Were the 1950s really that bad?


eisenhowerThe 1950s have taken a bum rap for years. You remember the 1950s: women were locked in their houses and forced to bake apple crumble and change diapers while men took their hats and briefcases to the office. Everyone was repressed, and unable to express their Innermost Selves. No one had any fun at all.

People forget how close the West came to losing it all. Had Hitler avoided a few military blunders, we might all be speaking German right now. Believe it or not, many men and women were happy to beat their swords into ploughshares and devote themselves to the virtues of peace. Being a riveter, though doubtless empowering, was not that much of a career enhancer. For kids, especially, it wasn’t a half-bad era. You had a pretty good chance of growing up in an intact home with the same parents, and children could walk to school safely and attend classes without gunfire. W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Frost were still alive and writing poems, and the Partisan Review was in its prime. Was it that much worse than the 1930s, the 1910s?

Two recent reviews over at Books Inq seem to reinforce my sense that the era has been much maligned. The book at hand is Paul Johnson‘s Eisenhower: A Life  – a biography that’s 134 pages long, including the index. The Times Literary Supplement review said of Johnson: “His zesty, irreverent narratives teach more history to more people than all the post-modernist theorists, highbrow critics, and dons put together.”

My colleague Frank Wilson reviewed the book here, in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“As recounted in Eisenhower: A Life, a new brief biography by the British writer Paul Johnson, the life of Dwight David Eisenhower was one of steady, uninterrupted success – five-star general, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, 34th president of the United States, elected twice, both times by landslides, and still popular when he left office. Heck, just a year before he died, he hit a hole-in-one on the golf course.

“Yet one feels sad when one finishes Johnson’s book. Not for Eisenhower, but for the country he served so well.

“A joke making the rounds as his presidency neared its end told of the Eisenhower doll: You wound it up and it did nothing for eight years. But we could use plenty of that nothing these days. As Johnson points out, Eisenhower gave America nearly ‘a decade of unexampled prosperity and calm. The country had emerged from the Korean War and the excesses of McCarthyism. Inflation was low. Budgets were in balance or with manageable deficits. The military-industrial complex was kept under control. . . . Thanks to Ike’s fiscal restraint, prices remained stable and unemployment only a little more than 4 percent. …’

General Eisenhower Behind the Wheel of a Jeep

Maybe not such a loser, after all.

“Had he heard the joke about the doll, Eisenhower probably would have laughed, at least to himself. ‘He seems to have found it convenient and useful,’ Johnson writes, ‘for people to get him wrong. He chuckled within himself.’

“So, at the time, the all-too-conventional wisdom had it that he was inarticulate, not too bright, lacking in cunning, and lazy, preferring to hit the links and leave the business of government to subordinates. His critics, Johnson writes, got things exactly wrong: ‘Ike was highly intelligent, knew exactly how to use the English language, was extremely hardworking, and very crafty. In practice, he made all the key decisions, and everyone had to report to him on what they were doing and why.’ Like any genuine leader, Eisenhower did not insinuate. He issued commands. He led from above. … One in particular might find it interesting to learn that during six of Eisenhower’s eight years in office, both houses of Congress were controlled by the opposition party.”

Another one here by reviewer John Derbyshire, who seems to have suffered a sort of crush on the biographer once:

“In his 1983 book Modern Times, Paul Johnson made a point of talking up U.S. presidents then regarded by orthodox historians as second-rate or worse: Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower. He wrote:

Eisenhower was the most successful of America’s twentieth-century presidents, and the decade when he ruled (1953-61) the most prosperous in American, and indeed world, history.


The real Bruce Cole

“The goal of political leadership is to secure for one’s country, so far as circumstances will allow, the things that most ordinary citizens wish for: prosperity and peace.

