Attention Donald Trump: Here’s what life was really like in the United States in 1953

The Thinker by Rodin

Over the last few days I’ve learned that President Elect Trump wants to take us back to 1953. That apparently was when American was last great again. Trump was also seven years old in 1953, so it probably did look pretty good from the childish eyes of a boy of privilege. In 1953, the Trump family was living in a faux two-story Tudor house in Jamaica Estates in Queens, New York. At the time of the 1950 census, Queens was 96% white. It’s likely that his house on the Midland Parkway was even more so white, if that’s possible.

It should be obvious that we can’t rewind this country sixty-three years. In 1950, there were 161 million American. Today there is nearly twice that many. In 1950, whites were 87% of the population. The 2010 census puts whites at 64% of the population. Curiously there are some parallels between 1953 and 2016. Democratic president Truman had retired and Republican Dwight Eisenhower came into office. Republicans controlled 48 seats in the Senate, which gave them the majority since Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states. Republicans also controlled the House by a margin of eight seats. With Eisenhower’s election, Republicans had a lock on Congress, but not a filibuster-proof Senate, just like today.

Eisenhower of course was no Trump, except in the sense that neither had held elective office before. However, Eisenhower had been the Allied Supreme Commander in Europe during the Second World War, so he was hardly unfamiliar with government. In 1953 though Republicans were anxious to reassert power, having been out of the White House for twenty years. Still, 1953 wasn’t quite as wonderful and conservative as Republicans would have you believe. It was the year of the first sex reassignment surgery (Christine Jorgensen).

In 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for alleged spying for the Soviet Union, charges still in dispute. The Korean War ended in 1953, but was never settled. It ended only when President Eisenhower, channeling a war-weary America, threatened to nuke North Korea if they did not agree to end it. Other signs of the new more liberal age on the horizon were easy to find. The second Albert Kinsey book (on the sexuality of women, which was news to many that women were even sexual creatures) was released. Hugh Hefner released the first copy of Playboy magazine.

On the international front, the spread of communism was a huge concern in 1953. Truman, as one of his last acts, announced that we had developed the hydrogen bomb. This one-upped the U.S. in the nuclear arms race, at least for a while. Joseph Stalin, the dictator running the Soviet Union died in 1953 to be succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev. We were in the middle of the second Red scare, which put the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee into overdrive, the latter chaired by the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Mere allegations of being a communist sympathizer were enough to get you blacklisted, which ended the careers of countless people. Today now that Republicans are in charge again some in Congress are calling for the resumption of the HUAC.

With Trump’s election of course concern about communism, or at least about Russia as our foe, seem to be over. This is despite evidence that Russia interfered with our latest election. Trump seems anxious to close this chapter in our history. It’s unclear if he will succeed, as at least some Republican senators want an inquiry into their hacking. Given Trump’s protestations it’s much more likely than not that there is a roaring fire under this smoldering pile.

Was America great in 1953? The Cold Wars with the Soviet Union and China were the major problems of that time as was checking the spread of communism. In that sense with the Cold War’s end in the 1990s America was more ascendant than in the 1950s. By empowering Russia, Trump risks starting it all over again. It’s completely fair to criticize Trump for this initiative, as it is likely to fracture NATO and potentially end the peace Europe has known since the Second World War. In 1953, the Marshall Plan was ending. Our investment in Europe brought it not only a Cold War peace but also prosperity to a rebuilt and newly democratic Europe. Our troops in Japan ensured it did not become a rival power again. Troops in Korea checked the spread of communism there. Today Trump wants to withdraw our investments in foreign countries. Our lessons in 1953 suggest this would be deeply counterproductive.

Segregation was a fact of life in 1953, something Trump tacitly approves of. The Brown v. Board of Education decision that would declare that separately funded schools for minorities were unconstitutional was still a year away. President Truman integrated our armed forces before leaving office. The Ku Klux Klan was ascendant, and not just in the south. The headquarters of the KKK was just eight miles from where I live now, in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The John Birch Society was on the rise as well, an organization that would not look unfamiliar to the Tea Party.

Both women and blacks could vote, but voter suppression of minorities was extreme, mostly in Southern states. It would take more than a decade for the Civil Rights Act to pass Congress. Women were more likely to be home raising children than in the workplace in 1953. This was not true though if you were a single woman or poor. You worked, mostly at menial jobs that paid far less than what a man earned. But the Rosie Riveters in World War Two planted the roots of women’s liberation in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s pretty clear that neither Trump nor Republicans in Congress want to revert to the tax rates of the time. Our enormous prosperity was powered by tax rates that now seem astounding. The top tax rate was 92% of income, and corporate tax rates reached 50%. Eisenhower and Republicans were successful in cutting the top tax rate … to 91%. It was this redistribution of wealth that really powered America in the 1950s. It did things like build our interstate highway system by unleashing this money for productive uses. If Trump were serious about making America great again, he would be raising tax rates, not cutting them.

America was certainly a whiter place in 1950, but hardly a happy place. There were two major recessions in the 1950s. Pollution was unchecked. Some Americans escaped by toking on marijuana, but it was more of a fringe activity. Alcohol was the escape of choice for most. Chastity was hardly the norm in the 1950s, but illicit sex was more discreet. Homosexuals were largely in the closet but had learned to congregate in gay bars. AIDS was unknown but syphilis and gonorrhea were common. The extent of birth control was largely the condom, if you could find any. Abortion was available, just illicitly.

TV was something of a novelty in 1953, but those who had one were tuned into watching The Lucy Show. More people were listening to radio. PBS was not a thing in 1953. Cable TV did not exist. If you had TV, you were limited to ABC, NBC and CBS stations and sometimes not even those. Transistors were still in the lab; vacuum tubes were the state of high technology.

By most metrics the United States today is a much better place than it was in 1953, just a lot less white. Americans were more prosperous in general back then, largely because high marginal tax rates meant income inequality was not much of a thing. About 25% of workers belonged to unions. Just 10% do today.

It’s quite clear that Trump’s plans are likely only to bring back some of the worst aspects of those times, and little of its best aspects. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.