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US History/Eisenhower Civil Rights Fifties

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President Eisenhower

Civil Rights Movement under Eisenhower and Desegregation

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The first events that would spark off the entire Civil Rights movement happened during the Eisenhower administration. In the south, there were many statewide laws that segregated many public facilities ranging from buses to water fountains. Southern African Americans now felt that their time had come to enjoy American democracy and they fought hard to end southern segregation policies.

Brown v. Board of Education

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In 1952, seven year old Linda Brown, of Topeka, Kansas, wasn't permitted to attend a white-only elementary school that was only a few blocks from her house. In order to attend her coloreds-only school, Brown had to cross dangerous railroad tracks and take a bus for many miles. Her family sued the Topeka school board and lost, but appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas came to the Supreme Court in December 1952. In his arguments, head lawyer for the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, challenged the "Separate But Equal" doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. He argued that schools could be separate, but never equal. On May 17, 1954, the Court gave its opinion. It ruled that it was unconstitutional to segregate schools, and ordered that schools integrate "with all deliberate speed."

Central High Confrontation
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Paratroopers were able to secure access to the school by the Little Rock Nine.

Integration would not be easy. Many school districts accepted the order without argument, but some, like the district of Little Rock, Arkansas, did not. On September 2, 1957, the day before the start of the school term the Arkansas Governor, Orval Faubus, instructed the National Guard to stop any black students entering the school. He claimed this was to protect the property against violence planned by integration protesters.

The federal authorities intervened and an injunction was granted preventing the National Guard from blocking the school and they were withdrawn on September 20. School restarted on 23 September, with the building surrounded by local police officers and nearly one thousand protesters. The police escorted nine black students, later known as the Little Rock Nine, into the school via a side door. When the crowd discovered the students had entered the building, they tried to storm the school and the black students were hurried out around lunch time.

Congressman Brooks Hays and the Little Rock mayor, Woodrow Mann, asked the federal government for more help. On September 24, Mann sent a message to President Eisenhower requesting troops. Eisenhower responded immediately and the 101st Airborne Division was sent to Arkansas. In addition, the President brought the Arkansas National Guard under federal control to prevent its further use by the Governor.

On September 25, 1957, the nine black students finally began their education properly, protected by 1,000 paratroopers.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

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The bus Rosa Parks made history on.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress and secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama, the chapter of the NAACP, boarded a city bus with the intention of going home. She sat in the first row of seats in the "colored" section of the segregated bus. At the next stop, whites were among the passengers waiting to board but all seats in the "white" front dividing the black and white sections to accommodate the racial makeup of the passengers at any given moment. So he ordered the four blacks sitting in the first row of seats in the "colored" section to stand and move to the rear of the bus so the waiting whites could have those seats. Three of the passengers complied; Mrs. Parks did not. Warned again by the driver, she still refused to move, at which point the driver exited the bus and located a policeman, who came onto the bus, arrested Mrs. Parks, and took her to the city jail. She was booked for violating the segregation ordinance and was shortly released on bail posted by E. D. Nixon, the leading local civil rights activist. She was scheduled to appear in municipal court on December 5, 1955.

Mistreatment of African Americans on Montgomery's segregated buses was not uncommon, and several other women had been arrested in similar situations in the months preceding Parks's. However, Mrs. Parks was especially well-known and well-respected within the black community, and her arrest particularly angered the African Americans of Montgomery. In protest, community leaders quickly organized a one-day boycott of the buses to coincide with her December 5 court date. An organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association, was also created, and the new minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the 26-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., was selected as the MIA's president. Word of the boycott spread effectively through the city over the weekend of December 3–4, aided by mimeographed fliers prepared the Women's Political Council, by announcements in black churches that Sunday morning, and by an article in the local newspaper about the pending boycott, which had been "leaked" to a reporter by E. D. Nixon.

On the morning of Mrs. Parks's trial, King, Nixon, and other leaders were pleasantly surprised to see that the boycott was almost 100 percent effective among blacks. And since African Americans made up 75% of Montgomery's bus riders, the impact was significant. In city court, Mrs. Parks was convicted and was fined $10. Her attorney, the 24-year-old Fred D. Gray, announced an appeal. That night, more than 5,000 blacks crowded into and around the Holt Street Baptist Church for a "mass meeting" to discuss the situation. For most in the church (and listening outside over loudspeakers), it was their first time to hear the oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr. He asked the crowd if they wanted to continue the boycott indefinitely, and the answer was a resounding yes. For the next 381 days, African Americans boycotted the buses, while the loss of their fares drove the Chicago-owned bus company into deeper and deeper losses. However, segregationist city officials prohibited the bus company from altering its seating policies, and negotiations between black leaders and city officials went nowhere.

