Origins of Post-War Anxiety


Potsdam Conference (July 17ľAug. 2, 1945), the Bomb, and the beginning of the Cold War

The Big Three

U.S. President Truman casually told Stalin at this conference that the United States had a new and very powerful bomb. What he failed to mention was that the bomb was atomic (this was a deliberate omission), and at the time, the significance of this development seemed to escape Stalin. Of course Soviet sources have since claimed that Stalin had understood, but was trying to play dumb so that Truman would not know that he knew. Either way, with World War II winding down, the lines for the Cold War were drawn and both leaders knew it.

Though the U.S.S.R. did not succeed in building an atom bomb until 1949, fear of nuclear war mounted in the years after World War II. The Lady from Shanghai (1948) reflected the not-so-far-fetched fear of many, when Mr. Bannister's half-crazed law partner tells Mike that he plans to move to a small island in the Pacific, where he will survive when "they" start nuking the big cities. According to the L.A. Times October 10, 1945, Secretary of War Patterson told Congress, "we may be passing a sentence of death on the future of our country and the entire world. The average American was helplessly at the mercy of these larger international forces. Likewise, film noir protagonists are often depicted as having little or no control over their own lives.

To give themselves the illusion of control, many Americans constructed bomb shelters and conducted bomb scare drills in schools ("duck and cover"). Of course, none of these methods would be at all effective in the event of nuclear war--no amount of covering your head is going to offer protection from radiation.

Women in the Workforce

During World War II, women had entered the workforce in droves. In fact, they were encouraged to do so. The Office of War Information initiated propaganda campains to advertise that it the women's patriotic duty. The female labor force increased by 6.5 million women, or about 57 percent, for a total of 20 million women in the workforce by 1945.
(Krutnik, 57) This was seen as conducive to national unity, and not individual women trying to better themselves. The screwball comedies of the 1930s had portrayed female entrance into the work force as eccentric non-conformism, now it meant the "willing renunciation of individual desire and the concept of an overarching sense of duty (Krutnik, 58)." Hollywood expressed this sentiment for men in war movies such as Bataan showed men working together as a combat unit. This was not a good time for heroic individualism. Though there were some films noir produced during the war, e.g. The Maltese Falcon in 1941, the misogynistic tone of these did not sit well with the increasingly female audience on the home front.

In 1944, Noir made a comeback (most notably with Double Indemnity). Historian Michael Renov attributes this reemergence to the U.S. realization that the Allied Forces were definitely going to win the war; now more attention could be paid to the problems we would face in the postwar era. Renov notes that the government agencies' memoranda were already showing that "the female work force was being termed 'excess labour' and efforts were being made to induce voluntary withdrawal."
(Krutnik, 59) This attitude was also increasingly propitiated through newspaper editorials and magazine articles.

Not all women went back into the home. Many married women remained in the workforce in order to support their husbands through college. The GI Bill "fostered employment for wives by offering men incentives to stay in school but paying family allowances so low that wives needed to work in order to supplement them. Married women comprised the majority of the growth of the female work force throughout the 1950s." Domesticity for women was a middle class ideal that not all could afford to live up to.
(Coontz, 161)

Cult of Domesticity

In spite of its often impossibility, domesticity remained the ideal for women. Alternatives to this were few, as women were excluded from several professions, and in some states denied control over their finances. "All women, even seemingly docile ones, were deeply mistrusted. They were frequently denied the right to serve on juries, convey property, make contracts, take out credit cards in their own name, or establish residence."
(Coontz, 32) Movie stars were expected not only to propagandize the ideal, but also maintain the squeaky-clean image expected of it. Even leading ladies like Joan Crawford were "now pictured as a devoted mother whose sex appeal did not prevent her from doing her own housework. She posed for pictures mopping floors and gave interviews about her childrearing philosophy." (Coontz, 28)

Women who did not conform to these standards were often given psychiatric help, such as electroshock therapy. According to Coontz, a 1954 Esquire article called working wives a "menace". The strategy of films noir for dealing with the problem was to both villanize and eroticize women. Women were thus simultaneously victimizing men, as well as being objectified by them.

The men aboard the Enola Gay supposedly taped a picture of Rita Hayworth onto the bomb before they dropped it. This may be only urban legend, but it does draw an interesting psychic connection between the threat of women and the threat of the atom bomb that is particularly relevant to film noir. Both are eroticized and powerful.

Men, too, faced pressure to conform to the domestic ideal. Coontz reports that bachelors were characterized "as 'immature', 'infantile', 'narcissistic', 'deviant', or even 'pathological'."
(Coontz, 33) Americans viewed the family as the last defense against Communism, and those who refused to marry and live normal family lives were at best foregoing a duty, and highly suspect. "The FBI and other government agencies instituted unprecedented state intrusion into private life under the guise of investigating subversives." (Coontz, 33)

The 'Burbs and the Baby Boom

Everyone wanted his own house in suburbia. (New Yorker, 1947)

When the GIs returned from the war, family size expanded for the first time since before the Great Depression. This was the baby boom. There was not enough housing to fill the needs of the expanding population. As the only country to come out of World War II with its shirt on, the United States had huge economic potential that was quickly tapped. Commodities that had not been available during the war rationing, were available now, and everybody was buying. This included housing, and suburbs sprang up to accomdadate. One of the first efficient middle-class housing developments was Levittown, on Long Island. (It was called 'Levittown', after its entrepreneurial architects, the Levits.)

A typical 1950's international-style house with flattened
roof and boxy dimensions. Uniformity was key.

The American dream was wedded to the middle class suburban life-style. White Americans moved to the suburbs in droves, leaving the cities to crumble. The cities were increasingly viewed as undesirable and unsafe places to raise a family. There was more space in the suburbs-- but only if you were white. Black Americans were not allowed to move into the suburbs. There were several instances when a black family tried to move into one of these planned communities and was soundly rebuffed.

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