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The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good

The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good

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The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good

999 pagine
13 ore
Nov 14, 2017


A sweeping and path-breaking history of the post–World War II decades, during which an activist federal government guided the country toward the first real flowering of the American Dream.

In The Gifted Generation, historian David Goldfield examines the generation immediately after World War II and argues that the federal government was instrumental in the great economic, social, and environmental progress of the era. Following the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation, the returning vets and their children took the unprecedented economic growth and federal activism to new heights. This generation was led by presidents who believed in the commonwealth ideal: the belief that federal legislation, by encouraging individual opportunity, would result in the betterment of the entire nation. In the years after the war, these presidents created an outpouring of federal legislation that changed how and where people lived, their access to higher education, and their stewardship of the environment. They also spearheaded historic efforts to level the playing field for minorities, women and immigrants. But this dynamic did not last, and Goldfield shows how the shrinking of the federal government shut subsequent generations off from those gifts.

David Goldfield brings this unprecedented surge in American legislative and cultural history to life as he explores the presidencies of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon Baines Johnson. He brilliantly shows how the nation's leaders persevered to create the conditions for the most gifted generation in U.S. history.
Nov 14, 2017

Informazioni sull'autore

David Goldfield is the Robert Lee Bailey Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is the author of many works and textbooks on Southern history, including Still Fighting the Civil War, Southern Histories, Black, White and Southern, and Promised Land.

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The Gifted Generation - David Goldfield

For Abigail Sofia


The American Journey: A History of the United States

America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation

Black, White, and Southern: Race Relations and Southern Culture, 1940 to the Present

Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History

Twentieth-Century America

Region, Race, and Cities: Interpreting the Urban South


Introduction: Good Government

Part I: Crossing the Meridian

1 Moving

2 Pioneers

3 The Plowboy

4 To Secure These Rights

5 South by North

6 The Scarlet Letter

7 The Endless Frontier

8 To Hell with Jews, Jesuits, and Steamships!

Part II: Settlement

9 The Swedish Jew

10 The Wheels of Justice

11 Yesterday

12 Tomorrow

13 Steps

14 Confidence

Part III: Gifts

15 The Cowboy

16 Interlude

17 Being Lincoln

18 Patrimony

19 A Woman’s World

20 The Great American Breakthrough

21 Blood

Part IV: The Great Regression

22 Party Lines

23 The Populist Moment

24 Stall

25 The Color Line

26 The Old Country

27 The Great Regression






A Note on the Author



This book is about the first boomers—the gifted generation—born into America in the 1940s and early 1950s, and the gifts they received from government. Thanks to federal policies that eased the way for their parents and made achievement more realizable for themselves, they were twice as likely as their parents to attend college, also aided by the federal government. The boom economy after World War II hummed along in great part because of their needs: food, clothing, education, electronics, toys, and housing and everything that could go into a home from air-conditioning units to dishwashers to vacuum cleaners. Their educational attainments fueled the transformation of the nation’s economy and spurred innovation and invention. The gifts kept on giving, not only to the gifted generation and their offspring, but also to the commonwealth.

What I call the commonwealth ideal defined governance in the United States during the first two decades after World War II. The ideal followed three basic principles of governance. First, government should enhance opportunities for all Americans. By benefiting individuals, public policy enhanced the commonwealth, in turn freeing its citizens to pursue their dreams. Second, the ideal charged government with the responsibility of balancing competing interests—individuals, business and industry, and government itself—to benefit the nation. Third, the commonwealth ideal required obedience to the rule of law. The constitution, as interpreted by the federal judiciary, serves as the ultimate guarantor of equality before the law.

The ideal worked best when citizens believed the government kept their interests paramount. That was the case during the Great Depression and World War II. Once those crises ended, maintaining the commonwealth ideal became more difficult. Yet, for a remarkable twenty-year period following the war, the federal government did just that. Three presidents—Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson, of similar family and geographic backgrounds, and each shaped by depression and war, expanded opportunities for a broad cross section of Americans, who, in turn, produced an era of prosperity and innovation. Public policy provided the gifts, and Americans, especially those of the gifted generation, ran with them.

Government responded to the changing circumstances of American life: the baby boom, an economy transitioning to a postindustrial society, and the growing awareness that significant segments of the population—the poor, women, African Americans, and ethnic and religious minorities—encountered too many obstacles on the journey toward reaching their full potential. Major government initiatives in education, research, civil rights, welfare, and immigration followed. These were not merely top-down measures. Consciousness-raising books on gender, the environment, and poverty spurred federal action as well. Key legislation involved collaborations among organizations, individual citizens, and the government. Their combined efforts, marshaled by forward-looking presidents, created a more equitable, inclusive, and educated America. Government was indeed good. It was hardly surprising that, by the mid-1960s, nearly 80 percent of Americans believed that to be the case, compared with less than 20 percent in 2015. The gifted generation was indeed blessed.¹

Generation is an amorphous concept. The two most common dictionary definitions—a group of individuals born and living contemporaneously or the span of time between the birth of parents and that of their offspring—are, respectively, vague and fluid. The phrase baby boom generation is similarly indeterminate. The U.S. Census Bureau set the boundaries of that generation between 1946 and 1964, supposedly based on birthrate statistics. But those born at the beginning of the boom and those toward the end grew up in very different circumstances.²

The baby boom actually began in the early 1940s, perhaps as soon as 1940, when births spiked. Popular magazines at the end of World War II were already touting an ongoing boom, which they traced back to 1941. By 1943, demographers were identifying a baby boom, citing that year’s record crop of babies, which followed high birthrates the previous three years. They attributed the rapid rise in the birth rate to the return of prosperity and the exigencies of war.³

Recently, demographers have further challenged the Census’s 1946 starting year for the boom by questioning the usual explanation for the boom: prosperity and the pent-up demand for marriage and family. Prosperity was already evident by 1940 as the United States geared up for the war. Marriages spiked as well in the early 1940s, indicating the desire to begin a family before men went off to war. The boom, in other words, began well before 1946. Walter T. K. Nugent, who has studied the boomers perhaps more than any other historian, concluded, Conventional wisdom starts the baby boom in 1946. That’s erroneous … Bedroom behavior changed at the beginning of World War II, not after it ended.

