Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

PART SEVEN
The 1950s

Historians are wary of historical analogies, but many of them have found the analogy between the 1950s and the 1920s irresistible. Both were periods of apparent prosperity (later, much poverty was discovered underneath the glitter), of dedicated consumerism, of concentration upon commercial and material values. Both followed hard upon a war, and in both instances the public seemed to react against public exertions and to return with impressive singlemindedness to private pleasures. In both eras, social criticism virtually ceased; complacency dominated popular intellectual life and placed its stifling hand even upon higher culture. And in both periods, political life was characterized by blandness and low voter turnout, with the leading issues framed in cultural rather than economic terms.

In both cases the descriptions are derogatory. How is it that historians with few exceptions have considered both these decades below par? The reason chiefly, I think, is that both decades were followed by times of troubles whose origins lay in these two eras of complacency when so little corrective action was taken. After the 1920s came the Great Depression; after the 1950s came urban riots, racial disorders, the discovery of hard-core poverty, the revolt of youth, environmental despoliation, foreign policy disasters -- the entire spiritual and physical crisis of the 1960s and after. In each case, the subsequent time of troubles creates a critical perspective looking backward -- at the time when the troubles were brewing but men irresponsibly ignored them.

The 1950s are still too close to us (perhaps the 1920s are also) for settled judgment. Thus far, historians have been primarily interested in finding out why the spirit of conservatism was so strong, and in outlining its forms. There is, for example, a relatively large and impressive literature on McCarthyism, and on the radical right in general. One of the more perceptive studies of the far-right mentality is Richard Hofstadter's "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt -- 1954," reprinted below. The other two readings in this part illuminate another expression of the conservative temper of the 1950s, the domestic and foreign policies of the Eisenhower administration. Actually, to understand why and in what respects the 1950s were so conservative we must examine not only the right but also the left, which seems to have been involved in a fairly serious default of its own. But the history of the reform left and the radical left in the 1950s remains virtually unrecorded. Not much time has elapsed since the 1950s, and scholars have largely spent that time trying to illuminate the performance of the men who dominated the decade both politically and intellectually, the anti-communist conservatives from Eisenhower rightward through Senator Joseph McCarthy.

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