The 1950s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News

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Editors: Julie L. Carnagie , Rob Nagel , Sara Pendergast , and Tom Pendergast
Date: 2003
UXL American Decades
From: UXL American Decades(Vol. 6: 1950-1959. )
Publisher: UXL
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 13
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1140L

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The 1950s Government, Politics, and Law: Topics in the News



The details surrounding the death of Emmett Till (1941–1955) offer vivid testimony to the racism that still ruled the South, and much of American society, during the 1950s.

In 1955, Till was a fourteen-year-old African American Chicago native who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. One August evening, he had an unfortunate run-in with the wife of a white grocery store owner. What exactly happened remains unclear. The woman claimed that Till grabbed her and made suggestive remarks. Some witnesses asserted that he just whistled at her, while others noted that Till routinely whistled to hide a speech defect. Several days later, the shopkeeper, his half-brother, and perhaps several others kidnapped Till from his relatives' home. He was severely beaten. His tormentors supposedly were angered to find a photo of a white woman in his wallet. They shot Till and tossed his body into a nearby river.

The shopkeeper and his brother were arrested and charged with murder. Their trial was heavy with racial tension. After deliberating for a little over an hour, an all-male, all-white jury found the defendants not guilty.

Several months later, the facts surrounding Till's death became public knowledge. William Bradford Huie (1910–1986), a white Alabama journalist, offered the defendants $4,000 to disclose what actually happened. They readily agreed, since they already had been acquitted of the crime and could not be retried. Huie's account was published in the January 26, 1956 issue of Look, a popular national magazine. In it, the men revealed how they had beaten and murdered Till. In death, Emmett Till became a martyr for the Civil Rights movement.

Emmett Till's racially charged murder was a rallying cry for the Civil Rights movement. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation. Emmett Till's racially charged murder was a rallying cry for the Civil Rights movement. Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation.


Beginning in the mid-1940s, at the end of World War II and continuing for decades, the United States and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) becamePage 75  |  Top of Article locked in a bloodless conflict that came to be known as the cold war. Each side was vying for an edge over the other, which resulted in their stockpiling nuclear weapons and establishing military alliances with countries across the globe. Pitted against each other were the Western-bloc countries, led by the United States, the democratic nations of Western Europe, and Japan; and the East, mostly comprised of nations with communist governments and led by the Soviet Union. China became involved in the cold war in 1949 when the Communists took power, driving the pro-West government to the island of Formosa (Taiwan).

The decision by the United States to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 might have ended World War II. However, the existence of such sophisticated and deadly weaponry meant that any potential future warfare might result in the complete destruction of civilization. In 1949, the Soviets exploded their own atomic bomb, ending the U.S. monopoly on nuclear armaments. Both sides then began developing the next generation of atomic weaponry: the more powerful hydrogen bomb. Warfare had taken on a new face. During the 1950s, it seemed that the United States might one day be going to war, and employing nuclear arms, against the Soviets.

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Bomb Shelters

During the 1950s, public fear about nuclear annihilation resulted in a boom in the construction of bomb shelters: heavily fortified homes away from home, or homes inside homes, in which families could protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack.

For five thousand dollars, which was quite expensive, you could transform the basement of your house into a spacious, insulated underground suite. These supposedly devastation-free living quarters came complete with all the amenities, including a Geiger counter to detect the presence of radiation.

However, given the reality of what civilization would be like in the wake of a nuclear war, many viewed bomb shelters as little more than "death traps."

In 1957, many Americans reacted with anxiety and dread when the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik, the world's first human-made satellite,Page 76  |  Top of Article into orbit. The popular assumption had been that the U.S.S.R. lagged behind the United States technologically, economically, and militarily. Now, one fact was unavoidable: the Soviet Union had beaten the United States into space. At a press conference, President Dwight Eisenhower

Four U.S. soldiers in combat during the Korean War. Four U.S. soldiers in combat during the Korean War.

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declared that Sputnik "does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota. I see nothing at this moment, at this stage of development, that is significant in that development as far as security is concerned." However, such words did little to soothe politicians, scientists, and average citizens. All were well aware that a Soviet satellite, which might possibly be armed with nuclear weapons, was flying over American airspace.