“On that score, Ike did superbly well. America’s 1950s prosperity glows golden in the memory of us who witnessed it, if only from afar. Peace? Paul Johnson draws a withering comparison between Ike’s masterly 1958 deployment to Lebanon—’the only American military operation abroad that Ike initiated in the whole of his eight years at the White House’—and the Bay of Pigs misadventure of the vain, shallow John F. Kennedy in the following administration.

“Discounting as best I can my partiality to P.J.’s prose, I’m convinced:  This was our best modern President.”

Postscript on 11/24:  Another country heard from! Not everyone agrees with the resurrection of Ike – below, Nevada blogger Bruce Cole elaborates on the comments he made Saturday. (Coincidentally, a Bruce Cole is a member of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission – this is not the same guy.) Colleague Bruce, who blogs over at A Citizen Paying Attention, disagrees with the reviews about Ike – but he concurs about the silliness of lumping cultural trends into decades – and don’t get me going on how much of the 1960s happened in the 1970s. Here’s the important part: he tells me he shares my enthusiasm for Czesław Miłosz.

Cynthia has been kind enough to ask me to elaborate a little on my hasty early Saturday morning comments about Eisenhower and the 1950s (two subjects, though they overlap).


Maybe not so hot after all.

First, I mentioned John Lukacs‘ review of several books about Ike. The review ran in Harper’s in 2002 and was collected in the anthology of his writings, which I cited. He makes several points about the (again, two) subjects of Cynthia’s original post. Many of the characteristics of the 1960s (or things we associate so easily with that decade, or things we bemoan as happening since the Good Old Days) began in the 50s: the decline in our manufacturing and our savings, the deterioration of our cities, the net outflow of gold from the United States, the increasing problems of our public education system, the demotion of jazz as our most popular music, the “sexual revolution,” etc. The point is not that these were the fruits of Eisenhower’s presidency. Rather, they remind us not to indulge in a false nostalgia about an arbitrary set of years (a nostalgia whose mirror image is, of course, the 50s as staid, awful, and repressive).

Now, about Ike. Eisenhower (who, as a general in 1945, telegraphed Marshall Zhukov assuring him that the Americans wouldn’t reach Berlin before the Russians) came into office with talk about rolling back Communism, as opposed to the “cowardly containment” (Nixon’s words) of Truman. I am hard put to see where this ever happened. We did watch as Hungary (having been covertly encouraged by us) got tromped on in 1956. Lukacs has written often, and persuasively, about the chances in the years just prior to this when the West could have taken advantage of relative Soviet weakness to negotiate some kind of genuine rolling back of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe (Churchill, no softy, kept urging this course on Eisenhower). Even then, they removed themselves from Austria, forsook a naval base in Finland, recognized West Germany, etc.

All of that is as may be. Ike did not keep the “military-industrial complex under control.” The defense budget tripled throughout the fifties. Our military presence expanded all over the globe, including places where there was little or no Soviet threat. He fortunately did not intervene in Indo-China in 1954, but then there was little chance the US would. The Lebanon incursion in 1958 was an absurdity. The Korean truce of 1953 established what had been the status quo for about two years (nothing wrong with that, but it was no great accomplishment). Finally, there is that Bay of Pigs thing – all pre-packaged by Ike and the CIA for his successor, complete with “intelligence” assurances that a popular uprising against Castro would take place. So, “vain, shallow” JFK followed suit. Hmm, is there any reason to believe Richard Nixon would have fared better? No.


He’s happy with the reviews, anyway.

Then there is McCarthy. Ike did not work McCarthy’s destruction, but kept silent while various Senators in both parties prepared censure in the Senate. It also should never be forgotten how Ike kept silent while McCarthy repeatedly slandered Ike’s patron, General Marshall.

Much of the above I owe to Lukacs’ analysis (which I again urge everyone to read) with a few embellishments of my own and no apologies from me at that score! Let me add something, though, on our two, inter-related subjects.

