Book Review 393: The Fifties
THE FIFTIES, by David Halberstam. 800 pages, illustrated. Villard
W.H. Auden famously labeled the ’30s “a low, dishonest decade,” but the ’50s were as low and a whole lot meaner. There were men as mean as Hoover, McCarthy, the Dulles brothers, LeMay and Nixon in the ’30s but they were nowhere near as influential or as close to the center of power as the evil men of the ’50s were.
This is superficially odd. The United States came out of war and depression on top; it should have been a happy, confident decade. Halberstam writes about how it was not — race and anticommunism soured the mood — but never comes to grips with why.
A former newspaperman, he does have a good deal to say about how the press misled the public, although he does not spend much time with the gravest malefactors. There is nothing but respect, for example, for Time.
Of the two irritants, he deals better with race. “The Fifties” does give a pretty good sense of how much the dominant culture just wanted to ignore racism, and why the dislocations of the ’30s and ’40s made that increasingly unlikely. But there is very little about antisemitism and absolutely nothing about the racism directed at smaller minorities. The bile spewing out of Congress during the drive for statehood for Hawaii, for example, is never mentioned. Nor is the racism directed at Indians and Latinos.
It is not as if there was no sense of that at the time. This was the decade of the success of “West Side Story.”
When it comes to communism, Halberstam fails completely to grasp what happened. This is in part because of his misunderstanding of World War II (as especially exemplified by his admiration for MacArthur, the most incompetent professional soldier in our history).
He is equally clueless about the contribution of Eisenhower and America generally to the defeat of Nazism — nothing, as the defeat had been accomplished by the USSR before we came in. If Americans had recognized that the spread of Russia into central Europe was nothing more than an oscillation in the European balance of power, then there would have been no talk of giveaways at Yalta and Potsdam and accusations of treason against men like Marshall would have resulted in the accusers being sent to the looney bin. Instead they took control of Congress.
The rot was deep. Halberstam often refers to the “essential decency” of Eisenhower. That was the man who would not stand by Marshall, the way Acheson stood by Hiss.
I was a young boy at the time. Even I could sense the fear. In the 2000s, we made jokes about how if we abandoned this or that common activity “the terrorists will have won.” In the ’50s, they did win.
The one area where Americans conquered their fear was the civil rights movement, and Halberstam does a poor job of depicting that.
In the political arena, the part Halberstam gets best is the turn away from democracy in international affairs. He lingers over the overthrow of democratic regimes by the CIA (with the approval of essentially decent Ike) in Iran and Guatemala and the defense of colonialism in Southeast Asia, leading to the failure of American-sponsored fascism in Cuba and (after the end of this book) Vietnam.
For the rest of American society in the ’50s, Halberstam’s review is spotty. There is a great deal about Elvis Presley, not a word about Leonard Bernstein, and Mitch Miller is mentioned only because he happened to be present at an event early in the ’50s, long before he became a phenomenon.
It is hard to believe anyone could write 800 pages about American life in the ’50s without mentioning the move of two of the three big league teams from New York City to the West Coast, but Halberstam manages it. If you didn’t know better, you would think the only parts of America west of the Mississippi were Little Rock, Arkansas, and California — and not much of California.
It is also hard to imagine anyone writing a serious review of the ’50s without mentioning Billy Graham and his crusades, but Halberstam manages that, too.