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America's History in the Making

Postwar Tension and Triumph

Unit Overview

A Visit from the Old Mistress. 1976. dup of 2191

The United States was the only nation involved in World War II that emerged stronger than before the conflict began. For many Americans, World War II and its aftermath ushered in an era of domestic prosperity. Many servicemen returned home with the expectation of securing a job, raising a family, and owning their home; for others the expectations of better lives went unfulfilled. The GI Bill gave millions of returning veterans low-cost mortgages, medical care through the Veteran's Administration, and tuition for higher education. Yet, the GI Bill also denied access to some benefits to Native Americans, African Americans, women, and homosexual GIs. The role of women changed as well. Many women lost their wellpaying jobs when men returned, but most remained in the paid labor force in lower-paying female-dominated occupations. The proportion of married women in the paid labor force continued to rise after the war.

Many Americans strove to conform to the stereotypical ideal family—living in the suburbs, with the father as the principal breadwinner and the mother as the full-time homemaker—but the reality was much different. Some women had to work part-time to supplement the family income, a life contrary to the ideal of a full-time homemaker. Some scholars have depicted post-war suburbs as bastions of conformity, while others have emphasized the opportunity for self-expression and individuality that suburban life fostered.

As the Cold War began, Americans confronted the possibility of mass destruction from atomic weapons, the expansion of communism, and an arms race. A tension existed in American society that pitted the ideals of conformity against individualism. Individualism had existed for a long time as an American ideal, but became elevated during the anti-communist era of the Cold War. Some argued that the Soviet Union represented mass society, while the United States promoted individualism, free thought, independence, and autonomy.

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