Although, no world power was compelled to use nuclear firepower during the decade, a shooting war did break out at the beginning of the decade in Korea, a 600-mile-long peninsula in East Asia that is bounded on the north by China and Russia. After World War II, Korea was divided in half, with Russia occupying the north and the United States controlling the south. The division was formalized in 1948. A war began two years later, after North Korea invaded South Korea. Opposing each other were forces representing the United Nations, mostly from the United States and South Korea, and those from North Korea and Communist China. The United States could have employed atomic weaponry to pound the communists. However, such an action might have provoked the Soviet Union, so no nuclear firepower was employed in Korea. In 1953, an armistice, or peace agreement, was signed, with neither side claiming victory.

Before the war began, the entire population of North and South Korea was approximately forty million people. It has been estimated that up to four million Koreans died in the war. Most were North Koreans, and most were civilians. Meanwhile, over thirty-three thousand American soldiers were killed in action and more than ninety-two thousand were wounded. Today, for the most part, the Korea conflict is regarded as a forgotten war.


As the Cold War heated up, a "Red Scare" enveloped the nation as millions of Americans feared that the Soviet Union and the communist-bloc countries were intent on world domination. During this period, a number of otherwise unknown or obscure Americans found themselves in the headlines, accused of unpatriotic acts against their country. One of the most publicized cases involved Alger Hiss (1904–1996), who in the 1940s was a high-level U.S. State Department official. In 1945, Hiss accompanied President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) to the Yalta Conference, where the Allied Powers made crucial agreements on their post-World War II policies. Hiss also was involved in setting up the groundwork for the creation of the United Nations. In these capacities, Hiss had access to classified documents pertaining to American national security.

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After the war, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigating alleged communist influences in Hollywood and the U.S government. In 1948, Whittaker Chambers (1901–1961), a Time magazine editor and former communist, testified before HUAC that, during the previous decade, Hiss had been a Communist Party member. Eventually, Chambers amended his story, alleging that Hiss had given him stolen government documents to pass on to the Soviet Union. Heading the HUAC subcommittee conducting the investigation was Richard Nixon (1913–1994), then a freshman Republican congressman. It was in this capacity that Nixon gained his first national attention.

Hiss was called before HUAC, where he denied Chambers's claims. He also sued Chambers for libel. Nonetheless, Hiss was convicted of two counts of perjury, and spent almost four years in prison. For the rest of his life, he denied his guilt and attempted to win back his reputation. Finally, in the 1990s, Russian historians produced evidence that proved Hiss's innocence; in 1992, a Russian general who had been in charge of Soviet intelligence even stated that Hiss had never been a spy. Others, however, still claim that Hiss was a Soviet operative.

As Hiss was dispatched to a jail cell, Whittaker Chambers authored Witness, a best-selling book published in 1952. He also became a respected conservative pundit. Richard Nixon, of course, was elected U.S. vice president in 1952, and president in 1968. While Alger Hiss's innocence or guilt remains a matter of debate, one fact is inarguable: He came to symbolize cold war tensions and anticommunist hysteria.


In the 1930s, Julius (1918–1953) and Ethel (1915–1953) Rosenberg became active members of the Communist Party. After the birth of their first child in 1943, they left the party and embraced a more family-oriented lifestyle.

During World War II, Ethel's brother, David Greenglass (1922–), worked as a machinist at Los Alamos, New Mexico, on the site of the Manhattan Project, the atom bomb research program. In 1950, Greenglass admitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that he had been involved in a plot to pass atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. He also claimed to have handed over documents to his sister. FBI agents promptly showed up at the Rosenbergs' Brooklyn, New York, home. Within two months, the couple was indicted by a grand jury for conspiracy to commit espionage. At their 1951 trial, no hard evidence against them was offered; however, they were implicated by several of their alleged confederates,Page 79  |  Top of Article including David Greenglass, who agreed to testify in exchange for immunity for his wife.

Throughout the trial, the Rosenbergs maintained their innocence. Yet they and a third defendant, Morton Sobell (1917–), were found guilty. Irving R. Kaufman (1910–1992), the judge on the case, proclaimed that the crime of which they had been convicted was "worse than murder." He condemned Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to die in the electric chair.

For two years, the Rosenbergs appealed their convictions. During this period, their case became international news, with demonstrators protesting the lack of evidence presented during the trial and the severity of the punishment. However, shortly after 8:00 P.M. on June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were electrocuted. (Sobell, meanwhile, was sentenced to a thirty-year jail term. He was released from prison in 1969, wrote his autobiography, On Doing Time [1974], and maintained his innocence. David Greenglass received a fifteen-year jail term. In the early 1990s, he was known to be living in Queens, New York, under an assumed name.)