With bikes, carpools, and hitchhiking, African Americans were able to minimize the impact of the boycott on their daily lives. Meanwhile, whites in Montgomery responded with continued intransigence and rising anger. Several black churches and the homes of local leaders and ministers, including those of Nixon and King, were bombed, and there were numerous assaults by white thugs on African Americans. Some 88 local black leaders were also arrested for violating an old anti-boycott law.

Faced with the lack of success of negotiations, attorney Gray soon filed a separate lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the segregated seating laws. The case was assigned to and testimony was heard by a three-judge panel, and the young Frank M. Johnson, Jr., newly appointed to the federal bench by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was given the responsibility for writing the opinion in the case. Johnson essentially ruled that in light of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, there was no way to justify legally the segregation policies, and the district court ruling overturned the local segregation ordinance under which Mrs. Parks and others had been arrested. The city appealed, but the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the lower court ruling, and in December 1956, city officials had no choice but to comply. The year-long boycott thus came to an end.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott made Mrs. Parks famous and it launched the civil rights careers of King and his friend and fellow local minister, Ralph Abernathy. The successful boycott is regarded by many historians as the effective beginning of the twentieth-century civil rights movement in the U.S.

Foreign Policy

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In addition to his desire to halt the advance of “creeping socialism” in U.S. domestic policy, Eisenhower also wanted to “roll back” the advances of Communism abroad. After taking office in 1953, he devised a new foreign policy tactic to contain the Soviet Union and even win back territory that had already been lost. Devised primarily by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, this so-called New Look at foreign policy proposed the use of nuclear weapons and new technology rather than ground troops and conventional bombs, all in an effort to threaten “massive retaliation” against the USSR for Communist advances abroad.

In addition to intimidating the Soviet Union, this emphasis on new and cheaper weapons would also drastically reduce military spending, which had escalated rapidly during the Truman years. As a result, Eisenhower managed to stabilize defense spending, keeping it at roughly half the congressional budget during most of his eight years in office.

The doctrine of massive retaliation proved to be dangerously flawed, however, because it effectively left Eisenhower without any options other than nuclear war to combat Soviet aggression. This dilemma surfaced in 1956, for instance, when the Soviet Union brutally crushed a popular democratic uprising in Hungary. Despite Hungary’s request for American recognition and military assistance, Eisenhower’s hands were tied because he knew that the USSR would stop at nothing to maintain control of Eastern Europe. He could not risk turning the Cold War into a nuclear war over the interests of a small nation such as Hungary.

The Warsaw Pact and NATO

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1955 saw the division of Europe into two rival camps. The westernized countries of the free world had signed NATO 1949 and the eastern European countries signed the Warsaw pact.

President Truman signing the North Atlantic Treaty.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created as a response to the crisis in Berlin. The United States, Britain, Canada, France, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and the Netherlands founded NATO in April 1949, and Greece, Turkey and West Germany had joined by 1955. The countries agreed that "an armed attack against one or more of [the member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all," and was created so that if the Soviet Union eventually did invade Europe, the invaded countries would have the most powerful army in the world (the United States' Army) come to their defense. When the Korean War broke out, NATO drastically raised its threat level because of the idea that all the communist countries were working together. As the number of communist countries grew and grew, so did the NATO forces. Greece and Turkey eventually joined NATO in 1952. The USSR eventually decided to join NATO so that there would be peace, but NATO declined them because they thought that the USSR would try to weaken them from the inside.

The Warsaw Pact
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The Soviet Union responded in to the addition of West Germany to NATO 1955 with its own set of treaties, which were collectively known as the Warsaw Pact. Warsaw Pact was also known as “The Treaty of Friendship”. The Warsaw Pact allowed East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Romania, and Bulgaria to function in the same way as the NATO countries did. The Soviet Union used this Warsaw Pact to combine the military forces unified under it. The Pact was supposed to make all the countries in it, equal. However, the Soviet Union took a little advantage of this by using the allied countries military wherever they wanted.[1] Unlike NATO, Warsaw forces were used occasionally.

As an alternative, Eisenhower employed the CIA to tackle the specter of Communism in developing countries outside the Soviet Union’s immediate sphere of influence. Newly appointed CIA director Allen Dulles (the secretary of state’s brother) took enormous liberties in conducting a variety of covert operations. Thousands of CIA operatives were assigned to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East and attempted to launch coups, assassinate heads of state, arm anti-Communist revolutionaries, spread propaganda, and support despotic pro-American regimes. Eisenhower began to favor using the CIA instead of the military because covert operations didn’t attract as much attention and cost much less money.

