Elaine Tyler May. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 1988.

Given the citizen consumer movement which placed women at the head of a strong political movement in the 1930s, why did they retreat to the home in the 1950s? Elizabeth Cohen argues that the feminization of culture and discriminatory lending, mortgage, and consumption opportunities for women discouraged their political involvement. Elaine Tyler May argues that “the domestic family seemed to offer a psychological fortress that would protect them against themselves. Bolstered by scientific expertise and wholesome abundance, it might ward off the hazards of the age.” The hazards of the age? The Cold War. In 1959, two out of three Americans listed the possibility of nuclear war as the nation’s most urgent problem.


May begins her book with a Life magazine cover featuring a “sheltered honeymoon” in a bomb shelter. Looking at KLS questionnaires from a sociologist interviewing married couples, May argues that George F. Kennan’s polices of (foreign) containment permeated the household. In the domestic version of containment, the "sphere of influence"was the home. Within its walls, 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.


Americans conflated the atomic bomb with “sexual chaos,” a conflation Bill Haley and the Comets best epitomized with “Thirteen Women,” a B-side which linked the unleashing of the atomic bomb with the unleashing of sex. Anticommunists turned their wrath on homosexuals and experts declared that the best way to “contain sex” was through early marriage which constrained women. Civil defense strategies of creating bomb shelters (“Grandma’s Pantry”) infused the traditional role of women with new meaning and importance which would help fortify the home as a place of security amid the Cold War. By the 1970s, these links have still pervaded: a sexy woman is a “bombshell,” or a “knockout” or a “dynamite.”


In a very provocative, and credible intervention given the Cohen and Denning as context, she argues that “observers often point to the 1950s as the last gasp of time-honored family life before the sixties generation made a major break from the past. But the comparison is shortsighted. In many ways, the youths of the sixties resembled their grandparents, who came of age in the first decades of the twentieth century.” Jazz Age Americans had pushed the divorce rate up and birth rate down, while Flappers introduced new dance moves of sexual deviance. By the 1930s, they had formed what was the Popular Front of progressive and feminist activism. The generation between the 1930s and 1960s is what stands out as different with its strong domestic ideologies and pervasive consensus.

May provides an argument later articulated by Laura McKeney in Civil Defense Begins at Home: Militarization Meets Everyday Life in the 1950s. McKeney shows how the Federal Civil Defense Administration decided to focus on private efforts. Most Americans either lacked the resources or were unconvinced that civil defense efforts, such as building “Grandma’s Pantry,” would do anything to protect them in the event of an atomic bomb. However, in spite of this lukewarm enthusiasm for nuclear preparedness, McEnaney shows that the domestication of civil defense led to the militarization of private life: gated communities, security systems, and SUVs. In  May’s history, the outcome of privatization of public concerns lead to the 1960s counterculture, as children growing up saw the frustrations of their parents first hand. As containment no longer seemed like a viable foreign policy option during the 1960s, neither did it seem like a viable domestic concern.

As a major aside, I did not like this book at all. She treats the KLS reports like a summary of how people responded. I think the way you’re treating your “how to start a band” chapter is a way better way of providing a series of quotes. Also, I think her argument is in general flimsy.


Also, May’s chronology is severely flawed. The KLS reports consist of interviews taken when couples were married in the late 1930s. You cannot ask what newly weds in the 1930s were thinking and claim that it’s what newly weds in the 1950s were thinking, especially if you’re argument is that those couples were motivated by anxieties from the Cold War.  Susan Ware reviews "To really prove the link between Cold War ideology and individual lives, May needed a Kelly like study that focused on Americans ten to fifteen years younger: that is, born between 1930 and 1935, teenagers in the 1940s, married in the early 1950s, and childbearing through the early 1960s. This is the generation, more so than those who came of age in the Depression, which ran smack into the juxtaposition of "cold war, warm hearth” as they moved from youth to adulthood.”


Although Cohen, by establishing the idea of a Consumer’s Republic, attributes public motives to private actions, and vice versa, May seems to offer a stretch. The public discourse of “containment,” for instance, does not factor as much as the thinks it does in the KLS respondents. It reminds me of Bruce Kucklick’s “Myth and Symbol in American Studies” (1971), which criticizes Leo Marx and Henry Nash Smith because it lacks substantial empirical data, a critique of May’s offered by William O’Neill in Wisconsin Magazine of History. The words of presidential speech, for instance, cannot be extrapolated as what every American hearing that speech is thinking or feeling. It seems like May is making that stretch. To refer to the sexual behavior of courting couples as "brinkmanship" is simply to give a new name to old practices, as Anne M. Boylan writes in Reviews in American History.