Millennium: 2nd millennium

The 1950s also known as the "Nineteen Fifties" or "9teen 50s" abbreviated as the "Fifties" or "50s" was the decade that began on Sunday, January 1,1950 and ended on Thursday, December 31, 1959. It was the sixth decade in the 20th century. The Fifties in the United States and much of Western Europe are generally considered conservative in contrast to the Social Revolution of the next decade. Mass suburban developments and nuclear family ideals serve as symbols of the era from the end of the Second World War in 1945 to the inauguration of United States President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Education grew explosively because of a very strong demand for high school and college education. The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States played out through the entire decade. The fifties also revolutionized entertainment with the mainstream introduction of television, rapid growth of the recording industry and new genres of music, and movies targeted at teenage audiences. Due to the conservative norms of the era and the sometimes violent suppression of social movements, seeds of rebellion grew and were manifested through Rock and Roll, movies emphasizing rebelliousness, expansion of the Civil Rights Movement, the so-called Beat Generation of poets and artists. All of these played significant roles in the Social Revolution of the Sixties (1960s).



Rebirth of Europe, the economic miracle emerged in West Germany and Italy. Additionally, wartime rationing ended in the United Kingdom.

Ascendancy of the United States[]

The 1950s in the U.S. were marked with a sharp rise in the economy for the first time in almost 30 years, and a return to the 1920s-type consumer society built on credit and boom-times, as well as the baby boom from returning GIs who went to college under the G.I. Bill and settled in suburban America. Most of the internal conflicts that had developed in earlier decades like women's rights, civil rights, and imperialism were relatively suppressed or neglected during this time as a world returning from the brink hoped to see a more consistent way of life as opposed to the radicalism of the 1930s and 1940s. The effect of suppressing social problems in the 1950s would have a significant impact on the rest of the twentieth century.

Social and political movements[]


In the West, an American generation traumatized by the Great Depression and World War II created a culture with emphasis on normality and conformity. Europeans took a generally different approach to a post-war society, aiming for a greater inclusiveness and social awareness after a global crisis in the preceding decades that many blamed on the failings of Free Market Capitalism, and the fifties were marked by the establishment of a Welfare State in many countries in Western Europe.

Korean War[]

The Korean War, lasted from June 25, 1950 until a cease-fire on July 27 1953 (as of 2007, there has been no peace treaty signed), started as a civil war between communist North Korea and republican South Korea. When it began, North and South Korea existed as provisional governments competing for control over the Korean peninsula, due to the division of Korea by outside powers. While originally a civil war, it quickly escalated into a Cold War-era conflict and served as a proxy war between the capitalist powers of the United States and its allies and the Communist powers of the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union.

On September 15, General Douglas MacArthur planned a grand strategy to dissect North-Korean-occupied Korea at the city of Incheon (Song Do port) to cut off further invasion by the North Korean army. Within a few days, MacArthurs' army took back Seoul (South Korea's capital). The plan succeeded which allowed American and South Korean forces to cut off further expansion by the North Koreans. The war continued until a cease-fire was agreed to by both sides on July 27, 1953. The war left 33,742 American soldiers dead and 92,134 wounded.

In the end, neither side had won the war. Nothing significant was gained on either side, while many lives had been lost. Before the war, the border was a line of latitude; after the war, it was shifted slightly diagonally.

U.S./USSR tensions result in "Cold War"[]

This map shows two essential global spheres during the Cold War in 1959. Consult the legend on the map for more detailhams.

The "Cold War", which began as a geopolitical, ideological, and economic struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States, intensified. During this time the Warsaw Pact and NATO were founded.

More American above-ground nuclear test explosions happened during this decade than any other during the Cold War

The 1950s were also marked with a rapid rise in tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, which would touch off the Arms Race, the Space Race, McCarthyism, and the Korean War. Stalin's death in 1953 left an enormous impact in Eastern Europe that forced the Soviet Union to create more liberal policies internally and externally.

The most notable political shift in the Eastern bloc would be the Hungarian revolution of 1956 which would soon falter due to the Soviet Union's intervention.

In the United States there was a "Red Scare" resulting in the McCarthy Hearings.

Suez Crisis[]

Israeli conquest of Sinai during the Suez Crisis

The Suez Crisis was a war fought on Egyptian territory in 1956. Following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the United Kingdom, France and Israel subsequently invaded. The operation was a military success, but after the USA and Soviet Union united in opposition to the invasion, the invaders were forced to withdraw. This was seen as a major humiliation, especially for the two European countries, and symbolises the beginning of the end of colonialism and weakening of European global importance.

