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Recasting America; & The Proud Decades, America in War and Peace

Published in History Today 1989
  • Recasting America - Culture and Politics in the Age of the Cold War
    Edited by Lary May - University of Chicago Press, 1989 - 310 pp.
  • The Proud Decades, America in War and Peace
    John Diggins - W.W. Norton, 1988 - 582 pp.

There is some confusion over whether America in the 1950s was basking in the glory of a world war victory and enjoying a consumer paradise, or gripped by anxiety and teetering on the verge of a national nervous breakdown. While some Americans spent their free time acclimatising to nuclear shelters, others were discovering civil rights, Marilyn Monroe, and rock and roll. Diggins, as is evident from his title, opts for the great and glorious interpretation of America in the years immediately following the war, largely because the US survived and prospered. In his overwhelmingly orthodox analysis of the Cold War, he includes criticisms of President Truman's decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan, but dismisses the revisionist arguments only by restating the original wisdom of saving American lives. Less excusable is his treatment of the McCarthy phenomenon. President Eisenhower, he claims, was right not publicly to attack the wayward Wisconsin senator, because a confrontation would have divided and confused the public.

Nevertheless, Diggins does offer a valuable account of philosophical and artistic development during the period, although the analysis of the counter-culture is fairly superficial and, at times, misinformed (can Elvis Presley's hair really be described as shoulder length?). Recasting America, however, includes a variety of excellent essays on the alternative culture of the 50s, and explores themes like the American way of life and the family with impressive results.

Recasting America also tries to explain the relationship between the prosperous and the neurotic. The generation which was the richest in American history was also the first to live with the threat of nuclear destruction. It flocked to see Hitchcock films which showed a calm world on the surface being terrorised by something lurking not far beneath, and lived with the belief, at least for a while, that the Soviet Union was about to declare war at any moment. Yet as time passes the 50s appear to be less of an aberration and more like the norm. The Cold War might be coming to an end, but talk of the Soviet Union as the evil empire is still fresh in our memories, and would not have been out of place in a McCarthy speech.

The 60s, by contrast, are fast becoming the peculiar years of post-war American history as the 50's ethos of conformity and materialism emerge as dominant. Both hooks point out the prevailing attraction of 50's culture to people today. Poster shops are filled with portraits of James Dean, Doris Day and Marlon Brando. Eisenhower is re-emerging as a national folk hero in America (seventh on the list of America's all-time greatest presidents, according to public opinion polls).

The 50s are being remembered as a time of peace, prosperity and consensus. Even if America before the 60s was sterile and stagnant, at least it was wealthy. New homes were plentiful, unlike in present-day USA, and the first-time buyers of the 1950s came to represent their age. Standardised and dull, the ranch-style bungalows mass-produced at the end of the war contained standardly dull families with personalities moulded by one of the giant corporations for which the bread-winner invariably worked.

Women were imprisoned in these suburban boxes from a very early age – as one of the contributors to Recasting America points out, popular books of the era included Win Your Man and Keep Him. This offered consolation to those girls who had reached the embarrassing mid-20s without having netted a suitable beau. 'If you are more than 25 years old ... perhaps you have begun to wonder whether Mr Right would ever come along for you. Your chances are still good; you can increase them appreciably by taking actions which this book advocates', it comforted. Most guidelines of the period suggested twenty-one as the optimum age for women to marry. Many married for sex, and the advent of freely available contraception has at least prevented one 50s tradition being emulated by today's younger generation.

Sex was a difficult problem for 1950s Americans, suggest Diggins and May. Although petting was perfectly acceptable for the courting couple, penetration was not. Promiscuity was associated with subversive communism, yet Playboy became an instant best-seller when it appeared in 1955. Moreover, the Kinsey report suggested that not only were the majority of American men unfaithful to their wives, but that one in six American farm boys had copulated with farm animals. This, apparently, was not the America of harmonious happy families. Which one of the two Americas is most representative of the 50s – that of the sexually perverse neurotic or the easy-going rock-and-roller – remains unproven. What is clear is that Europe preferred the gum-chewing, laid- back style of American culture to emulate. The heart and mind of the Old World was won rover to American capitalism after the war not by anti-communist rhetoric but, as Lary May points out, by a process of Coca-Colonisation.

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