The first boomers were more than a cohort of a larger group. They were distinctive in numbers, experience, and impact. Thirty-two million babies were born during the 1940s, a 25 percent increase over the previous decade, the largest jump in American history to that point. Their influence on culture, the economy, and, ultimately, the political process announced the emergence of a new generation, a term I use with the caveats noted above, but also because the size and influence of the early boomers justify the designation.

The first wave of baby boomers had very different trajectories from the boomers born from the mid-1950s onward. The early boomers grew up in the 1950s, entered college at the beginning of the 1960s, and by the end of that decade embarked on a variety of careers, many of which did not exist at the time they were in high school. Journalists and demographers have abandoned any pretense that the early boomers and the late boomers shared anything except the Census definition of the boomer generation.

Journalist Richard Pérez-Peña argued that the boomer generation had two distinct halves: Boomer Classic and Boomer Reboot, with the latter born in the mid-1950s and after, and coming of age in the early 1970s, a very different time from the early 1960s, when the postwar idealism of limitless progress and equality prevailed. Boomer Reboot also faced three recessions between 1973 and 1982, two energy crises, inflation, and high unemployment. Teacher Jean O’Brien, recalling her students at Palisades High School in Santa Monica, California, between 1965 and 1975, termed that decade the saddest years of the century. The expectations of the students were as high as their predecessors’, perhaps even higher, she related. But the promise of the early years dissolved.

The unbounded belief carried by the early boomers—the gifted generation—that they would find not only meaningful work but also a fulfilling life began to recede by the 1970s. The early boomers took a prosperous economy for granted, which enabled them to pursue nothing less than the reformation of the nation in civil rights, immigration, medical care, gender equity, and environmental protection. Federal policies that expanded the economy and encouraged broader participation from heretofore marginalized groups helped to fuel both prosperity and confidence.

The federal role was crucial. The stories and successes of the gifted generation—and of the nation—are inseparable from the activist state. The New Deal had provided a model of how government could help a struggling population in the midst of the worst economic crisis in its history. But the New Deal was narrow in other respects, particularly with regard to race. The administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson not only preserved the gains of the New Deal, but they also expanded its programs, added new ones, and welcomed the participation of people whose race, ethnic or religious backgrounds, and gender had restricted success for themselves and, therefore, for the nation.

The expansive view of federal power did not come easily. Franklin D. Roosevelt entered office a strong advocate of balanced budgets. But the exigencies of the Great Depression required the abandonment of traditional economic views. Truman and Johnson came to Washington during the 1930s and observed firsthand the benefits of an active government for common men and women. Eisenhower, serving in the military, cheered Roosevelt’s New Deal as an opportunity to cleanse the government of forces inimical to the nation’s well-being. The positive results fixed their belief that a modern economy required some government direction and involvement.

British economist John Maynard Keynes argued during the 1920s and 1930s that government spending increased demand and boosted consumption, creating a cycle of prosperity. That cycle kept wages from falling, enabling workers to maintain strong demands for goods and services. In this view, wages were less a cost than an asset. A strong labor market ensured a healthy national economy.

Keynes’s insights derived from his understanding of the modern economy. It had grown so complex and interconnected globally that the operation of the market alone could not guarantee prosperity or even a measure of equity. Government intervention was necessary to balance competing interests and maintain a strong level of employment. To achieve this balance, Keynes advocated major public works investments as a strategy to keep wages level. He understood that such activities would create deficits. But the ensuing prosperity would overcome the debt.

Keynes also believed, without contradiction, in free markets. The tendency of modern business and capital was toward concentration and away from competitive free enterprise. Government’s role was to maintain a competitive economy, which meant guarding against concentration. While consolidation brought efficiencies, it also created the danger of wage decline and inflation, both of which would harm the overall economy. Keynes’s thinking on this point would find resonance with a young American political historian and presidential adviser, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who compared government to an umpire. Government would not direct play, but would enforce the rules ensuring a level playing field for everyone, from the great corporation to the minimum-wage earner.

The balance between public and private enterprise would ultimately be a political decision. Its resolution went to the heart of a democratic society. As Keynes noted, The political problem of mankind is to combine three things: economic efficiency, social justice and individual liberty. In the two decades after World War II, the nation’s political leadership, particularly the three presidents, sought to create and perpetuate this combination. Keynes’s three things were, of course, interconnected. Individual liberty would flourish in a strong economy that tilted toward social justice.

The architects of deregulation from Ronald Reagan forward assumed that unfettered capitalism produced a vibrant economy. To the contrary, it generated instability and, eventually, serious disruption. As Keynes asserted, When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. He became a staunch proponent of government regulations to rein in unfettered capitalism. Keynes wrote, The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all. Eighty years earlier, Abraham Lincoln said much the same thing: The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities. Dwight D. Eisenhower employed the Lincoln quote often, usually to fend off conservative critics. Truman and Johnson practiced it. And all employed the standard to expand the role of government.¹⁰

Princeton sociologist Paul Starr argued that democracy relies on the ability of political power to control strictly economic forces. In other words, a good government not only promotes prosperity but also preserves liberty. It balances the people’s interest with the corporate sector’s. Citing the Progressive period, Starr noted that the era’s legislation was a common recognition—a collective revulsion against the privileges of great wealth allied with great power. Government became the countervailing power on behalf of the people.¹¹

What government became in the decades after the 1970s was a partner in a coalition with corporations and Wall Street, providing deregulatory cover and a favorable tax structure. The commonwealth ideal disappeared. The Keynesian view adopted by Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson understood that the era of small businesses and cottage industries had long disappeared, and that an active government was necessary to rein in the formidable power of the corporation and protect the interests of the people by keeping the doors of opportunity open. Their administrations bolstered labor unions and promoted the Keynesian management of the economy, and they undertook great projects such as the interstate highway system, the conquest of disease, and the guarantee of civil rights. The government expanded educational, scientific, and technological opportunities and, through its regulatory initiatives, ensured safe food and drugs and cleaner air and water. These enterprises were beyond the capability and means of individuals and corporations. They were, therefore, appropriate projects for government. The federal government during these postwar years seemed to be following city planner Daniel Burnham’s dictum Make no little plans. Government was bold; government was innovative; government was good.¹²

The three presidents played a major role in moving the government to extend the pursuit of happiness to a broader population. They often worked against members of their respective parties. The presidents also sometimes pulled against prevailing public opinion, particularly with respect to their civil rights and immigration initiatives. A majority of Americans did not clamor for civil rights in the years immediately following World War II. They did not demand gender equity, a clean environment, or medical care for the aged. They voiced strong disapproval to loosening immigration laws and expressed concerns about federal intrusion into elementary and secondary education. The presidents used their pulpit, their influence with lawmakers, and their rhetoric to place these issues on the legislative agenda.