The 1953 coup in Iran

A CIA-sponsored coup in Iran in 1953, however, did attract attention and heavy criticism from liberals both at home and in the international community. Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers authorized the coup in Iran when the Iranian government seized control of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Afraid that the popular, nationalist, Soviet-friendly prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, would then cut off oil exports to the United States, CIA operatives convinced military leaders to overthrow Mossadegh and restore Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi as head of state in 1953. Pahlavi returned control of Anglo-Iranian Oil to the British and then signed agreements to supply the United States with almost half of all the oil drilled in Iran.

The following year, a similar coup in Guatemala over agricultural land rights also drew international criticism and severely damaged U.S.–Latin American relations.


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Hồ Chí Minh (Standing, third from left), posing with members of the Office of Strategic Services in 1945, a predecessor organization to the CIA. Ho Chi Minh had worked with Americans during World War II to collect intelligence against the Japanese[2], and hoped America could help create a Vietnam independent from French rule.
All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
—Hồ Chí Minh, Declaration of independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945.[3]

In 1945 many colonies, including French Indochina, hoped for independence following the War. When Japan surrendered to the allies a Vietnamese man, Ho Chi Minh, declared independence for Vietnam in Hanoi, quoting America's own Declaration of Independence in the very first lines of his speech in hopes of gaining American support for a Vietnam free from French rule.[3][4] However, with containing communism in Europe being seen as a more important issue, America took a stance of neutrality from 1946 to 1950.[5]

In the early 50's, Vietnam was rebelling against French rule. America saw Vietnam as a potential source of trouble, as rebels (known as the Việt Minh) led by Communist leader Ho Chi Minh were gaining strength. America loaned France billions of dollars to aid in the war against the Vietnamese rebels, but despite the aid, France found itself on the verge of defeat, and appealed to America for troops, but America refused, fearing entanglement in another costly Korean War, or even a war with all of communist Asia.

France surrendered, and the VietMinh and France met in Geneva, Switzerland to negotiate a treaty. Vietnam was divided into two countries: the Vietminh in control of the North and the French-friendly Vietnamese in control of the South. In 1956, the two countries would be reunited with free elections.

Eisenhower worried about South Vietnam. He believed that if it also fell to the Communists, many other Southeast Asian countries would follow, in what he called the domino theory. He aided the Southern government and set up the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954. The nations included in the alliance were America, Great Britain, France, Australia, Pakistan, the Philippines, New Zealand and Thailand, and they all pledged to fight against "Communist aggressors".

Cuban Revolution

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Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

In 1958 and 1959, anti-American feeling became a part of the growing Cuban revolution. In January 1959, the dictator of Cuba, Fulgenicio Batista, was overthrown by the rebel leader Fidel Castro, who promptly became the leader of Cuba.

At first, America supported Castro because of his promises of democratic and economic reforms. But relations between the two countries became strained when Cuba began seizing foreign-owned land (which was mostly U.S. owned) as a part of its reforms. Soon, Castro's government was a dictatorship, and was being backed by the Soviet Union. In 1961, Eisenhower cut diplomatic ties with Cuba, and relations with the island nation have been difficult ever since.

Suez Canal

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British and French forces make a move on Port Said during the crisis.

Back in 1948, Israel was created as a sanctuary of sorts for the displaced Jews of the Holocaust. At the same time, many Arabs living in the area were displaced. Tensions had been high in the Middle East ever since Israel had been attacked just after its founding. The stage was set for superpower involvement in 1956; the United States backed Israel, the Soviet Union backed the Arabs, and the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized, or brought under Egypt's control, the Suez Canal, which had previously belonged to Britain.

France and Britain worried that Egypt would decide cut off oil shipments between the oil-rich Middle East and western Europe, so that October they invaded Egypt, hoping to overthrow Nasser and seize the canal. Israel, upset by earlier attacks by Arab states, agreed to help in the invasion.

U.S. and Soviet reactions to the invasions were almost immediate. The Soviets threatened to launch rocket attacks on British and French cities, and the United States sponsored a United Nations resolution for British and French withdrawal. Facing pressures from the two powers, the three invaders pulled out of Egypt. To ensure stability in the area, United Nations troops were sent to patrol the Egypt-Israel border.

Space Race

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President Eisenhower meets with Dr. Wernher von Braun in 1960.

