The 1950s Come to Life In Halberstam Series

The 1920s roared. The '30s were depressed. The '60s were radical. But what defined the '50s?

There may not be one single word to describe the decade, but "all the things that contributed to the revolution in the '60s were seeded in the '50s," says author David Halberstam in "The Fifties," a new miniseries based on his 1993 bestseller of the same name.

This seven-part, eight-hour production (airing on the History Channel Nov. 30-Dec. 5, check local listings) sets Halberstam's book to music and makes the 1950s come alive.

Through interviews with journalists and historians, and archival footage, this lively documentary takes a comprehensive look at the events that shaped America.

With the end of World War II, Americans looked forward to peace, prosperity, and simpler times. But beneath the surface, according to Halberstam, lurked conflict and fear: Citizens worried about Communists, the cold war, and nuclear attack.

"People were very comfortable in the '50s, and they wanted to keep what they had," says journalist Frank Gibney. "The Communists represented someone who wanted to take that away from you."

Two distractions from the public obsession with communism were religion and television. The '50s brought such developments as the book "The Power of Positive Thinking" and drive-in churches. TV's powerful ability to communicate also helped divert Americans' attention.

"Television was so new that people would watch anything," says the late broadcast journalist John Chancellor.

The third installment of "The Fifties," "Let's Play House," is one of the more captivating segments for its look at family life through three books: "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," by Sloan Wilson, "The Feminine Mystique," by Betty Friedan, and "Peyton Place," by Grace Metalious.

On the surface, these authors argued, Americans looked happy. But people felt isolated in their cookie-cutter tract homes. Women, many of whom had a taste of working outside the home during wartime, were left unfulfilled with only domestic chores; men encountered stress at home and at work. The corporate world required a different mind-set than the battlefield.

Movers and shakers like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner changed what many people considered was a repressive climate. A spirit of rebellion swept the country and Americans began to talk openly about sex.

"The decade was one of public repression and private liberty," says Mr. Chancellor. "You felt there was something in the air about opening up the society."

At the same time the character of American culture was changing. The civil rights movement pointed up violent acts being committed against African-Americans. Before television, racism had been invisible to white America. Through TV, charismatic leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. gained exposure and influence.

Toward the end of the '50s, fast food and fast cars entered into the picture. The Soviet launch of Sputnik shocked Americans, and events in Cuba and Vietnam foreshadowed darker times ahead.

Although rather long, the series is commendable for its thoroughness and attention to both the bright and dark sides of the decade. The 1950s may have seemed calm, but those years laid the groundwork for the social, political, and cultural explosions in the decades ahead.

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