All three presidents were nineteenth-century men, though Johnson was born in 1908. They grew up in economically troubled families, in small towns and on farms in borderland areas, and with strong, well-educated, and doting mothers. The basic history they learned at school shaped their views. For Truman and Johnson, William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner from Nebraska, was a hero. For Eisenhower it was Abraham Lincoln. The three presidents had a clear sense of what government could do, and, more important, what it ought to do. They preferred to look forward, not back to some golden era. Nostalgia irritated them, though they were keen students of history. And because of that historical knowledge, they had a good sense of where America ought to be heading.

The presidents had long careers in public service before entering the White House. Two of the presidents attained the highest office initially by accident, and the other entered the White House with no experience in elective office. These circumstances likely enhanced the freedom they felt to engage in visionary thinking and in advocating policies that looked ahead to a more inclusive nation rather than back to a more recognizable but restrictive past. They drew upon values from their own pasts to forge a future befitting a modern and diverse society.

The gifts of a good government stimulated innovation, freedom, and upward mobility for millions of Americans in the postwar era. Not equally, but sufficiently so that America in 1970 bore little resemblance to the nation emerging from World War II in 1945. An accessible and affordable college education, a cornucopia of new jobs in a vibrant, transforming economy, universal health care for the elderly, and the conquest of the summer scourge of polio created the best educated, most affluent, most inclusive, and healthiest Americans ever. The results were beneficial for the gifted generation and for the nation as a whole. Individual success enhanced the collective. They were mutually reinforcing. That was one of the key features of the commonwealth ideal.¹³

The federal government did not guarantee success for the gifted generation. But it opened opportunities for Americans first and foremost by securing the basic needs of food, security, jobs, and shelter. The government created the beneficial context within which individuals could reach their greatest potential. Striving for what was now suddenly attainable, these early boomers closed the gap between what was and what ought to be. Their horizons expanded and so did their accomplishments. A sense of liberation accompanied these advances—liberation from traditional stereotypes and taboos; liberation from norms that prescribed specific roles for different groups; and liberation from orthodoxy, be it political, cultural, or religious, that constrained human actions and interactions.¹⁴

The brief interview excerpts in this book derive primarily, but not exclusively, from Brooklyn’s Samuel J. Tilden High School class of 1961. Class members were born between 1943 and 1945, squarely in the time frame of the gifted generation. The interviews do not comprise a scientific sample, but are merely examples of first- and second-generation American kids who benefited from the gifts of the postwar era. They excelled not only in academics but also in artistic and musical pursuits, which they combined with their professional careers. They applied that creativity to those careers, innovating in science, technology, and finance.

The high school was named after failed Democratic presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden. In typical Brooklyn fashion, that failure had been spectacular. Tilden won the popular vote in the 1876 presidential election, but through Republican chicanery lost the electoral vote. Tilden, therefore, was not merely a loser, but a tragic casualty of the Reconstruction era. I can never recall an instance when either faculty or students ever referred to his Republican opponent other than as Rutherfraud B. Hayes. For long-suffering Dodger fans and for all of us who experienced the condescension of Manhattanites, this unusual historical event generated a melancholy pride.

Tilden High was firmly rooted in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Many of the students’ parents had moved to the area just after World War II. It was part of the odyssey that Russian Jewish and Italian immigrants or their offspring undertook from New York’s Lower East Side to Brownsville in Brooklyn, and then to East Flatbush. It was an aspirational middle-class to lower-middle-class neighborhood, and it included some public housing as well. The Dutch Reformed Church, where we held our Cub Scout meetings, was a lingering remnant of a time when the area comprised larger homesteads and farms. Synagogues, Jewish community centers, and Roman Catholic schools and churches became the dominant institutions of the district, along with Tilden High.

A few Protestants attended Tilden High, and I met one during my three years of attendance. Of the five thousand students who enrolled in Tilden in the early 1960s, 97.9 percent were either Jewish or Italian, by one estimate. By the time we reached high school, and likely before, all of us understood that white Protestant men ran the country—dominated its politics, its major corporations, its elite educational institutions, and the clubs that perpetuated that power. Many of us knew firsthand how these folks discriminated against blacks, Jews, and Italians, which is why we understood that we had to be not only as good, but better. Which fit in well with the chip-on-their-shoulder attitude of Brooklynites.

I recall many of us crowding into a square near Eastern Parkway and Utica Avenue in Brooklyn on a cool fall evening in 1960 to hear and see candidate John F. Kennedy campaign for the presidency. It was exhilarating to contemplate the possibility that one of us—for that is how we viewed Kennedy—could actually become president of the United States. There, on the makeshift wooden platform, sat Congressman Victor Anfuso, born in Sicily, and Congressman Manny Celler, whose grandparents were respectively Jewish and Catholic German immigrants. These were our people, and it suddenly seemed as if a barrier had been breached. It was the beginning of many such breaches in that wonderful decade. We did our part. But we also had an active and resourceful government at our backs.¹⁵

In 2006, the New York City Department of Education declared Tilden High a failed school and it ceased to exist as a high school. It was a cruel irony considering how important it was for the strivers of the postwar era and how many notables it turned out, such as labor leader Victor Gotbaum, White House counsel Leonard Garment, baseball star Willie Randolph, civil rights leader Al Sharpton, and the numerous less well-known but equally accomplished former students whose stories appear in this book. Three smaller experimental schools filled the space, but in 2010, Tilden closed its doors for good.

