Baby Boomers in Hot & Cold Wars
Day-to-day life in rural America during the decades of the 50s and 60s was, on the one hand, quiet and pastoral. Yet, under the surface, the baby boomers who grew up during this time experienced a gnawing fear and knowledge that – on any one of those days and with little warning – their bucolic life could end.
This was a period with that had hot wars at the beginning and the end with a cold war in the middle. The Korean War started in 1950. The Vietnam War reached a climax at the end of the 60s. And the Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union threatened to erupt into nuclear war in the years in between. Even the most isolated rural communities knew they were targets of ICBMs, inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.
As in any war, young people were lured away from farms, either to enlist in the military or take jobs in the cities. But both Korea and Vietnam were smaller wars than World War II. There were over 12 million men and women in the military in World War II. There were roughly 480,000 Americans in Korea and 3 million served in Vietnam. Yet, despite the smaller numbers, both wars hastened the departure of young people from the farms.
William Luebbe (left) was directly affected by both wars. He had a brother who fought in Korea and a son who fought in Vietnam. William, himself, fought in World War II, but he’s not convinced wars are needed. “What I think they should do instead of settling their differences in combat and killing all the young people off,” he says, “they should sit down at the table and negotiate.”
The Cold War began much earlier. The Soviet Union came out of World War II as an ally of the U.S., but in name only. Because the Britain and the U.S. had not opened a second front against Germany in the early days of the war, Hitler had concentrated all of his forces against Russia. Over 7 million Russians died as a result. So the Soviets didn’t trust their former allies to protect the USSR. After the war, they created a buffer of puppet states in Eastern Europe. In 1946 Winston Churchill warned that “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent” in a famous speech in Fulton, Missouri.
In 1949, whatever feeling of invincibility that the U.S. may have had following the war was shattered when the Soviet’s successfully tested their first atomic bomb and Communist forces in China drove the forces allied with the West off the mainland to a tiny island known as Formosa (later, Taiwan). U.S. foreign policy became a doctrine of opposing Communist efforts to expand their influence anywhere else in the world.
That policy had serious implications all across American society, even on farms and rural communities. In much of the Great Plains, for instance, farmers had underground missile silos planted in their fields. Everyone knew that the missiles – thousands of them – were targeted to hit Russian cities and farms, and that there were thousands of Russian missiles targeted to destroy our missiles – and the rural people who lived close by.
Movies like On the Beach (1959), Fail-safe (1964) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) dramatized how a nuclear war could wipe out all life on the globe and how easily a war could begin.
Everyone growing up in the 50s and 60s knew they were the first generation facing a realistic possibility of worldwide destruction. And there were a lot people in the generation born after World War II.
The Baby Boomers, as they became known, were unlike no other generation before. The numbers were staggering –
- In 1947, there were a million more babies born than there had been in 1945.
- The number of births per 1,000 women went up from 80 in 1940, to 106 in 1950, to 118 in 1960 before dropping back to 85 in 1968.
- By 1960, about half of the American population was under the age of 25.
- Teenagers and young adults – between the ages of 13 and 25 – had an estimated $25 billion dollars (not adjusted for inflation) to spend. This was an affluent generation in ways their parents had only dreamt of.
- This was the first generation to grow up with television in the home bringing images of the world closer. In 1946, only 8,000 American households had a TV set. Ten years later (1956), a whopping 35 million homes had TVs. By 1970, 96 percent of American households had at least one TV and it was being watched an average of 6½ hours a day.
- Baby boomers born on the farm didn’t stay there. In 1900, more than half the U.S. population lived on farms, 46 million out of the 76 million total population. By 1950, only 16 percent of the population – 23 million people – lived on farms. By 1990, there were 3.87 million people living on farms, only 1.6 percent of the total population. Also, that farm population was getting older on average. In 1920, the median age of the farm population was 20.7. By 1940, it had risen to 24.4. By 1970, it was up to 32, and by 1980 it was up to 35.8. There were fewer young people left on the farms.
Beulah Gocke says that her kids were baby boomers. “They had opportunities that I couldn’t even thing about,” she says. “At one time there was like 23 kids under 12 years of age on this one little block and a half neighborhood.”