The '50S

THE 50'S IN MY MIND'S ARE a waxy blue-white, a shining cold-war iceberg drifting by in the wake of the khaki-brown '40s and the grit-gray '30s. As a child of those two shabby, beleaguered decades I was happy in the '50s; I entered them as a penniless high-school senior and left them as a home-owning father of three children and the author of three books, with a fourth, "Rabbit, Run," submitted to the publisher just as the decade ran out. Many Americans were happy in the '50s--but not as happy, looking back, as we should have been. The American economy was the world's behemoth. The imbalance of trade was over a billion dollars in our favor, instead of more than a hundred billion in annual outflow. Ten dollars bought a four-course meal in Paris, instead of a demitasse and a stale croissant. At home $10,000 bought a house, and a quarter bought a gallon of gas. You could walk most city streets without a qualm at 2 in the morning, and as to family values--boy, did we have family values! Divorce rates dropped, as did the age when people got married. Wives churned out new Americans at the highest birthrate in decades. Night after night, we clustered around the television set watching "Father Knows Best," "I Love Lucy," "Leave It to Beaver," "The Pat Boone Show" and "The General Electric Theatre," hosted by Ronald Reagan.

In the '50s, there was the nuclear family and there were nuclear weapons, featuring the H-bomb. It took its bow at Eniwetok in 1952 and then, for an encore, at Bikini in 1954. In 1953 the rather temporary head of the Soviet Union, Georgi Malenkov, ceremoniously announced, "The Soviet government deems it necessary to report that the United States has no monopoly in the production of the hydrogen bomb." With H-bombs all around, John Foster Dulles, the cold warrior's cold warrior, boasted of "massive retaliatory power" and, in 1956, explained brinkmanship: "The ability to get to the verge without getting into war is the necessary art." J. Robert Oppenheimer likened the U. S. and the U. S. S. R. to two scorpions in a bottle. The danger of mutual annihilation was real and dreadful enough, and percolated through every psyche, but by no means dominated life in the decade; the nuclear jitters coexisted with a private optimism and a shy, domestic hedonism. The thought of atomic war, like that of one's own death, was too big to be useful. An editorialist for Le Monde expressed the paradoxical formula: "The balance of terror is more and more the foundation of peace."

Peace it was, with some skirmishes--most painfully, in Korea, a muddy three-year struggle that ended where it began, on the 38th parallel. It was our first cold-war venture at tactical war and our first fight under the banner of the United Nations. Everything that was awkward and unsatisfactory about the conflict-self-imposed limits, unlovable allies, murky purposes in unfriendly terrain--became unbearably so in Vietnam 12 years later; in Korea, however, both sides accepted stalemate. MacArthur had wanted to go for an old-fashioned, all-out engagement, but Truman, confrontational though he was, always resisted the temptors urging him to set things right in China. Two oldish men presided over the '50s, Truman and Eisenhower, and in retrospect they seem pretty fair presidents, though the right detested Truman and the left scorned Ike. They kept the terror balanced. Sitting on Armageddon, they taught us to live with ambiguity. Eisenhower let the noxious Joe McCarthy slowly self-destruct and declined to rescue the French in Vietnam. When his turn came in 1959 to "lose" Cuba, as Truman had "lost" China in 1949, he swallowed the Pill and left it to his brash young successor to invade the Bay of Pigs and to test the Vietnamese quagmire.

The '50s got a bad rap from their successor decade, as conformist, consumeristic, politically apathetic, sexually timid. The decade didn't lack its own internal critics: Sloan Wilson in "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," David Riesman in "The Lonely Crowd," John Kenneth Galbraith in "The Affluent Society," Allen Ginsberg in "Howl." My generation, coming into its own, was called Silent, as if, after all the vain and murderous noise of recent history, this was a bad thing.

The '50s should be understood as, like the '20s, a postwar decade. The returning veterans had set the tone for the colleges: serious study, leading to the private redoubt of the career, the kids, the collie and the tract house. As in the '20s, business interests reasserted control over government. Idealism retreated from the public sector; each man was an island. The general turning inward was fruitful for the arts. In painting, the New York School, whether called action painting or abstract expressionism, reversed the artistic current that had always flowed from Europe to these shores, by creating a global -some said an imperial--style. Television, a flickering gray toy at the beginning of the decade, grew to dominate the average man's day and to alter his attention span, yet the '50s adults had grown up in a Gutenbergian universe, and literature was exalted as it would not be again. The modernist classics-- Eliot and Pound and Joyce and Stevens and Kafka and Proust--loomed as demigods to undergraduates and bohemians. What decade since the '20s could show a burst of novels as radiant and various as Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" and McCuller's "Ballad of the Sad Cafe" (1951), Ellison's "Invisible Man" and O'Connor's "Wise Blood" (1952), Bellow's "Adventures of Augie March" (1953), Nabokov's "Lolita" (1955), Kerouac's "On the Road" and Malamud's "Assistant" (1957), Connell's "Mrs. Bridge," Roth's "Goodbye, Columbus" and Vonnegut's "Sirens of Titan" (1959), to name but a few? The literary South saw itself in the grip of a renaissance, Jewish-Americans had found their amazing voice and the phrase "New York intellectual" still meant something.

