From Field to Plate...
Civilization: A New History of the Western World Part 6
A NEW HISTORY OF THE WESTERN WORLD
Chapter 18: The Post-War World: From Social Cohesion to Global Marketplace (cont.)
As well as direct military spending, the 1944 GI Bill of Rights gave $13 billion for returning soldiers to enter college, enrol in training programmes or set up in business; while the government eased taxes and most people cashed in their war bonds. There was suddenly an awful lot of money around, and with an industrial sector with huge unfilled capacity, America found itself in a boom economy. The 1950s was a partial repeat of the 1920s. Legislation curtailed workers’ rights, while the revival of consumerism engendered political conservatism. In 1952 Eisenhower immediately signalled the return of big business to politics; Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was a corporate lawyer, his deputy was a former head of Quaker Oats, and the Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, was formerly head of General Motors, while Edward Bernays reappeared as a government adviser.
In the post-war decades, discoveries and inventions made in the 1920s, 1930s and during the war itself began to be turned into practical innovations that would alter the lives of western people. Antibiotics, television, jet engines, rocket technology, computers, quantum mechanics, nuclear fission, DNA, electronics, materials, metallurgy and plastics were all, in the short and medium term, to feed into a technological revolution of western life. Organizational refinements proved just as influential as technological changes. Mass production of cars began in America in the 1920s, but in the war years and after economies of scale, organizational efficiency and improved distribution networks combined with changing technology to make American industry and American corporations the economic powerhouse of the world.
The advertising techniques first introduced in the 1920s, in which consumers were sold happiness rather than goods, came to the fore. The booming economy made people feel that satisfying their own individual desires contributed to national prosperity. The countries that best learned the lessons of American success were Japan and Germany, the defeated nations of 1945. Faced with the urgent need to start anew, they were able to devise distinctive structures in which (in contrast to the United States) their national governments made a priority of strategically guiding investment in manufacturing industry.
The war gave American industry the chance to build a continent-sized infrastructure that pushed it beyond the reach of competition from the devastated continent of Europe. Just as government war spending revitalized American industry in the early 1940s, so federal-funded road schemes gave a huge boost to the automobile, construction and engineering industries in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1950 the United States had 39% of the world’s GDP, and built 80% of the world’s cars, while the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 committed the federal government to spending $35 billion over 14 years to build a national network of roads. The freeways signalled the end of the domination of rail; after the 1950s goods went by truck and people by car and bus. Car numbers increased vastly, making them ever cheaper to buy, while plentiful gasoline made them absurdly cheap to run. Growing prosperity meant that more homes were being built, but now that everyone (except the poor) had cars there was no need for them to be close to factories or offices or schools or shops. Homes and services spread out along highways. America was, after all, a vast country with enough empty space for everyone to have a decent-sized plot. There was no need for offices or shops to be grouped in one place either, so they began to move out of the old downtown areas and relocate on to highways where they were in easy reach of commuters and shoppers. The geographical size of a city was limited only by the distance a car-driver was willing to travel. The newly expanding cities like Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston became more extensive than anything previously seen on earth, with vast networks of freeways connecting endless suburbs. American culture was no longer centred on settled towns and cities but on cars, trucks and freeways, and on endless movement.
The development of motorized technology produced an enormous effect that began almost invisibly but over the post-war period, brought on the disappearance of a central aspect of western life dating back 5,000 years. By the 1920s and 30s mechanized tractors, harvesters and other machinery were making small farmsteads in the United States redundant. After 1945 the machines got ever bigger, and so the fields and land holdings got bigger too. By the 1950s large machines were being put to work on the agricultural landscape of western Europe first founded in Neolithic times. Ancient landscape features were routinely destroyed as the need for efficient production over-rode the customary relations of people and land.
At the same time agricultural communities, inheritors and custodians of customs that encouraged and celebrated communal working and living, became irrelevant. As George Evans showed in a series of intimate studies, before mechanization a whole village would turn out for hay-making, or harvesting or stone-picking, but afterwards a single tractor could do the work of 50 men, women and children. Farming became a solitary occupation and the meaning of village life was irrevocably altered.
The biggest break with the past was the abandonment of the strident nationalism that had brought catastrophe to the continent of Europe. Both French and German political leaders recognized the cycle of retribution that had marred their countries’ relations, and set about building indissoluble ties. In April 1951 the European Coal and Steel Community, comprising France, Italy, West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, was established and, through the work of French politicians Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, was turned into an economic community covering all areas of trade, formalized in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome. In Britain’s voluntary absence France and Germany formed an enduring partnership, building a vision of European integration.
Nationalism was subsumed in the formation of other international bodies, including the United Nations in 1948, and NATO in 1949. Even before the end of the war, the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944 tied the economic destinies of western countries together under an American umbrella. Harry Dexter-White and John Maynard Keynes devised an international system of finance based on the dollar, whose value was fixed against gold and against all other major currencies. The agreement, which also set up the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and International Trade Organization, was designed to create stability and growth and open up the world to greater trade. In reality it opened up the world to American capitalism.
