Getting the Fifties Right

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 53 (May 1995): .

There's a lot of talk about the 1950s these days, but most of it seems not quite right.Defenders and critics of the decade alike invoke it in support of their agendas for the nineties. Republicans recall the decade's virtues to buttress the case for their conservative program while liberal Democrats suggest that what was wrong with the fifties indicates what's wrong with the Contract With America-and with conservatism in general. That's all fair enough: the search for a usable past is a perennial subtext of political discourse.

But as is so often the case in such matters, the history summoned to duty is somewhat off-center. Present politics quite aside, my own partiality for the fifties is close to unqualified. Part of that, I confess, is nostalgia. I came of age in the fifties: at its beginning, I was confirmed in the Lutheran Church; at its end, I graduated from college. But there is more here than the personal: I do indeed endorse the politics of the fifties. But it's not quite the politics imagined by today's movement conservatives.

The conservatism of the fifties was a conservatism more of mood and temper than program. It was Burkean in that it relied on prudence over doctrine and on an unself-conscious rootedness in the traditions of the society. After the ideological extravagances of the thirties-Auden's "low, dishonest decade"-the broad national consensus on democratic capitalism quickly reasserted itself. Neither fascism nor communism had ever made sense here, and postwar Americans eagerly reclaimed their historic exceptionalism. The quintessential expression of political thought in the decade was Louis Hartz's The Liberal Tradition in America, which argued, persuasively if exaggeratedly, that classical liberalism was America's tradition and fate, that John Locke dominated American political culture as no political thinker dominated any society elsewhere. (It is often forgotten that Hartz was no participant in the presumed "American Celebration" of the fifties; he regretted the Lockean dominance that he reported.)

The consensus politics of the fifties was conservative, then, mainly in the sense that it was nonideological. It did not seek to extend the modest welfare/regulatory state of the New Deal, but neither did it wish to dismantle it. It agreed on anticommunism abroad and on the pursuit of prosperity at home. The era was, with the possible exception of the 1920s, as nonpolitical a decade as America has known in this century. In Dwight Eisenhower-the genial Ike-it found its classic nonpartisan expression. (And Eisenhower's opponents quarreled with him only at the margins. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, differed significantly from Eisenhower in style, but only modestly in substance.)

Today's conservatism is quite different. It is intensely ideological and partisan, and it reflects in spirit not the fifties but the sixties-if, to be sure, a sixties turned on its head. The new conservatives are the McGovernites of the right. They are the spiritual descendants of the William F. Buckley who founded National Review in 1955, and the NR of the fifties-very unlike today-was considered marginal, exotic, and curiously overheated. The difference between then and now is suggested by the fact that the NR of the nineties is the flagship journal of a counterrevolution looking to become the Establishment.

Left-wingers have their own misconceptions of the fifties. To them the decade was at once banal and reactionary, empty of ideas and dominated by McCarthyism and indifference to the oppression of blacks and women. There is a whisper of truth in that, but as a summary of the period it distorts matters beyond recognition.

The fifties was not at all unconcerned with ideas-it was in fact intellectually exuberant-but it didn't much involve itself with political ideas. Its leading thinkers had had enough of that during the ideology-ridden thirties, and they were quite happy to direct their primary intellectual interests elsewhere. That was a healthy instinct: a society that can conduct its political discourse within a broadly shared consensus, as America could in the fifties, should count its blessings, not berate itself for its lack of ideological curiosity.

That McCarthyism disfigured the decade cannot be denied. It was an entirely ugly episode. But it was just that-an episode, not, as revisionists would have it, the spirit of the age. (It can be made the latter only by conflating all manifestations of anticommunism with McCarthyism.) And McCarthy would not have gained the influence he did without the Korean War, whose outbreak in 1950 reawakened fears of Communist expansion and subversion. In other words, No Korea, No McCarthy, an equation confirmed by the fact that the end of his popularity-and he had never been all that popular to begin with- coincided with the end of the war in 1953. (He was censured by the U.S. Senate the following year.) None of this makes McCarthyism more palatable, but it does remind us of the simple fact that civil liberties do not ordinarily flourish in wartime.

On the issue of civil rights, the fifties made a start, if only a fainthearted one. (All political virtues have their corresponding vices, and the judicious moderation of the decade was offset by its absence of passion.) More should have been done to follow up politically on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, though Eisenhower did, however reluctantly, employ federal troops to enforce a desegregation ruling in Little Rock, Arkansas. He also got Congress to pass a civil rights bill in 1957 that, however weak, was the first such legislation since 1875.

Inexorable pressures toward racial justice developed in the fifties, among blacks especially but also among whites. The lack of political intensity common in those who were young in the decade marked us as the Silent Generation, but on the issue of race we made an exception. We did not organize marches-marching was beyond our political ken-but we made in our hearts the case for marching that the following generation acted on. (Rather too indiscriminately, as it turned out. If we would not march for anything, they would march for everything.)

The final element in the leftist critique of the fifties-that it ignored the plight of women-is wholly anachronistic. Blacks in the decade overwhelmingly felt a sense of oppression; women overwhelmingly did not. If women were victims, they colluded massively in their own victimization. It took, ironically, an unprecedented expansion of choices for women later to experience the sensation of oppression that Betty Friedan wanted to make retroactive. Female contemporaries of mine often look back on the fifties and wonder, from this distance, how they felt as comfortable with its assumptions as they did, but most of them do not deny that they did, in fact, feel comfortable.

Whether we regard the fifties favorably or not, one thing is certain: there is no summoning it back. The past is indeed another country, and there is no way, except in memory, to travel there. It is tempting to suppose that we could by act of will reconstitute the decade's political sobriety, moral seriousness, and cultural cohesion. But the circumstances of the past can never be reassembled; we can only make the best of what we have to work with at the present moment.

Yet those of us who lived there may be allowed a moment's nostalgia for an era that, cautioned by memories of the culture war of the thirties, had the great good sense-and good fortune-not to get itself embroiled in another one. It is often charged that the fifties lacked political imagination. Yes, and that was only one of the good things about it.