Significant National Events: 1944-1963
The Allies invaded Sicily from North Africa in 1943, and invaded France on June 6, 1944, D-Day. The successful, but costly, invasions led to the liberation of Europe from Axis occupation. In 1945, the European members of the Axis surrendered. Shortly before Germany’s official surrender, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met on the shore of the Black Sea at Yalta. The three men agreed at the Yalta Conference to divide Germany into zones of occupation, prosecute Nazi and Fascist war criminals, and repatriate prisoners of war, among other issues.
The alliance with the Soviet Union was a disconcerting necessity for the Allies. Hitler's military along with Axis forces launched an invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Over the next four years, the Soviet Union repulsed Axis offensives, eventually driving back the invaders. The attack on the Soviet Union greatly diminished the Axis military strength, providing a critical advantage to the Allies. Fending off the German invasion and pressing to victory in 1945 required a tremendous sacrifice by the Soviet Union, which suffered the highest casualties among the Allies, losing more than 20 million citizens. The bravery, perseverance, and sacrifices of the Soviet people were acclaimed and respected by the Allies. However, Premier Stalin was a vicious dictator and his totalitarian government committed ethnic cleansing, deportations, and mass executions, beginning with the Great Purge of 1934. It is not surprising that soon after WWII ended, Stalin’s Soviet Union became a bitter enemy of its former allies.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was quite ill during the Yalta Conference, died in April, 1945. Vice President Harry S. Truman became the 33rd U.S. President and two months later he attended the founding conference of the United Nations. In August, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and three days later, it dropped another on Nagasaki. Japan surrendered. WWII was over. More than four hundred thousand Americans had died in the war that, worldwide, had taken the lives of some sixty million people.
The end of the war marked the dawn of an age of economic prosperity. Since 1940, inequalities of wealth and income had been dwindling. By 1960, two out of three Americans owned their own homes.3 Truman advocated “Fair Deal” policies that included national health insurance as a high, but ultimately unattainable, priority. The U.S. approved the Marshall Plan that provided billions of dollars in aid for rebuilding Western Europe. In 1944, the G.I. Bill extended to the sixteen million Americans who served in the war a series of benefits, including a free, four-year college education, as well as important financial benefits. By 1948, the cost of the G.I. Bill constituted 15 percent of the federal budget. But, because of the rising tax revenues it generated, the G.I. Bill paid for itself almost ten times over. It changed the face of American universities. Inexplicably, most women and African Americans who had served in the war were not eligible for benefits.
In the election of 1946, Truman beat the Republican challenger Tom Dewey, but the GOP won both the House and Senate. The 1947 National Security Act established the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The Department of Defense was created. In 1949, the U.S. signed the North Atlantic Treaty, then the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb. The National Science Foundation was established in 1950.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson in the election of 1952, and again in his reelection bid in 1956. Eisenhower made greater use of press conferences than any previous president, holding almost 200 over his two terms. He implemented racial integration in the Armed Services and he expanded Social Security, which was rolled into his new cabinet-level agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that American state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional, even if the segregated schools are otherwise equal in quality, making it unnecessary to prove inequality for each individual segregated school.
College-age Americans were called to military service again when the nation became involved in the Korean War (1950-53). The United Nation's “Police Action” to repel North Korea’s invasion of South Korea fell primarily to the unprepared U.S. which, since the end of WWII, had drastically reduced its military capability. US Army Reserve and Army National Guard infantry soldiers and new inductees were sent to Korea to support the undermanned and ill-equipped regular army. It has been estimated that, by the time an armistice was negotiated in 1953, the full battle death toll on all sides was more than 1.2 million and the total number of civilian casualties exceeded 2.5 million.6
In 1948, less than 3 percent of American homes had a television; by 1952, the number was up to 45 percent. In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission established the Fairness Doctrine, a standard for television news. By the end of the 1950s, 90 percent of American homes had a television. The year 1952 marked the first coverage of a presidential election by television.
After WWII, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were the recognized political and military superpowers, but they had profound philosophical and aspirational differences. The geopolitical tension or "Cold War" between the two powers took a turn in 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first ever artificial satellite. The U.S. public was alarmed by this apparent threat. To close the gap, and win the ”space race,” the U.S. government provided support to universities for scientific research and for graduating more students with advanced degrees in science and engineering. In 1958, it created the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created within the Department of Defense. One day, ARPA would build a precursor of the Internet.
In the election of 1960, Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy barely defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon. In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned the country to guard against the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex. In 1960, the American military presence in South Viet Nam consisted of only 685 American troops.
In 1963, 250,000 people attended the Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C. where they heard Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Three months later, on November 22, 1963, the country was traumatized by the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, but it rallied behind Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson when he assumed the Presidency. In the 1964 election, Johnson introduced his plan for a “Great Society,” which consisted of liberal policies for urban renewal, modern transportation, clean environment, anti-poverty, health-care reform, crime control, and educational reform. He won the election in a landslide over Republican challenger Senator Barry Goldwater. Johnson’s War on Poverty included legislation creating Head Start, food stamps and Work Study. During Johnson’s term in office the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 23 percent to 12 percent. Many of the Great Society’s goals were achieved by the end of Johnson’s term as President.
Last revised: 2021-04-18