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Why the Fifties Loom Large in Our Thinking

President John F. Kennedy reaches out to the crowd gathered at the Hotel Texas Parking Lot Rally in Fort Worth, Texas, November 22, 1963. (Cecil Stoughton/The White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library/Reuters)

As Kevin Williamson observes, the 1950s still play something of an outsized role in the American imagination:

Americans talk about the postwar years — the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy years — as though they were a kind of golden age. They weren’t, and damned few of us would be happy with the political settlement that existed then: The Left may cheer the high statutory tax rates of the time, but actual tax collections in those years were almost exactly what they are today, and as much as 80 percent of that Eisenhower-era tax revenue was spent on the military and national security, with entitlement and welfare spending kept to a small share of outlays. There was some movement on civil rights — Eisenhower signed a civil-rights bill in 1957 and sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to keep the peace as the schools were integrated — but the country remained segregated by and large. In 1950, a third of U.S. households had no indoor plumbing. But this is the era that commands the sentimental attention of the American mind. The postwar years are our national definition of normal, even though they were anything but that.

Michael Barone adds more on the atypical nature of mid 20th-century politics. It is worth considering why, exactly, the Fifties retain this position, one that will undoubtedly fade over the next few decades as the population that remembers the decade dwindles, but has been embedded deeply in an entertainment culture that has produced huge quantities of Fifties nostalgia (the most enduring relic of which may end up being the legacy of the decade’s boom in building diners). As Kevin notes, there is an ideological cast, one that involves glossing over some uncomfortable realities. On the right, the Fifties are recalled as a time of family values — but the model of the nuclear family with a single, male breadwinner working outside the home, a female homemaker, and kids in school was actually not as much of a historical norm before that time. Farm families traditionally required everybody (wife, kids) to work on the farm with dad, and often lived in extended families. Poor and working-class families often compelled women to work, whether they wanted to or not. Child labor was once common. High mortality rates before the 1920s meant a lot more widows, widowers, and step-parents. The Left sees the Fifties as the high tide of unions and good wages for the median laborer, but the median American laborer was protected as never before or since from competition. Domestically, the labor market was tight because of barriers to black employment, restrictive immigration policies, and women at home raising kids. Internationally, competition was reduced by much of European and Japanese industry being flattened by war; it was still rebuilding for a decade after 1945. And, of course, among the rebels against the decade’s political consensus was a young man named William F. Buckley, who started a magazine in 1955 in order to challenge it.

On the other hand, there are two fairly glaring reasons why the Fifties looked so great to people who lived through the decade, and why they were and are so fondly remembered. The first is almost too obvious to mention: They were a vastly better time than the two decades that preceded them. Virtually everything that was wrong in America in the 1950s was also wrong in the Thirties and Forties, plus they had the Great Depression and then the Second World War. To any American over the age of ten in 1950, the decade must indeed have seemed like the promised land. The nation was at peace, however uneasy in the Cold War, after the end of the Korean War in 1953. The suburbs, home and car ownership, college education, television, medicine (the polio vaccine), the general standard of living — all of these things grew explosively between 1945 and 1960. Indeed, the visible prosperity, optimism, and comfort of the times, and the end of many of the sources of misery and strife within white America, played their role in encouraging black Americans to press for civil rights more vigorously than at any time since the 1870s.

On the other hand, the great flush of prosperity was an American, not a global phenomenon. While the war-torn countries of Europe had their own baby boom and their own years of economic growth, there was still a lot longer period of rationing and belt-tightening in Europe, much of which took a long time to get back to where it had been in 1939, let alone 1928. (If you want to truly understand why so many young Britons who became rock stars identified with the blues music of black Americans, go look at the living conditions of the British working class in the 1950s. It does not look much like Leave it to Beaver.)

The other big reason is generational: the Baby Boom. The Boomer generation has played an outsize role in American culture since it started arriving in 1946, by reason of its sheer numbers. And for the crest of the Boomer wave, born between 1946 and 1952–53, the Fifties are remembered as the years of childhood. It is a common enough tendency to remember with more rose-colored glasses the years of childhood, especially if you grew up surrounded by lots of other kids your age. A large generation experienced the Fifties as The Way It Has Always Been, and passed that sense on even to my own generation — even long after a lot of the Boomer generation had rebelled against that Way It Had Always Been. Moreover, the nostalgia of childhood is a shared thing: We have similar memories of our years as parents of little ones. The great social upheavals of the Sixties and Seventies sharpened this: two entire generations of Americans (the Boomers and their parents) not only experienced the Fifties as a time of family togetherness and unquestioned parental authority, but followed this up with years of family arguments about “women’s lib” and civil rights and long hair and drugs and loud music and protests and Vietnam. The generational turn from one decade to the next happens in every generation, but because of the unusual size of the Boomer cohort and its coming of age coincident with a time of particular controversy, the Fifties stood out all the more as a lost golden epoch. That is surely why my own childhood era, the 1970s and 1980s, was bombarded with Fifties nostalgia — Happy Days and American Graffiti and Sha Na Na and Back to the Future. It is perhaps culturally interesting that the last decade gave us Mad Men, the first TV show to really build itself around tracking the cultural turn from the world of 1960 to the very different world of 1970.

The Fifties should be remembered fondly for what they were: a time when a great many things in America got better, and far fewer things got worse. But our collective memory of the decade needs to grapple with the reasons why it was historically unusual, and why our memories of it are, too.

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