In the early Fifties a dread of nuclear annihilation fueled by bomb testing led us to seriously discuss whether or not to bring children into a world doomed to nuclear destruction. Our fear of hidden enemies created by the anti-Communist Crusade turned us into nation looking for scapegoats. The early Fifties ended a brief honeymoon where we reduced the military and poured money into schools and infrastrucure, launched the Marshall Plan to rebuild a Europe devoured by war and encouraged Unions to protect and expand a growing Middle Class. The early Fifties changed all that.
Ellen Schrecker got it right in her essay, ”The Legacy of McCarthyism. “As the nation’s politics swung to the right after World War II, the federal government abandoned the unfinished agenda of the New Deal. Measures like national health insurance, a social reform embraced by the rest of the industrialized world, simply fell by the wayside.
“The left liberal political coalition that might have supported health reforms and similar projects was torn apart by the anti-Communist crusade. Moderates feared being identified with anything that seemed too radical, and people to the left of them were either unheard or under attack. McCarthyism further contributed to the attenuation of the reform impulse by helping to divert the attention of the labor movement, the strongest institution within the old New Deal coalition, from external organizing to internal politicking.”
The vast majority of Americans supported the crusade or were indifferent. Even liberals, appalled by McCarthyism, remained optimistic about America’s future. The accomplishments that the New Deal had achieved seemed safe got everyone.
Liberal economist Robert Heilbronner expressed America’s optimism in The Worldly Philosophers, published a few years later. For years it was a standard classroom textbook. Heilbronner writes compellingly about the lives and times of the great economic thinkers from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek.
The Worldly Philosophers was published when capitalism was on the defensive against Communist ideals in a large part of the so-called Third World.
The Worldly Philosophers reveals our sunny national consensus that American Capitalism could work. Heilbronner wrote that Marx got part of his critique of Capitalism right. It tended to brutalize workers and contained the seeds of its own destruction. But American capitalism, tempered by “the idea of democracy [and] the idea of impartial government seeking to reconcile divergent interests” … “can continue to evolve and to adapt its institutions to the never-satisfied demands of social justice.”
By 2030 Heilbronner wrote “The new problem of society would be not how to find leisure, but how to cope with unprecedented quantities of it.” Heilbronner confidently predicted a shrinking distance between rich and poor largely because of “a deliberate attempt to limit wealth at the top by policies of progressive taxation.” Capitalism would be managed in such a way that its benefits would provide a decent life for everyone. How incredibly naive does that sound today, but it was our common understanding in the Fifties and well into the future.
As I headed off to college in 1953 our Country was still up for grabs.