Apart from multilateral cooperation and defence against communism, the other great international movement of the immediate post-war years was the retreat from empire. Any possible benefits were now outweighed by the unaffordable costs of policing increasingly assertive local populations, many of whom had fought for their imperial masters during the war. In 1947 India was granted independence from Britain, with Pakistan and Ceylon given status as separate states. Britain managed to extricate itself from the ensuing communal violence but was to become entangled in colonial wars in Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya and Egypt, while avoiding conflict in most of its other African and Caribbean colonies. In retrospect the biggest failure was in the Middle East, where Britain handed the mandate of Palestine to the UN in 1948, after being unable to resolve the claims of European Jews wanting a new homeland with the rights of the indigenous Palestinian population.
By 1946 French troops were already fighting rebellions in Algeria, Syria, Madagascar and Indo-China. After nine years of guerrilla warfare, the French army was lured into a trap at the remote outpost of Dien Bien Phu, and in 1954 France was forced to surrender North Vietnam to its people. An eight-year war of independence in Algeria came close to bringing down the French government, with independence finally granted in 1962.
The world might have hoped that Europeans would, in the light of the Nazi death camps, be reluctant to use violence for political ends. But torture and brutality were routinely used by the British army against the Mau Mau in Kenya, where detention camps were employed, and by French soldiers against the FLN in Algeria. By the 1970s the remainder of France’s possessions, along with the Dutch, Belgian and, latterly, Portuguese empires, were liberated. Only a handful of small possessions were left from a set of empires that, only 40 years previously, had covered much of the world.
The western powers may have withdrawn from direct political control of the rest of the world but their legacy and influence was felt everywhere. Modern Europeans had no concept of governance beyond the centralized nation state; so as they withdrew from their colonies they created a host of new nations. Some were based on ethnic or religious groupings (India and Pakistan; Ireland); others combined different ethnic or religious groups (Hausa, Ibo, and Yoruba in Nigeria; Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq); in many, ethnic groups were divided among different states (Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Turkey); and in some the boundaries between states depended on the colonial powers (west Africa) or on the persuasive skills of local leaders (the division of Kuwait from Iraq). But in all cases the political structures were based on the relatively recent western concept of the nation state. This swept away any vestiges of the customary intricate ways of allowing and restraining authority, and instead handed enormous power to whichever individual or small group could control its centre.
- Intimations of change and of challenge to the consensus of the immediate post-war years came first through cultural expression.
- The catastrophe of the conflict and the genocidal murder of six million Jews left European artists with little to say.
- But in America, in the years from 1947 to 1960 Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller produced a series of plays, including All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, A streetcar Named Desire and Sweet Bird of Youth, that exposed the mismatch between the intricacies of personal and community life on the one hand, and the imperatives of social conformity and economic success on the other.
- When Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, Art of This Century, opened in New York in 1942, abstract American painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell were feted in their own land.
- William de Kooning explained that his work, with its slipping planes, visual ambiguities and lack of reference points, was a deliberate analogy of the sense of disorientation of mid-century America and the world.
- The spirit of the outsider who refuses to conform found expression in the work of Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, all of whom stood in frank opposition to the mainstream values of American society; while intimations of rebellion were seen in movies like The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
- The anti-hero was born.
- The most explosive expression of rebellion against mainstream American life came in popular music.
New electric guitars were coupled with the traditional brass instruments of jazz and swing to produce a new kind of sound, while the lyrics became more sexually explicit, wittier and more self-consciously sophisticated. Joe Turner, Muddy Waters, Wynonie Harris, Julia Lee, Fats Domino and Little Richard, among many others, gave their music an extraordinary, unbelievable energy. This was music for adults who wanted a good time, this was rhythm and blues, or jump jive, or ‘race music’. Whatever you called it, it was the most instantly intoxicating, joyous, infectious, delirious sound anyone had ever heard.
- Through Elvis Presley, a white southerner steeped in gospel and race music, black music hit the heart of white America.
- Rock and roll made everything European seem dreary and old-fashioned; from the 1950s on, ‘modern’ meant American.
- American culture had the ability to speak for those who could not speak, and to articulate the life of the inarticulate. It swept the world precisely because it seemed to speak for everyone.
- While much European culture remained tied to traditional forms – novels, poetry and theatre – European cinema began to find a distinctive voice, principally through Italian and French auteur-directors like Rossellini, de Sica, Antonioni, Fellini, Carné, Truffaut and Chabrol, and the Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman.
By the 1960s, citizens of western countries began to shake off their fear of change. The new generation of politicians they elected, such as John Kennedy, Harold Wilson and Willy Brandt, reflected a new optimism; the contrast between the dull but steady Eisenhower and the dynamic, dashing Kennedy, and between the patrician Douglas-Home and the state-educated Wilson could hardly have been greater. Economic recovery in Europe allowed the full spirit of American consumerism to crash into a continent used to thrift and making do.
To be continued
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