Were the Rosenbergs guilty of espionage? Should they have been censured for an even more serious crime: treason? Or were they victimized by the "Red Scare" hysteria of the era and the fact that they once had been Communist Party members? Wherever the truth lies, several facts remain unquestionable: the Rosenbergs were found guilty based solely on circumstantial evidence; and the severity of their sentence reflected the mood of the era rather than the extent of the crime of which they had been convicted. To date, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg remain the lone American citizens ever to be put to death during peacetime for espionage. The Rosenberg case shows the solemn manner in which Americans regarded the two greatest fears of the 1950s: communism and the atom bomb.


No single figure is more associated with the "Red Scare" of the 1950s and with exploiting the nation's fears and paranoia than Joseph McCarthy (1909–1957). The junior senator from Wisconsin was elected to office in 1947. Three years later, he informed President Harry S Truman (1884–1972) that the U.S. State Department was filled with employees who were communists or communist sympathizers. In February 1950, he gave a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, in which he claimed to have in his possession the names of 205 known communists employed in the department. Later, while addressing the Senate, his numbers varied from between 57 and 205 communists. When challenged to offer specific names, McCarthy waffled. He responded that "it would be improper to make the names public until the appropriate Senate committee can meetPage 80  |  Top of Article in executive session and get them.… If we should label one man a communist when he is not a communist, I think it would be too bad."

Those who viewed McCarthy's tactics with suspicion felt that he was merely a self-promoter who was all too eager to revel in the publicity that came with his allegations. The senator survived his critics, however, and emerged as one of the most powerful and feared men in the United States. He played into the anxieties of Americans with regard to communist aggression, and few of his fellow politicians were inclined to denounce him. Before 1950, McCarthy had been an obscure senator whose political future was in doubt. Now, he became chairman of the Senate's Committee on Government Operations, charged with investigating petty violations within the federal government. McCarthy named himself head of the Permanent Investigations Subcommittee. Then he commenced a full-scale inquiry into alleged communist infiltration of the U.S. Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. In 1954, McCarthy conducted a televised investigation, which came to be known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings. McCarthy clashed on camera with Joseph Welch (1890–1960), the U.S. Army's counsel. At one point, the senator attacked a member of Welch's law firm, leading to Welch's famous rebuke: "Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?"

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"Talking Communism"

One evening in 1950, a year after the communist revolution in China, a Houston, Texas, couple dined in a Chinese restaurant. The woman, a radio writer, asked the restaurant owner several questions relating to a program she was producing on recent developments in China. A man seated nearby overheard the conversation and informed the police that the people were "talking communism." The couple found themselves arrested. They were jailed for fourteen hours before being released.

This was not an isolated incident. By 1957, government agencies had investigated almost six million individuals for alleged disloyalty to the United States, resulting in only a handful of dubious convictions.

McCarthy's televised antics turned the wave of public opinion against him. By the end of the year, he was condemned by his colleagues for "conductPage 81  |  Top of Article unbecoming a member of the United States Senate." No longer was he portrayed as a staunch protector of American democracy: he had been unmasked as a witch-hunter and a destroyer of the reputations of hundreds of individuals. McCarthy's influence diminished. Three years after the Army-McCarthy Hearings, Joseph McCarthy died of complications associated with alcoholism.


On the night of January 7, 1950, seven masked gunmen broke into the Boston offices of the Brink's armored car company. They tied up the guards and walked off with almost $2.8 million in cash, checks, and money orders. It was the largest amount stolen in a single robbery to date. The FBI labeled the holdup the "crime of the century" and solved it just eleven days before the statute of limitations (the date after which the robbers no longer could be prosecuted) ran out.

In November of that year, a small group of Puerto Rican nationalists violently protested the U.S. presence in their native land. Two of them, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, set out to assassinate President Truman. They almost succeeded. At the time, the White House was being renovated and Truman was residing in nearby Blair House. The would-be assassins entered Blair House and pulled a gun. In the ensuing fracas, Torresola was killed, along with Secret Service agent Leslie I. Coffelt. Collazo was condemned to death, but President Truman commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. He was freed in 1979.