Tilden is a metaphor for what has happened since those promising years in the two decades after World War II. Experts explain such events in terms of demographic changes, disintegrating family structures, and economic transformations not only in Brooklyn, but across urban America. But it is also an indictment of our public policy during the past forty years.¹⁶

By the late 1960s, the great surge of government programs, expanded opportunities, and the confidence they generated were subsiding. The commonwealth ideal did not go uncontested during the preceding twenty years, and challenges increased significantly in the 1960s. Since FDR’s second term, a coalition of Southern Democrats and conservative Republicans had battled federal initiatives. Southern Democrats fought to keep the definition of citizenship in their jurisdictions to whites only. Conservative Republicans, perennially suspicious of government and wary of ethnic and religious diversity, joined in opposition to the commonwealth ideal. They supported restrictions on immigration and labor and opposed many federal initiatives such as the G.I. Bill, major infrastructure projects, health-care assistance, aid to education and scientific research, and environmental protection on both budgetary and philosophical grounds. Religious conservatives rebelled at perceived assaults on traditional gender roles, the banishment of religion from public life, and court decisions against school prayer. Ultimately these factions would coalesce in a restructured Republican Party by the 1970s.

The racial disturbances that rocked the nation’s major cities between 1964 and 1968, and the growing opposition to the Vietnam War from 1965 onward, deepened the growing national divide and expanded the opposition to an activist federal government and diminished trust in that government. Older, conservative Americans, including the white working class that, initially at least, did not identify either with Southern Democrats or conservative Republicans, reacted sharply to what they saw as a descent into chaos and a threat to patriotism.

The very size and consequent influence of the early boomers also grated on some older Americans. In education, income, and homeownership, the gifted generation exceeded their predecessors, especially in the nation’s metropolitan areas. The declension of the industrial heartland, the growing assertiveness and visibility of blacks, women, and religious minorities, and the loosening (or disappearance) of cultural standards fueled the conservative backlash. Rather than a momentary flare of resentment, these sentiments would persist into the next century. The Republicans exploited it, and the Democrats did little to heal it.

In January 1967, Time magazine honored the Under-25 Generation as its Man of the Year. From the vantage point of a half century later, the magazine’s predictions that the gifted generation would land on the moon, cure cancer and the common cold, lay out blight-proof, smog-free cities, help end racial prejudice, enrich the underdeveloped world, and write an end to poverty and war seem a bit over the top. But Time’s editors were likely playing it straight. Only the moon landing would come true, but the other milestones seemed within reach based on what had occurred over the previous twenty years. Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, these other objectives remain elusive, but the saddest assessment is that we seemed to have stopped trying.¹⁷

The road map to recapture the faith in good government exists. Consider a sampling of what public policy has accomplished since the end of World War II in expanding and creating vast opportunities: supporting medical, scientific, and technological innovation, improving the environment, providing safeguards against discrimination in the workplace and housing, guaranteeing security for seniors, and mandating improvements in workplace, car, and aviation safety. These and other initiatives have made America a better place and made many in America more hopeful. An optimistic nation is a nation that will thrive. The proof is in the past.

The gifted generation grew up in this era of confidence, embracing the disruption of change, not the leaden weight of a static past. They grew up in a nation expanding both economically and morally. The old precept of work hard and get ahead moved from proverb to promise. None of the stories chronicled here concern individuals born into privilege. What they were born into were families (typically whole and extended), religious institutions, neighborhoods, good public schools, and an activist federal government. These were the first of many gifts they received. Upward mobility was not a dream; it was an expectation.

In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams published a one-volume history of the United States, The Epic of America, in which he coined the phrase the American dream. He defined it as a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. In 1945 this noble ideal was not yet a reality in America. Adams himself admitted that the dream has been realized … very imperfectly … among ourselves.¹⁸

Minorities confronted varying obstacles toward fulfilling that dream. Gays could remain hidden, Jews and Catholics could change names or life stories, women faced legal and cultural constraints not so easily circumvented, and black Americans lived the most confined lives, limited by the racism that resided at the core of many of our institutions, including the government, and in the actions of white Americans. By 1970, many barriers to full participation in American life for all citizens were lowered, and some erased entirely. Although many individuals contributed to this outcome, the major engine of this transformation was the federal government.

The gift Americans and their government passed along to their children was what journalist George Packer called the great leveling, the creation of opportunities for a wider portion of the American population than had heretofore been the case. As Packer noted, state universities, progressive taxation, interstate highways, collective bargaining, health insurance for the elderly—all realized in the twenty years after World War II—distributed the nation’s gifts to the general population. By doing so, these efforts enhanced individual attainment, or at least made attainment more possible, and, therefore, benefited the nation as well.¹⁹

The expansion of federal responsibilities ignited the dreams of individuals. The era attained a balance between individualism and community that enabled both to flourish, an important element of the commonwealth ideal. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called this balance the vital center. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Johnson believed they governed under that standard.²⁰

It was not an easy standard to maintain, especially since the conservative coalition opposed such a role for the federal government. The government’s job, Schlesinger explained, was to order society so that it will subdue the tendencies of industrial organization, produce a wide amount of basic satisfaction and preserve a substantial degree of individual freedom. Had Thomas Jefferson’s arcadian republic come to fruition, a strong government would have been superfluous. But the industrial revolution created conditions that were chilling the lifeblood of society. The state, Schlesinger argued, had to expand its authority in order to preserve the ties which hold society together. His analysis echoed Keynes’s emphasis on the necessity of government to combine economic efficiency, social justice and individual liberty.²¹

The transformation of the government’s role did not violate the nation’s founding ideals. The founders had been wise enough to allow for a change in circumstances that they could neither predict nor imagine. That was the genius of their creation. Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover made this point in 1963 when he chronicled the transformation in the national government from the role of night watchman to that of service agency. Though the expanded role of the federal government may not have been exactly what the founders contemplated, their language provided for it. As Rickover explained, The Declaration of Independence states that ‘it is the right of the people’ to alter the powers of government in such a way ‘as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.’ ²²

