"The Fifties is a sweeping social, political, economic, and cultural history of the ten years that David Halberstam regards as seminal in determining what our nation is today. It is the decade of Joe McCarthy and the young Martin Luther King, the Korean War and Levittown, Jack Kerouac and Elvis Presley." "Halberstam not only gives us the titans of the age - Eisenhower, Dulles, Oppenheimer, MacArthur, Hoover, and Nixon - but also Harley Earl, who put fins on cars; Dick and Mac McDonald and Ray Kroc, who mass-produced the American hamburger; Kemmons Wilson, who placed his Holiday Inns along the nation's roadsides; U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers; Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place; and "Goody" Pincus, who led the team that invented the Pill. Here is a portrait of a time of conflict, at once an age of astonishing material affluence and a period of great political anxiety." "We follow, among other things, the quickening pace of American life and the powerful impact of national television, still in its infancy, on American society: from the Kefauver hearings to I Love Lucy to Charles Van Doren and the quiz-show scandals to the young John Chancellor of NBC covering the Little Rock riots and holding up a disturbing mirror to America."--Jacket.
As one of the most acclaimed non-fiction writers of his generation, Halberstam understandably presents his survey of the fifties in engaging, novelistic prose. The book belongs in the tradition of previous popular “decade” summaries including Eric F. Goldman’s The Crucial Decade and After (which Halberstam cites) and Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday, on the 1920s, and Since Yesterday, on the 1930s.
Halberstam’s thesis — that the fifties were “a more interesting and complicated decade than most people imagine,” and that developments in the fifties show “why the sixties took place” (799) — is not so much demonstrated as assumed, and Halberstam does not marshal evidence to support it. Instead, his approach is to narrate what he considers key events of the decade, combined with convincing character sketches of influential figures in politics, business, academia, entertainment, and the arts. Halberstam’s unevenly documented research rests on published memoirs, secondary works, and a considerable number of interviews by the author. The narrative drive of the book allows no room for criticism of these sources, and Halberstam seems to place implicit faith in the accuracy and truthfulness of his informants’ memories, even decades after the events being recalled.
The book’s structure is neither chronological nor thematic. Instead, the text is arranged in forty-six numbered chapters divided into three large chunks labeled, somewhat less than helpfully, as “One,” “Two,” and “Three.” Most topics are dispensed with in a single chapter, but some narrative threads, such as the career of Richard Nixon and the development of the oral contraceptive pill, are advanced in each of the three parts. The arrangement of the material appears to have been made for reasons of literary taste, further reinforcing the book’s resemblance to a contemporary novel. The index is thorough, but some entries point to adjacent pages rather than the page containing the targeted reference. For these reasons the book is difficult to use as a historical resource.
By interspersing character sketches within a well-written narrative, Halberstam uses a historiographical method dating back at least to Clarendon’s history of the English civil wars. Like Clarendon, Halberstam is an engaged narrator, writing for instance of U.S. foreign policy in terms of “we,” “us,” and “ours.” But whereas the royalist earl wrote from the perspective of order and authority, Halberstam’s sympathies are more often with his decade’s outsiders, rebels, and malcontents, from Jack Kerouac to Rosa Parks. Even his portrait of Joe McCarthy stresses the maverick senator’s misfit qualities.
In sum, The Fifties is highly subjective history. Its value lies in its comprehensive coverage of a wide range of events and trends by an engaged chronicler.
Halberstam's writing style is easy to follow and includes an appropriate number of humorous anecdotes. Highly recommended.
A thorough, in-depth investigation into a decade that gets too much credit for being another era of the "good ol' days" when there was much social, cultural, and political turmoil that is responsible for founding the counter-cultural revolution of the sixties.
There was nothing to hate in this, but nothing much to love either. We get pretty much what you would expect --- political history intertwined with social history.
A very, very well written book, that should be pulled out for rereading from time to time. Policy makers would learn a lot, though where we had been might still not affect the future.
I was especially interested in the bit about the cotton picker..both human and mechanical...
It was introduced as part of the topic on the northern migration of the southern black (Obama's wife's family story), but also had a good history of the invention and prefection of the mechanical cotton picker itself, biography of a man named
Rust. I immediately called my friend who manages family farms on the Mississippi and asked about the first time she had seen a cotton picker. About 1965 she said.
When she gave me a tour of her farms she kept commenting on how the people, the white sharecroppers (all white) had left, and there were no more people.
The book is replete with these unexpected details.