European Common Market[]

The European Community (or Common Market), the precursor of the European Union, was established with the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

Civil rights[]

During this time, African-Americans were subject to racial segregation despite the belief put forward in The Declaration of Independence 1776 that, 'all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' However, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was brewing. Key figures like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks highlighted and challenged those who were against African-American rights and freedom. The Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School ending segregation in schools.


  • Brylcreem and other hair tonics had a period of popularity
  • Juvenile delinquency was said to be at unprecedented epidemic proportions in the United States, though some see this era as relatively low in crime compared to today.
  • Continuing poverty in some regions during recessions later on in this decade. The 1950s is often mistakenly painted as the pinnacle of American prosperity. To some, it also may be considered the peak of our modern American civilization The '50s were supposed to be a time of the "Affluent Society".
  • The 1950s saw fairly high rates of unionization, government social spending, taxes, and the like in the United States and European countries,. Most Western governments were liberal or moderate, though domestic politics were also affected by reactions to communism and the Cold War.
  • Beatniks, a culture of teenage and young adults who were seen as rebels and against the social norms, were popularized towards the end of the decade and criticised by older generations. They are seen as a predecessor for the counterculture and hippie movements.
  • Optimistic visions of a semi-utopian technological future, including such devices as the flying car, were popular.
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still hits movie theaters launching a cycle of Hollywood films in which Cold War fears are manifested through scenarios of alien invasion or mutation.
  • Considerable racial tension arose with military and school desegregation in mostly the southern part of the United States, though major controversy and uproar did not truly erupt until the 1960s.
  • Resurgence of evangelical Christianity including Youth for Christ (1943); the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Council of Christian Churches, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (1950), Conservative Baptist Association of America (1947); and the Campus Crusade for Christ (1951). Christianity Today was first published in 1956. 1956 also marked the beginning of Bethany Fellowship, a small press that would grow to be a leading evangelical press.
  • Carl Stuart Hamblen, a religious radio broadcaster, hosted the popular show "The Cowboy Church of the Air".


Flying in the face of continuity, logic, and erudite sociological predictions, fashion in the 1950s, far from being revolutionary and progressive, bore strong nostalgic echoes of the past. A whole society which, in the 1920s and '30s, had greatly believed in progress, was now much more circumspect. Despite the fact that women had the right to vote, to work, and to drive their own cars, they chose to wear dresses made of opulent materials, with corseted waists and swirling skirts to mid-calf. As fashion looked to the past, haute couture experienced something of a revival and spawned a myriad of star designers who profited hugely from the rapid growth of the media.

An evening gown by designer Charles James

Throughout the 1950s, although it would be for the last time, women around the world continued to submit to the trends of Parisian haute couture. Three of the most prominent of the Parisian couturiers of the time were Cristobal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy, and Pierre Balmain. The frugal prince of luxury, Cristobal Balenciaga Esagri made his fashion debut in the late Thirties. However, it was not until the post-war years that the full scale of the inventiveness of this highly original designer became evident. In 1951, he totally transformed the silhouette, broadening the shoulders and removing the waist. In 1955, he designed the tunic dress, which later developed into the chemise dress of 1957. And eventually, in 1959, his work culminated in the Empire line, with high-waisted dresses and coats cut like kimonos. His mastery of fabric design and creation defied belief. Balenciaga is also notable as one of the few couturiers in fashion history who could use their own hands to design, cut, and sew the models which symbolized the height of his artistry.

Hubert de Givenchy opened his first couture house in 1952 and created a sensation with his separates, which could be mixed and matched at will. Most renowned was his Bettina blouse made from shirting, which was named after his top model. Soon, boutiques were opened in Rome, Zurich, and Buenos Aires. A man of immense taste and discrimination, he was, perhaps more than any other designer of the period, an integral part of the world whose understated elegance he helped to define.

Pierre Balmain opened his own salon in 1945. It was in a series of collections named 'Jolie Madame' that he experienced his greatest success, from 1952 onwards. Balmain's vision of the elegantly-dressed woman was particularly Parisian and was typified by the tailored glamour of the New Look, with its ample bust, narrow waist, and full skirts, by mastery of cut and imaginative assemblies of fabrics in subtle color combinations. His sophisticated clientèle was equally at home with luxurious elegance, simple tailoring, and a more natural look. Along with his haute couture work, the talented businessman pioneered a ready-to-wear range called Florilege and also launched a number of highly successful perfumes.

