The 1950s is a decade that mainstream history often forgets, as it is between the decade of a major war (1940s) and a decade of significant cultural change (1960s). However, the 1950s was as substantial a decade as any other, affected by the aftermath of the Second World War and laying the foundations for many of the changes that occurred in the 1960s. In this article, we will look at 7 historical events that took place in the 1950s, with many of these events still impacting the world today.
The Korean War (1950-1953)
Following the Second World War, Imperial Japan had to relinquish control of Korea, and the area was divided between the north and South across the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union administered the northern zone, and the United States administered the southern zone. The north and south zones became separate sovereign states, but tensions remained, with neither government recognizing the other and both claiming to be Korea’s only government.
Tensions continued to rise, and as a result, on June 25th, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea with 75,000 troops of the Korean People’s Army crossing the 38th parallel. The United Nations promptly came to the defense of South Korea, setting up the United Nations Command and encouraging their members to provide troops to the command. China and the Soviet Union provided support and soldiers to North Korea. Despite being at a stalemate from July 1951, both sides suffered many casualties, and fighting continued until July 27th, 1953, when the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed. 3 million civilians, almost 10% of Korea’s pre-war population, were killed in the conflict, and a further 2 million soldiers on both sides died. The war was also highly destructive, with most major cities in Korea destroyed during the conflict. The Korean War in the 1950s is considered the first military action of the Cold War.
As no official peace treaty was signed, the two nations are technically still at war (as of 2022), but in 2018, the leaders of both countries met and vowed to work towards establishing a formal peace treaty.
Elizabeth II becomes Queen of the United Kingdom (1952)
At the start of the 1950s, the monarch of the United Kingdom was King George VI, who ascended to the throne in 1936. Towards the end of his life, George suffered from poor health, so his eldest daughter and heir presumptive Elizabeth often covered for the King in public duties.
On February 6th, 1952, while Elizabeth and Philip were in Kenya covering for the King on a tour of the Commonwealth, George died in his sleep. Elizabeth was informed that her father had passed away and that she ascended to the throne as Queen of the United Kingdom. The Commonwealth tour was canceled, and the couple immediately flew back to the UK. They held the coronation a year later, on June 2nd, 1953, in which Elizabeth II was formally crowned Queen of the United Kingdom.
As of 2022, Queen Elizabeth II, aged 96, remains as monarch of the United Kingdom. She is Britain’s longest reigning monarch, passing Queen Victoria’s record in 2015, and she is the second longest reigning monarch of a sovereign state. She would need to continue as Queen until 2024 to take that record.
Rosa Parks refuses to move, and the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-1956)
On December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks got onto a bus after work and sat on a seat in the front row of the back seats identified as the “colored” seats (bus passengers in Montgomery were segregated by race). Later in the journey, the bus got busier, and the reserved “white seats” became full. As a result, when James F. Blake, the bus driver, noticed that white passengers were standing, he went to the sign that marked the “colored section” and moved it to a row behind Rosa Parks was sitting. The bus driver demanded that Parks and other black passengers give up their seats for the white passengers. While the other passengers followed the bus driver’s demand, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in defiance of the racist rule that was in place. The bus driver contacted the police, and Parks was arrested and charged with violating Chapter 6, Section 11, of the segregation law of the Montgomery City code.
What followed this was the organization of the Montgomery bus boycott. On December 5th, 1955, Montgomery, Alabama’s black population began boycotting the city’s public transit system. The boycott was very effective as most of the bus’s passengers were black. 382 days after the protest began, on December 20th, 1956, the boycott ended after Browder v. Gayle (1956), the court case which ruled that bus segregation is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, took effect and the buses became integrated.
While this was a significant victory, the civil rights movement still had a long way to go before racial equality was reached (as a result of the successful bus boycott, some lawmakers in Montgomery worked to make other areas of life more segregated). The 1950s was a critical decade for the civil rights movement, laying the groundwork for the significant developments in the following decades.
The Suez Crisis (1956)
The catalyst for the Suez Crisis occurred on July 26th, 1956, when the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal, which was privately operated by the Suez Canal Company which was majority owned by British and French shareholders. The US and UK promised to assist in the construction of the Aswan High Dam financially but pulled out of this due to Egypt’s growing relationship with the Soviet Union. Nasser then decided to nationalize the Suez Canal so that tolls could fund the dam’s construction.
As diplomatic efforts to regain control of the canal failed, Britain and France secretly conspired to partake in military action in the region, allying with Egypt’s hostile neighbor Israel. On October 29th, 1956, Israel’s troops advanced into Egypt, and in line with the plan with Israel, the UK and France demanded a cease-fire. With the demand ignored, France and Britain claimed they would ‘enforce the cease-fire’ and deployed troops around the Suez Canal, taking control of that area. While the three nations initially achieved their goal, the canal was unusable as before they were defeated, the Egyptian forces sank 40 ships to block the passage.
