Why the Fifties Loom Large in Our Thinking

President John F. Kennedy reaches out to the assembled crowd at the 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 an extraordinary role in the American imagination:

Americans speak of the postwar years – the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy years – as if they were some kind of golden age. They weren’t, and few of us would be happy with the political settlement that then existed: the left may applaud the high statutory tax rates of the day, but the actual tax recoveries of those years were almost exactly what. they are today, and no less than 80 percent of that Eisenhower-era tax revenue was spent on the military and national security, with rights and social spending limited to a small share of expenses. 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 while the schools were integrated – but the country remained segregated generally. In 1950, a third of American households did not have indoor plumbing. But it was the times that captured the sentimental attention of the American mind. The postwar years are our national definition of normal, even if they were nothing more than that.

Michael Barone adds more on the atypical nature of mid-twentieth-century politics. It’s worth asking why, exactly, the 1950s retain this position, which will undoubtedly fade over the next few decades as the population that remembers the decade shrinks, but has been deeply entrenched in an entertainment culture that produced enormous amounts of 1950s nostalgia (the most enduring relic of which may end up being the legacy of the decade’s dinner-building boom). As Kevin notes, there is an ideological casting, which involves glossing over some uncomfortable realities. To the right, the 1950s are remembered as an era of family values ​​- but the model of the nuclear family with a single male breadwinner working outside the home, a housewife and children in school n was actually not as much of a historical standard. before this time. Farm families traditionally required everyone (wife, children) to work on the farm with Dad and often lived with extended families. Poor, working-class families often force women to work, whether they want to or not. Child labor was once common. High death rates before the 1920s meant many more widows, widowers and in-laws. The left sees the 1950s as the high tide of unions and good wages for the middle worker, but the American middle worker has been protected like never before or since from competition. Nationally, the labor market was tight due to barriers to black employment, restrictive immigration policies and women at home raising children. Internationally, competition has been reduced as a large part of European and Japanese industry has been crushed by war; it was still being rebuilt for a decade after 1945. And, of course, among the rebels against the political consensus of the decade was a young man named William F. Buckley, who started a magazine in 1955 for the challenge.

On the flip side, there are two pretty glaring reasons why the 1950s seemed so beautiful to people who have lived through the decade, and why they were and are so fondly remembered. The first is almost too obvious to mention: it was a much better time than the two decades before them. Almost everything that was wrong with America in the 1950s was also wrong in the 1930s and 1940s, plus they had the Great Depression and then World War II. For any American over ten years old in 1950, the decade must indeed have looked like the Promised Land. The nation was at peace, even though it was uncomfortable during the Cold War, after the Korean War ended in 1953. The suburbs, housing and car ownership, university education , television, medicine (the polio vaccine), general living standards – all of these things exploded between 1945 and 1960. Indeed, the visible prosperity, optimism and comfort of the times, as well as ending many sources of misery and strife within white America, have played their part in encouraging black Americans to lobby for civil rights more vigorously than at any time since the 1870s.

On the other hand, the great boom in prosperity was an American phenomenon, not a global one. While the war-torn countries of Europe had their own baby booms and years of economic growth, the period of rationing and belt-tightening was still much longer in Europe, much of which was taking a lot of time. time to get back to where it was in 1939, let alone 1928. (If you really want to understand why so many young Britons turned rock stars identified with the blues music of black Americans, take a look at the living conditions of the British working class in the 1950s. doesn’t look like much Leave it to the beaver.)

The other big reason is generational: the baby boom. The Boomer Generation has played a disproportionate role in American culture since they started arriving in 1946, due to their numbers. And for the crest of the Boomer wave, born between 1946 and 1952-1953, the 50s are remembered as the years of childhood. This is a fairly common trend to be remembered with pinker glasses from the childhood years, especially if you grew up around many other kids your age. A great generation saw the 1950s as the way it always has been and passed that meaning on even to my own generation – even long after many of the Boomer Generation rebelled against the way it always had been. In addition, the nostalgia for childhood is a shared thing: we have similar memories of our years as parents of little ones. The great social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s accentuated it: two entire generations of Americans (baby boomers and their parents) not only experienced the 1950s as a period of family reunification and unchallenged parental authority, but followed with years of family arguments about “women’s freedom” and civil rights, long hair and drugs, loud music and protests and Vietnam. The decade-to-decade generational shift occurs with each generation, but due to the unusual size of the Boomer cohort and its transition to adulthood coinciding with a period of particular controversy, the 1950s came to pass. even more marked as a lost golden era. This is surely why my own childhood, the 1970s and 1980s, was bombarded with nostalgia for the 1950s – Happy Days and American graffiti and Sha Na Na and Back to the future. It is perhaps culturally interesting that the last decade has given us Mad Men, the first TV show to truly build around following the cultural shift from the world of 1960 to the very different world of 1970.

The 50s should we fondly remember what they were: a time when a lot of things in America got better and a lot less got worse. But our collective memory of the decade must grapple with why it was historically unusual and why our memories are too.