Many Americans feared that the end of World War II and the subsequent drop in military spending might bring back the hard times of the Great Depression. But instead, pent-up consumer demand fueled exceptionally strong economic growth in the post-war period. The automobile industry successfully converted back to producing cars, and new industries such as aviation and electronics grew by leaps and bounds.
A housing boom, stimulated in part by easily affordable mortgages for returning members of the military, added to the expansion. The nation's gross national product rose from about $200,000 million in 1940 to $300,000 million in 1950 and to more than $500,000 million in 1960. At the same time, the jump in post-war births, known as the "baby boom," increased the number of consumers. More and more Americans joined the middle class.
The Military Industrial Complex
The need to produce war supplies had given rise to a huge military-industrial complex (a term coined by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served as the U.S. president from 1953 through 1961). It did not disappear with the war's end. As the Iron Curtain descended across Europe and the United States found itself embroiled in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, the government maintained substantial fighting capacity and invested in sophisticated weapons such as the hydrogen bomb.
Economic aid flowed to war-ravaged European countries under the Marshall Plan, which also helped maintain markets for numerous U.S. goods. And the government itself recognized its central role in economic affairs. The Employment Act of 1946 stated as government policy "to promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power."
The United States also recognized during the post-war period the need to restructure international monetary arrangements, spearheading the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - institutions designed to ensure an open, capitalist international economy.
Business, meanwhile, entered a period marked by consolidation. Firms merged to create huge, diversified conglomerates. International Telephone and Telegraph, for instance, bought Sheraton Hotels, Continental Banking, Hartford Fire Insurance, Avis Rent-a-Car, and other companies.
Changes in the American Workforce
The American workforce also changed significantly. During the 1950s, the number of workers providing services grew until it equaled and then surpassed the number who produced goods. And by 1956, a majority of U.S. workers held white-collar rather than blue-collar jobs. At the same time, labor unions won long-term employment contracts and other benefits for their members.
Farmers, on the other hand, faced tough times. Gains in productivity led to agricultural overproduction, as farming became a big business. Small family farms found it increasingly difficult to compete, and more and more farmers left the land. As a result, the number of people employed in the farm sector, which in 1947 stood at 7.9 million, began a continuing decline; by 1998, U.S. farms employed only 3.4 million people.
Other Americans moved, too. Growing demand for single-family homes and the widespread ownership of cars led many Americans to migrate from central cities to suburbs. Coupled with technological innovations such as the invention of air conditioning, the migration spurred the development of "Sun Belt" cities such as Houston, Atlanta, Miami, and Phoenix in the southern and southwestern states. As new, federally-sponsored highways created better access to the suburbs, business patterns began to change as well. Shopping centers multiplied, rising from eight at the end of World War II to 3,840 in 1960. Many industries soon followed, leaving cities for less crowded sites.
This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.