Post-World War II era set the stage for societal change

Samuel Damren

This is the fourth commentary in a series examining two periods  that Donald Trump claims were “great.”

It was “boom times” in America during the post-World War II period. However, not to dampen the congratulatorymood, we should recognize that America enjoyed a competitive edge on a scale that no modern nation has ever before enjoyed.  

Starting in late 1942, American and British planes spent nearly three years bombing our industrial manufacturing competition in Nazi-controlled Europe and later in Japanese-controlled Asia to rubble. As a consequence, during the decade and a half following the war, American industry operated without competitive rivals. It was little wonder that the economy flourished.

There are other parallels between today’s economy and the economy of post-World War II America: inflation caused by pent-up demand.

Economists were not surprised by the recent spike in inflation following the cessation of COVID restrictions and the opening of markets in 2021. The same episodic spike occurred after World War II and the Korean War when markets were freed from wartime priorities and controls.

Inflation spiked to 20 percent in 1947 and to 10 percent in 1952. Both quickly dissipated just as the annual inflation rate spiked at 7 percent in 2021 and now is only 3.4 percent.

Additional forms of pent-up demand affected American life during the initial post-war era. Millions of individuals outside our borders sought refuge from a world destroyed by conflict, persecution, and mass murder.

Based on the 1890 census, the Immigration Act of 1924 established a National Origins Formula which limited immigration from foreign countries both in gross number and tied to the percentage of Americans that shared the same race, ethnicity or country of origin as prospective immigrant groups.

The selection of the 1890 census purposefully skewed preferences to strongly favor WASP immigration by ignoring the 14 million immigrants to the country between 1890 and 1920 from non-English speaking countries in Europe as well as longstanding historical limitations on Asian immigrants.

The restrictive policies contained in the 1924 Act coupled with a protective Congress severely limited the United States response to refugees fleeing Nazi and Japanese tyranny in the years leading up to and during the war.

Given post-war support for returning GIs and for the admission of their wartime brides, fiancées, and family members as well as the desperate circumstances faced by millions residing in “Displaced Persons” camps in Europe, America did make adjustments. They were modest and far from meeting the need, but it was a start.  

These types of policy adjustments would become a re-occurring theme during the1950s to address a variety of social issues.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Americans had an insatiable thirst to “get on with their lives” and make up for the four years of opportunities and hopes that had been side-tracked or lost.

Government policies supported individuals’ efforts “to get on with their lives” and together created the American middle-class. Specific policies included the GI Bill supporting education, funding for the interstate highway system, and the continuation of high rates of income taxation instituted during World War II.

These policies and efforts along with the increased influence of labor unions in raising wages for working families all contributed to the rise of the modern American middle-class.

The war effort – requiring “all hands-on deck” – also demonstrated to minorities, women, and the underclasses that their contributions had made a significant difference. In the decades to follow, those groups began to push back against male WASP-dominated American society.

The momentum for social change that started in 1950s through the de-segregation of the military and the beginnings of de-segregation in public schools would later explode in the dramatic Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and gain further momentum in the 1970s Feminist Movement.  

This series originated from Nikki Haley’s observation that racism was a lot worse when she was growing up in the 1970s than it is today. Her criticism of 1970s era racism applies with all the more force to the 1950s and the same can be said for a host of other social issues.  

One of the many achievements of the Civil Rights Movement was the passage of The Immigration Act of 1965 which eliminated the National Origins Formula contained in the 1924 Act and allowed Nikki Haley’s parents and tens of thousands of other Asians to immigrate to America.

No one expects MAGA Republicans to model income tax rates on the levels of the 1950s, improve race relations, or offer meaningful assistance to displaced immigrants of color. That has never been part of the MAGA agenda. There is a political playbook from the 1950s that Donald Trump unerringly embraces which has served as a model for his political career since its inception.


Samuel Damren is an attorney and author in Ann Arbor,