As a child in the 1950s I missed the import of much of what went on in the world. As a teenager in the 1960s, i thought of the Fifties as another era with a dramatic break between. Halberstam vividly shows that so much of what has happened since has deep and profound roots in the decade that gets unfairly painted as monochrome.
CONS: Ends rather abruptly. Tend to lose track of the year being covered; since a lot of the biographical sketches naturally pre-date the period under consideration. Noteworthy gaps in coverage: general financial history, infrastructure and the economy, and taxes. Feminist history lacks nuance. Focusing on Betty Friedan limits scope to college-educated women’s careers. LGBT history barely touched on. Nothing on the environment although to be fair, the book was written before it became a big topic. Maybe too much attention paid to what I would consider relatively trivial popular culture topics: basketball, rock and roll, quiz shows. The juxtaposition with the themes of race relations and the development of the birth control pill (and the hydrogen bomb) with lengthy coverage of the passion of Charles Van Doren or the adventures of Allen Ginsberg at Columbia made me a little uncomfortable.
PROS. Highly readable. The biographies and the details of the topics the author chooses to cover are skillful and on point. The technique is not all that different from pre-modern histories except the biographies aren’t about kings, emperors, generals and clerics. History as a series of interesting lives can be a little misleading, on the other hand. Some items I found interesting:
Theme. The triumph of the Midwest. The image of the family, the family car, and the interaction of family and car on TV, all come out of the Midwest.
Biography. Pat Nixon meets Gloria Steinem. Pat Nixon did not have a Betty Friedan childhood. While, understandably, the author emphasizes the growth of the economy in the 50s, one wonders what portion of the population was not able to float with the rising tide.
The ironies of US foreign policy. Eisenhower, a former general, was nevertheless a fiscal conservative. His objection to the military industrial complex was that its minions spent too much taxpayer money. The trump card for the MI complex was the conventional wisdom that the Soviets were devoting most of their economy to weapons development. The U2 spyplane showed that the size and power of the Soviet arsenal was highly exaggerated. Eisenhower and his staff knew this, but the thinking was that making this common knowledge would be admitting that the US was flying over Soviet airspace and would, in addition, undermine the CIA, so the information had to be classified. So during the Eisenhower presidency the Democrats and the Republicans out of the classified loop constantly attacked the administration for not keeping up with the Soviets because the government was not spending enough on weapons development. This also resulted in the administration considering nuclear weapons as the first resort in times of crisis because they were seen as the cheaper alternative to conventional weapons development.
Detail: the pill. Gregory (Goody) Pincus was denied tenure at Harvard (possibly because he was Jewish). With financing via Margaret Sanger, he put together a laboratory and staff that isolated the steroid that would be used to regulate ovulation. The big pharma company Searle controlled the patent on progesterone, the basis of the oral contraceptive, and did not pay out royalties to Pincus, his widow, and his staff, but Searle generously donated a half million dollars to Harvard research! Related detail: during the 20s it was apparently against Roman Catholic doctrine to perform a Caesarean section (logically as unnatural as condoms and the pill, after all). John Rock, instrumental in the development of the pill, was Roman Catholic (devout, not nominal) and was nearly denied the sacrament because he performed Caesareans in his practice.
Detail. In segregated Alabama, African-Americans paid fare to the bus driver, but were then required to exit from the front and enter through the back door of the bus. Some bus drivers did not open the back door and simply drove off. Many more details about life as it was lived by African Americans in the decade. Micro and macro aggression squared. Eisenhower’s racism (see the anecdote about Ralph Bunche) and how it allowed the Little Rock crisis to expand.
One of the best things about The Fifties is the insight into personal lives. For example, who knew that General Douglas MacArthur was a mama's boy? She "took up residence in a nearby hotel for four years" (p 80), while MacArthur was in school. Or that Lucille Ball was adamant about her real Cuban husband playing the role in I Love Lucy?
As an aside: you can't launch into the 1950s without backing up and talking about the mid to late 1940s. Expect a little history lesson before the history lesson.
As far as Halberstam's writing goes, some chapters flowed along smoothly but others really needed better editing to take care of wrong words that got by his spell-checker and the occasional awkward sentence.
My only frustration with the book was the lack of attention paid to women. I understand that in certain areas of life (e.g. politics) there just weren't many prominent women to discuss, but it seemed like there were other chapters when women could've been focused on more but were pushed aside in favour of men. And the discussion of the oppression of women in mainstream society at large was shoved way back towards the very end of the book.