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The misunderstood DECADE

Reading David Halberstam's The Fifties (Villard Books, $27.50) is a bit like living through that often misunderstood decade. It's relentlessly thorough and hopelessly unfocused. But brimming just below the surface of nearly everything is the unmistakeable feeling that there is an explosion just waiting to happen.

That explosion, of course, came in the decade that followed. But as Halberstam's tome demonstrates again and again, while social and political grenades may have exploded in the '60s, the pins were pulled in the '50s.

In his massive work (it's 733 pages long), Halberstam never sets forth a coherent thesis about the decade. Instead, like a C-SPAN camera operator, he merely tells the story. Setting himself up in every nook and cranny of the '50s, he lets us watch the decade roll by in all its tedious and contradictory splendor, without much shape or form, without much in the way of commentary.

The cumulative force of the historical record he compiles, however, brings the reader to the numbing realization that the '50s were hardly the calm before the storm. While some liberals would have us believe the decade was simply boring, sexist and repressive, and conservatives are fond of portraying it as the Age of Family Values, the truth just isn't that simple.

As Halberstam, a self-described "child of the '50s," suspected, there was a lot more to this decade than Eisenhower playing golf.

The U.S. government overthrew foreign governments, manipulated newspaper coverage and spied on its allies. Communists were hunted under every bed as anxiety over the Cold War mounted. The seeds for the civil rights movement, the women's revolution and gay liberation were planted. Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and bad boy actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean rebelled with or without causes. Playboy was launched. Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique.

Halberstam's book recounts oversized cars with tail fins, Elvis' pelvis and Marilyn Monroe, as well as the McCarthy hearings and the Korean War. But he doesn't stop at the usual suspects. He also chronicles the less publicized but frankly more far-reaching and lasting developments of the decade, such as the 15-cent hamburger, the standardized motel chain, mass-produced housing and the Pill. These are innovations that still shape the way we eat, live, socialize, take vacations and form relationships.

Halberstam never stops to ponder these changes. He merely records them, and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

On the other hand, in another recently published book entitled The Fifties (HarperCollins, $20), author Brett Harvey is not afraid to point to what she concludes is the driving force of the '50s: the desire to be normal.

"Americans have a fondness for the '50s. We think of it as a jokey, cartoonish decade, full of too-bright colors, goofy space-age designs, outlandish people and events, extreme ideas," she says. "We collect streamlined appliances, big-finned cars, poodle skirts and Hula Hoops as artifacts from an exotic and slightly ridiculous era. We pore over Life magazines of the period, enthralled by the crisp black-and-white photos of couples in bomb shelters, the ads in which smiling, wholesome teenagers toss back Cokes, and families speed down country roads in gigantic Chryslers with Dad at the wheel. Behind our bemused fascination lies a yearning for a past as black-and-white as those old Life photographs. Under our nervous, condescending laughter at the old Father Knows Best episodes lies a longing for a time when women were women, men were men, and the rules were clear.

"What some of us tend to forget _ and what many of us are too young to remember _ is that the engine that drove the rules was fear."

It was a fear of the outside enemy _ Russia and the Communist world _ but also a social fear of difference itself, Harvey says. In an era when "

"containment' was a political as well as a social obsession," even the clothes women wore revealed the contradictions of the times.

"Fifties' clothes were like armor," writes Harvey. In the '40s "those swingy little dresses in soft, flowered rayon prints with shoulder pads had a jaunty, competent femininity." In the '50s, women wore stiff fabrics _ faille, shantung, felt, taffeta, pique. "Ridiculously starched skirts and hobbling sheaths were a caricature of femininity. Our cinched waists and aggressively pointed breasts advertised our availability at the same time they warned of our impregnability."

Subtitled A Women's Oral History, Harvey's shorter (228 pages) and more personalized volume makes an interesting companion to Halberstam's oversized and detached history of the period. By focusing on one aspect of the decade _ the decisions and attitudes of women in the '50s _ she gives shape to the misunderstood decade and gives us a way to interpret the events that Halberstam records.

She interviewed American women who came of age in the '50s: mothers, wives and career women; white and black women; straight women and lesbians. She discovers that despite our cliches about the decade, these women did not fit neatly into the theory of a repressive society. They were not "hapless, passive victims of a culture that forced them into their biological slots," but real women who "lurched, struggled, wavered, veered, regrouped, and floundered."

They reflected the contradictions of a decade when social change and social conformity, individual longings and family values all were part of the mix of a post-war world struggling to return to normalcy. A mix that in the decade to follow would prove to be volatile indeed.

We are still picking up the pieces.

Margo Hammond is book editor of the Times.