Also notable is the return of Coco Chanel (who detested the New Look) to the fashion world. Following the closure of her salons in the war years, in 1954, aged over seventy, she staged a comeback and on February 5 she presented a collection which contained a whole range of ideas that would be adopted and copied by women all over the world: her famous little braided suit with gold chains, shiny costume jewelry, silk blouses in colors that matched the suit linings, sleek tweeds, monogrammed buttons, flat black silk bows, boaters, quilted bags on chains, and evening dresses and furs that were marvels of simplicity.

After the war, the American look (which consisted of broad shoulders, floral ties, straight-legged pants, and shirts with long pointed collars, often worn hanging out rather than tucked in) became very popular among men in Europe. Certain London manufacturers ushered in a revival of Edwardian elegance in men's fashion, adopting a tight-fitting retro style that was intended to appeal to traditionalists. This look, originally aimed at the respectable young man about town, was translated into popular fashion as the Teddy boy style. The Italian look, popularized by Caraceni, Brioni, and Cifonelli, was taken up by an entire generation of elegant young lovers, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The designers of Hollywood created a particular type of glamour for the stars of American film, and outfits worn by the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, or Grace Kelly were widely copied. Quantitatively speaking, a costume worn by an actress in a Hollywood movie would have a much bigger audience than the photograph of a dress designed by a couturier illustrated in a magazine read by no more than a few thousand people. Without even trying to keep track of all the Paris styles, its costume designers focused on their own version of classicism, which was meant to be timeless, flattering, and photogenic. Using apparently luxurious materials, such as sequins, chiffon, and fur, the clothes were very simply cut, often including some memorable detail, such as a low-cut back to a dress which was only revealed when the actress turned her back from the camera or some particularly stunning accessory. The most influential and respected designers of Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1950s were Edith Head, Orry-Kelly, William Travilla, Jean Louis, Travis Banton, and Gilbert Adrian.

By the end of the decade mass-manufactured, off-the-peg clothing had become much more popular than in the past, granting the general public unprecedented access to fashionable styles.


Rock-and-roll music[]

Elvis Presley in 1957. He became known as "The King of Rock 'n' Roll"

Traditional pop music such as the bebop era of jazz hit its peak and climaxed as early rock and roll music led by Elvis Presley was embraced by teenagers and the emerging youth culture as the first wave of the Baby Boom reached its teen years. Rock music was generally dismissed or condemned by older generations. Other prominent rock and roll musicians included Paul Anka, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard.

World cinema[]

Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo in Rashomon, a significant film for the development of Japanese cinema

The 1950s represent what many see as the epitome of Japanese cinema, starting in 1950 with Rashomon, the first major success of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, which is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. [1] Kurosawa followed this success with a string of classics such as Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), and The Hidden Fortress (1958).

Other Japanese directors who were at the top of their game at this period in time were Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. Ozu made Tokyo Story in 1953, which is widely considered one of the best films ever made, as well as the best Japanese film ever made. [2] [3] Ozu followed this success with a remake of his earlier A Story of Floating Weeds, only this time in color and sound, which are both regarded as some of Ozu's best work.

In 1953 and 1954, Mizoguchi made the two films that are widely considered to be his masterpieces, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff.

In addition to Japanese cinema receiving vast success worldwide, European cinema was experiencing a reboot after World War II. In 1953, renowned Italian director Federico Fellini made what is widely considered to be his first masterpiece, I vitelloni. Although it did not achieve significant success at the time, Fellini followed it up with his international breakthrough, La strada, which went on to win the first competitive foreign language film Oscar. Fellini followed the success of La strada with another huge success, Nights of Cabiria. Nights of Cabiria was lauded worldwide and earned Fellini another Oscar.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, a young Ingmar Bergman was starting to leave his indelible stamp in cinema. In 1955, after a string of financial flops, Bergman achieved his first international success, Smiles of a Summer Night. Smiles of a Summer Night received international acclaim and earned Bergman a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Bergman followed up the success of Smiles with what remains his most famous film to this day, The Seventh Seal (1957).

The Seventh Seal was an ambitious project in which Antonious Block, after returning from the Crusades plays chess with Death in the hope that Death will allow him to live. The Seventh Seal earned unanimous praise worldwide and established Bergman as one of cinema's most promising, young directors and is still considered to be one of his best films, and some even consider it to be his masterpiece.

