This roundtable speaks to three of the most important historiographical tendencies in the study of the postwar United States. First, it is no longer possible to take seriously the claim that a consensus—liberal, conformist, or otherwise—prevailed in any arena of American thought or society during the 1950s. Recent scholarship has revealed the existence of potent challenges to the prevailing gender norms, centrist liberalism, and many other features of what used to be considered a monolithic “Cold War culture” or “New Deal order.” Similarly, the shaping power of the Cold War in that era has also been questioned. Although students of civil rights and American religion have recently connected their fields to the global struggle, a number of intellectual historians have moved in the other direction, rejecting a “Cold War determinism” that ties all aspects of postwar American thought to the clash of superpowers and domestic anticommunism. Finally, the periodization of postwar American history has taken a new turn, as scholars increasingly focus on the continuities across the period from 1945 to 1973 rather than identifying the 1960s as an epochal break.
Each of the contributors to this panel will focus on aspects of postwar American culture that illustrate its fractured and contested character, that operated with a significant degree of independence from the Cold War, and that spanned the entire period. Indeed, the phenomena they will address help to explain key features of American life today. The first two presentations will focus on academic thought, with a particular emphasis on science and religion. Andrew Jewett will highlight postwar struggles over the extension of scientific authority into the domain of the human, exploring the religious claims of cyberneticists and systems theorists as well as the identity struggles of Catholic social scientists. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen will track the emergence of spirituality as a potent category of analysis within the mainstream social sciences, a phenomenon that promised to counter the secularizing tendency of much academic thought. The other two presentations move into the realm of political thought, looking at how Americans struggled to harmonize the alarming developments of the postwar era with the prevailing forms of liberalism. Daniel Geary will identify splits in American liberal thought that took shape through bitter controversies over race and the student movement in the 1960s. Sarah Igo will explore the divergence of American thinking about privacy as a fundamental right from the reality of an emerging, computer-based society possessing sophisticated means of surveillance. Howard Brick, a noted specialist in the history of American thought and culture, will then provide his observations on the wider meaning of the four presentations. Taken together, these contributions will bring into focus a postwar America that looks very little like the textbook portraits—and very much like today’s troubled world.