[Marxism] GI Bill, Mortgages, and Anti-Revolutionary Policy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 8 19:32:23 MDT 2012

On 5/8/12 9:09 PM, Timothy Barr wrote:
> I remember once reading somewhere that the VA mortgages and the government
> push for veterans to own homes had some relationship to the ideological
> contention held by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations that indebted
> people were less likely to participate in revolutionary activity.
> Has anyone heard this argument? Where can I read about it?


Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era

Elaine Tyler May's Homeward Bound weaves two traditional narratives of 
the fifties -- suburban domesticity and rampant anticommunism -- into 
one compelling historical argument. Aiming to ascertain why, unlike both 
their parents and children, "postwar Americans turned to marriage and 
parenthood with such enthusiasm and commitment," May discovers that 
"cold war ideology and the domestic revival [were] two sides of the same 
coin: postwar Americans' intense need to feel liberated from the past 
and secure in the future." (5-6, 10) According to May, "domestic 
containment" was an outgrowth of the fears and aspirations unleashed 
after the war -- Within the home, "potentially dangerous social forces 
of the new age might be tamed, where they could contribute to the secure 
and fulfilling life to which postwar women and men aspired." (14) 
Moreover, the therapeutic emphases of fifties psychologists and 
intellectuals "offered private and personal solutions to social 
problems. The family was the arena in which that adaptation was expected 
to occur; the home was the environment in which people could feel good 
about themselves. In this way, domestic containment and its therapeutic 
corollary undermined the potential for political activism and reinforced 
the chilling effects of anticommunism and the cold war consensus." (14)

May begins by exploring the origins of this "domestic containment" in 
the 30's and 40's. During the Depression, she argues, two different 
views of the family competed -- "one with two breadwinners who shared 
tasks and the other with spouses whose roles were sharply 
differentiated." Yet, despite the many single women glamorized in 
popular culture of the 1930's, families ultimately came to choose the 
latter option. Why? For one, according to May, "for all its affirmation 
of the emancipation of women, Hollywood fell short of pointing the way 
toward a restructured family that would incorporate independent women." 
(42) Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone 
with the Wind, for example, are both forced to choose between 
independence and a happy domestic life - the two cannot be squared. For 
another, New Deal programs aimed to raise the male employment level, 
which often meant doing nothing for female employment. And, finally, as 
historian Ruth Milkman has also noted, the gender disruptions occurring 
in the wake of the Depression, with men becoming embittered as women 
became the breadwinners, caused a great deal of familial anxiety and a 
desire to return to "normal" times.

During WWII, the two-breadwinner vision of the family suffered further 
setbacks. As May puts it, "women entered war production, but they did 
not give up on reproduction...Economic hardship was no longer a barrier 
to marriage, as it had been in the 1930s, and dependents' allowances 
eased the burdens of families if the breadwinners were drafted. But 
perhaps most important was the desire to solidify relationships and 
establish connections to the future when war made life so uncertain." 
(59-60) While the culture venerated female workers, it also promoted a 
return to domesticity after the war, a return encouraged by the gender 
bias of the GI Bill. Meanwhile, men were encouraged through pin-ups and 
propaganda to believe they were fighting for their own slice of the 
domestic, consumerist good life.

These trends were exacerbated by the unleashing of the atomic bomb. "As 
the cold war took hold of the nation's consciousness," argues May, 
"domestic containment mushroomed into a full-blown ideology that hovered 
over the cultural landscape for two decades." (91) It is in this portion 
of her argument that May makes some of her most fascinating claims. 
Using the Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev to underscore the 
connections between domesticity and containment, May explains how the 
home became the site at which such dangerous and destabilizing social 
forces as atomic power and female sexuality would be tamed. The home 
bomb shelter became the place of protection against the power of atomic 
energy, and the linguistic argot for women and the bomb became confused: 
"During these years a slang term for a sexy woman outside the house was 
a bombshell. (other terms connoting the devastating power of female 
sexuality included a knockout and a 'dynamite' woman...A photograph of 
Hollywood sex symbol Rita Hayworth was actually attached to the hydrogen 
bomb dropped on the Bikini islands. The island itself provided the name 
for the abbreviated swimsuit the female 'bombshells' would wear. The 
designer of the revealing suit chose the name 'bikini' four days after 
the bomb was dropped to suggest the swimwear's explosive potential." 

May spends the rest of the book examining how the home of the fifties 
became both a liberator and a prison for Cold War families. While sex 
inside the home was now promoted by the culture, premarital sex taboos, 
the "highly inflated expectations for sublime marital sex," and "sexual 
brinkmanship" (heavy petting right up but not including sex) all 
conspired to create sexual disappointment, difficulty, and frustration. 
(134) In lieu of sexual satisfaction, "consumerism and children [became] 
the rewards that made the marriage worthwhile," rewards that many Cold 
War families flocked to in search of a deeper meaning. (180) And, 
despite this often fruitless search (which recalls the findings of Betty 
Friedan's The Feminine Mystique), men and women of the Cold War era 
stuck together. As May puts it, "the home contained not only sex, 
consumer goods, children, and intimacy, but enormous discontent, 
especially for women. For many, there was no place else for this 
discontent to go, so it remained contained in the home...For these white 
middle-class couples, viable alternatives to domestic containment were 
out of reach. The cold war consensus and the pervasive atmosphere of 
anticommunism made personal experimentation, as well as political 
resistance, risky endeavors with dim prospects for significant positive 
results...With depression and war behind them, and with political and 
economic institutions fostering the upward mobility of men, the 
domesticity of women, and suburban home ownership, they were homeward 
bound. But, as the years went by, they also found themselves bound to 
the home." (207)

In the end, May concludes, it "is clear that in recent decades, the 
domestic ideology and cold war militance have risen and fallen together. 
Immediately after World War II, stable family life seemed necessary for 
national security, civil defense, and the struggle for supremacy over 
the Soviet Union. For a generation of young adults who grew up amid 
depression and war, domestic containment was a logical response to 
specific historical circumstances. It allowed them to pursue, in the 
midst of a tense and precarious world situation, the quest for a 
sexually-fulfilling, consumer-oriented personal life that was free from 
hardship. But the circumstances were different for their children, who 
broke the consensus surrounding the cold war and domestic containment. 
Whether the baby-boom children will ultimately be more successful than 
their parents in achieving fulfilling lives and a more just and tolerant 
world remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: gender, family, and 
national politics are still intertwined in the ongoing saga of postwar 
cultural change.

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