The Space Race has its origins in an arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in September 1949, the fear of nuclear war began to spread. The ensuing arms race led to the creation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), long-range rockets designed to deliver nuclear warheads from land- or submarine-based launch sites. The first successful ICBM test flight was on August 21, 1957, when the USSR launched an ICBM with a dummy payload over 4,000 miles to an isolated peninsula on Russia’s east coast that had been declared a military zone (Kamchatka Peninsula, which remained closed to civilians from 1945–1989).

On October 4, 1957, the Soviets successfully put the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. Americans were horrified. They feared that the Soviets were using the satellite to spy on Americans, or even worse, that the Soviet Union might attack America with nuclear weapons from space. America responded with the launch of its own satellite, Vanguard. Hundreds of spectators gathered, only to watch the satellite rise only a few feet off the launch pad, and then explode.

The failure spurred the government to create a space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA succeeded in launching the Explorer in 1958, and thus, the Space Race was initiated. With the creation of Project Mercury, a program to put an astronaut in space, America was pulling ahead. Nonetheless, the USSR was the first to put a man in space, when Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit in 1961. For the next 14 years, the U.S and the Soviet Union would continue to compete in space.

Many Americans were frightened during the start of the space race because this gave the Soviet Union a better ability to launch a surprise attack on the states. The United States of course immediately jumped on the bandwagon and did its best to become the first country to land on the moon.

Domestic Policies

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Under the Eisenhower Administration Project Greek Island was started to create a covert bunker beneath a resort near Washington DC where the government could continue to operate in the event of Nuclear War. Completed in 1962, it's existence was revealed to the public in 1992 by a Washington Post expose.[6]

Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as states during the Eisenhower administration.

Eisenhower established the Interstate Highway System in 1956 to bolster the economy, and to facilitate rapid mobilization of defense forces in the event of an emergency.

At the end of his administration, Eisenhower warned of the dangers of a Military Industrial Complex, fearing undemocratic influence from a rapidly growing defense sector.[7]

Everyday life in the 1950's

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The third McDonald's restaurant, and the oldest operating McDonald's. The aesthetics of this location are nearly unchanged from when it opened in 1953.

With the rise of television ownership came the rise of television shows. Emerging genres like Sitcoms (Situational comodies), talk shows, and game shows enjoyed widespread popularity. Easy to cook, ready made meals called TV dinners were introduced during this time[8]

The construction of the interstate system firmly established a car culture in America. Fast Food had existed prior to the 1950's, but the 1950's were when it really became a phenomenon, when franchising locations of popular restaurants became common, eventually leading to the formation of chains with uniform quality and items nationwide.

In the 1950's Pizza became an common staple outside of the Italian-American community, spurred by American troops returning from Italy, references to pizza in popular culture, and the establishment of chain pizza restaurants.[9][10]

Rise of the Middle Class

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In the late 1940s and 1950’s led to a rise of the middle class in the United States. With troops coming home from the war soldiers were quick to start families. The GI bill allowed for upward mobility for veterans. With free college and over four billion dollars given to trips the economy continued to succeed. With war savings and a host of new consumer goods on the market, America quickly turned into a consumer market. The best example of this would be automobiles and the television. In 1955, $65 billion was spent on automobiles. This represented 20% of the Gross National Product. In 1950 50% of American homes had a television. By 1960 this number was raised to 90%.

Rock and Roll

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Chuck Berry in 1957.

The term “rock and roll” was originally a nautical phrase referring to the motion of a ship at sea. In the early 20th century, it gained a religious connotation (referring to the sense of rapture felt by worshippers) and was used in spirituals. After this, “rocking and rolling” increasingly became used as a metaphor for sex in blues and jazz songs.

The origins of rock and roll lie primarily in electric blues from Chicago in the late 1940s, which was distinguished by amplification of the guitar, bass, and drums. Electric blues was played by artists like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Buddy Guy, who were recorded by Leonard and Phil Chess at Chess Records in Chicago. They inspired electric blues artists in Memphis like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, who were recorded by a Memphis-based record producer named Sam Phillips, also the owner of Sun Records. He later discovered Elvis Presley in 1954, and he also recorded early songs by Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins.

Rhythm and blues artists such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Ray Charles incorporated electric blues as well as gospel music. In the early 50s, R&B was more commonly known by the blanket term “race music”, which was also used to describe other African-American music of the era such as jazz and blues. Billboard didn’t replace the “race records” category with “rhythm and blues” until 1958. Doo-wop was a mainstream style of R&B, with arrangements favoring vocal harmonies. Other types of music that contributed to early rock and roll include African-American spirituals, also known as gospel music, and country/folk, which was primarily made by poor whites in the South.

