The Fifties As I Knew Them

James Nuechterlein

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 80 (February 1998): 10-11.

The first duty of the historian, I used to tell my students, is to understand the past on its own terms. It should be obvious that good history requires an empathetic imagination: the ability to get inside the minds of those of other times and other places and see the world as they saw it. One may or may not, in the end, have sympathy for that other world. To understand a point of view is not necessarily to agree with it. But in any case, judgments of the past carry weight and invite assent only when marked with imaginative understanding.

Absent such understanding, historians fall into the fatal error of anachronistic judgment. In its extreme forms, we spot the error immediately. No serious scholar would take seriously, for example, a study of the Reformation era rebuking the disputants for their inordinate concern for religious dogma or their lack of mutual toleration. (Though I have read histories that did just that.) Protestants and Catholics fought each other over matters of doctrine because they were sure that these were, quite literally, issues of life or death. To "tolerate" an opponent's error on a fundamental point of doctrine was to consign all who might be seduced by that error to eternal damnation. Modern secularist scholars might wonder at that judgment and might well conclude that it is good that our present age has (for the most part) left that judgment behind. But if they are competent historians, they will, at least in the first instance, attempt to understand sixteenth-century religious disputes as the people of the time did.

Anachronistic judgments closer to us in time and place are more difficult to spot, but they are still abuses of history. I was reminded of that while watching, with rising choler, the History Channel's recent seven-part documentary, David Halberstam's The Fifties. (The series is roughly based on Halberstam's 1993 book and he figures prominently in it as a talking head.) The program's take on the fifties is essentially that of a prosecuting attorney's, and it brings to the decade's sensibility all the sympathy--and understanding--that H. L. Mencken brought to the rural culture of Tennessee in his coverage of the Scopes Trial in 1925. Where did these appalling (if often amusing) primitives come from, the series implicitly asks, and what are we civilized people to make of them? (I refer to "the series" rather than Halberstam himself because his book, for all its liberal superiority, had not nearly the air of unrelenting condescension of the television production.)

I do not pretend to disinterestedness on this matter. I came of age in the fifties, and I have a fondness for the period that quite transcends its actual qualities. My daughter recently remarked that, to hear me talk, civilization reached its fullest flower somewhere in the middle of the Eisenhower years. That exaggerates the point, of course--though, come to think of it, it is hard to imagine a quality of life richer than that attained in the American heartland in or about the year 1957.

My own prejudices aside, David Halberstam's The Fifties will seem, for those who lived through it, a grossly distorted portrait of the era--except, perhaps, for those who were miserable and alienated the whole time. There were such people, of course, as there are always people out of step with the dominant ethos of an age. But it seems odd that the perspective of the minority--and it was, except perhaps among intellectuals, a very small minority--should not merely overshadow but virtually obliterate that of the majority. This is a picture of the fifties pitched to the sensibility of the sixties. Indeed, the only hints of redeeming virtue the series finds in the fifties is in those instances where, as in the beginnings of the civil rights movement, we have anticipations of the next decade's excitements.

Other than that, it's all, to recall a phrase of the time, a vast wasteland. The first episode features the presumed twin horrors of the period--nuclear weapons and anti-Communist hysteria. Both, it seems, could and should have been avoided. The U.S. built a vast weapons arsenal to protect against a nonexistent military threat--the Soviet Union, we are duly assured, had no aggressive designs--and of course all anticommunism was nothing more than McCarthyism.

It is difficult to exaggerate the hysteria with which these hysterias are portrayed. One would imagine from this episode that the children of the age spent their days cowering under their school desks in fear of nuclear attack and their nights warding off nightmares about either those attacks or the Communists they had been warned were hiding under their beds. And it wasn't much better for grown-ups. One fearless liberal recounts the courage it took, what with all the political witch-hunts, to wear a Stevenson button. (He lived in Manhattan at the time and says this with a straight face.) The show can't even get the genuine evil of McCarthyism straight. The script presents the Wisconsin Senator as a political cynic, exploiting an issue he knew to have no substance. But scholars have long since demonstrated that McCarthy came firmly to believe in the internal Communist threat: he was undoubtedly a thug, but he was a sincere thug.

Aside from recurring sermonettes on the evils of American foreign policy--a lengthy segment on John Foster Dulles is an unrelieved diatribe--the other six episodes of the series pay no attention to politics. Eisenhower is mentioned only in connection with the cynical hucksterism that presumably dominated the decade. That episode--subtly titled "Selling the American Way"--manages to suggest without explicitly saying so that Ike's political popularity derived simply from the slickness with which his handlers packaged him.

Indeed, if there is a central theme to the documentary, it is the pervasive and pernicious effect of advertising on the culture of the decade. The fifties was one big meretricious illusion, the series suggests, its people hollow at the core, caught up in a mindless pursuit of empty suburban affluence, repressed in their sexuality, vulgar in their cultural tastes, neglectful of their civic duties--and mostly racist to boot.

The series gives favorable notice only to the decade's victims and dissenters: blacks, of course (the segment on race is easily the best episode--it's weak on context, but the visuals are great and for once the producers have a subject appropriate to their incessant moralizing); Betty Friedan, representing the decade's objectified and oppressed womanhood; Grace Metalious, author of Peyton Place and chronicler of the sexual urgencies seething beneath the era's surface of banal respectability; Alfred Kinsey, whose pseudo-scientific reports on sexual behavior are here celebrated as "darkness wiped away"; the novelist Jack Kerouac--more sexual liberation plus, with all his fellow beats, critic of the decade's "police state authoritarianism"; Ralph Nader, scourge of the auto industry and, more broadly, of the decade's smothering corporate culture.

Anti-Babbittry is by now a venerable tradition in American cultural criticism. Things could hardly be otherwise in a society so quintessentially middle class. And since the fifties represents the apotheosis of middle-class culture, it is not surprising--or even objectionable--that it should be a particular target for such criticism. But what established the original Babbitt as a minor classic of American literature was the undercurrent of affectionate sympathy evident beneath Sinclair Lewis' mordant satire. Part of him loved what he laughed at. More importantly, he brought to his portrait of George Babbitt--and earlier, of the inhabitants of Main Street--a deep understanding. He acknowledged, for all their foibles, their essential decency.

There is no comparable complex understanding in this documentary. The series is itself riddled with the banality, superficiality, and small-mindedness it deplores. It sets up straw targets and ploddingly demolishes them. Its great critical discovery, endlessly elaborated, is that ordinary people lead ordinary lives. The producers of this show aren't, in the end, radical critics. They're just snobs. And they don't begin to comprehend the decade they savage.

Now you understand why, throughout the time I wasted watching the week-long series, I had regularly to suppress the urge to scream at the innocent TV screen: "That's not the way it was. That's not the way it was at all." So why did I watch it? I guess it's either masochism or a fascination with the decade so compelling it can endure even David Halberstam's The Fifties.