But the growth of government contained dangers, especially if a party rose to power and used government to benefit the few instead of the many. This is why the vital center, the balance between the individual and the community, had to be maintained. Franklin D. Roosevelt, though he supported strong government intervention to solve the Depression and win World War II, nevertheless held serious reservations about federal activism: We have built up new instruments of public power. In the hands of a people’s government this power is wholesome and proper. But in the hands of political puppets of an economic autocracy such power would provide shackles for the liberty of the people.²³

What, then, is the true function of the state? Schlesinger was fond of baseball metaphors, so he put it this way: The function of the state … is to define the ground rules of the game; not to pitch, catch, hit homers or (just as likely) pop up or throw to the wrong base. The government should maximize options—opportunities—for individuals, but should not guarantee results. The vital center reunited individual and community in fruitful union.²⁴

The importance of government in leveling the playing field—to continue the metaphor—was not a new idea. John Quincy Adams asserted in his first message to Congress in 1825, The great object of the institution of civil government is the improvement of the condition of those who are parties to the social compact, and no government, in whatever form constituted, can accomplish the lawful end of its institution but in proportion as it improves the condition of those over whom it is established.²⁵

For those concerned about a government that might be too active, economists explained that in an industrialized and increasingly urbanized society, citizens were much more interdependent than formerly, and therefore, government and the private sector needed to work in tandem. The commonwealth ideal posits a balance between government, the individual, and business to ensure that all citizens have the opportunity to succeed: that one person’s success redounds to the nation’s success. The reality sometimes fell short of the ideal, as prejudice and nostalgia continued to block the path for some. But participation in the benefits of American life grew broader during the two decades following World War II than in any previous era in American history. More Americans than ever were pursuing, and attaining, happiness.

The commonwealth ideal represented a passion for government action to maximize individual achievement for the benefit of the whole. It was not an intellectual creation of the postwar era. The idea of government promoting the general welfare to ensure individual welfare appeared in the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay’s American system, and his disciple Abraham Lincoln’s nationalist measures during the Civil War. The commonwealth ideal flourished in the early twentieth century during the Progressive era, the administration of Woodrow Wilson, and, most of all, in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. President Wilson stated that it was the obligation of the federal government to regulate the economy to protect ordinary Americans from the consequences of great industrial and social processes which they cannot alter, control, or singly cope with.²⁶

World War II demonstrated what we could accomplish with nearly all of our diverse population contributing to the general welfare. The challenge of postwar life was to carry this model forward. And just as the federal government, in partnership with public and private institutions, orchestrated the successful war effort, so too would that partnership build a more inclusive, more just society.

Did America move too fast to build an inclusive society? Did Washington outrun public opinion? Did the disjunction between what America had been earlier in the twentieth century and the nation it was becoming by the late 1960s stimulate the ascendancy of regressive forces already embedded in the political system?

What we know for certain is that political leaders from Richard Nixon forward were willing not only to exploit the divide, but also to broaden and deepen it. Good government became exclusive government. Washington worked for the few, not for the many. Both political parties were complicit in moving government away from the commonwealth ideal. Yes, economic forces contributed to the turbulence. But the economy had been undergoing a transformation since the end of World War II. Government’s response in the ensuing two decades was to invest in education, infrastructure, and scientific and technological research—in human capital, in other words. And it worked.

America has, undeniably, experienced significant progress over the past sixty years in expanding the basic rights of citizenship. But progress has slowed and, in some cases, regressed. It is not the economy, globalization, and imperfect trade agreements that have altered the arc of generations following the gifted generation. It is public policy.

The 1961 Tilden High School graduates sampled here enjoyed an array of options. Rare was the student who had a specific game plan. Pursue what was interesting. The serendipity occasionally led to dead ends, but so what? New roads were opening all the time. Confidence and curiosity marked the graduates’ lives; they flourished in an environment that encouraged both. They knew the distance they had traveled from the lives of their parents, who had grown up in very different circumstances. Their parents and teachers had given them the gift of freedom—to choose, to think, to dream. And their government gave them the gift of opportunity, which reinforced that freedom. The success of the gifted generation was a paean of gratitude to the government that required no loud exclamations of patriotism and even called for, on occasion, a little rebellion. For that was what freedom was about.

The Tildenites specialized in creativity, not convention. They had little regard for traditional boundaries, mixing art, music, science, technology, finance, and business, sampling widely different careers. Their musical tastes reflected their upbringing as the first rock ’n’ roll generation, an amalgam of musical styles that took them from Buddy Holly to Bob Dylan to B.B. King. Arnie Fleischer joined a bluegrass band and played with some of the greatest artists of the late twentieth century. He also served his country in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the U.S. Navy and continued his public service for thirty years in the New York Attorney General’s Office.²⁷

Lew Coopersmith played jazz piano on the radio and acted with Candice Bergen. He also served in the navy in the Public Health Service, got a degree in operations research, opened a consulting firm, and taught for many years at Rider University in New Jersey while maintaining a steady schedule as a chamber music performer. Jane Goren loved biology; she also enjoyed drawing and, for a time, dabbled in medical illustration, then moved on to designing sets for Broadway shows including Jesus Christ Superstar. Jane relocated to Los Angeles and began an art career that has taken her all over the world for shows and installations.²⁸

Ed Goodgold touched off the national trivia craze with tournaments at Columbia University in the mid-1960s and was instrumental in forming the nostalgia rock group Sha Na Na. He introduced Peter Gabriel and Genesis to American audiences in the early 1970s and went on to become an educator and administrator at New York University. Tony Scarfone studied to be an accountant, but loved art and became one of the leading exhibit designers in the New York metropolitan area, partnering with another Tilden graduate.²⁹

Jill Considine planned to be a research scientist and worked in a biology lab conducting pioneering work on DNA and RNA. She left for a year in France and lost her interest in science. Quite by accident, she landed a job with Bankers Trust in New York as a systems programmer, a new field in which she had no training. But Jill’s broad liberal arts education prepared her well for the challenge, and she learned quickly. Eventually, Jill became president of First Women’s Bank in New York, and then banking superintendent for the State of New York.³⁰

Jill Considine sworn in as New York State Superintendent of Banks October 1985 while expecting her first child.