The origins of Eisenhower’s rehabilitation go back, in no small measure, to an article Murray Kempton wrote in the 1960s (!) for Esquire with a title something like “The Underestimation of Dwight D. Eisenhower.” (Kempton was a great journalist, but when he went off the beam, look out!) The arguments were repeated by Garry Wills a few years later in an otherwise perceptive book, Nixon Agonistes. I think this was, in part, the reaction to “Camelot,” which spawned, of course, a multitude of anti-Camelots. We have a difficult time taking our presidents plain, anyway, and the contrast of the two in terms of age and “glamour” with LBJ following them, and Vietnam thrown into the mix, made it well-nigh impossible.

That leads me to the other subject (which actually I am more interested in). I, too, despise, “decade-talk.” Of course, the 50s were not simply the Age of Conformity and Repression. But notice how the nostalgia some people express for that time merely turns that idea inside out. I think this is the nub of the matter. So many of our debates occur between people who agree on terms and wouldn’t know a tertium quid if it hit them full in the face. That is why our “culture wars” have such staying power. Beyond the real issues, it is easy to sign up for a Line, a set of attitudes, a collection of loves and hates. Which, finally, is why the “bad” 50s will never go away as a cliché – but it is hardly alone in that.

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9 Responses to “Were the 1950s really that bad?”

  1. George Says:

    Well, one could say that JFK was working from Ike’s script on the Bay of Pigs, and to some degree in Vietnam There is an interesting essay on Eisenhower, arguing the case that Johnson makes, in Murray Kempton’s Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events. Whether or not one finds it convincing, there is always Kempton’s prose–sentences that stick with one.

  2. Bruce Cole Says:

    Oh, my, I have to demur on this one. I am a big Book Haven fan (and have it linked to my own modest blog), and now for the first time I’m commenting, and it isn’t to assent. Rather than rehearse the arguments against Ike-olatry (other than to note than when he left office we were in a ‘mild’ recession and unemployment was actually running about 8 percent) I will direct readers to John Lukacs’ great essay-review about various Eisenhower biographies, reprinted in his Remembered Past: A Reader, pp. 364-375.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Can you summarize some of the arguments, Bruce? Happy to print your comments as an op-ed postscript. I had no particular opinion about Ike at all – just puzzlement that the 1950s are frequently referred to as a sort of Dark Age – people talk about something that “sends us back to the 1950s,” but not, say, the 1930s or 1910s.

  4. Arielle Emmett Says:

    Eisenhower’s record on Civil Rights also bears closer inspection. During his presidency we saw the lynching/drowning of Emmett Till, the riots at Central High in Little Rock (during which Eisenhower sent in federal troops to protect nine students trying to integrate the high school), and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Eisenhower would not use his presidency as a bully pulpit for Civil Rights, and was reportedly annoyed with African American leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., urged him to take more aggressive action toward Civil Rights. However, he did initiate and sign voting rights legislation and these comparatively weak measures may have paved the way, indirectly, for the progress toward Civil Rights during Kennedy’s administration.

    About a fifth of all Americans lived in poverty by the end of Eisenhower’s decade despite the fact that “personal income” increased by 45% for Americans as a whole (http://millercenter.org/president/eisenhower/essays/biography/4). Eisenhower was a ‘go slow’ kind of guy, and he never voiced support for desegregation, only for ensuring that federal law was carried out. So today, in retrospect, it seems to me he was an okay centrist who rode the crest of popularity in peacetime. But blacks and whites in poverty were basically ignored in the 1950s, and American didn’t wake up to the realities until the 1960s and beyond.

  5. Jeff Selbst Says:

    Eisenhower didn’t escalate our involvement in Vietnam because he didn’t need to. That was left to JFK and LBJ, because the whole point of the misadventure was to wipe clean from the Democrats the stain of “losing China”, which Republicans had successfully tarred them with in 1949. Democrats, then and now, respond to these attacks by adopting a defensive crouch. Neither Kennedy nor Johnson was going to permit the Democratic Party to once again be charged with “losing” a part of the world to Communism—-and so 12 years of tragedy, 60,000 American lives, untold hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian lives, and three presidencies were thrown on the smoldering ash heap of that war, prompted by the usual mix of Republican thuggery and Democratic spinelessness.

