EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of the best writings of National Review’s house curmudgeon were her outstanding book reviews, one of which is presented here–you will delight in Miss King’s masterful take on David Halberstam’s popular history of the 1950s. “If I had total recall, my memory would consist of the contents of this book” she wrote, which is as good a testimonial as any author could desire. For the record, the review was first published in the June 21, 1993, edition of your favorite conservative magazine.
As you know, Miss King is best known for her eye-poking back-page NR column that reigned in your favorite fortnightly for over a decade. Now all those columns have been faithfully republished in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002. It is available only from NR, and may/must be ordered (securely!) here. You owe it to yourself to get this wonderful book.
The Fifties, by David Halberstam (Villard, 800 pp., $27.50)
As America entered the 1950s, the air was full of debates about the New World Order, except that it was called “the American Century.” The phrase was coined by Henry Luce, who believed it was America’s duty and destiny to spread democracy around the globe.
Opposing him was Senator Robert A. Taft, the presidential choice of conservative Republicans and isolationists. Taft warned: “We would be in the same position of suppressing rebellions by force in which the British found themselves during the nineteenth century.”
That is precisely what we started doing in the Fifties, thanks to a contradiction in the isolationist mindset that David Halberstam points out in the opening chapters of this richly enjoyable survey of the decade.
The Republican Right, he says, was isolationist when it came to the Atlantic, regarding it as the British ocean, the international ocean. But the Pacific was “the Republican ocean,” obliquely associated with missionaries and docile, smiling Asians; a gin-and-tonic, white-linen-suit sort of world full of dreamy subcontinents, like the one that Senator Wherry of Nebraska called “Indigo China.”
If I had total recall, my memory would consist of the contents of this book. I started the decade as a girl of 14 listening to the radio bulletin about the invasion of South Korea by North Korean troops, and ended it as a woman of 24 reading about the poisoned silver dollar carried, but not used, by U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers when he was shot down and captured by the Soviets in 1960.
Halberstam uses the same landmarks, filling in the middle with a host of engaging memory prompters. His sources are secondary and derivative, but his instinct for the revealing anecdote, his ear for the memorable quote, and his awesome powers of organization add up to a variegated overview that moves seamlessly between the serious shenanigans of Chief Justice Earl Warren and the frivolous ones of Peyton Place author Grace Metalious.
He makes Adlai Stevenson look much better–like a New Democrat, in fact, or an earlier version of Sam Nunn. “The most conservative Democrat to run for President since John W. Davis,” according to Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The media loved him nonetheless. Adlai, said Eric Sevareid in one of his trademark rolling parallelisms, “has excited the passions of the mind; he has not excited the emotions of the great bulk of half-informed voters, as had Eisenhower, who, like them, was empty of ideas or certitude.”
Mordant radio wit Fred Allen called television “a device that permits people who haven’t anything to do to watch people who can’t do anything.” The first campaign ad was aired by Ike, who said: “Yes, my Mamie gets after me about the high cost of living. It’s another reason why I say it’s time for a change. Time to get back to an honest dollar and an honest dollars work.”
When some purists objected to this “15-second spot,” ad man Rosser Reeves countered that “Never have so many owed so much to so few” was also a 15-second spot. So was Marya Mannes’s parody: “Eisenhower hits the spot;/One full General, that’s a lot./Feeling sluggish, feeling sick?/ Take a dose of Ike and Dick.”
Halberstam traces the decline of the Detroit auto industry from 1948, when GM president Charles Wilson signed the first union agreement guaranteeing cost-of-living raises. “In effect it made the union a junior partner of the corporation, [and] reflected the absolute confidence of a bedrock conservative who saw the economic pie so large that he wanted to forgo his ideological instincts in order to start carving it up as quickly as possible.”
Forced to pass along huge labor costs to consumers, Detroit depended on “planned obsolescence,” annual model changes calculated to make people ashamed of “old” cars and eager to prove their status by buying a new one every year.
The 1956 VW bug ($1,280) got a rave review in Popular Mechanics and “inspired” GM’s disastrous rear-engine Corvair, which Car and Driver called “one of the nastiest-handling cars ever built.” (Its tires required different pressures front and back, something few Americans outside of racing buffs understood.)
The “Model T” of housing was Levittown. The first Levitt houses sold for $7,990, with no down payment, no closing costs, no secret extras, just a $100 deposit, which was returned. “It was an unusual concept: The price was the price,” Halberstam notes admiringly. Levitt built 36 houses a day. So what if they didn’t have basements? The ancient Romans didn’t build basements, said Bill Levitt, and who was he to challenge the ancient Romans?
Levitt houses proved unusually sturdy, but the builder was savaged by culture snobs like John Keats (The Crack in the Picture Window) and Lewis Mumford, who theorized that since the houses looked alike, the people inside them must be “made from a cookie cutter.” Mumford’s coinage quickly spread through the redoubts of bohemianism. I remember sitting on the floor deploring conformity with a bevy of tormented intellectuals, all of us wearing black turtleneck sweaters and talking about cookie cutters.
Conformity was so popular that it was defended even by rugged individualists and eccentric risk takers who honestly believed that they were just like everybody else. Halberstam rounds up a number of these for his most effective demonstration of the Zeitgeist.
