Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > Postwar United States
| United States historical travel topics:|
Indigenous nations → Pre-Civil War → Civil War → Old West → Industrialization → Postwar
The United States became the world's leading superpower as World War II ended in 1945. The following decades brought economic and social prosperity, remembered for counterculture, rock'n'roll, the Civil Rights Movement, the Space Race, the rise of suburban communities, and the development of nuclear technology.
The late 1940s had record high birth rates, creating a generation called the Baby Boomers. The Baby boom was a phenomenon throughout the Western world and ended elsewhere - as in the US - with the widespread availability of the contraception pill as well as an economic downturn in the 1960s. As these people are retiring during the 2010s, there is much nostalgia for the post-war decades.
This article focuses on locations important for American history from 1945 to the present day.
|“||I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."||”|
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
While World War II in Europe ended in May 1945, and the Pacific War in August the same year, much of Europe and East Asia was devastated, with the United States and the Soviet Union remaining as major rivals. The Cold War lasted until the Soviet Union was dissolved at the end of 1991, with "proxy wars" such as the Korean War and the Vietnam Wars or the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent US aid to the Mujahedin, as well as ongoing tension in Europe.
Rise of the automobile
From the 1950s and onwards, America became the promised land of the automobile. Motorcars were primitive in the Roaring Twenties (Henry Ford and his "Tin Lizzie" Model T might have gotten up to 25mph on a good day, if any decent roads were to be found); the Great Depression brought much road building as a make-work project for unemployed workers, but few could afford new vehicles. World War II halted civilian vehicle manufacturing as the "arsenal of democracy" turned to making the implements of war, leaving a massive pent-up demand for mass-produced autos once the conflict ended. As the middle classes soon had a car in every driveway, population in the post-war era began to shift from the cities to suburbs. Political programs implemented on the federal level but also state and local policies encouraged both this move to the suburbs and the mass motorization of society. Drive-in cinemas and drive-in restaurants began to appear at roadside, along with inexpensive motels with bright neon signage competing for travelers increasingly taking to the open road. As network radio stars migrated to television in the 1950s, motorists began to expect lodgings with a television in every room. US Route 66 in particular has become symbolic of this era, in which the principal highways were surface streets which led right downtown, often as Main Street in every tiny village. Anyone could easily start an independent business at roadside to vie for travelers' dollars. As car traffic increased to unmanageable levels, Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System - in part modeled after the German Autobahn Eisenhower had seen as a World War II general - began to gradually bypass many of these old roads with motorways through the 1950s and 1960s. The last piece of US Route 66 was bypassed in Williams (Arizona) in 1984; in some locations, towns died overnight. Attempts to revive the "historic route" for marketing as nostalgia tourism began soon after, with some properties restored to their original appearance in this era.
The rise of the automobile as well as aviation - both enabled by billions and trillions of dollars in state and federal funding, loans and tax- and land grants for the construction and maintenance of airports and highways - pushed other modes of transport to the side and to this day the US is one of the most car dependent nations on earth. The streetcars that had been installed in almost all major cities in prior decades were replaced by buses or discontinued altogether and passenger rail companies were on the brink of bankruptcy. Perhaps nowhere was this development as striking and as visible as in Los Angeles, that went from having one of the longest streetcar networks in the world to hardly any at all in the span of two decades. The creation of Amtrak is a direct result of Nixon "freeing" the railroads from their obligation to provide passenger service at huge losses by creating a federal entity to do that. While almost all Western countries (and to a degree even the Eastern bloc) underwent a similar development and the idea of the automotive city originated in Europe, nowhere but in the US was the development so rapid and the consequences so visible to this day. American cities are still - with very few exceptions - less dense than their European counterparts and - arguably - designed to better accommodate cars with more space devoted to parking and four six or even eight lane thoroughfares right through downtown. While some of the most extreme developments have been turned back and even the streetcar is making a tenuous comeback in recent years, the average person will have to rely more on cars than on public transport, bikes or walking for getting around most American streets; see United States without a car.
