping away from the back of the bus and demanding equal treatment in interstate commerce as part of the Civil Rights movement. Women who had occupied manufacturing jobs "for the duration" of the war, "Rosie the Riveter" style, were sidelined from the workforce in the baby-boom 1950s. By the 1970s they were returning to the workforce in great numbers; a second income meant a second car in the driveway for many households, but less time to cook led to an explosion in the number and variety of chains promoting fast food in North America. It has been said and can be argued that the 1960s were the most violent decade in American politics since the 1860s with the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights Movement, the gay liberation movement a new incarnation of feminism and all types of political radicalism deeply dividing the country. Several high profile political assassinations took place in this decade, including civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, politicians Bobby and John F Kennedy (the latter while president) and even the presumptive Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Politically speaking this era was tremendously important with leaders both on the left and right either being influenced by or even part of the movements of this time or defining their career in opposition to them like Nixon, Reagan, Goldwater and to a certain extent the modern day Tea Party movement.
The rise of the automobile as well as aviation - both enabled by billions and trillions of dollars in state and federal funding, loans and tax- and land grants for the construction and maintenance of airports and highways - pushed other modes of transport to the side and to this day the US are one of the most car dependent nations on earth. The streetcars that had been installed in almost all major cities in prior decades were replaced by buses or discontinued altogether and passenger rail companies were on the brink of bankruptcy. Perhaps nowhere was this development as striking and as visible as in Los Angeles, that went from having one of the longest streetcar networks in the world to hardly any at all in the span of two decades. The creation of Amtrak is a direct result of Nixon "freeing" the railroads from their obligation to provide passenger service at huge losses by creating a federal entity to do that. While almost all Western countries (and to a degree even the Eastern bloc) underwent a similar development and the idea of the automotive city originated in Europe, nowhere but in the US was the development so rapid and the consequences so visible to this day. American cities are still - with very few exceptions - less dense than their European counterparts and - arguably - designed to better accommodate cars with more space devoted to parking and four six or even eight lane thoroughfares right through downtown. While some of the most extreme developments have been turned back and even the streetcar is making a tenuous comeback in recent years, the average person will have to rely more on cars than on public transport, bikes or walking for getting around most American streets; see United States without a car.
The Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik ("fellow traveler"), the first artificial satellite, into orbit in 1957 launched a race for Space which ended with NASA putting American boots on the Moon in 1969. Americans began to ask "if we can put a person on the Moon, why can't we do X?" and many predicted widespread space colonization by the end of the millennium. Cold War tensions continued, with the space race merely one more attempt to "get there before the Russians". Both sides knew the same technology which manufactured space exploration rockets could make intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry the weapons of a growing MAD arms race; this fueled a rivalry which ultimately ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the economic collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991.
In sports this era saw the rise of professional American Football as the dominant sport replacing Major League Baseball. This was mostly a result of the decade long rivalry between the National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL) in the 1960s that resulted in a merger of the two and television exposure of almost every game on any given Sunday. Baseball on the other hand somewhat missed out on the TV trend (relying more on radio and personal attendance at the games) and while still hugely popular has been losing ground against Football ever since. Both sports also saw the end of overt racial discrimination during this era. Starting with an AAFC (a short lived rival of the NFL in the late 1940s, some of whose teams were later merged, including the San Francisco 49ers) team being forced to sign black players by the owners of LA memorial coliseum and the breaking of the color barrier in Baseball by Jackie Robinson who made his debut for the (than) Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. To this day Major League Baseball celebrates the anniversary of the breaking of the color barrier by every player wearing Robinson's number 42, a number that is otherwise retired league-wide. While racism played a significant role in sport well after that, every major team had signed black players by the end of the 1960s, the last being the Washington NFL team, that was forced in 1962 to sign black players in exchange for the use of federal property (their DC stadium).
This is a concise list of cities and places which either were the stage of significant events, or became important for the nation, during the post-war years.
- Washington, D.C.. While most monumental government buildings in D.C. were finished by the early 20th century, and most of the post-war expansion has been in the suburbs, the city tells many stories about the post-war years. Through the Great Migration, D.C. became the first major American city with an African-American majority, and was an important stage for the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King's famous I Have a Dream speech was made at the Lincoln memorial.