Arguably, the first rock and roll song ever made is “Rocket 88”, recorded at Sam Phillip’s studio in Memphis in March 1951. It was credited to “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats,” a band that didn’t actually exist—the song was put together by Ike Turner and his band, the Kings of Rhythm. Jackie Brenston was the vocalist on the song, who also played saxophone in the band. What really sets “Rocket 88” apart is the distorted guitar sound: it was one of the first examples of fuzz guitar ever recorded. The amplifier they used to record the song was damaged on the way from Mississippi to Memphis. They tried to hold the cone in place by stuffing the amplifier with newspaper, which created the distortion. Sam Phillips liked the sound and decided to keep it in the song. Although “Rocket 88” was recorded by Sam Phillips, it wasn’t released by Sun Records, which didn’t exist until 1952. From 1950-1952, Phillips ran the Memphis Recording Service, where he would let amateurs perform and then sell the recordings to large record labels. He sold “Rocket 88” to Chess Records, which released predominately blues, gospel, and R&B. The Chess brothers started Checker Records in 1952, because radio stations would only play a certain number of tracks from each label.

Alan Freed (also known as “Moondog”) was a radio DJ who started playing R&B records on WJW in Cleveland in 1951. He is credited with introducing rock and roll to a wide audience for the first time, as well as being the first to use the phrase “rock and roll” as the name of the genre. He also promoted and helped organize the first major rock and roll concert, The Moondog Coronation Ball, which occurred on March 21, 1952. The concert was so successful that it became massively overcrowded – there was a near-riot and it had to be shut down early. Freed’s popularity soared, and he was immediately given more airtime by the radio station. His promotion of rock ‘n’ roll is one of the main reasons it became successful, and in recognition of his contributions to the genre, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was built in Cleveland.

“Payola” refers to the practice of record company promoters paying radio DJs to play their recordings in order to boost their sales. Payola had been commonplace since the Vaudeville era in the 1920s, but it became a scandal in the 1950s due to a conflict between the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and radio stations. Prior to 1940, ASCAP had made huge amounts of money from the sales of sheet music, but when radio started gaining popularity, recorded music became more profitable than sheet music. ASCAP demanded large royalty payments from radio stations that played their recordings. Instead, stations boycotted ASCAP recordings and created their own publishing company called Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). ASCAP tended to ignore music composed by black musicians or “hillbillies”, which gave BMI control of these areas. When rock ‘n’ roll became more and more popular, BMI became more and more successful. ASCAP (in addition to many others) believed that rock ‘n’ roll was the music of the devil, that it was brainwashing teenagers, and that it would never have been successful without payola. This was just after the quiz show scandal (when it was found that certain shows were rigged), and ASCAP urged the House Legislative Committee which had investigated that scandal to look into payola. The hearings that followed destroyed Alan Freed’s career, although it didn’t eliminate rock ‘n’ roll altogether as ASCAP had hoped.

Elvis Presley promoting Jailhouse Rock in 1957.

Several factors contributed to the decline of early rock and roll. Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were both prosecuted in scandals involving young women. Elvis Presley was inducted into the U.S. Army in 1958, and after training at Fort Hood, he joined the 3rd Armored Division in Germany, where he would remain until 1960. Three rock and roll musicians –- Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper” –- died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959 (“The Day the Music Died”). Little Richard retired from secular music after a religious experience. He ran a ministry in Los Angeles, preached across the country, and recorded gospel music exclusively until 1962.

Rock and roll music is associated with the emergence of a teen subculture among baby boomers. Teenagers bought records and were exposed to rock and roll via radio, jukeboxes, and television shows like American Bandstand, which featured teenagers dancing to popular music. It also affected movies, fashion trends, and language. The combination of white and black music in rock and roll –- at a time when racial tensions were high and the civil rights movement was in full-swing –- provoked strong reactions among the older generation, many of whom worried that rock and roll would contribute to social delinquency among teenagers. However, it actually encouraged racial cooperation and understanding to some extent—rock and roll was a combination of diverse styles of music made by different races, and it was enjoyed by both African-American and Caucasian teens.

Truman and Cold War · Kennedy and Johnson


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  2. "The OSS and Ho Chi Minh". kansaspress.ku.edu. Retrieved 18 September 2020.
  3. a b "Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam". historymatters.gmu.edu. Retrieved 18 September 2020.
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  5. "Episodes 1-4". National Archives. 11 July 2017. Retrieved 18 September 2020.
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