Telling Lies about History: "The Fifties" on Television

By Kramer, Hilton | New Criterion, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Telling Lies about History: "The Fifties" on Television

Kramer, Hilton, New Criterion

Criticism, of course, cannot prevent lies from being told. But it does make it its business to see that they do not establish themselves as truth.

--George Watson, The Literary Critics

It is a melancholy task to return to the subject of David Halberstam's book on The Fifties,(1) first published to much misguided acclaim nearly five years ago and lately turned into a lengthy television series on the so-called History Channel that is an even worse travesty of the period than the author's original text. The book itself, running to some eight hundred pages of recycled myths, cliches, and caricatures drawn from the received wisdom of the Left-liberal media, is a monstrous compendium of misinformation about one of the most admirable epochs in American history. In the History Channel series this compendium of misinformation is, with a single exception--the segment on the Civil Rights movement in the South--translated into what is little more than a sequence of stupefying historical cartoons.(2) The result certainly isn't history, and it isn't exactly journalism, either. It looks more like an extended political campaign commercial in which the ideological battles of the 1960s and 1990s are being reenacted in the costumes and vocabularies of a mythical 1950s.

Regarding every improvement in American life in the 1950s, this version of The Fifties is utterly indifferent when not openly hostile. In virtually every act of enlightened generosity and national self-interest by the American government in that period, the History Channel series finds only conspiracy, deception, and paranoia. About the formidable dangers faced by the United States in the 1950s, this cartoon history is either contemptuous, prevaricating, or silent. As for the nation's achievements in that momentous decade, Mr. Halberstam and his guest commentators simply consign them to the Orwellian memory hole. About George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four itself, by the way, which was published in 1949 and became one of the most widely discussed books of the 1950s in this country, contributing a whole new political lexicon to the language, we hear not a word. But then, of course, almost the entire history of literary, artistic, and intellectual thought in the 1950s is similarly consigned to oblivion. In this account of cultural life in the 1950s, pop music and consumer advertising dominate, and what passes for the realm of intellectual accomplishment is left to be represented by the self-aggrandizing hokum of Allen Ginsberg--who, by the way, is never questioned about his role in creating the country's drug culture in the lengthy interview he is accorded in the series.

It is therefore worth recalling for amnesiac consumers of the History Channel--for its producers, too--that in the 1950s the people of the United States acted with extraordinary political magnanimity toward our vanquished adversaries in the Second World War, going to immense expense to lay the foundations for the creation of democratic societies in Germany and Japan, nations which had so recently attempted to destroy us. It was in the 1950s, too, that the u.s. devoted enormous resources to the rehabilitation of Western Europe through the Marshall plan--a political project that effectively saved Europe from the worst consequences of its own political cowardice and moral folly in the 1930s, a failure of nerve that led directly to the eruption of the war itself. Above all, it was in the 1950s that the U.S. shouldered at still greater expense the unwelcome burden of leadership in the Cold War, standing in opposition to a nuclear-armed Soviet Union that was rapidly expanding its domain of totalitarian terror into the far corners of the world--a burden that often met with fierce criticism not only from leftist fools in America but from the intellectual elites in the very nations that would have been the first to perish had American resolve not been so steadfast in its resistance to Communist tyranny. …

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