- Space Center Houston, 1601 NASA Road 1, Webster (located 25 miles south of downtown Houston in the NASA/Clear Lake area), ☎ +1 281-244-2100. Summer hours: June 10am-7pm, July 9am-7pm, August 10am-5pm, 10am-7pm Weekends. Winter hours: Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10am-6pm.. Indoor fun space museum with lots of hands-on space-science exhibits and artifacts from the full history of U.S. space exploration. A big hit with kids, but informative for adults. A highlight are the two tram tours of NASA's Johnson Space Center, one of which includes a visit to Mission Control and actual Apollo and Mercury launch vehicles, the other focuses on astronaut training facilities. $17.95 Adults, $13.95 Children (4-11), discounts for seniors. Parking $5.
- Birmingham (Alabama). The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute commemorates the Civil Rights Movement.
- Memphis, Tennessee. Known for racial and musical history. Elvis Presley's Graceland, and the Memphis Rock'n'Soul Museum.
- San Francisco, California. A center for the post-war counterculture, such as the flower-power, anti-war and LGBT movement.
- Berkeley (California). A counterculture hotspot in the Bay Area.
- Seattle, Washington (state). Host of the 1962 World's Fair; later a center for high-tech industry and counterculture.
- Las Vegas, Nevada. The youngest of America's major cities. Since Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, this resort city has grown beyond any measure. From the 1950's to the 80's, it was a legendary hotspot for organized crime. Since then, some of the original buildings have been torn down to make room for even larger hotels and casinos, though some classical venues can still be found.
- Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (Sullivan County (New York); hurd Road a half-mile N of NY 17B in the town of Bethel, E of the hamlet of White Lake), toll-free: +1-866-781-2922, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. In the mid-2000s local entrepreneur Alan Gerry realized a long-held Sullivan County dream of capitalizing on the Woodstock festival site's potential as a tourist draw. The original site, at the southeast corner of the intersection of Hurd and West Shore roads, has been left undisturbed and accessible. On the hill nearby is a modern amphitheatre that has hosted performances by everyone from acts that appeared at the original festival to symphony orchestras. The nearby museum is also a must-see for anyone wanting to better appreciate the cultural significance of the surrounding acres of what was once Yasgur's Farm.
- Levittown, New York (state). A mass-produced planned suburb founded in 1947, which came to inspire similar suburban neighbourhoods across the country.
- Greenwich Village, NYC. A stronghold of avant-garde and counterculture since the late 19th century, and a birthplace of an era for the gay liberation movement; the historic drag queen riot against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, raged for a few days in June 1969.
- Miami. With the Cuban Revolution, Miami grew as a sanctuary for Cuban-Americans. Since then, it has become a hotspot for the LGBT movement and popular culture. The cocaine smuggling business gave a darker image of the city, inspiring works of crime fiction such as the 1983 film Scarface, and the Miami Vice series.
- National September 11 Memorial & Museum (World Trade Center site - note that the term 'Ground Zero' is never used by New Yorkers), 180 Greenwich St (between West, Greenwich, Liberty, and Fulton Streets; Subway: to Park Pl or or to Fulton St or to Cortlandt St or to Chambers St or to World Trade Center), ☎ +1 212 312-8800, e-mail: email@example.com. Memorial: daily 7:30AM-9PM; Museum: daily 9AM-9PM (8PM in winter), last museum entry 2 hours before closing. On the site of the former World Trade Center towers, the memorial consists of two enormous waterfalls and reflecting pools set within the footprints of the twin towers, lined with bronze panels with the names of the nearly 3,000 victims of that fateful day inscribed. The surrounding plaza holds a grove of trees. The museum, which sits underground right next to the memorial, contains exhibits which explain the events of 9/11 and their aftermath, with remnants of the original towers and artifacts from that day. Memorial: Free; Museum: $24 ($18 senior/veteran/college, $15 youth); free admission Tuesday evenings after 5PM.
- Route 66 (1926-1985) was among the most important east-west highways, until it began to be bypassed, replaced or simply paved over in some sections by the Interstate highway system in the 1950s onward.