The Fifties

by David Halberstam

Hardcover, 1993

Call number

973 H



Villard (1993), Edition: 1, 800 pages


The Fifties is a sweeping social, political, economic, and cultural history of the ten years that Halberstam regards as seminal in determining what our nation is today. Halberstam offers portraits of not only the titans of the age: Eisenhower Dulles, Oppenheimer, MacArthur, Hoover, and Nixon, but also of 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 Gary Francis Powers; Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place; and "Goody" Pincus, who led the team that invented the Pill. A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

User reviews

LibraryThing member cwhouston
This is the best book that I have read for a long time. It is not however, a comprehensive history of the decade but rather, a detailed and engrossing account of American history during the period - no Suez or Hungary here. The breadth of coverage, in terms of topics covered, is stunning (housing,
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civil rights, foreign policy, pop culture etc etc) and it contains chapters about many, many things I knew nothing about.

Halberstam's writing style is easy to follow and includes an appropriate number of humorous anecdotes. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Muscogulus
David Halberstam is a self-styled “child of the fifties,” and this large book is a highly personal reflection on the events of the decade. From the author’s monogram on the front cover to the reflective “Author’s Note” on the final pages, The Fifties bears the imprint of the author’s
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sense of self. Halberstam was a college student and cub reporter during the fifties, and he reports to the reader that this era shaped his values and outlook. He therefore undertook this project in order to reflect on “things that happened when I was much younger” (799). Halberstam also assumes the role of a champion for what he considers an unjustly neglected decade in United States history.

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.
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LibraryThing member tmph
I read Halberstam's wonderful and important "Best and the Brightest" when it came out. This is the second one of his I've read and it is just about as good and important. It was also very heartening to read during the recent Gov't Shutdown fiasco, just to realize that people can be even more stupid
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and more evil and more self-interested and more ignorant and more manipulative. Even. And, yet, we survive and move on and change. A little.
I did not elaborate on the above. As bad as some things were in the Fifties, the US still passed into law and thru the courts de-segregation and fought towards the 1960s Civil Rights. It is often simply unbelievable what civilization can do.
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LibraryThing member gpangel
This book has been re-issued several times. This copy was provided by Open Road Media and Netgalley. This a lengthy book that attempts to cover an entire decade. The fifties did indeed bring about a great many changes to our country. This book reminds us of how suburbia took hold, motel chains like
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Holiday Inn took off , as well as McDonald's. We revisited the cold war , McCarthyism, Eisenhower's administration, Korea, desegregation, television, music, the pill, popular actors and movies, bombs, Cuba, popular automobiles, and a lot of politics. For me personally, I enjoyed the chapters that focused on the roles of women and their growing dissatisfaction and the subtle brainwashing the popular magazines used to sell an image that was impossible to maintain. I also enjoyed the chapters on pop culture. Elvis, Marilyn, James Dean , Marlon Brando, Lucy, and the infamous quiz show scandal. However, there were more chapters devoted to the H bomb, wars, and politics than anything else. While a lot of that was interesting, it did read like very dry history and I often found myself tuning out. I did enjoy most of the book and learned many things about the fifties I didn't know and I enjoyed the nostalgia as well. There are a few photos provided at the end of the book. Overall this one gets a B + Thanks again to the publisher and Netgalley for the digital copy.
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LibraryThing member wwj
Good history, interesting point that per Nixon ML King told Nixon that King voted for Ike in 56. Halberstam makes the point that the Democrats wouldn't have registered King in Ga. in 56.
LibraryThing member selfcallednowhere
I read this book because I'm writing a novel set in the '50s and I wanted to learn as much about the period as I could, and it certainly did teach me a lot. I found the author's lack of objectivity (giving very strong opinions about different people) interesting.

My only frustration with the book
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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.
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LibraryThing member name99
OK, I guess, but not very inspiring.

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.
LibraryThing member J.v.d.A.
Great read, covering a multitude of subjects and written in a popular style which is easy on the eye.
LibraryThing member JustAGirl
Fascinating and well written history of this tumultuous decade in American history: Elvis, Marilyn, the H-Bomb, McCarthy, Castro, Rosa Parks, Little Rock, The Feminine Mystique, TV, Sputnik... It all happened in the 50s and Halberstam covers them all and much more.
LibraryThing member NateJordon
For novel research...