Jerry Rosenbaum also had numerous career shifts, starting out with a degree from Columbia in 1965 in mathematical methods in engineering and operations research, what today we would call computer science. Like Jill, Jerry trained for a career that did not exist when he graduated from Tilden in 1961. He went into academia, teaching in Denmark and Sweden, before returning to the United States for a job at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, working on aircraft simulation. He started his own consulting business in Baltimore, working on, among other projects, computer-animated design.³¹

Heni Nunno, a divorced single mom, went back to school in 1972. By the time she finished her studies, she had a doctoral degree in molecular biology and went to work on a project cloning genes to produce interferon, a protein effective in protecting cells from bacteria and cancer. Eventually, Heni’s research focused on inactivating viruses, such as those causing AIDS and hepatitis, in blood products. She earned nineteen patents. Then she became a lawyer and joined the Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate individuals wrongly accused of crimes. Her legal work led Heni back to the lab, where she was instrumental in developing the rape kit now used by law enforcement agencies across the country.³²

These members of the gifted generation benefited from federal support for their education and career advancement. None of these individuals began life in privileged circumstances. Tony Scarfone grew up in the projects—public housing—and his father worked as a meat cutter. Heni Nunno had to go to work at age fourteen to help her family. Jerry Rosenbaum’s father worked in a factory making sockets and switches. Jane Goren’s dad was an ex-boxer who worked in a used-car lot. Ed Goodgold’s father sold army surplus clothing. Jill Considine’s father worked for a newspaper. These were not silver-spoon children. But they grew up in a golden era.

They succeeded because of their families, their teachers, and their peers. But they also succeeded because their government created opportunities in infrastructure, education, and work that provided them with the tools and the confidence to take and leave careers until they found what was right for them. Most of them left college and graduate school with no debt, benefiting from an array of federal programs that advanced their education. Some entered professions that did not exist just a few years earlier, but emerged because of federal research grants.

These members of the gifted generation came to adulthood confidently, in a confident nation. They possessed the freedom to learn, to experiment, even to fail. Ultimately, they each discovered a life that provided a livelihood and fulfilled a passion. Their stories were told many times over across the country. Good government aided that process of discovery. Together, they helped to build the nation. This is their history and that of their government.





Peace. Such a lovely and loving word. After fifteen years of depression and war the word augured possibility and hope. Returning servicemen had no time for lengthy explanations of what they sought. As one responded to a reporter, he simply wanted to make up for lost time. Time taken from getting married and starting a family. Time taken from education. Time taken from getting ahead at the office or on the farm. A sailor just off his transport in Seattle blurted to a reporter’s question about his plans, Raise babies and keep house! Their dreams were simple, but their very simplicity indicated the dislocations that had affected their lives.¹

Concerns tempered the euphoria of peace. With over 15 million returning veterans and 10 million civilian employees of defense industries soon out of work, would the country lapse into an economic depression? Would inflation rob returning vets and their families of prosperity? Would reconversion stretch out to thwart a swift return to a normal civilian life? Would shortages of food, housing, and durable goods turn anticipation into despair? Would international tensions resume quickly as the Soviet Union replaced Nazi Germany as a threat to the security of America and its allies?

The national mood during the first year after the war was an odd cross between somber and hopeful. One exasperated writer complained that the United States was too full of worries … We worry about politics and about Congress and about the conduct of the government … We worry about foreign affairs. We worry about prices. And we worry a lot about production and about labor.²

The government had spent the United States into prosperity during World War II. Defense industries, infrastructure projects such as roads, airports, and water and sewer systems, poured billions into the pockets of workers and corporations. As early as 1943, economists worried about economic chaos after the war ended. Reconverting war plants to peacetime needs, the layoff of millions of workers as defense industries wound down, and the simultaneous influx of millions of returning soldiers into the job market presaged a reversion to difficult economic times.³

Peace and prosperity energized the conservative coalition. Labor troubles were a certainty as unions sought to build upon their wartime gains and management tried to restore some of its former power when labor surpluses existed. Conservatives hoped to curtail labor’s might. The stupendous national debt incurred by the war would likely result in higher taxes. Expected bonuses for veterans would make paring down that debt more difficult. The federal government would probably need to launch major infrastructure projects to absorb the unemployed. And shortages would send inflation skyrocketing at a time of projected high unemployment. Deficits, tax hikes, and inflation were an unholy trinity for conservatives. A major cut in federal spending, conservatives believed, would remedy all three dangers. In late 1944, writer Bernard DeVoto observed a fear of the coming of peace due to the economic uncertainty. Conservatives, however, viewed peace as an opportunity to take back their government. They had succeeded in stalling New Deal initiatives between 1937 and 1941, threatening the modest economic recovery. Now, they sought a broader reversal.

The Cold War, emerging so soon after the defeat of the Axis powers, scarcely gave Americans time to celebrate their hard-won victories. And now, at the dawn of the nuclear age, the perils of conflict multiplied. The Communist insurgency in China contributed to national jitters. For a generation of Americans, many of whom had lived through the prosperous 1920s only to witness a near-total economic collapse and then a bloody war, neither peace nor prosperity were sure things. A group of MIT professors scolded cities for their lack of preparedness in the event of nuclear war and presented a plan that is laughable only in retrospect.

The economy proved more resilient than the pundits. As early as February 1946, experts expressed surprise that the physical reconversion of war plants seemed to be going well and quickly, unemployment was far less than government economists had predicted, and income and retail sales had risen. The threat of inflation lingered as did persistent shortages, and both the Truman administration and Congress miscalculated on price controls. But there were hopeful signs these issues were manageable once production satisfied consumer demand. And consumers had cash. High wages and full employment during the war had put money into the pockets of millions of Americans, though there was precious little they could buy. With peace, the dam burst. As one editor put it in 1946, Never before has the average man been so ready and able to buy things.

