The Fifties were hard on young people. It was a decade without much hope, a forgotten decade that is looked back on fondly by some. That’s a mistake. The Fifties laid the foundation for the unequal, dysfunctional oligarchy we live in today in the United States.
A virulent anti-communist crusade drove progressive leaders from every opinion making institution in the country, eliminating idealism from the national debate. Intelligence itself became suspect as media pundits and politicians turned on the “eggheads” associated with Roosevelt’s New Deal. The United States was in a deadly battle with a treacherous enemy. Survival demanded unthinking conformity in speech, appearance and attitude.
I was fifteen when the decade began, old enough to watch post war optimism slip away. Men came home in 1945 and ’46 from fighting overseas and women came back from factories with the belief that their lives would be better after the war. Common people from democracies had defeated military elites from fascist dictatorships under slogans Roosevelt articulated in “the four freedoms”: “freedom of speech and expression; the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.”
Roosevelt wasn’t preaching pie in the sky by and by. This “is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.” When Roosevelt spoke of freedom from want he said it meant “economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.” And freedom from fear meant “a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.”
The steady erosion of Roosevelt’s vision started with Truman’s endorsement of the Anti Communist Crusade when he instituted the first government loyalty oaths in United States’ history. The Crusade drove the New Deal’s strongest supporters from government and from every opinion making institution in the country. The attack on the New Deal solidified under Eisenhower, the avuncular president who helped restore religious superstition and released the Dulles Brothers to engage in reckless foreign policy adventures as they invented an intelligence agency less interested in intelligence than in controlling international resources and markets for their powerful business associates.
As David Talbot puts it in the recently published Devil’s Chessboard, “Many of the practices that still provoke bouts of American soul-searching originated during Dulles’s formative rule at the CIA. Mind control experimentation, torture, political assassination, extraordinary rendition, massive surveillance of U.S. citizens and foreign allies—these were all widely used tools of the Dulles reign.”
Nuclear testing was poisoning our milk and nuclear war seemed likely. Our former allies were now our deadly enemies. Children learned to duck under their desks and cover their heads, practicing for a nuclear war. We had all seen pictures of Hiroshima. We knew that no one targeted would survive the much more powerful nuclear bombs, poised on the tips of inter-continental ballistic missiles and in the bellies of endlessly circling bombers. Eisenhower famously warned us against the rising power of the “military industrial complex” after participating in creating it.
We went through these wrenching times as millions of us left our hometowns in the largest internal migration in American history. Twenty to thirty million people tore out their roots and left for somewhere new, leaving the continuity of extended families and communities behind. They left rural towns and fled inner city ghettos for anonymous new suburbs and jointed a growing middle class of consumers. Doctors stopped making house visits. Traveling salesmen stopped coming to our doors. Neighbors stopped looking out for each other (or nurturing long simmering feuds), in either case a kind of connection with those around us. We were on our own now. We tried to fit in or we were alienated, ostracized for being different.
I left out one vital feature of the Fifties that I didn’t recognize as a young person going through them. The Fifties saw an enormous growth of a relatively prosperous middle class. In this important sense the promises of the war years were realized. I benefited by being able to find work easily as a teenager, making enough money in a day’s work to travel through Europe for two days.
The prosperity was in part the result of a tacit deal that American unions made with corporations after the unions kicked out their progressive leaders during the Anti-Communist crusade. Aside from rousing speeches, the unions gave up trying to fulfill Roosevelt’s New Deal. Union members didn’t need our government to manage their health insurance and retirement benefits because corporations would provide the benefits. All the unions had to do was go along with the corporate program. They and most of their workers became conservative supporters of the domestic social status quo with all its racism and inequality and of a reckless foreign policy that cost a fortune and crushed the hopes of ordinary people in emerging nations.
We now know what a bad deal its was. When push came to shove, the corporations found a way to simply abrogated all those retirement and health benefit obligations, leaving most workers out in the cold.
By the end of the Fifties, Roosevelt’s four freedoms seemed a quaint dream from a distant past.
And then, in the Sixties, one more wave of reform swept the country.