That same year, Bergman decided to follow The Seventh Seal with a more personal project on a much smaller scale, Wild Strawberries. Wild Strawberries is the story of an old man (played by Victor Sjöström) who goes on a trip to receive an honorary degree with his daughter in law (Ingrid Thulin). During the trip, she tells him he is cold and unfeeling and he thinks over all the failures of his life. Bergman explores such trademark themes as the existence of God and mortality in this film. Wild Strawberries also received enormous acclaim and only further emphasized his talent. It is now considered one of his greatest films, and 1957 is considered a year of prodigious output for the young Bergman.

Meanwhile, over in France, young critics such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Éric Rohmerfor the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma were starting to make their stamp in film. In 1958, Chabrol made Le Beau Serge, the film that is widely considered to be the first film of the French New Wave. But the New Wave only started receiving recognition in 1959, when Truffaut released his debut feature, The 400 Blows. The 400 Blows struck a chord in audiences worldwide and praise was lavished upon it. Today it is considered one of Truffaut's two best films, along with 1961's Jules and Jim.

Later that year, Godard released his first film, Breathless. It received attention for its radical storytelling methods and mocking of American gangster clichés. It is now regarded as a masterpiece, and one of Godard's best films. It remains Godard's only box office success to date.


Known as the "Golden Age", this era of movie-making saw the release of many classics, talented stars and directors. Films like Sunset Boulevard with William Holden and Gloria Swanson, All About Eve with Bette Davis, and Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston, would become instant classics.

Westerns were getting bigger in the 1950s, with films like High Noon starring Gary Cooper, and Cheyenne with Clint Walker, wrangling moviegoers back to the time of outlaws and wild shoot-outs. There was no shortage of war movies: the 1950s saw the release of Stalag 17, directed by Billy Wilder, The Bridge over the River Kwai starring Alec Guinness, and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, a potent anti-war film that starred Kirk Douglas as the French Col. Dax, defending three soldiers accused of cowardice.

Thrillers were also turning into a huge genre in post-war Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock directed many big name pictures, including Rear Window, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, North by Northwest with Cary Grant, and Vertigo, with James Stewart and Kim Novak.

Musicals including Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris with Gene Kelly were released and White Christmas starring Bing Crosby.

Animated films included Walt Disney's Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland.

Comedies are always popular, and the 1950s were no exception. It Happens Every Spring, Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, and The Ladykillers starring Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers, would be loved by many. The year 1951 would have an important comedy milestone, the last film of the great comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy, Atoll K, in which the pair starred as the inheritors of an island in the Pacific.


Beatniks and the beat generation, an anti-materialistic literary movement that began with Jack Kerouac in 1948 and stretched on into the 1960s, was at its zenith in the 1950s. Such groundbreaking literature as William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch, Allen Ginsberg's Howl, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye were published. Also published in this decade was J. R. R. Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings. This decade is also marked by some of the most famous works of science fiction by science fiction writers Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, A. E. van Vogt, and Robert A. Heinlein. Other significant literary works included James Jones' From Here to Eternity, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, John Cheever's The Wapshot Chronicle, Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.


Science and philosophy[]


Albert Schweitzer is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. In 1953 Churchill is given the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1955 Laxness is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for his work with Icelandic literature.

The 1950s in sports[]

Paavo Nurmi and the Olympic Flame in the opening ceremony of the 1952 Summer Olympics.

The Olympics[]

The 1950s in technology[]

  • Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957.
  • BOAC brings into service the de Havilland Comet the world's first commercial jet airliner.
  • Fortran, perhaps the single most important milestone in the development of programming languages, was developed at IBM.

International issues[]

In the Middle East[]

Most of the countries of the Middle East continued in the national divisions created by their former European occupiers. However, with the growing importance of their abundance of oil, the otherwise mostly impoverished states experienced an increase of wealth to mostly the elite aristocratic or later theocratic regimes.

The growth of the state of Israel continued.

Mahmoud Abbas became involved in Palestinian politics in Qatar.

In 1958 American troops entered Lebanon to restore order.

In Africa[]

Decolonization was occurring in Africa in the 1950s. In 1956 Sudan, Tunisia, and Morocco became independent. In 1954 guerrillas started the Algerian War of Independence. France continued its occupation and extensively used torture and death squads in an attempt to win the war. They were later forced out, but not until after training through example some of the most skilled torturers of the late 20th century.

