The Fifties

by David Halberstam

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

Journalist David Halberstam wrote a popular cultural, political, and social history of the US during the 1950s (though technically the book starts in 1948). He argues that even those who see the Fifties as a simpler, easier, or better time should recognize that everything that is seen as turbulent or troubled in the 1960s had its origins in the 1950s.

Halberstam begins with a brief summary of the major events prior to the 50s: Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, the New Deal, and World War II. He argues that the 50s truly began with Truman defeating Dewey in the 1948 elections, when nearly everyone expected Dewey to win. He continues next with Truman's firing of General Douglas MacArthur, commander of US forces during the Korean War, over MacArthur urging the use of nuclear weapons against China and North Korea. He then gives an overview of Dwight Eisenhower's presidency, when he was seen as a calming presence in a troubled world. However, Eisenhower did make the grievous mistake getting the US involved early in Vietnam, sending troops and money to French colonialists.

Much of the decade was marked by fear and paranoia about Communism. Senator Joseph McCarthy's notorious witch hunt—responsible for ruining thousands of lives in a search for imaginary Communists he never found—roiled US society for the first half of the decade until he was exposed on television by journalist Edward Murrow.

The decade was also marked by H-bomb testing that devastated a number of Pacific island homes and killed American troops with radiation in Nevada and elsewhere. Scientist Robert Oppenheimer was forced out even though he led the Manhattan Project, based on false accusations. The Soviets launched Sputnik, beginning the Space Race. The decade ended with Castro overthrowing the US sponsored dictator Batista in Cuba.

Hallberstam spends an equal amount of time on the civil rights movement, which actually began in the 1940s. His focus starts with Brown v. Board of Education, which resulted in the Supreme Court ordering the integration of schools. Eisenhower mostly stayed out of it (except in his act of sending troops to Little Rock to enforce integration there). The successful Montgomery bus boycott was when Martin Luther King first became known as a national figure, and its tactics were widely used in the larger movement.

Halberstam also looks at major cultural changes, including the advent of television, companies like McDonald's, the process of white flight to the suburbs, pop cultural elements like Elvis and rock music, and new innovations like birth control that would eventually lead to the sexual revolution.

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