Civil Rights movement and counterculture
The 1950s were idealized in nostalgia as having been an era of prosperity after the hardships of the war and depression, but this view is simplistic. Persons of color often encountered discrimination in lodging and food service when traveling; by the 1960s, African-Americans were stepping away from the back of the bus and demanding equal treatment in interstate commerce as part of the Civil Rights movement. Women who had occupied manufacturing jobs "for the duration" of the war, "Rosie the Riveter" style, were sidelined from the workforce in the baby-boom 1950s. By the 1970s they were returning to the workforce in great numbers; a second income meant a second car in the driveway for many households, but less time to cook led to an explosion in the number and variety of chains promoting fast food in North America. It has been said and can be argued that the 1960s were the most violent decade in American politics since the 1860s with the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights Movement, a new incarnation of feminism, the embryonic beginning of the gay liberation movement, and all types of political radicalism deeply dividing the country. Several high profile political assassinations took place in this decade, including civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, politicians Bobby and John F Kennedy (the latter while president) and even the presumptive Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Politically speaking this era was tremendously important with leaders both on the left and right either being influenced by or even part of the movements of this time or defining their career in opposition to them like Nixon, Reagan, Goldwater and to a certain extent the modern day Tea Party movement. In fact, President Obama is the only President since the 1960s who is not defined in public perception by the things he said or did in relation to 1960s phenomena like Vietnam or the counter-culture. Even the candidates in the 2016 election were sometimes attacked during the campaign for their stances on 1960s phenomena - Clinton for her support of Barry Goldwater and Trump for his medical and college deferments during the Vietnam war.
Since the 1940s, the United States has dominated international popular culture, and the homeland of popular music genres such as rock, hip-hop, and electronic music. Hollywood has become a metonym for mainstream American cinema and TV series, often set in the United States; see fiction tourism. The country also became a world leader in stand-up comedy and modern and contemporary art.
The country also came to dominate academic research, boasting more Nobel Prizes and top university rankings than any other country. See Touring prestigious and notable universities in the U.S. and Science tourism. Still, while other high-income developed nations have become increasingly secular over the past decades, the United States continues to stand out as a bastion of Evangelical Christianity. This, however, varies widely from region to region, with the deep South being extraordinarily conservative Evangelical Christian, while larger cities in the Northeast, West Coast and Hawaii, as well as the city of Chicago are largely secular and liberal. Another striking trend since the 1980s has been one of increasing political polarization on a geographic and personal level. More and more Americans live in cities or counties usually dominated by one party at 20% margins or more. The divide is often simplified into Republican "red states" and Democratic "blue states", but even within "red states" strongly liberal urban centers and college towns exist, and many "blue states" have rural counties dominated by the Republican party. Today, Americans are less likely to associate with people of opposing political views if they can avoid it and according to polls, people are more at ease with a romantic relationship across religious or racial lines than one across party lines.
The Space Race
The Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik ("fellow traveler"), the first artificial satellite, into orbit in 1957 launched a race for Space which ended with NASA putting American boots on the Moon in 1969. Americans began to ask "if we can put a person on the Moon, why can't we do X?" and many predicted widespread space colonization by the end of the millennium. Cold War tensions continued, with the space race merely one more attempt to "get there before the Russians". Both sides knew the same technology which manufactured space exploration rockets could make intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry the weapons of a growing MAD arms race; this fueled a rivalry which ultimately ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the economic collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Since the last Apollo mission in 1972, manned spaceflight has been restricted to low-orbit missions, currently focused on the International Space Station. NASA remains world leading in unmanned probe exploration and observational astronomy.
America since the Cold War
While the 1980s saw the rise of alternative cultures such as hip hop and electronic music, they marked a peak in urban decay and street crime. Since the 1990s, stricter law enforcement, together with reduced air pollution and the rise of the service-sector economy, allowed many downtown areas to revitalize and gentrify. Urban rail and cycling see a renaissance in some American cities. While high-tech industries have flourished, especially in the "Sun Belt" of the South and California, the "rust belt" in the Midwest and upland mid-Atlantic has fallen behind, though its impressive heritage can be seen in the American Industry Tour. Cities like Detroit have been particularly hard hit by the "Great Recession" as the economic downturn starting circa 2007 has come to be known. While there are some signs of cities reinventing themselves it remains to be seen if they can bounce back.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States became the world's sole superpower. In 2001, the September 11 attacks left physical marks in New York City and Washington D.C., and started the War on Terror, which has defined the country's role in the world since then.
Another significant moment in the history of US civil rights would occur in 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidential election and became the first black person to be elected President of the United States. This era also saw two Presidential Elections with a split between the "popular vote" and the "electoral vote" with both Gore in 2000 and Clinton in 2016 losing despite getting half a million and almost three million votes more, respectively. This had last happened before that in the 19th century, and it induced another serious attempt at reforming the electoral system.