Organized crime was in the headlines, beginning with the 1950 murder of two gangsters in a Kansas City, Missouri, Democratic Party clubhouse. In 1950 and 1951, Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver (1903–1963) chaired an investigative committee that set out to determine the extent of the power and influence of organized crime. Several underworld characters found themselves in the glare of the national spotlight. Among them: Frank Costello (1891–1973), a mob boss who agreed to testify only on condition that his face not be shown on television. The Kefauver hearings determined that organized crime was dominated by two syndicates, one headquartered in New York and the other based in Chicago.

The decade's other major federal crime investigation was carried out by the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor-Management Field, otherwise known as the McClellan committee. Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan (1896–1977) was the chair, and the committee's purpose was to look into allegations of corruption in the country's labor unions, specifically the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a trucker's union.

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One of the more intriguing of the decade's crime stories involved a thirty-one-year-old man who deposited his wife and two children at Los Angeles Municipal Airport in 1950. They were scheduled to fly to San Diego. In their luggage he packed a homemade time bomb that was set to explode when the plane was airborne. At the airport, he purchased $25,000 worth of life insurance on his family. His scheme was foiled when the suitcase burst into flames while being loaded onto the plane. Later he admitted that he was seeing another woman and paying child support to a third.

As late as the 1950s, some American judges still were employing peculiar methods to determine guilt or innocence and mete out justice. In 1951, a Charleston, South Carolina, magistrate balanced a Bible on the forefingers of a woman charged with theft. He then declared,

By Saint Peter, by Saint Paul
By the grace of God who made us all
If this woman took the money
Let the Bible fall.

The book fell, and, the defendant eventually admitted her guilt.

Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver chaired an investigative committee that set out to determine the extent of the power and influence of organized crime. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc. Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver chaired an investigative committee that set out to determine the extent of the power and influence of organized crime. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.

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During the 1950s, crime among adolescents rose significantly. In 1953, the FBI noted that, in statistics reported by 1,174 cities, young adults under the age of 18 were responsible for committing 53.6 percent of all car thefts, 49.3 percent of all burglaries, 18 percent of all robberies, and 16.2 percent of all rapes. A new term for troubled, criminally prone youths entered the language: "juvenile delinquents."

Finally, in 1950, the FBI initiated its "Ten Most Wanted" criminals list. It did so after the publication of a news account of the "toughest" criminals presently at large.


During the decade, the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections were the two primary political races. However, a host of major issues, both international and domestic, were in the spotlight during the decade's off-year elections.

The important questions during the 1950 congressional races were inflation (increasing prices) and the Korean War. In the red-baiting spirit of the day, the Republicans characterized their campaign against the Democrats as one of "Liberty against Socialism." They blamed the current president, Democrat Harry S Truman (1884–1972), for "losing China to the communists." Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969), then viewed as the front-runner for the 1952 Republican presidential nomination, claimed that America was suffering from a "creeping paralysis" resulting from the increased size of the federal government. The Democrats responded that, by criticizing Truman, the Republicans were compromising national security. The Democrats further lambasted the Republicans for ignoring the needs of farmers and schoolchildren by not supporting federal aid to agriculture and education.

The election ended with the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress. However, there were clear indications that the party's authority on the national political scene was loosening.


After spirited and hard-fought conventions, Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson emerged as their party's presidential candidates. (At this time presidential nominees were determined at national conventions rather than in primary elections.) The incumbent chief executive, Harry Truman, chose not to run for reelection. One reason was that his Gallup poll approval ratings had sunk to a dismal 30 percent.

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Candidate Eisenhower promised to balance the budget, end inflation, and end the Korean War, pledges that were very popular among voters. His running mate, Richard Nixon (1913–1994), alleged that the Democrat-controlled government was riddled with present and former communists. In response, Stevenson denounced witch-hunt politics and championed individual civil liberties, a daring stance given that many of his foes equated civil liberties with "commie rights."

Eisenhower's campaign staff craftily employed the new, popular medium of television to sell their candidate. In his campaign ads, Eisenhower delivered fifteen-second sound bites surrounding visuals of a robust and confident-looking nominee. Stevenson, an eloquent orator, despised television. He was not as carefully marketed to the public. In November, Eisenhower and his running mate Nixon coasted to an easy victory.

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Checkers Speech

During the 1952 election, Richard Nixon, the Republican vice presidential nominee, came under scrutiny for supposedly using an $18,000 campaign contribution for personal use. At stake were his political life and the outcome of the election. In a thirty-minute-long speech, viewed by a then-record 58,000,000 television viewers, Nixon discussed his financial assets and liabilities. In so doing, he portrayed himself as a normal American who had been the victim of a vicious slander.

