American Families In The Cold War Era History Essay

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In the introduction to this provocative study of an important facet of American social history during the Cold War, author Elaine Tyler May, who is Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Minnesota, asks: "Why did postwar Americans turn to marriage and parenthood with such enthusiasm and commitment?" Her answer is that, in an era when United States foreign policy attempted to "contain" the expansion of Communism, it was quite natural for white, middle-class Americans, the dominant segment of the society, to adopt the ideology May calls "domestic containment." According to May, Americans embraced domesticity during the early years of the Cold War because "the home seemed to offer a secure private nest removed from the dangers of the outside world." May proceeds to explain: ""Americans turned to the family as a bastion of safety in an insecure world." Furthermore, according to May: "Domestic containment was bolstered by a power political culture that rewarded its adherents and marginalized its detractors."

The period from 1929 through 1945, which encompassed the Great Depression and World War II, had been an age of great anxiety. But May makes a convincing case that "the end of World War II brought a new sense of crisis" and that the postwar world was full of its own stresses. According to May, "the freedom of modern life seemed to undermine security." As a result, from the late 1940s and well into the 1960s, she writes that Americans "wanted secure jobs, secure homes, and secure marriages in a secure country." In both its international and domestic manifestations, according to May: "Containment was the key to security." Indeed, in May's view: "With security as the common thread, the cold war ideology and the domestic revival reinforced each other." According to May: "The ideological connections among early marriage, sexual containment, and traditional gender roles merged in the context of the cold war," and "much of the postwar social science literature connected the functions of the family directly to the cold war." According to May: "Strong families required two essential ingredients: sexual restraint outside marriage and traditional gender roles in marriage." May writes: "The sexual containment ideology was rooted in widely-accepted gender roles that defined men as breadwinners and women as mothers." It is critical to May's thesis that "marriage itself symbolized a refuge against danger." According to May, most Americans believed that "a successful marriage depended on a committed partnership between a successful breadwinner and his helpmate."That belief was reinforced by a Cold War-era study funded by the Ford Foundation and conducted by two Harvard sociologists which concluded that the key to successful families "was stable homes in which men and women adhered to traditional gender roles." It is clear that this conclusion was not just descriptive; it was intended to be normative. May explains the postwar baby boom in these terms: "Procreation in the cold war era took on almost mythic proportions." A large family offered the possibility of escape: "For men who were frustrated at work, for women who were bored at home, and for both who were frustrated with the unfulfilled promise of sexual excitement, children might fill the void." Furthermore, according to May, "procreation was one way to express civic values," and there was an "intense and widespread endorsement of...the positive value of having several children." May reports that, [t]he message in the public culture was clear: motherhood was the ultimate fulfillment of female sexuality and the primary source of a woman's identity." In contrast, according to the Cold War's conventional wisdom, "[c]hildlessness was considered deviant, selfish, and pitiable." According to May, for white middle-class couples, "viable alternatives to domestic containment were out of reach" because the "cold war consensus and the pervasive atmosphere of anticommunism made personal experimentation... risky endeavors." But "[m]ost seemed to agree that a less-than-ideal marriage was much better than no marriage at all." According to May, "the popular literature was filled with articles that warned of the evils of divorce," and a psychology professor writing in Parents Magazine noted that "the `delinquent' child comes from a family where `the parents don't get along and that his home has been or will be broken by separation, desertion or divorce.'" If traditional gender roles and domesticity were prized, it is not surprising that early Cold War society was Intolerant of deviation from sexual and family norms. According to May: "The popular culture gave full play to the fears of sex and communism running amok," and "[t]he most severe censure was reserved for gay men and lesbians." She explains: "The persecution of homosexuals was the most blatant form of sexual paranoia linking `perversion' to national weakness." May also writes: "To escape the status of pariah, many gay men and lesbians locked themselves in the stifling closet of conformity, hiding their sexual identities and passing as heterosexuals." In the "Postscript to the 1999 Edition," May added: "With communism so widely feared and linked in the public imagination to everything from domestic spies to homosexuals, it is no wonder that evidence of non-conformity during the era of containment appeared as a threat to the democracy itself." She proceeds to explain: "Anticommunism gave a modicum of legitimacy to the harassment of individuals whose sexuality did not conform to the norm; `deviants' were persecuted in the name of national security."

In summary, this book is an important contribution to the literature of the effects of the Cold War on American society. It is well-researched and carefully reasoned, but it also is easy reading and should be of interest to member of the baby-boom generation who want to know more about the world in which they were raised.