Decline of American manufacturing and rise of the tech sector
Ever since a peak in the decades after World War II, American manufacturing has undergone a steady, sometimes rapid decline. Reasons for this are manyfold, among them the rising cost of labor, especially compared to global competitors like China, automation making less workers necessary to produce the same amount of goods and arguably trade that made it easier to import cheaper goods from farther away. Some industries declined mostly due to other historical trends: when the days of the streetcar and expanding profitable passenger rail were over, there was much less need for anybody manufacturing rails, locomotives or trains. Others were made unprofitable by the local scarcity and rising price of once cheap and plentiful resources like coal or iron ore. "Union busting" may also have played a role as companies closed factories in the heavily organized Midwest and Northeast and moved them South where the Labor movement had either never gained a foothold or lost it by the time the industrial jobs arrived. This led to the decline of many Midwestern and Northeastern cities such as Detroit, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, which continue to suffer from urban decay, high unemployment and high violent crime rates. Still, this was the best of times as much as it was the worst of times as Silicon Valley and the Sun Belt gained more in tech and service jobs than the old industrial cities lost in manufacturing. Similarly, the US has now more jobs in clean energies than there were in coal even during better times for the mining sector. The US is among the global leaders in IT and the words of some entrepreneurs from the tech sector are revered as gospel in some corners far away from the US. Like other industries before it, the tech sector also grew through immigrants and their immediate descendants with people drawn to the creative environment that gave rise to Apple, Tesla Motors, Google or Amazon, all companies that were founded by immigrants or their sons as well.
In sports, this era saw the rise of professional American Football as the dominant sport, replacing Major League Baseball. This was mostly a result of the decade-long rivalry between the National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL) in the 1960s that resulted in a merger of the two and television exposure of every game on any given Sunday (though most games receive only regional exposure). Since the merger in 1970, one game every week has been played and nationally televised on Monday night, and more recently late-season games have been televised nationally on Thursday night as well. The championship game of the NFL, known as the Super Bowl, is now the biggest event on the American sporting calendar, with the largest television audience of any American sporting game. Baseball, on the other hand, somewhat missed out on the TV trend (relying more on radio and personal attendance at the games) and, while still hugely popular, has been losing ground against football ever since. Both sports also saw the end of overt racial discrimination during this era. Starting with an AAFC (a short-lived rival of the NFL in the late 1940s, some of whose teams were later merged, including the San Francisco 49ers) team being forced to sign black players by the owners of LA Memorial Coliseum and the breaking of the color barrier in baseball by Jackie Robinson who made his debut for the (then) Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. To this day Major League Baseball celebrates the anniversary of the breaking of the color barrier by every player wearing Robinson's number 42, a number that is otherwise retired league-wide. While racism played a significant role in sport well after that, every major team had signed black players by the end of the 1960s, the last being the Washington NFL team that was forced in 1962 to sign black players in exchange for the use of federal property (their DC stadium).
Ice hockey in North America, particularly the NHL, began its growth from the era of the "Original Six" (those six teams that had survived the turbulent early phase of the NHL and the Great Depression and have managed to avoid bankruptcy and relocation) to an ever bigger league, ultimately spreading even to warm-weather cities with little prior tradition for the sport.
The fourth major team sport in North America, basketball, did not truly establish itself as a national phenomenon until the 1980s. Prior to World War II, professional basketball had been limited to either barnstorming (traveling) teams or industrial leagues that were mostly regional in nature. The National Basketball Association (NBA), founded in 1946, grew steadily through the 1950s and 1960s, and survived a significant challenge from the rival American Basketball Association (ABA) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The NBA partially absorbed the ABA in 1976, but the end of the decade saw declining TV ratings, low attendance, and perceptions of drug problems among its players. The rise of the NBA truly began with the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in 1979, and was further aided by the 1984 arrival of Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player in the sport's history, and commissioner David Stern, whose 30 years in office coincided with enormous increases in league revenue and interest. This culminated in the formation of the "Dream Team" for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, when professional players were permitted to play for the first time. This team featured many all-time legends including the aforementioned trio of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, as well as Jordan's Chicago Bulls partner Scottie Pippen, and won all its games by huge margins on its way to the gold medal. The women's counterpart to the NBA, the WNBA, is one of the world's richest and most popular women's professional team sports league. Like its men's counterpart, the women's national team is also the dominant force in the world, having won every Olympic gold medal save for one (in 1992, when the countries of the former Soviet Union competed together for the final time as the Unified Team and won gold) since professional players were allowed to compete.
