Postwar American society is David Halberstam’s own special historical turf. In his trilogy on power in America, he focused on U.S. involvement in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest (1972), the omnipresence of American media in The Powers That Be (1979), and the American automobile industry in The Reckoning (1986). In a lighter and more personal mood, he took on the great symbolic sport of baseball in Summer of ’49 (1989), spotlighting the American League pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in 1949. The Fifties combines some of the sober gravity of his highly respected trilogy with a bit of the nostalgic levity of his baseball book. Such a combination is inevitable for the 1950’s—on the one hand, a decade that saw the apocalyptic advance of the hydrogen bomb and the righteous rise of the Civil Rights movement is not to be taken lightly; on the other hand, how can one take seriously a decade whose best-known figures were Lucille Ball and Milton Berle?
Indeed, the period of the 1950’s has not always been taken seriously. Sometimes dubbed the “placid decade,” the era is best remembered as a time of postwar enthusiasm, when the only war was a “cold” one and both the economy and babies were booming. It was the era of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, that grandfatherly soldier who “won” the war and would protect a society yearning for a new isolationism from all attacks, foreign and domestic. It has been characterized in nostalgic novels and films as a time of innocence—before drugs, before gangs, before the sexual revolution—when Father knew best, Mother was best at baking cookies, girls wore poodle skirts, and boys wanted to be like Ricky Nelson. Compared to the sometimes fearful and always riotous and free-wheeling 1960’s, the 1950’s was alternately delightful and downright dull.
Yet as Halberstam tells the story of the era when the baby- boomers were still babies, behind all this naivete and innocence was a hovering darkness, for beyond the joy of victory over the Japanese lurked the potential holocaust of “the bomb.” Moreover, trailing after the triumph over the Nazis was the fear of the “Commies,” an anxiety that led to the “Red-baiting” of the McCarthy hearings. As Halberstam narrates the details of the most important events of the period, he always pauses to provide the background of the era’s most important figures. He knows that the real meaning of McCarthyism lay in the person of Joseph McCarthy himself and that the underlying significance of the nuclear arms race lay in the conflict between the personalities of scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb.
The structure of Halberstam’s account is primarily anecdotal and chronological, for he seems simply to move from one event and one character to another. In fact, each of the book’s forty-six chapters could be read independently of the others. Nevertheless, an underlying theme runs implicitly throughout the book. It is first announced in the account of General Douglas MacArthur, a larger-than-life figure who, as Halberstam says, worked long and hard to create and perpetuate his own legend. With his dark glasses, rakishly placed cap, and well-crafted dramatic lines, he was the complete narcissist—more rhetoric than real.
With the rise of television, the most influential technological means of communication not only of the decade but indeed of the twentieth century, the difficulty of perceiving the difference between what was actuality and what was drama became more pronounced. The first real example of the power of the new medium was manifested the week of March 12, 1951: During the Kefauver hearings on organized crime, millions of Americans watched on small black-and-white screens the nervous drumming fingers of gang leader Frank Costello. Dramatic gesture dominated over mere language. According to Life magazine, the United States and the world had never witnessed anything like it, for never had the attention of the nation been so centered on a single event. The power of the media to focus more on image than on content was to become apparent also at the end of the decade, when a cool, smooth John F Kennedy faced the sweaty, exhausted Richard Nixon, whose five-o’clock shadow was partially responsible for his losing the presidential election of 1960.
Some of the best-known television performers of the decade purposely confused drama with reality, and audiences loved it. In 1951, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, married in real life, debuted in a show in which they portrayed husband and wife; I Love Lucy became so popular that the large Chicago department store Marshall Field’s closed on...
(The entire section is 1953 words.)