Villard Books 800 pp $27.50
Readers of David Halberstam's The Fifties will likely fall into at least two groups: younger people who think of that remote decade as a subdivision of ancient history, and my generation, for whom the book will be a trip down memory lane. Both groups will find Halberstam's vigorously written, fact-filled narrative absorbing, informative, and sometimes troubling. All in all, the Fifties did not display the U.S. in its finest light.
In the years since, the major events and personalities of the Fifties have been extensively examined in books, articles, and documentaries. Halberstam has pored over these secondary sources, supplementing them with his experiences as a reporter during the decade, as well as with recent interviews, and has shaped a fresh account. Inevitably, depending on one's age and history, much of what he discusses will be familiar. But there is so much here that every reader will make discoveries. Moreover, Halberstam writes vividly, using colorful details and lively anecdotes to move his story forward and offering frequent value judgments. Knowingly or not, he follows Thomas Carlyle's observation that history is the essence of innumerable biographies: He builds his narrative around incisive word-portraits of dozens of men and women who played leading roles in the decade's tumultuous events.
His book reaffirms the ambivalent feeling toward the Fifties that I share with many friends. They were years of expanding horizons for my contemporaries and me--then in our early 20s, fired with the usual hopes and dreams. After sowing a regrettably modest crop of wild oats, we found jobs (not hard in those boom times), got married, and had children. Some of us moved to the suburbs, where we bought cars, houses, and, with some misgivings, tv sets on which to watch Milton Berle in drag.
Halberstam captures this pervasive sense of upheaval and opportunity, describing at length the explosive growth of suburban America and the new, automobile-based market of young families. Some astute businessmen profited from these demographic changes. Halberstam traces the careers of, among others, William Levitt, builder of Levittown; Kemmons Wilson, who created the Holiday Inn motel chain; and Ray Kroc, who made McDonald's hamburgers part of the national diet. At the time, most people thought of this as progress.
The decade also had its dark side. The cold war, inherited from the late Forties, was stalemated in Europe but heating up in Asia. Most citizens were half convinced the U.S. and the Soviet Union would eventually blow each other up--especially after both developed the H-bomb, 10 times more destructive than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
In January, 1950, President Harry Truman decided to push ahead with the thermonuclear bomb. Halberstam writes a riveting account of the struggle over its development, particularly between physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, allied with fbi Director J. Edgar Hoover, had Oppenheimer, who opposed the bomb, declared a security risk because of his left-wing ties. It was poor payment for his service during the war, when he led the team that built the atomic bomb. Halberstam calls this episode "one of the lowest moments in American politics."
Maybe, but it had many rivals. Senator Joseph McCarthy, fueled with a noxious mixture of facts, rumors, and lies from Hoover's secret files, persuaded many Americans the U.S. was riddled with commie traitors. Ferreting out subversives became a national obsession. The House Un-American Activities Committee moved into high gear, and blacklists began circulating. Halberstam aptly terms those years "a mean time."
True, there were bright spots. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down racial segregation in public schools. One bitter fruit of that decision, though, was a decade of entrenched resistance in the South. A constitutional crisis erupted in Little Rock three years later, when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus used his National Guard to stop nine black children from attending a previously all-white school. By this time, tv cameras were on hand to record a hate-filled mob screaming "Lynch her!" at a frightened little girl. As Halberstam says: "The whole nation and soon the whole world could watch America at war with itself."
It was not the Fifties' only war. At the start of the decade, the U.S. had more or less blundered into a costly, ill-defined "police action," in Truman's words, in Korea. With tv in its infancy, it was fought largely out of sight and mind of most Americans. A few years later, the government decided it should pick up the colonial burden the French were all too willing to lay down in Indochina, and the U.S. began its march toward the quagmire of Vietnam.
In 1953, the U.S. introduced a colorful new type of foreign policy initiative: the cia-run covert operation to overthrow foreign governments. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen, who ran the cia, were particularly fond of such enterprises, not least because they were relatively cheap. Sad to say, President Dwight Eisenhower reluctantly supported them. Their first target was the erratic Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, who had nationalized the British oil company there. Young Kermit Roosevelt, tr's grandson, who Halberstam says inspired Graham Greene's The Quiet American, led an operation that removed Mossadegh from office and converted Iran, under the pliant Shah, into a U.S. client.
Delighted, the Dulles brothers focused on what they saw as a problem closer to home: Guatemala. Not even the communists could have invented a better model of an impoverished banana republic. But in mid-1954, its leftist President, Jacobo Arbenz, made the mistake of expropriating some land owned by United Fruit Co. So the cia got him to resign--largely, as Halberstam tells it, by broadcasting false warnings that a rebel army was marching on the capital. Evelyn Waugh, meet the cia.
Government and politics are Halberstam's strong suits. He does less well on the social front, where he presents various icons of popular culture as emblems of momentous change. Elvis Presley's music "symbolized the coming together of black and white cultures into the mainstream." Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams "reflected a new and more tolerant order," as did Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place, and Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy. Here Halberstam seems to sense earthquakes when others would feel only tremors. He also traces the careers of feminist Betty Friedan and women's-rights pioneer Margaret Sanger, a driving force in the development of the Pill.
More significant, the Fifties saw the growing impact of television, as explosive in its way as the H-bomb. As Halberstam makes clear, tv transformed entertainment, advertising, and politics--largely by making them harder to tell apart. Advertising genius Rosser Reeves convinced politicians that short, punchy tv spots could sell candidates far more effectively than long, boring speeches about issues. Image began to triumph over substance, and, at least sometimes, over the common sense of voters.
TV's grip on the nation became clear from one of the era's seedier episodes. On Nov. 2, 1959, Charles Van Doren, a young teacher, confessed to a congressional committee that the quiz show Twenty-One, which had made him one of television's first instant celebrities, was rigged in every detail. The show's producers vainly argued that they were only trying to make it more entertaining, but millions of viewers expressed outrage that their trust had been betrayed. Today, after more than 40 years of television, would anybody even be surprised?
So, the decade ended with a whimper. My friends and I were glad to see it go, and with it, the generation that had been running things. We wanted change and pinned our hopes on John F. Kennedy, the appealing young senator from Massachusetts who was set to run for President. Vain hopes, vain regrets. But that's another decade, another story.