More recently, soccer (association football) has risen to become a significant player on the national sports scene, though not yet at the level of the traditional "big four" sports. The most recent attempt at a major professional league, Major League Soccer, began play in 1996 as a FIFA-imposed precondition for holding the 1994 world cup; after a slow start, it has now expanded to 23 teams throughout the U.S. and Canada, with plans to add more teams in the near future. Fan experiences that would not be out of place in major European or Latin American leagues can be found in a few U.S. cities, including but not limited to Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Kansas City, Portland, Seattle, and Washington. While not at the same level as the top European and South American teams, the men's national team has grown substantially in strength, due in part to immigration from African and Latin American countries where soccer is popular, and is today considered competitive with some of the mid-tier European teams, occasionally even pulling off upset victories over the top teams. However the 2018 was one of the first in the modern era without American involvement due to having fallen to soccer powers like Costa Rica. They have also developed a rivalry with their southern neighbours Mexico in recent years, with both teams often vying for supremacy in North American competitions. The women's team, on the other hand, is widely considered to be the best in the world, having won more World Cups and Olympic gold medals than any other team.
The United States has hosted the Olympic Games five times since the World War II intermission: In Squaw Valley in 1960, Lake Placid in 1980, in Los Angeles in 1984, in Atlanta in 1996, and in Salt Lake City in 2002, and for much of the second half of the twentieth century vied with the Soviet Union for domination of the medal standings; one notable exception being the 1980 Moscow games, where the United States led a boycott against the games to protest the Afghanistan war. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union led to the US becoming the undisputed dominant force in the Olympic Games; a position now increasingly challenged by China. The US has also hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994, and the FIFA Women's World Cup in 1999 and 2003. Los Angeles is now set to host the 2028 Summer Olympics, and the US has joined with Canada and Mexico in a three-way bid for the 2026 World Cup. Unlike Olympic games in 1976 in Montreal or 2004 in Athens that were seen as financial disasters for their host cities or the terrorism plagued 1972 Munich Olympics, the Olympic games held in the US were all seen as qualified successes at the least. In 1984 several pre-existing venues could be used, leading to Los Angeles actually making a profit off the games. In 1996, soft-drink giant Coca-Cola, founded and headquartered in Atlanta, provided extensive sponsorship which was seen as a crass commercialization by some but helped keep costs in check. The 2002 Olympics spurred construction of the popular TRAX light rail system and were less expensive than comparable Winter Olympics. All US Olympics were free of major scandal or controversies except for the 1984 Games, which saw a Soviet-led boycott in retaliation for the US-led boycott four years earlier.
In the 2010s American major-league sports also gave up a longstanding aversion to Las Vegas with an NHL expansion team being installed there for the 2017–18 season and the Raiders moving out of Oakland for the 2020 season of the NFL.
This is a concise thematic list of cities and places which either were the stage of significant events, or became important for the nation, during the post-war years.
Civil rights movement
- 1 Birmingham (Alabama). The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute commemorates the Civil Rights Movement.
- 3 Memphis, Tennessee. Known for racial and musical history. Elvis Presley's Graceland, and the Memphis Rock'n'Soul Museum.
- 4 Washington, D.C.. While most monumental government buildings in D.C. were finished by the early 20th century, and most of the post-war expansion has been in the suburbs, the city tells many stories about the post-war years. Through the Great Migration, D.C. became the first major American city with an African-American majority (African Americans today comprise less than 50% of D.C.'s population but are still the largest single group), and was an important stage for the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King's famous I Have a Dream speech was made at the Lincoln memorial.
- 5 San Francisco, California. A center for the post-war counterculture, such as the flower-power, anti-war and LGBT movement.
- 7 Seattle, Washington (state). Host of the 1962 World's Fair; later a center for high-tech industry and counterculture.
- 8 Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (Sullivan County (New York); hurd Road a half-mile N of NY 17B in the town of Bethel, E of the hamlet of White Lake), toll-free: , e-mail: email@example.com. In the mid-2000s local entrepreneur Alan Gerry realized a long-held Sullivan County dream of capitalizing on the Woodstock festival site's potential as a tourist draw. The original site, at the southeast corner of the intersection of Hurd and West Shore roads, has been left undisturbed and accessible. On the hill nearby is a modern amphitheatre that has hosted performances by everyone from acts that appeared at the original festival to symphony orchestras. The nearby museum is also a must-see for anyone wanting to better appreciate the cultural significance of the surrounding acres of what was once Yasgur's Farm.