During the Christmas shopping season of 1946, Macy’s department store in New York City set an all-time daily sales record on December 5 of nearly $1.5 million, a record broken two weeks later. A headline trumpeted, Shoppers Overrun New York Stores in History’s Biggest Buying Spree. By early 1947, as production ratcheted up, the threat of inflation moderated. W. S. Woytinsky, an economist for the 20th Century Fund, attributed some of the good economic news to government policy, particularly the G.I. Bill, which pumped money into the housing market and new businesses, as well as seed funds for educating former soldiers, who could improve their incomes with a college degree. In October 1948, Life magazine’s editor crowed, Production stands on its greatest peacetime pinnacle, a height no other nation in all the years of the world has ever scaled.

The median income of nonfarm families rose 66 percent between 1947 and 1957, the greatest decadal increase in American history. The broad affluence opened up experiences heretofore reserved for the wealthy, such as travel to Europe, which reached record numbers in 1949. As one writer noted, Globe-trotting is no longer the privilege of the well-to-do: the butchers and bakers and students and farmers now far outnumber and outspend the merchant chiefs. An increase in patronage of local orchestras, museums, and libraries, and the popularity of garden clubs and of reading the Great Books, also received notice in the press. Sports fans packed stands, especially in the baseball parks to watch Jackie Robinson of the Dodgers, Joe DiMaggio of the Yankees, Ted Williams of the Red Sox, and Stan the Man Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals. Americans were learning that prosperity, once the primary needs of life are cared for, is only good as underpinning for the good life.

In 1950, Scientific American calculated that, even allowing for inflation, Americans spent 96 percent more on books than in 1940, 140 percent more for toys and sports equipment, 219 percent more for photo developing, 129 percent more for flowers and seeds, and 263 percent more for phonographs and records, musical instruments, radios, and television sets. Much of this increase reflected the baby boom and the movement to the suburbs, but also the widespread prosperity of the American population. In the 1920s the top 5 percent income earners accounted for 38 percent of the total national income; by 1950, they accounted for only 17 percent. Which meant that many more Americans could afford the durable goods such as automobiles, refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioners, and power mowers. Economists agreed that the government played an important role in raising the purchasing power of the formerly poor. The result was not only the rapid expansion of a middle class, but also the enrichment of civic life. By helping people become more independent, government assisted strengthening the bonds of the nation.

Government spending lit the economic fires of the postwar era. Outlays for the G.I. Bill and higher education, and housing, mortgage, and tax subsidies, boosted consumer spending. Federal spending under the Truman administration dwarfed the outlays of the New Deal. In 1948, federal expenditures, which had reached as high as $95.2 billion in fiscal 1945, had shrunk to $36.5 billion, mostly from a decline in defense spending. But that latter figure far exceeded the $9.4 billion the New Deal spent in 1939.¹⁰

By 1952, the last year of the Truman administration, the economic numbers confirmed the extended reach of the nation’s prosperity. The gross national product was $16 billion more than at its peak during the war (1944). Unemployment stood at 2 percent, below the figure most economists would call full employment. In 1952 alone, per capita income increased by 8 percent. America was building—houses, roads, utilities, and commercial and industrial buildings.¹¹

Prosperity spread more evenly across the land. The South, identified as the nation’s Number One economic problem in a 1938 government report, had, within a decade, become a promising region for economic development. Building on wartime industries, such as the Bell bomber plant in Atlanta, that had raised the skill levels of workers and drawn farmers from unproductive agriculture into the cities, the New South appeared to be poised to make good on its publicity. Businesses expanded, such as Malcolm McLean’s trucking company in Winston-Salem, which grew from one to one thousand trucks between the beginning of the war and 1949. Republic Steel’s new plant at Gadsden, Alabama, rolled out steel pipe for natural gas lines in the burgeoning subdivisions of the region. Furniture plants in High Point, North Carolina, could barely keep up with orders to furnish new homes. Hopeful articles appeared that the South’s prosperity would eventually ameliorate its troubled race relations.¹²

The Pacific Northwest, long identified as a colonial economy dependent on lumber, fishing, and agriculture, underwent a transformation as the federal government harnessed the Columbia River’s power to produce one third of the nation’s hydroelectric power. The Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams added to the region’s capacity. The Grand Coulee was the biggest project ever built, four times bigger than the Great Pyramids when it was completed in 1942. The Northwest received more government funds for industrial development during the war than any other region, the largest share of which—$347 million—went to the Hanford Engineering Works in central Washington State, where scientists produced plutonium from uranium for the first atomic bomb. Government subsidies poured into shipyards, aircraft factories, and electrochemical plants, most of which declined after the war, but the Boeing company refitted to produce aircraft for the growing commercial air market. The diversity of the Northwest’s economy reduced dependence on the lumber industry and enabled the federal government to place the Northwest’s forests on a sustained-yield basis.¹³

All of these developments resulted in what the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) called in 1951 one of the greatest social revolutions in history. At the core of this revolution was the dramatic change in the distribution of income. By 1951, one half of the nation’s families were classified by the NBER as middle-class. Fifty years earlier, that figure stood at 25 percent. Adjusting for inflation, the annual income of a factory worker went up sixfold during that half century, even after taxes. The transformation broadened people’s horizons and allowed them to fulfill aspirations for education, jobs, homes, and leisure.¹⁴

Management consultant Peter F. Drucker wrote in 1952 that the expansion of the middle class also resulted from a change in attitude by corporate executives. Earlier in the century, Drucker explained, American businessmen believed that regard for the social and economic well-being of workers and the nation were irrelevant to the corporate mission, a philosophy best summarized by President Calvin Coolidge’s statement The business of this country is business. Drucker believed that the corporation at midcentury would phrase its philosophy as The business of this business is the country—in other words, the commonwealth ideal of interdependence. Drucker believed that management was coming to understand that treating workers with dignity would lead to greater productivity.¹⁵