During the speech, Nixon referred to Checkers, his family's pet dog. In mock seriousness, he explained that the dog had been a present from a Republican supporter. And guess what, Nixon was determined to keep Checkers. Some winced at Nixon's attempt to elicit sympathy, viewing it as corny. Others were struck by the nominee's pluck. After the speech, the Republican National Committee reported that it had received 300,000 letters and telegrams, almost all in support of Nixon.


A flourishing economy and a president whose Gallup poll approval rating hovered around 75 percent resulted in the Republicans taking a four-seat majority in the Senate and strike a balance with the Democrats in the House of Representatives. Republican candidates won voter favor byPage 85  |  Top of Article extolling the virtues of President Eisenhower and hitching the proverbial ride on his coattails, meaning that his popularity helped them win votes. The Korean War was over. The dollar was sound. The budget was in the process of being balanced. Furthermore, the Republicans claimed that the Democrats were soft on communism.


Dwight Eisenhower ran for reelection in 1956. Given his popularity, no one emerged to seriously question his candidacy. However, Eisenhower had come to believe that, if circumstances thrust him into the position, Richard Nixon was too politically immature to handle the presidency. The president urged his vice president to remove himself from the ticket. Eisenhower's special assistant Harold Stassen (1907–2001) even told the press that he was supporting Massachusetts Governor Christian A. Herter (1895–1966) as a Nixon replacement. But a majority of Republicans still favored Nixon, and he remained on the Republican ticket.

Again, Eisenhower's Democratic opponent was Adlai Stevenson, who had won a tough battle against other potential nominees. Among them were Tennessee's Estes Kefauver (1903–1963), Texas's Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973), Missouri's Stuart Symington (1901–1988), and New York's W. Averell Harriman (1891–1986), who was endorsed by former President Truman.

During the campaign, the Democrats attacked the Republicans for promoting racial segregation. They challenged Eisenhower to cease hydrogen bomb testing and called for an end to the military draft. Despite these issues, a Republican victory was pretty much a sure bet. Under Eisenhower, the inflation rate (the annual growth in the prices of goods and services) had been reduced to 1 percent. The middle class continued to expand. The president was as popular as ever; a March Gallup poll gave Eisenhower a 76 percent approval rating. The only concern was the heart attack that the sixty-five-year-old chief executive had suffered in September 1955. Although his doctors described it as "moderate," some Americans questioned Eisenhower's health and his ability to govern.

Nevertheless, on Election Day 1956, the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket again emerged victorious. It won by ten million votes, doubling the margin of victory achieved four years earlier.


In a nonpresidential (off-year) election that clearly mirrored the ups and downs of national party politics, the voters in 1958 handed the RepublicansPage 86  |  Top of Article their worst political defeat in more than a quarter-century. Democrats by the dozens won congressional seats, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans by a two-to-one margin in the Senate and House of Representatives.

The Democratic victories evolved from a national feeling that the country was losing the cold war and the space race, as evidenced by Soviet Russia's 1957 launching of the Sputnik satellite. Meanwhile, southern Democrats blamed the Eisenhower administration for forced integration, citing the president's commitment to send federal troops to insure the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. A surge in unemployment also hurt the Republicans.

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Government Versus Private Pay Scales

According to a 1955 report published in U.S. News & World Report, upper management employees primarily interested in fatter paychecks should not consider government service. Average 1955 salaries for government and corporate positions are compared below.

Topics in the News

Government Position Corporate Position
Cabinet Member: $22,500 Company President: $120,000
Bureau Head: $14,800 Executive Vice President: $80,000
Budget Director: $17,500 Comptroller: $35,000
Division Head: $12,030 Plant Manager: $25,000
Engineer: $9,360 Engineer: $19,600
Junior Engineer: $4,035 Junior Engineer: $4,300
Lawyer: $7,960 Lawyer: $8,700
Payroll Clerk $3,700 Payroll Clerk: $3,200
Typist: $3,175 Typist: $2,912

For the first time in his presidency, Eisenhower found himself vulnerable to widespread criticism, and Republicans in general were on the defensive at election time. Ironically, Eisenhower himself emerged from the 1958 elections with a stronger power base. The voting purged his party of many who had opposed his foreign policy initiatives. Despite their differences over integration, Eisenhower had much in common with conservative southern Democrats. Both wanted a balanced federal budget, a decrease in defense spending, and no additional social programs.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3436900311