The Mau Mau began their terrorist attacks against the British in Kenya. This led to concentration camps in Kenya, the retreat of the British, and the election of former terrorist Kenyatta as leader of Kenya.

Africa experienced the beginning of large-scale top-down economic interventions in the 1950s that failed to cause improvement and led to charitable exhaustion by the West as the century went on. The widespread corruption was not dealt with and war, disease, and famine continue to be constant problems in this region.

In Asia[]

The nations of the People's Republic of China and Indonesia began their history after their establishment in the late 1940s. Mao Tse-Tung began to rise in prominence in China as he helped lead a revolution against the Nationalist government. In 1953 the French occupiers of Indochina tried to contain a growing communist insurgency against their rule led by Ho Chi Minh. After their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 they were forced to cede independence the nations of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Vietnam however was divided between the communist north and American-influence south, and conflict continued. By 1953 the three-year war between North Korea, supported by Russia, and South Korea, supported by the United States, had ended. This war resulted in a permanent border between the north and south sections of this country.

After World War II the United States occupied Japan and assisted in its rebuilding. Social changes took place, including a move toward democratic elections, universal suffrage, emphasis on rebuilding of industry, as well as a fairly secure lifetime employment.

In Latin America[]

In the 1950s Latin America was the center of covert and overt conflict between the CIA and the KGB. Their varying collusion with national, populist, and elitist interests destabilized the region. However, the intervention of the CIA allowed future exploitation of South American mineral and natural resources with no or minimal repayment to the general population. The United States CIA orchestrated the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1952. In 1957 the military dictatorship of Venezuela was overthrown. This continued a pattern of regional revolution and warfare making extensive use of ground forces.

In Europe[]

Post-war reconstruction succeeded, thanks to mostly non-corrupt implementation of the Marshall Plan. Europe continued to be divided into free and Soviet bloc countries. The geographical point of this division came to be called the Iron Curtain. It divided Germany into East and West Germany. In 1955 West Germany joined NATO. This alliance was formed out of fear to defend against a theoretical Russian ground invasion that never took place. The leaders of East Germany were equally afraid of this. In 1956 Soviet troops marched into Hungary.

In 1957 the Treaty of Rome was part of the beginning of the process that led to the European Union. This union from the beginning was based on regulation and trade, and the weakness of basing a union on mercantile principles was not seen until into the 21st century.

In the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc[]

The Soviet Union continued its domination of the territories it conquered during World War II. Life was economically harsh and persecution of native religions intense. (See the Black Book of Communism.) In 1953 Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, died and in the resulting power struggle head of the KGB Lavrenti Beria was denounced and executed. This enabled the future leadership of Russia to scapegoat them for the problems caused by the Communist Revolution. Popular rebellions in East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956 were brutally put down.

In the United States[]

The United States, thanks to the GI Bill, low-entry-cost housing, and a booming economy, experienced a cultural shift as people acquired spacious housing, kitchens, and washing technologies that gave a higher quality of life. The Salk polio vaccine was introduced to the general public in 1955. This was one of the major advances in vaccinations in the 20th century.

In the Caribbean[]

In 1957, Dr. François Duvalier came to power in an election in Haiti. He later declared himself president for life, and ruled until his death in 1971.

In 1959 Fidel Castro overthrew the corrupt Batista regime in Cuba, initiating widespread social reform on the island. The romance and popularity of the revolution, and such leader as the Argentinian Che Guevara gave it global appeal and recognition. The United States was, however, now unable to meddle with either its social or economic development and was angered when Castro redistributed land that had been owned by American companies. It would thus become involved in an embargo and clumsy attempts to overthrow Castro, with Cuba as a result moving closer to the Soviet Union.

In the United Kingdom[]

After World War II the United Kingdom made a slow return from post-war rationing of food. The economy was also rebuilt slowly but thanks to abundant oil fields as well as geographical separation from the European continent it experienced more post-war prosperity than the rest of Europe. The incoming Conservative Party in the 1951 general election, decided to retain the Welfare State and National Health Service that had been established by the previous Labour administration establishing a post war consensus that would last a generation. The coronation of a young new Monarch with Elizabeth II instilled a sense of national revival but the debacle of Suez triggered a sharp decline of national confidence linked to the withdrawal from colonial possessions in Asia.

The World Bank[]



World leaders[]

External links[]

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