THE 1950s is usually thought of as a calm and somewhat uninteresting time in the United States. Marked by conformity, growing affluence, societal order, political conservatism, and cultural blandness, it was a quiet pause between the horrors of World War II and the disruptive '60s that followed.
Yet as journalist David Halberstam shows in his latest work, events and key personalities during the '50s not only made the revolutionary '60s happen, they were also as full of ground-breaking (and in some cases, earth-shattering) episodes as any decade in 20th-century American history.
"The Fifties," the latest in a string of books by one of the country's premier reporters, is a massive read - packed with details backed up by 41 pages of bibliography and footnotes and an 18-page index. Yet it is so readable, so dramatic in its unfolding, that one fairly flies from chapter to chapter. (There are 46 in all.)
The period is treated chronologically - from the growth of anticommunism and the consequent race to develop nuclear weapons during the Truman administration to the defeat of Richard Nixon by John F. Kennedy as the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower ended.
Halberstam focuses on the leading characters in this social, political, economic, and cultural history: physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, Sens. Joseph McCarthy and Estes Kefauver, popular writers Mickey Spillane and Grace Metalious, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, automaker Alfred Sloan, developer William Levitt, fast-food entrepreneurs Dick and Maurice MacDonald, motel-builder Kemmons Wilson, entertainers Milton Berle and Lucille Ball, filmmaker Elia Kazan, sex-researcher Alfred Kinsey, cultur al iconclasts Allan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, cultural icons Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., publisher Hugh Hefner, broadcaster John Chancellor, feminist Betty Friedan, quiz-show-scandal figure Charles Van Doren, and many more.
The early '50s was a time when returning servicemen became civilians eager to work, make money, buy their own home and car, and start families. For women, however, the period represented a step back in some ways. Used to working outside the home during the war, they now were expected to concentrate exclusively on homemaking and raising children.
Such trends were accompanied (and in some cases accelerated) by increasing mobility, the isolation of new suburbs, and growing consumerism. These, together with advances in technology, added to a weakening of extended family ties, which in turn allowed young people to strike out culturally and socially.
Internationally, the US became a superpower - pushing militarily beyond the Soviet Union (although the launch of Sputnik and alleged "missile gap" made it seem otherwise) while intervening forcefully in Guatemala and Iran and preparing to do so in Cuba and Vietnam.
One can argue that both the best and worst of contemporary American society saw their most important evolution in the 1950s: greater tolerance and equality of opportunity, but also pervasive materialism spurred by new advertising techniques. And in both cases, there was one critical tool - television.
As Halberstam sees it, "perhaps the single most important moment in the decade" was the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. the Board of Education. It was, he writes, "the moment that separated the old order from the new and helped create the tumultuous era just arriving." He continues:
"It instantaneously broadened the concept of freedom, and by and large it placed the Court on a path that tilted it to establish rights to outsiders; it granted them not only greater rights and freedoms but moral legitimacy, which they had previously lacked. This had a profound effect on the growing and increasingly powerful communications industry in the United States. Because of Brown, reporters for the national press, print and now television, felt emboldened to cover stories of racial prejudice. Thos e blacks who went into the streets in search of greater freedom found that in this new era, they were not only covered but treated with respect and courtesy by journalists. Brown v. Board of Education was just the beginning of a startling new period of change, not just in the area of civil rights, but in all aspects of social behavior. One era was ending and another beginning."
Seen from three decades later, the '50s is a pivotal decade. David Halberstam has done an outstanding journalistic job of proving this.
One relatively minor criticism of "The Fifties": Despite the length, I would have appreciated a concluding essay summing up the decade and its significance. But Halberstam has left the facts to speak for themselves.