America's artists and intellectuals, like those of the '20s, felt mostly a satiric estrangement from a government that extolled business and mediocrity. "The great problem of America today," Eisenhower said, "is to take that straight road down the middle," and his secretary of defense, Charles Wilson, claimed, "What was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa." By the middle of the decade Elvis Presley and Alan Freed's "rock 'n' roll" radio station offered teenagers a musical vehicle for their rebellious instincts, and an outsider style in word and deed was being developed by the "beats." When the generation being primly raised in the nation's Levittowns came in the '60s to seek a haven from respectability in "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," the site had been already prepared.

The 1950s' condition as a Postwar decade helps explain the something prim and spar-tan about it. There was a military rigor in its ticky-tacky housing developments and sternly boxy skyscrapers; a kind of platoon discipline in its swiftly assembled families. The nation was still war-hardened; when the nation's young draftees were asked to do battle in Korea, few thought to protest or resist, though few went with enthusiasm. When Senator McCarthy announced that traitorous Communists pervaded the government and that only draconian measures could defeat this inner enemy, many were willing to believe him; blacklists, congressional show trials and meaningless, redundant loyalty oaths for a time gave patriotism an ugly face. The citizens of the '50s were relatively docile, with more consciousness of duties and less of rights than we have.

How much we have they didn't!--personal computers and home videos, contraceptive pills and AIDS, legalized abortion and pornography, shopping malls and microwave ovens. Most main roads still ran through the centers of towns, and in the South, Jim Crow laws were still the rule. Black equality was the main domestic issue; Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1950, and Eisenhower reluctantly sent troops to Little Rock in 1957 to enforce the Supreme Court's 1954 decision outlawing segregated schools, but the national government followed rather than led in the civil-rights movement, which took its energy from inspired lonely defiers like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. What is. hardest to picture about the '50s is how many fewer of us there were, a hundred million less: the U.S. census for 1950 counted about 150 million citizens, moving about with no thought of acid rain or cholesterol, in a land where farmland now gone framed roadways now jammed. "American Chronicle," by Lois and Alan Gordon, fascinatingly lists year by year the expressions that came into use in the '50s, populating mental spaces until then blank: apartheid, H-bomb, integration, mambo, spaceman, cool jazz, hot rod, panty raid, ponytail, TelePrompTer, drag strip, name-dropper, cookout, countdown, discount house, egghead, girlie magazine, jet stream, windfall profit, split-level, captive audience, fallout, hard sell, togetherness, Thorazine, hip, hot line, greaser, automated, junk mail, cue card, stoned, blastoff, Third World, fuzz, cop-out, joint, put-on, funky, headshrinker, shook up, meter maid, beatnik, news satellite, DNA, sex kitten, sick joke, gung he, chick and polymorphous perversity.

A decade that had to invent all that surely can be forgiven its gauche tail fins and ducktails, its Hula Hoops and Contact-papered Populuxe kitchens. The decade was trying to reinvent pleasure and irony. By the time (1959) a "Nikita doll" could be advertised for sale ("Lifelike figure, in washable rubberoid, smiles, lolls tongue, says 'Peace' when tilted"), the cold-war iceberg was beginning to melt. In that same 1959, Charles Van Doren and host Jack Barry admitted to having rigged "The $64,000 Question," and nothing anymore seemed sacred. And also that year, Doris Day starred in a sexy feminist film, "Pillow Talk," with the closeted homosexual Rock Hudson, and Marilyn Monroe starred in a transvestite farce, "Some Like It Hot." Polymorphous perversity was at the door; the hectic '60s, hot and (in my mind's eye) a psychedelic red, would wreck our '50s marriages, shatter our faith in the anticommunist crusade and leave scarcely a hero standing. What one decade--a bit of a fuddy-duddy, but no fool--had carefully saved, the next recklessly spent. Perhaps the '50s didn't truly end until November of 1963, when John F. Kennedy was shot, and the frozen demons came out to swarm.

In 1957, I wrote a questionnaire fop the alumnae reunion of the Smith College class of 1942. I wanted to use the results to prove that education was good for women--that it hadn't made them frustrated as wives, mothers and homemakers. But while the women enjoyed their educations, I found that many were restive and unfulfilled in their traditional roles. "I'm B.J.'s wife; I'm Jenny's mother," one woman said, "but who am I?" I wrote an article on the questionnaire results, but nobody ran it. One magazine even wrote to my agent saying, "Only the most neurotic housewives would identify with this." Each time the article got turned down I interviewed more women. The more people I interviewed [for "The Feminine Mystique"] the further I saw that this was the problem that has no name.

The '50S | News