The invasion was unpopular with the allies of the UK and France, particularly with the United States, who demanded that the nations withdraw their soldiers from Egypt and threatened sanctions if they continued in this conflict. The threats worked, and the two European countries took their troops out of Egypt (Israel continued to fight until 1957). Both the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Anthony Eden, and the Prime Minister of France, Guy Mollet, were replaced within a year of the crisis, and the two countries’ reputation among the world powers was weakened. This crisis is often considered the moment Great Britain ceased to be a superpower, with the United States and the Soviet Union absorbing much of Britain’s influence in the Middle East.
The first artificial satellite is launched (1957)
The 1950s was the first decade of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, which lasted until the 1970s. One of the first significant achievements (often claimed to be the trigger that started the space race) was the first successful launch of a satellite into Earth’s orbit. The Soviet Union achieved this on October 4th, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik 1 into an elliptical low Earth orbit.
The mission lasted 22 days, emitting a beeping noise from a radio transmitter that could be listened to by radio operators on Earth. Sputnik 1 remained in the atmosphere for 2 more months after the end of the mission, falling back to Earth on January 4th, 1958.
The success of the satellite launch created the Sputnik crisis, in which the western world feared a significant technological gap between the United States and the Soviet Union. Among other things, this led to increased funding by the United States in education and the creation of NASA. The Space Race was another critical moment in the Cold War that dominated events in the 1950s and subsequent decades.
The rise of Elvis Presley (1950s)
One of the most iconic singers of all time, the “King of Rock and Roll” Elvis Presley, first rose to fame in the 1950s. He first gained popularity in Memphis and other regions in the South in 1954, performing alongside guitarist Scotty Moore and bass player Bill Black at clubs and events. Elvis Presley recorded and released his first single in July 1954, a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right.” It was an instant regional hit, selling 20,000 records and reaching number 4 on the Memphis charts. Following continued success in the South, Elvis signed with major record label RCA Victor and began releasing songs under them.
In January 1956, Elvis released his first single under RCA Victor, Heartbreak Hotel, which was a huge success, becoming his first number 1 in the US charts, number 2 in the UK charts, and the top 10 in the charts of many other countries. His national popularity continued to increase, helped by his appearances on national television shows such as the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 and 1957. Elvis Presley continued to release songs, and many of his most famous songs were recorded in the 1950s; Hound Dog (1956), Love Me Tender (1956), Jailhouse Rock (1957), Heartbreak Hotel (1956), and All Shook Up (1957) are just a few examples of Elvis’ iconic records from the 1950s. Alongside his music career, Elvis also began acting in the 1950s, appearing in 4 feature films in the decade.
Elvis Presley’s fame may have begun in the 1950s, but it continued to rise in the 60s, with Elvis remaining one of the most iconic figures in American music even after he died in 1977. He is believed to be the best-selling solo artist with 500 million claimed sales, beaten by only The Beatles in the all-time best-selling artists. Even today, Elvis’ legend still seems as popular as ever, with the release of the film Elvis (2022) about his life becoming the Second Highest Grossing Musical Biopic at Worldwide Box Office With $269.7 Million.
Fidel Castro overthrows the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship (1959)
The military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista had been in power since 1952 after Batista staged a coup in March, 3 months before the presidential elections. This new government was promptly backed by the United States, recognizing them the same month the coup took place. The United States had considerable influence over Cuba, with much of the nation’s economy relying on American business.
Before the revolution, Fidel Castro was an attorney with an eye on entering politics in the 1952 elections. However, with the successful coup, the elections were canceled, and shortly after, Fidel Castro began working toward overthrowing the Batista dictatorship.
From the mid-1950s until 1959, Cuba was in a state of civil war. Fidel Castro led the far-left “26th of July Movement” (named after the “first” battle of the Cuban Revolution, which took place on July 26th, 1953) revolutionaries against the far-right government of Fulgencio Batista. Fighting, bombings, property destruction, and the protest took place in the years leading up to the fall of Batista in 1959. With the battle between revolutionaries and the military raging, the government ran out of weapons and ammunition to provide to the army. This eventually led to the military no longer having the upper hand and even sometimes having to fight the revolutionaries with inferior equipment. On January 1st, 1959, seeing his position as President as unstable as ever, Fulgencio Batista fled the country, Fidel Castro declared victory for the movement, and his men entered Havana unopposed, going on to form the new government of Cuba. The government of Fidel Castro, similar to Batista’s, was a one-party dictatorship that did not hold free and fair elections.
His influence lasted far longer than just the 1950s; Fidel Castro’s Cuba played a role in the Cold War with the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s, and Castro remained as leader of Cuba until 2008, making him the longest-serving non-royal head of state. His party, the Communist Party of Cuba, still holds power in the country today (2022).
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