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.
LibraryThing member carterchristian1
The author and I are the same age, both graduated from high school and college the same years. Therefore the fifties for both of use was "our" decade. What amazes me about reading this book, now 50 years later is how much of it went right by me. Of course much was also secret, as the spy planes
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over the USSR, and "now it can be told". However, not reading many newspapers, with only network tv, concerned with family and job. I just not have been paying attentiong. . I did nor realize the controvery over the H bomb, the possibility McArthur might have led us into nucelar war.

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.
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LibraryThing member mfassold
This is the first book of the late, great David Halberstam's that I read. Wonderful writing into the some light and deep events that happened in the 1950s. I have since read almost all his published works. My favorite historian/reporter.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
The 1950s. The greatest generation. To put it into perspective, Churchill announced America was poised to be the most powerful country in the world by 1950. The 1950s also gave birth to the microwave oven, Lucy and Desi, desegregation, Holiday Inns, the photocopier, McDonald's restaurant, the
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credit card, the polio vaccination, hip=shaking Elvis, the discovery of DNA, the color TV...I could go on and on but Halberstam does that for me brilliantly in The Fifties. He covers everything from inventions to politics; from fads to phenomenons; from people to places.
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.
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LibraryThing member hailelib
The Fifties by David Halberstam was a massive look at practically all aspects of the decade. Even though I lived through the fifties I was largely unaware of anything outside my immediate orbit until the sixties came along so I learned a great deal from this book. He began with the aftermath of
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WWII in the U.S. and Truman's Presidency before moving into the various events that the author felt defined the decade for the United States and then ended with the Kennedy-Nixon televised debate. The chapters on social trends and the early push for broadening the civil rights of minorities held my interest better than the ones on the political infighting and the meddling overseas in places like Central America.

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.
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LibraryThing member berthirsch
An easy book to read. The individual chapters stand alone as mini-masterpieces. A dynamic period in America's history. If you are a baby boomer you will love reading this book. Halberstam is one of the best journalists to write about the American Experinece.
LibraryThing member nx74defiant
A really interesting read. So many things got their start in the 50s
LibraryThing member RickTheobald
Extremely well done chronicling of this critical decade in our country...Reads like a novel, but loaded with important
LibraryThing member dasam
Who knew that the Fifties were so dascinating?

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
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deep and profound roots in the decade that gets unfairly painted as monochrome.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
Halberstam is of my parents generation and the 1950s were when they came of age, graduating high school and college, entering the work force. They were the "Silent Generation" because it is overshadowed by the larger Greatest and Boomer generations. The 50s tend to get short attention compared to
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the exciting 1940s (WWII) and the 1960s. Nevertheless, Halberstam makes a good case the decade was just as important. This simplistic thesis almost goes without saying (why else write the book?), but shows how dominate the narrative of the 1950s has become as a sort of gentle calm - rather The Fifties shows a time of great change in its own right. When it was published, I don't believe it received the kind of critical attention it deserved, fittingly for the Silents. It was ahead of its time, the early 90s and end of the Cold War sought to put that period behind us. But interest is starting to come around again, this book should see a lot more attention over the next decade or so. It is improving with age.
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LibraryThing member featherbear
The practice of using decades as a units of history seems to be popular in the US but not elsewhere. Appropriately, The Fifties is primarily about the United States; its topics may seem as insular as some of the individuals who figure in the story.. Another characteristic of the decade as an
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American historical unit is that it is probably more of a popular rather than an academic way to think about the past. The Fifties is popular not academic history.

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.
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LibraryThing member writemoves
I was born in 1952 and my recollections (as faint as they are) were of a much simpler time. But as Halberstam points out, there were tremendous changes about to begin in American culture, business, media, morals, technology and politics. The civil rights movement received a huge push with the Brown
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decision. The bith control pill was being developed.

I remember Dwight Eisenhower as a rather reserved leader. I was surprised about his promotions of overthrowing the governments of Iran and Guatemala. He would have also tried to over throw Castro if he had time left in office. He left that and the ill fated Bay of Pigs fiasco to the Kennedy administration.

I enjoyed the portrait of Charles Van Doren and the game show scandal. Joe McCarthy was shown as an alcoholic bully and liar. The Korean War was a mistake and we were about to repeat the mistakes of the French in Vietnam.

The portrait that registered most to me was Frederic Morrow, a black man who endured tremendous insults working in the Eisenhower administration. He was constantly humiliated when it came to travel and hotel arrangements. People treated him as a porter and driver. A very depressing story of the lack of civil rights and civility in the Eisenhower White House.

It’s a long book but there are so many interesting stories, people and events that even if you are not a historian, you will enjoy the book.
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