The Communication of Ideas
The conventional image of the USA from the end of World War II to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, is of two febrile periods of heightened Cold War tensions, nuclear paranoia and domestic turbulence bookending a somnolent, self-satisfied and insular phase of conformity, commodity culture and conspicuous consumption. Two eventful Democratic administrations, Harry S. Truman (1945–52) and Kennedy (1960–63) bracketed the two ostensibly placid terms of Republican former Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose own buttoneddown, golfing, bridge-playing persona seemed to epitomise the suburbanised, conservative culture over which he presided. One could plot Hollywood’s output in this period along a similar contour: first, a brief postwar period during which the cycles of social realist and noir films pushed boundaries of subject matter and style, all too soon stifled by a reactionary political climate; then a decade-long retreat to socially irrelevant spectacles like the epic and the musical, during which innovation was largely confined to the presentation and promotion of Hollywood films, using novel or updated technologies like 3-D, widescreen and colour to consolidate an idea of moviegoing as spectacular escapism;1 eventually the first stirrings of a new, more artistically ambitious and daring cinema in which landmark auteur pictures such as Hitchcock’s Psycho (Par 1960), Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (UA 1960), John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (UA 1962) and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (MGM 1962) and Dr Strangelove (Col 1963) challenged, or indeed shattered, conventional constraints.
Inevitably, such a snapshot both contains a fair measure of truth, but is also a convenient caricature that misses or coarsens a great deal. Recent historians have stressed the Eisenhower era’s pivotal, transformative role in modern American history and the currents of controversy and dissent that circulated through it, often suppressed but at other times highly visible. It is also worth