Bill Levitt and the American Dream
America also had this incredible economic abundance. We hadn't been hit by the
war; our cities hadn't been pillaged, our cities hadn't been bombed. We had
this tremendous surge of economic prosperity that began in 1941 and '42. And
the GI Bill fed right into the mood of economic prosperity.
It was a bonanza, a social bonanza, one of the most important pieces of social
legislation of the mid-20th century. It gave GIs the opportunity to do two
things. It gave them money for education; it also provided money for down
payments on homes. And they all wanted to marry, have children, and get into a
decent American home.
The problem was, there was a terrible shortage of housing for returning
Film clip: "The U.S. Census estimates that three million families in America
are living doubled up, a condition creating severe social difficulties, and
even acute breakdowns in family life."
Bill Levitt: "We believe that every family in the United States is entitled to
decent shelter. We believe that private enterprise should provide that shelter
insofar as it can..."
Bill Levitt was an amazing character. He's kind of the Henry Ford of the middle
of the 20th century. Where Ford mass-produced Model T cars, Levitt
mass-produced homes. And as a veteran, during World War II a sea-bee, building
air bases out on the Pacific, Levitt came up with his dream of building an
idyllic community for lower-middle-class, striving, upward-bound American GIs,
who he knew would come out of the war with some opportunity, with the GI Bill.
And he was there to take advantage of it.
So what Levitt does is he goes out to Long Island, on a stretch of potato
fields, and he builds his ideal community. By the time it was finished, he had
a complete community, 80,000 people, about 17-18,000 houses. And the key thing
with these houses is they were inexpensive, and they were well built.
They were sturdy like the old Model T Fords and they even were produced like
the Model T Fords. They were mass-produced. Levitt broke down the whole
process, as Adam Smith would do with the division of labor, and he broke down
the building process into 27 components. And he trained a team to do each
"These are the 36 men who built this house. Another day, another 40 houses."
He even had one team that did nothing but bolt washing machines into the floor.
He didn't build foundations, so that saved a lot of the costs.
When the house was up it cost around eight thousand dollars, and all you needed
for a down payment was about ninety dollars. And Levitt threw in a free
television set and washing machine. So this was perfect. And this is the real
beginning of true suburbanization.
It all emerges, almost eureka-like, suddenly in the early 1950s. There was just
this explosion of suburban growth. There were a legion of books being produced
in the 1950s that attacked the homogenization and blandness of suburbia; bland
people living in bland houses led by bland presidents like Eisenhower. But to
Americans at that time who lived in places like Levittown, this was a great
It was a realization of the American dream. That if you worked hard, you could
make it, and you could provide security for your family through a home. There
was the expectation of that.
Eisenhower and the Cold War
In 1952, Eisenhower is elected president, and in a sense, becomes the perfect
American President for the 1950s. Here was the great war hero, the general who
commanded the troops at D-Day, the Supreme Allied Commander. And for a lot of
Americans he's the perfect President, because this is an age when people don't
want to tamper with too much, when reform goes off the agenda.
And Eisenhower is doing other things that people want and feel they need. He's
building things like the St. Lawrence Seaway. He's building a federal highway
program. "The highway construction program initiated by Ike is the biggest
peacetime enterprise ever undertaken. It will cost tens of..." "Ike's
defense policy affords the country the maximum protection..."
And he's also building deterrence to the Soviet Union. This was the beginning
of the Cold War, an ideological war against a common enemy, international
Communism. All Americans are united in the fact that the outside menace is
Communism, godless Communism.
"And see how it spreads. Some areas were gobbled up; some became
Russian-dominated satellites. In Europe, and in Asia..."
And you have to understand Communism is not just a military threat. This is a
system that is antithetical to everything Americans hold dear. All right, we
come out of the war; we're a tremendously prosperous nation. What's the root of
that prosperity? Capitalism.
Communism threatens that. We're a God-fearing country. What does Communism
stand for? Godlessness, okay.
So all the things that America was, an upwardly advancing, mobile, competitive,
God-fearing, capitalist society, Russia isn't. And I think it's that feeling
that we're being faced by that common threat that brings Americans together and
creates this orthodoxy, homogeneity, tribalism, whatever you want to call it.
And it's a glue that holds the culture together pretty strongly. And it can be
in a sense pretty stifling for a lot of people, especially young people.