Decade Analysis

In our attempt to understand historical events, we tend to follow a chronological time-line. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to encapsulate and to remember the sequence of occurrences that compose a country’s history. One excellent method to comprehend the spirit of an age is to conduct a decade analysis, which seeks to establish four or five key images that encapsule the ten-year span. Placed in juxtaposition, these images should immediately recall the age. To illustrate this method, let us examine five decades from the twentieth century in the United States.

 The 1920’s was known as “The Roaring Twenties” or “The Jazz Age”, and was circumscribed by keystone events which occurred at the beginning and the end of the decade: the passage in 1920 of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, Prohibition, which made the sale, purchase, and consumption of alcohol illegal throughout the United States, and the stock market crash of October 1929, which effectively put an end to the exuberance and self-confidence of the era and effectively ushered in a bleak period in American history. The images of the twenties involve energetic dancing, the Charleston, in ‘speakeasies”—locales where jazz provide the music and the backdrop to sales of illegal liquor—women dressed in tight-fitting ‘flapper’ dresses, with short hair, and dapper men with spats and zoot suits. The automobile became widespread, luxury cars for the rich, and the Model T Ford (“you can have any color you’d like as long as it’s black”) for the general public. Gangsters were a big part of the twenties. Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Segal, and of course, Al Capone, made their money on liquor imported from Canada and sold through Chicago, Boston, and New York. It was a violent decade, but the revelers, who had a more fatalistic attitude as a result of the experience of World War I, lived life to its fullest. Women made great progress in the decade, too, earning the right to vote in 1920, and leading a more liberated lifestyle with changed mores in terms of dress, hairstyles, and public behavior (dancing, smoking, staying out).

 Black Friday, the fall of the stock market, was the first step in the dark decade of the 1930’s, the Depression. The images immediately brought to mind are those of lines: bread lines and crowds outside the soup kitchens, queues outside the unemployment office (unemployment reached 30%, the highest figure in U.S. history). Roosevelt was the president for much of the decade, and his “fireside chats” broadcast on the radio reassured the American public. The images are not all bleak, though. The federal and state governments sponsored huge construction projects. Taking advantage of the high unemployment, the government offered guaranteed work at low pay to a more-than-willing workforce. The result: an intense construction boom for public projects. Bridges (the Golden Gate, the George Washington, the Verrazzano), tunnels (the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels), skyscrapers (the Empire State Building, the Sears Tower) were completed in record time. The Empire State Building, the tallest building in the world at the time, was completed in just under eighteen months. Another structure completed in late 1932 was the massive Radio City Music Hall, with 6000 seats, a movie theatre that benefited from the fact that during the depression era, moviegoers attended films on the average of one per week, willing to escape reality to the glittery world of Hollywood. The “Golden Age of the Movies” was accompanied by the prevalence of radio as a vast communication medium: more than 80% of American homes had a radio. The decade (and the depression) ended with another monumental event: the onset of World War II in Europe and Asia.

 The economic recovery was swift and certain: factories re-opened as orders for war-related goods poured in. The decade of the 1940’s would be dominated by the Second World War, the most devastating in the history of humankind (more than 17 million casualties). Radio was still the medium of choice, and most families tuned in every evening to listen to news of the war around the world. The U.S. was neutral for the first three years of the war, and did not enter until December, 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor. World War II received almost universal support, seen as the struggle between good (the U.S., England, and the allies) and evil (Hitler, Mussolini, Emperor Hirohito, and the axis enemy). While men were called or joined the army in record numbers, women took to the workplace, filling positions in offices and factories. The war ended with the surrender of German in April 1945. Interestingly, Roosevelt, Hitler, and Mussolini, linked throughout the struggle as adversaries, all died within a few weeks of each other in the spring of 1945. The Pacific War did not end until later that year, and not until President Harry Truman approved the employment of the atom bomb on Japan, a decision that ended the war quickly in the short run and had lasting repercussions in terms of the buildup of nuclear weapons in the long run. The mushroom cloud above Hiroshima is an indelible image of the 1940’s. The movies continued to be a popular form of entertainment, with war, action/adventure, and detective films coupled with musicals. Women and G.I.s danced to big band music at U.S.O. clubs sponsored by the army, the men in uniforms and the women in wide flowing skirts. The decade ends in the United States with the triumphant return of the war heroes (later called “The Greatest Generation”), proud, ambitious, and eager to start families and live the American dream.

 The images of the 1950’s brought immediately to mind are of young people riding in large automobiles, listening to rock and roll music on the radio and on the jukeboxes of diners, dancing at ‘sock hops’, and wearing bobby socks and high school letter sweaters. The G.I. Bill provided low-rate mortgages and the waiver of most of the down payment on the purchase of a home in the suburbs, and the W.W.II veterans responded by buying homes, cookie-cutter Cape Cod houses all similar in design, on streets with newly planted trees. For the most part, women retired from the workforce and became homemakers. The “baby boom” lasted for the entire decade: more children were born in the 1950’s than in the 1930’s and 1940’s combined. The president was Dwight Eisenhower, a retired five-star general, who, ironically, guided America through its most peaceful decade. The spirit of the decade was confident and enthusiastic. Americans turned to a new form of entertainment. As movies receded in popularity, television became king. By the end of the decade, three-quarters of all homes had a television, and the ‘situation comedies’ presented reflected the mores of the society: a nuclear family, with a working father who returned home punctually at 5:30, a mother who loved to cook and who kept the house clean while attending to many charity activities, and healthy children who bubbled over at the dinner table discussing their daily lives. Elvis was the king of rock, with 23 number one songs, but the exuberance of rock and roll music and dancing was perceived as posing a threat to parents who sought to keep their children protected and pure.

 The first image of the 1960’s, the most turbulent decade of the twentieth century, is of John F. Kennedy giving his inaugural address. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he intoned in his Massachusetts accent, “Ask what you can do for your country.” It was a challenge to Americans to get involved, to leave the peace and security of their homes and become activists. It was a call that was heeded again and again throughout the decade. The summer of 1963 saw the March on Washington, and the “I’ve Got a Dream” speech delivered on the Mall by Martin Luther King, Jr. Picture more than a million rapt listeners holding on his every word. In the fall of the same year, the nation came crashing back to reality: Kennedy was dead. Americans will always remember the funeral: his elegant wife dressed in a simple French outfit in mourning, his young son saluting the casket draped with the American flag. After Kennedy’s death, the country seemed to explode. The peaceful civil rights movement sometimes turned violent, and race riots rocked American cities. There was another war, too, in the far-off land of Vietnam, a war that was so unpopular that many Americans took to the streets to protest. Anti-war marches on Washington and at many universities challenged the purpose of the war. At the same time, patriotic Americans heeded their draft notice and served their duty, many losing their lives. The ‘generation gap’ was probably more pronounced in the sixties than in any other decade. Dad still wore a military crew-cut or kept his hair very short. His son, though, grew his hair much longer, so that from behind, it was difficult to tell men from women. Daughters eschewed Mom’s beauty-parlor ‘do for a long, sometimes braided, natural look. Bell-bottom pants and flowery shirts were the young people’s alternatives to the suit and simple dress. The decade ended with the extraordinary events of 1969: American astronauts walking on the moon, the three-day concert/love-fest held in Woodstock, and the Miracle Mets winning the World Series.

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