Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Enduring Impact of the 1950s

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I discuss how the 1950s, usually seen as a placid time, laid the foundation for the turbulent 1960s.

In 1971, singer-songwriter Don McLean released an epic hit song, “American Pie,” which traced in symbolic language the journey of American politics and culture from the time of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and his fellow rock stars in 1959 to the assassinations and climate of fear that menaced society by the end of the 1960s. In McLean’s lyrics, Buddy Holly’s death is characterized as the “day the music died,” but more broadly the songwriter suggests that America passed from a more innocent time just after World War II to an epoch of disillusionment and division during the Vietnam War.

That image of the 1950s as placid and monotone resulted from a conscious propaganda effort by American elites, according to English scholar Alan Nadel. He argues in "Containment Culture: American Narrative, Postmodernism and the Atomic Age" that the politically powerful in the immediate post-World War II era sought not only to contain communism – to prevent the Soviet empire from expanding beyond Eastern Europe – but to contain the revolutionary changes in family life that had taken place during the Great Depression and World War II. In the tumultuous 16-year period from 1929 to 1945, women had often served as the primary breadwinners for the family, and managed the home alone while their husbands wandered off in search of work or to fight in Europe and Asia. These women had experienced, often for the first time, relatively decent wages and the wider social circle at factory shop floors, and came away from these experiences yearning for a life beyond the home.

The expectations, frustrations, and dreams that fueled the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s – what Betty Friedan would call “the problem with no name” -- were in place by the early 1950s. The African American Civil Rights Movement, meanwhile, had already reached full tilt and blacks had already scored some of their most important legal victories in their campaign for equality before 1960, starting with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Mexican American politics remained largely shaped by conservatism, but young Mexicans had before them the model of black protestors. Witnessing the triumphs and tragedy of the African American civil rights campaign in the Fifties would inspire a more radical Chicano generation a decade later. Turmoil marked the Fifties, with only some of the ferment under the surface.

American sexual attitudes had always been more varied than the myth promoted by the decade’s situation comedies. Most did not live the tame, bland, conformist existence portrayed on programs like "The Donna Reed Show." Behind the walls of those suburban homes, Americans experimented with premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality and alternative family structures. If the 1960s would be characterized as the “Sexual Revolution,” the first shots of that rebellion had been fired in the late 1940s and the1950s. The popular culture reflected this more open sexuality in advertising. Movies, suffering a loss of audience because of the growing ownership of television sets, also became more frankly erotic in content.

Behind a sexual opening up of the culture loomed a growing awareness of the mass market provided by those millions of children born during the Baby Boom. In the earliest days of television, children’s programs rapidly expanded and advertisers realized they could go over the heads of parents and aim their commercials for toy guns, Barbie Dolls and G.I. Joe soldiers directly at children. As these children reached a rebellious adolescence, they wanted music, magazines, and movies that pushed the cultural envelope, that pierced the veil of the hypocritically Victorian middle class. Their parents’ generation, with its supposedly more traditional values, had forced their children to live in the shadow of nuclear mushroom clouds.

By the late twentieth century, conservatives would hail the 1950s as the “anti-1960s,” in other words a golden age of sexual discretion, intact nuclear families, patriotism, traditional values, and a respect for authority. Hollywood movies of the era, however, reveal a wide array of anxieties haunting what one 1970s television sitcom called “Happy Days.” The plot of movies from 1945 to 1960 reflect fears not just about the role of men in the post-war world, the impact of more assertive women on society, and the menace of juvenile delinquency. Movie audiences in the 1950s also shared with Hollywood screenwriters worries about the dangers of conformity and McCarthyism (the subtext of the 1956 science fiction classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"), and the threat to human survival posed by nuclear weapons (an anxiety evident in a flood of movies about monsters created by radiation such as 1954’s "Godzilla" and "Them!", and 1955’s "It Came From Beneath the Sea.)" Monsters ranging from giant ants to masculinized, ambitious women terrified Americans, many of whom had only to glance at their backyard bomb shelters to be reminded of how fragile their suburban world had become.

The 1950s, however, served as the necessary prelude to the decade of hippies, war protestors, and youth rebellion that would shortly follow. Teenagers who engaged in “heavy petting,” who read horror comics, who idolized movie stars like James Dean and rock stars like Elvis, had already walked away from the worldview of their parents. Many youths in the Sixites would conclude that Auschwitz and Hiroshima consumed one world and that a new one must rise from its ashes, but doubts about America’s religious values and cultural priorities, its Cold War politics, about the media and the country’s leaders, sank deep roots in the fifteen years from 1945 and 1960.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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