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Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: The Fifties by David Halberstam

The FiftiesDavid Halberstam
Open Road

I tend to nibble nonfiction.  Too many articles repeat themselves, become beef jerky and lose their juiciness.  Reading them is as satisfying as gnawing on a chew-toy.  Book-length non-fiction risks converting into a coffee-table centerpiece or weigh down a bookcase.  When a book holds its interest throughout, I am stunned.  My brain absorbed David Halberstam's The Fifties like a dry sponge.  It was a decade that captured America's greatness and that also bore the seeds of what many would come to dislike about America--no matter what your political persuasion.

As the title suggests, it covers a wide swath of political and cultural territory, hitting the key figures of the time.  It opens with the political legacy left by Franklin D. Roosevelt.  The Republicans in disarray, and the Democrats in control although a too-confident Dewey might have fared better if he’d been willing to sully his image.

Truman’s life is covered and his difficulty with measuring up to Roosevelt’s fireside chats.  Gradually Americans accustomed themselves to Truman’s blunter yet responsible manner (“The buck stops here.”).  He had also deployed the atomic bomb.

Halberstam treats Los Alamos and the development of nuclear weapons extensively:  the elevation of physicists, the unique personalities, the infighting, the controversy of building bigger bombs, and the ultimate betrayal of Oppenheimer.

Not often treated in general discussions of Senator Joseph McCarthy is his person-ability with journalists, which perhaps won over many to his cause against Communism, naming names and bringing up charges of Communist sympathies.  Popular writers, too, like Mickey Spillaine had characters battling Communist foes.

Battling Communism led to the Korean and Vietnamese wars.  The first, led by the confident General MacArthur, encountered too many over- and under-estimations, where the Americans did not recognize that 300,000 Chinese troops had marched over the border.  A victory by Matt Ridgway allowed the creation of North and South Korea,

Truman’s conflicts with General MacArthur carried over into the political realm as he testified before Congress, perhaps paving the way.  Instead, though, the Republican party largely courted Eisenhower to enter the political ring.

Halberstam covers Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, feminism, civil rights (for which coverage Halberstam earned a Pultizer), Lucille Ball, Ricky Nelson, McDonald’s, Holiday Inn, General Motors, Bill Levitt’s affordable homes, television, Kinsey’s candid report on sexual practices, advertising, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Mrs. Sanger and birth control, Allan Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.  David Halberstam did a fine job capturing the decade.  Halberstam, no doubt, bent over backwards to capture an array of the era’s sentiments.  Nonetheless, one suspects gaps remain.  Having talked to men of that era, their perspective of Roosevelt wasn’t always rosy, and they had what they felt were legitimate complaints.  Halberstam also mentioned a chance encounter between Mrs. Nixon and Gloria Steinem, who asked Mrs. Nixon about her dreams.  Mrs. Nixon lost her cool and Halberstam goes to some length to discuss Mrs. Nixon’s motivations instead of asking what was probably in Mrs. Nixon’s mind:  Why was Ms. Steinem asking this question?  Still, while no one history book can be definitive, this one comes close.

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