  6. Janet Basu Says:

    In the 1950s, the US had the only fully-functioning economy in the developed world. The men who came out of the war intact had jobs in a growing economy, a huge contrast to the fear-ridden years of the Great Depression. They saw their incomes rise and felt their personal power was increasing along with the nation’s. The illusion of American exceptionalism, the sense that making the world “right” again meant putting women and minorities back in our “places,” the anti-communist paranoia and conformism — all this was a staging ground for civil rights, feminism, New Age exploration and flowering diversity. All praise to the Fifties for giving us so much to react against!

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I’d question some of that, Janet. I don’t remember women being put in their “places.” After a war that might have brought civilization-as-we-know-it down around our ears, women and men took joy in having normal family lives again. My own father served in the army at age 16 in the South Pacific. As someone who has been a parent of a teenager, I find the idea of sending someone that young to war mind-boggling – and I can imagine the relief of the boys coming home, getting jobs, marrying, children, etc. I’m not sure the wartime jobs women held were all that professionally satisfying, though we make a big deal of Rosie the Riveter. I think people were happy to see life and prosperity blossoming again after war. The civil rights movement began in the 1950s – Brown vs. the Board of Education was 1954.

    We all deplore HUAC and the McCarthy hearings – as the granddaughter of card-carrying members of the CP (or once-carrying cardmembers), I remember how scary that was for my mother and her family, even well into the 1960s. On the other hand, Stalinism had swallowed much of Asia and half of Europe, complete with its gulags and assassination. As someone who has written much about Polish history, I don’t think the Poles saw it as pure “paranoia” to be concerned about such things, although the form our response took was counterproductive in the extreme.

  8. Bruce Cole Says:

    Back to Ike and/or the 50s! (Or at least part of those subjects).

    1. About Eisenhower and Civil Rights. I would say that, personally, he was no leader at all. However, he did let a pretty strong Civil Rights bill issue forth from the Justice Department, which then got massively watered down before passage in 1957. The horrible irony is that even that was, given the times, a huge accomplishment, and did pave the way for real legislation in the 60s. A related subject (which I recently posted about on my blog) was the continued slide of black Americans, where they allowed to vote, away from the Republicans. It is actually not ironic at all that that happened, for many reasons, the most important of which is that we do not have “national” political parties in the manner of European countries.

    2. Vietnam (or all of Indo-China). The real question is not Ike, but JFK. Ike increased our number of advisors, Kennedy did even more. Conversely, he did send out all kinds of mixed signals about our commitment there, and we didn’t (perhaps couldn’t) have a settled policy about further involvement at his death. I do not doubt all the testimony from various parties that he intended (or hoped) to get us out after being re-elected. Whether he could, or would, have pulled it off, is unknowable. However, I doubt that anything like the Tonkin Gulf balls-up would have occurred.

    3. My father was a business agent for the Teamsters Union (footnote to history: one of the handful to vote against Hoffa’s election as Teamster president at their convention). I had the good fortune to grow up in a household that had nothing but contempt for a) communists, and b) phonies and worse than phonies like McCarthy and the multitude like him. It wasn’t a matter of “equating” anything – just seeing things for what they are.

  9. Steve Burstein Says:

    I’ve read things that would indicate that the 50s were really the era of patronizing Social Scientists accusing the common folk of conformity more than they were “The Era of Conformity”. Even MAD magazine joked to this effect, saying “THEY say you’re a conformist”! I think the idea was: “People couldn’t possibly like McCarthy!! They only follow him because other people do! They aren’t analytical like we Ivy Leaguers are(right).” But are we supposed to think that the 40s were the 70s, and then that mean HUAC and McCarthy(and those sexist Men)rolled everything back?