Most popular accounts of the fifties look back at this period as a kind of long, comforting sleep, an era of affluence and complacency nestled between the war years of the early forties and the political activism of the late sixties. There is some justification for this nostalgic picture. According to historian J. Ronald Oakley, the fifties was "a time of consensus," notably at mid-decade, when "America was becoming homogenized" (314-15). "[F]or most white, middle‐ class Americans, and particularly white, middle-class males," he concludes, "the fifties was perhaps the best decade in the history of the republic" (434). When it came to representing the masculine contentment that Oakley alludes to, however, American culture in the fifties was more deeply conflicted than has been remembered. Perhaps nowhere are those tensions in greater evidence, this book argues, than in the era's movies.
Before going any further, I should explain that I do not take "the fifties" to refer, in a strictly chronological sense, simply to the years 1950-59. The actual demarcations of any momentous historical era do not follow the calendar, and what I am calling "the fifties" more accurately describes the years of postwar demobilization and the onset of cold war hostility, the span of time measured by the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. (For purposes of clarity, then, when I refer to "the fifties" I mean this historical era, and when I refer to "the 1950s" I mean the particular years inclusive of the chronological decade.) Historically, the fifties began with the United States' emergence at the center of global politics and the world economy after World War II. As Thomas J. McCormick recounts in his history of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy, "the American economy by 1946 was the workshop, the bakery, and the banker of the postwar world" (47). Taking advantage of its economic position and pursuing the agenda that had determined its wartime strategies in the Pacific Rim and the Ruhr valley in Germany, the United States quickly solidified its hegemony over both the world market and global politics, "presid[ing] over the integration of Europe into a North Atlantic community, the integration of Japan into a North Pacific community, and the Cold War isolation of the Soviet bloc." From this portentous beginning, the fifties saw closure once "American hegemony reached its pinnacle and simultaneously commenced its decline in 1958," for at this point "the first signs were perceived that America's inflated postwar trade balance might eventually become a trade deficit." Just as ominously for the future, "these first cracks in the economic edifice coincided with the first cracks in America's overseas political-military imperium" (238-39). The 1960 election of Kennedy—whose administration accelerated U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese Civil War, intensifying the militarization of the