- 9 Greenwich Village, NYC. A stronghold of avant-garde and counterculture since the late 19th century, and a birthplace of an era for the gay liberation movement; the historic drag queen riot against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, raged for a few days in June 1969.
Crime and terror
- 10 National September 11 Memorial & Museum (World Trade Center site - note that the term 'Ground Zero' is never used by New Yorkers), 180 Greenwich St (between West, Greenwich, Liberty, and Fulton Streets; Subway: to Park Pl or or to Fulton St or to Cortlandt St or to Chambers St or to World Trade Center), ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Memorial: daily 7:30AM-9PM; Museum: daily 9AM-9PM (8PM in winter), last museum entry 2 hours before closing. On the site of the former World Trade Center towers, the memorial consists of two enormous waterfalls and reflecting pools set within the footprints of the twin towers, lined with bronze panels with the names of the nearly 3,000 victims of that fateful day inscribed. The surrounding plaza holds a grove of trees. The museum, which sits underground right next to the memorial, contains exhibits which explain the events of 9/11 and their aftermath, with remnants of the original towers and artifacts from that day. Memorial: Free; Museum: $24 ($18 senior/veteran/college, $15 youth); free admission Tuesday evenings after 5PM.
- 11 Oklahoma City National Memorial, 620 N. Harvey Ave, ☎ . Memorial: daily 24/7; Museum: M–Sa 9AM-6PM, Su noon–6, last museum entry 1 hour before closing. On the site of the former Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, destroyed in a 1995 domestic terrorist bombing that killed 168 people—the country's deadliest terror attack before 9/11. Some of the more notable features of the memorial are a field of 168 empty chairs representing each victim (with 19 smaller chairs representing children killed in the attack); a surviving wall of the Murrah Building now inscribed with names of attack survivors; and the Survivor Tree, an American elm that survived the blast. The museum, which sits just north of the memorial, contains exhibits which explain the bombing and its aftermath, with many artifacts from that day. Memorial: Free; Museum: $15 ($12 senior/veteran/college/youth, 5 and under free).
- 12 . The NASA Space Launch facility. The Apollo facilities are on display.
- 13 Space Center Houston, 1601 NASA Road 1, Webster (located 25 miles south of downtown Houston in the NASA/Clear Lake area), ☎ . Summer hours: June 10am-7pm, July 9am-7pm, August 10am-5pm, 10am-7pm Weekends. Winter hours: Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 10am-6pm.. Indoor fun space museum with lots of hands-on space-science exhibits and artifacts from the full history of U.S. space exploration. A big hit with kids, but informative for adults. A highlight are the two tram tours of NASA's Johnson Space Center, one of which includes a visit to Mission Control and actual Apollo and Mercury launch vehicles, the other focuses on astronaut training facilities. $17.95 Adults, $13.95 Children (4-11), discounts for seniors. Parking $5.
- 14 Levittown, New York (state). A mass-produced planned suburb founded in 1947, which came to inspire similar suburban neighborhoods across the country.
- 15 Las Vegas, Nevada. The youngest of America's major cities. Since Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, this resort city has grown beyond any measure. From the 1950's to the 80's, it was a legendary hotspot for organized crime. Since then, some of the original buildings have been torn down to make room for even larger hotels and casinos, though some classical venues can still be found.
- 16 Los Angeles. Los Angeles contained one of the largest streetcar networks in the world in the 1930s which was dismantled almost overnight following World War II. Los Angeles was also a hub for military contractors, particularly in aviation as early as World War II. Once a city with below average racial tensions, it was also the site of the 1992 Rodney King riots, that broke out after an African American was brutally beaten by police with the incident caught on camera. The riots changed Los Angeles and brought with them police reform. Los Angeles, the site of Hollywood and still globally known for its freeways, used to be infamous for air pollution, but is now the American city where the urban rail renaissance is most visible with more than 100 miles of light rail and subway built since 1990.
- 17 Denver. Denver can be seen as one of many examples of the rise and fall and rise again of rail travel. It grew around the railroad in the 19th century, but by the 1950s more people arrived at Stapleton Airport than Union Station, the somewhat tacky "Travel by Train" logo affixed in that era notwithstanding. Downtown went into a decline, but in the 1990s and 2000s ambitious plans to revitalize the station area were drawn up and a rather popular light rail and commuter rail system was developed. The "Mile High City" is also at the forefront of the legalization of cannabis for recreational purposes.