Ray Kroc, organizer of the McDonald’s franchise empire, combed the land for entrepreneurs without sharp edges. “We cannot trust nonconformists,” he declared. “We will make conformists out of them in a hurry . . . . You cannot give them an inch. The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization or he shouldn’t go into this kind of business.”
Holiday Inns founder Kemmons Wilson modeled his hostels on his own tastes, explaining, “I like to think that I’m so damn normal that anything I like, everybody else is going to like too. The idea that my instincts are out of line just doesn’t occur to me.”
Hugh Hefner, driven by a belief in his own ordinariness, did not doubt that what stirred his sexual fantasies stirred every other man’s. It was not pretentiousness but pride in conformity that dictated his innocent use of the royal pronoun in his first statement of the Playboy philosophy: “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”
As the decade wore on, “alienation books” became a genre in themselves. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a novel by Sloan Wilson, entered the language from the moment it was published in 1955. Plaid flannel shirts, on the other hand, were the trademark of Columbia sociology professor C. Wright Mills, the intellectual as lumberjack, whose books, White Collar and The Power Elite, condemned the new middle class for being affluent without purpose.
David Riesman and Nathan Glazer’s The Lonely Crowd recast individualists and conformists as “inner-directed” and “other-directed,” inspiring numerous parlor games, as well as seduction lines. (Gaze deeply into a girl’s eyes and say, “You’re inner-directed, I can tell.”)
A feud soon erupted in the alienation industry when Riesman criticized Mills for “transferring his own need for intellectual stimulation into the minds and aspirations of people whose needs might be considerably different.” Halberstam agrees; Mills, he writes, “did not understand the pride of people who had always been blue collar but who had finally moved up to the white-collar world.”
The Fifties had more than one kind of alienation to deal with. Pondering the impending school-desegregation decision, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, Chief Justice Fred Vinson said in 1952, “We face the complete abolition of the public school system.” The following year he died of a heart attack and Ike replaced him with Earl Warren, “a big, dumb Swede” in the opinion of Judge Learned Hand.
Profiling Warren in 1947, John Gunther produced an assessment that is terrifying in its casual celebration of mediocrity: “honest, likable, and clean; he will never set the world on fire or even make it smoke; he has the limitations of all Americans of his type with little intellectual background, little genuine depth, or coherent political philosophy; a man who has probably never bothered with abstract thought twice in his life; a kindly man with the best of social instincts, stable, and well balanced.”
Warren wanted the decision to be unanimous. “He shrewdly framed the Court’s internal dialogue so that anyone who did not go along with him seemed a racist.” Kentuckian Stanley Reed was an outright segregationist; Robert Jackson thought the NAACP briefs were sociology, not law, but gradually accepted the need, as he put it, to “make a judicial decision out of a political conclusion.” Then he too had a heart attack, though he lived to write the concurring opinion that Warren squeezed out of him.
That left only Reed to be persuaded. He finally caved under pressure from Warren at daily lunches, insisting only that integration be allowed to take place gradually.
Halberstam organizes his section on the civil-rights movement around the story of John Daniel Rust’s invention of the mechanical cotton picker, which made Southern blacks expendable. His detailed description of the machine and its many problems (how to keep the cotton from tangling in the machine’s teeth and getting stuck) is one of many examples of this author’s ability to make interesting what ought to be boring.
Especially enjoyable are his thumbnail biographies, including Elvis, James Dean, Tennessee Williams; Charles Van Doren, the boy-next-door star of the quiz-show scandals, who was chosen, said a CBS psychologist, to convince Americans that “We’re all pretty much alike and we’re all smart”; and my favorite, Grace Metalious, whom Halberstam recasts as Urfeminist, wryly pointing out that the women of Peyton Place were as discontented as it was possible to be.
The book has only a few faults. Halberstam identifies Whittaker Chambers as “an admitted homosexual,” ignoring the very loving marriage he made after his youthful confusion.
He also overlooks the begged question in his account of the Kinsey report’s statistics on male homosexuality. Since Kinsey did the bulk of his research during World War II when the cream of American manhood was fighting overseas, could this be where the erroneous “10 per cent” came from?
One of his thumbnail biographies falls flat, but it’s not his fault. When you see the word “vulnerable” all over the page, you know you’re reading about Marilyn Monroe. There is simply nothing left to be said about her, so he shouldn’t have bothered.
The only example of outright intellectual carelessness I found concerns my hero, Robert Taft. “Economic conservative he might have been, but he had always been a good man on civil liberties,” says Halberstam, falling into the either-or of property rights versus human rights. They are the same, as our unsung Founding Father, Fisher Ames, demonstrated when he wrote: “By securing property, life and liberty can scarcely fail of being secured: where property is safe by rules and principles, there is liberty, for the objects and motives of tyranny are removed.” In other words, if you can’t seize property, why bother?
Other than that, Halberstam has written what is certain to be the most educational fun read of the year. My favorite of his many riveting images is that of Senator Joseph McCarthy eating a stick of butter to help him hold his liquor.
As for his best sentence, try this description of Margaret Sanger: “She was an American samurai, and she had spent her life on a wartime footing.”