The workforce itself was changing. Demand increased for positions requiring greater skills, training, and education. As Drucker noted, An American youngster starting out on his career has at least two chances out of three that he will end up in a skilled, professional or executive job paying a middle-class wage or better, or as his own boss in his own business. This was the economy that the gifted generation would grow into.¹⁶

The achievement of this broad prosperity occurred when the top income bracket in 1949 paid a marginal tax rate of 82 percent, a figure that would climb to 91 percent in the 1950s. Taxes on corporate profits were two times as large as they were in 2017. The tax on large estates rose to more than 70 percent. Not only did businesses operate under a relatively high tax burden, but they also confronted a labor force where one third of the workers were unionized and bargained with executives as equals. From the conservatives’ perspective, that such a tax structure produced great prosperity seemed counterintuitive. But it merely confirmed Keynes’s economic theories of how an activist state could generate wealth in a transforming economy and create spheres of mutual interest across disparate elements of the national economy. Corporations in the early 1950s, economist Paul Krugman observed, served an array of ‘stakeholders’ as opposed to merely serving stockholders.¹⁷

Frank W. Abrams, chairman of Standard Oil of New Jersey, articulated this notion of stakeholder capitalism, a corporate form of the commonwealth ideal that balanced the interests of all members in the firm’s family. The job of management, Abrams explained, is to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the various directly affected interest groups, which he defined as stockholders, employees, customers and the public at large. Other executives shared this view, such as Earl S. Willis at General Electric: The employee who can plan his economic future with reasonable certainty is an employer’s most productive asset. Both median family income and productivity nearly doubled between 1948 and 1973.¹⁸

Labor unions pioneered the concept of living or family wages, and corporations bought into the philosophy, sometimes grudgingly. The relative weakness of foreign competition only partially accounted for the prosperity of the late 1940s and 1950s. Companies were responsible not only to their shareholders, but also to their employees. Henry Ford had discovered as far back as 1914 that higher wages had a palliative effect on turnover and absenteeism. When he began to pay an unprecedented wage of $5 a day, productivity and profits rose.¹⁹

Any company at which a majority of workers voted to join a union in a federally supervised election had to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate a contract that included clear rules and procedures and protected workers from arbitrary treatment by management. Union workers could rely on regular wage increases that allowed them to purchase cars, appliances, and homes. They also wielded political muscle to sustain regular increases in the minimum wage. Jack Metzgar, who grew up as a son of a steelworker, recalled, If what we lived through in the 1950s was not liberation, then liberation never happens in real human lives.²⁰

In the postwar years, corporate leaders formed the Committee for Economic Development (CED), which helped to forge a consensus supporting strong unions, bigger government, and the welfare state. For example, the CED called for higher taxes to fund the Korean War effort. As corporate analyst Mark Mizruchi noted of the CED, They believed that in order to maintain their privileges, they had to insure that ordinary Americans were having their needs met.²¹

In 1955, Fortune magazine published an article on the lifestyles of that year’s top executives compared with the opulent lives led by the barons of finance and industry early in the twentieth century. The typical executive in 1955 lived in a relatively modest suburban house, employed part-time help, and usually owned a small boat. Data supported this portrait. By 1955, the incomes of the top 0.01 percent of Americans were less than half of what they had been in the late 1920s, and their share of total income was down by 75 percent. In 1950, the income gap between the least paid and best paid workers diminished to its lowest point in the twentieth century. In the 1950s, the corporate CEO received twenty times as much as the firm’s typical employee; by 2016, CEOs averaged more than two hundred times that of the average worker.²²

Economists called it the virtuous circle of growth: well-paid workers fueled consumer demand, which, in turn, generated business expansion and hiring, raising corporate profits to induce higher wages and more hiring. The American social structure changed its shape from a pyramid to a diamond. In 1929, 80 percent of American families earned less than $4,000 a year (in 1950 dollars); by 1953, more than 58 percent had annual incomes ranging from $4,000 to $10,000. Factory workers saw their paychecks double between 1945 and 1970. That told only part of the story as companies also provided health insurance and generous pensions.²³

A consumer culture flourished and, therefore, so did the economy. Everyone, it seemed, had money to spend, and there were so many more things to spend it on. A writer in Fortune in 1956 remarked, Never has a whole people spent so much money on so many expensive things in such an easy way as Americans are doing today. Fortune noted that middle-class families—those earning more than $5,000 annually by the mid-1950s—were increasing by 1.1 million a year. By 1956, there were 16.6 million such families.²⁴

The baby boom fueled economic growth. In 1940 fewer than 11 million Americans were under the age of five; by 1950 it was 16 million. The five- to seventeen-year-old age group increased by only fifty-two thousand during the 1940s, but exploded by 8.3 million in the 1950s. Economists talked about prosperity by population. Diapers were a $32 million industry by 1947, and $50 million a decade later. One out of every ten Americans consumed baby food, at a rate of 1.5 billion jars a year, in 1953; in 1940, it was a modest 270 million jars. And toys? Every year after 1940, the toy industry set records. Bicycle sales doubled each year; parents spent $75 million on cowboy regalia. The kids market drew in $33 billion annually by the early 1950s.²⁵

Those new homes that housed growing families required furnishings and appliances. The average suburban family income in 1950 was $6,500 ($65,000 in 2016 dollars). Two-car families increased by at least 750,000 a year after 1951. In that year, 40.3 million cars were registered to 39.9 million families. In 1945, new car sales totaled 69,500; in 1955, consumers purchased 7.9 million automobiles. Many of these autos could be found parked at suburban shopping malls. The nation’s first enclosed mall opened outside Minneapolis in 1956.²⁶

Prosperity was broad but not yet pervasive. In 1947, 30 percent of the population was poor by government standards. One third of American homes had no running water, two fifths had no flush toilets, and three fifths lacked central heating. Almost half of Americans toiled at manual labor on farms or in factories, mines, or construction. Nearly one out of five Americans worked on the land.²⁷

It was not long—maybe five years after the end of World War II—that the combination of consumer buying power and automobiles generated new types of entrepreneurial activities. In the summer of 1953, Eugene Ferkauf drove through farmland near Westbury, Long Island. He envisioned a large store that would sell everything, and everything at a

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