Picturing the Century

Postwar America

Many Americans feared that victory in World War II would be followed by the return of 1930s-like hard times. Instead, postwar America experienced a dramatic economic expansion, sustained prosperity, and a huge population increase. By the 1950s, the United States led the world by almost any economic measure. It manufactured half the world's goods, possessed over 40 percent of the world's income, and had by far the highest standard of living. Moreover, the end of the war brought not only an economic but a "baby boom." In 1946, 3.4 million babies were born, a 20-percent increase over 1945, creating a demographic bubble that continued to expand into the early 1960s. This remarkable growth was matched by a faith, shared by a broad spectrum of Americans, that the future would surely see the continued expansion of "free enterprise" and democracy, at home and abroad.

Internationally, the post war years were dominated by "cold war" competition between the United States and the Soviet Union - a competition that could turn decidedly "hot" in places like Korea or Indo-China. Domestically, Cold War American self-assurance was haunted by two specters: the menace of worldwide Communism and the threat of nuclear war. Growth and affluence also blinded many to injustices such as poverty and racial segregation. In the 1960s, reformers called on Americans to address these issues.

Research in the photography files of the National Archives for the postwar years reveals many images that project a positive image of the United States as one tactic in the Cold War. These photographs often idealize America. At the same time, photographs used by the government could look more critically at American society, or at least touch on some of the anxieties of the era.

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