title: The Fifties
author: David Halberstam
publisher: Fawcett Columbine [hardcover], Ballantine Books [paperback]
year of publication: 1993
reviewed date: June 25, 2008
The Fifties at Amazon
David Halberstam's The Fifties is not a standard history. It does not start in January 1950 and end in December 1959. It does not dryly narrate wars and treaties and acts of Congress. Instead it tells historical stories that give insight into the events, politics, and culture of the 1950's. Many of the stories start in the 1940's or trail into the 1960's. Often the stories are deftly woven together, as when a story about a business turns into a story about politics.
I enjoyed reading about Estes Kefauver, the maverick Democrat who earned the party's wrath by investigating the party's close relationship with organized crime. I found the story of the creation of Holiday Inn by Kemmons Wilson quite enlightening, because it showed how people's lifestyles were changing. I don't like the McDonald's restaurant chain, but the story of its creation from a single drive-in restaurant in southern California was fascinating.
Then there are the choice quotations, including this from Stewart Alsop on the possibility of a Republican electoral victory in 1952: "We shall have a first-class fascist party in the United States if the Republicans don't win. The real need for a change in this country arises, not from the decay of the Democrats, but from the need to give the Republicans the sobering experience of responsibility."
Of course there is quite a bit too of famous political characters such as Harry Truman, "Ike" Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and the Kennedy brothers. There is much about Fidel Castro and a bit about Vietnam, stories that would become more important in the 1950's. Of course Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare are covered in some detail. The progress of the civil rights movement reminds us that the Republican Party was far more important to African-Americans obtaining civil rights than was the Democratic Party, at least until roughly 1965.
There is also a great deal about movie stars, particularly Marilyn Monroe. To me the story of Grace Metaliou, author of Peyton Place, was more compelling. The culture of the 1950's was much about facade. Peyton Place, more so than Elvis or On the Road or any other Beatnik fare, showed the sexuality that lurked beneath the surface of the American dream of suburbs, big cars, and well paid union jobs for all.
The prosperity of the 1950's was built on two pillars: unionization of the workforce and lack of international industrial competition. By forcing the manufacturers to share the wealth, the unions increased the wealth. Domestic consumption fueled demand, which fueled full employment, which made more profits for the rich to share. But World War II had destroyed most of the world's factories outside the United States. Eventually the dream would come to an end; but there was no end in sight (if you except the possibility of nuclear war) on December 31, 1959. No wonder everyone liked Ike.
The Fifties is an excellent book that should interest not just those who lived through the period, but everyone who has lived in its wake.