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A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, and The Reckoning has created his masterpiece--a stunning, panoramic view of a pivotal and popular American decade. From Ike to Elvis, McCarthy to Marlon Brando, all the people and phenomena of that fabulous time are captured in Halberstam style. 32-page photo insert.
In the beginning, that era was dominated by the shadow of a man no longer there—Franklin D. Roosevelt. He had died in 1945, but his impact on American politics was so profound that even the most powerful Republican leaders believed privately that their party might be permanently in the minority. Roosevelt had been cast forth in the midst of two transcending events—the Great Depression and World War Two. The first was responsible for a massive reordering of the American economy and society, thereby creating a huge, new base for the Democrats; the second permitted Roosevelt to emerge as an international leader in a time of great crisis and to prolong his presidency for two additional terms. During that time, the infrastructure of the Democratic party became ever more powerful and Roosevelt was able to extend his reach into the courts.
Roosevelt was the ultimate modern politician, the first great master of modern mass communications in a democracy. For millions of poorer Americans and for the new immigrants and their children, his ability to exploit radio and make it seem his personal vehicle had a particular resonance. To them, Roosevelt was not only President-for-life, he was their guide to the rites of American politics.
The effect of this on the Republican party, mired as it was in political attitudes that predated the Depression, World War Two, and the coming of radio, was devastating. In July 1949, some nine months after his own shocking defeat by Harry Truman (which seemed to promise the Roosevelt coalition would go on ad infinitum), Thomas E. Dewey met with Dwight Eisenhower, then the president of Columbia University, to begin the process of coercing Ike to run for the presidency in 1952 as a Republican. Eisenhower's notes of that meeting are unusually revealing of the Republican dilemma: "All middle-class citizens of education have a common belief that the tendencies towards centralization and paternalism must be halted and reversed. No one who voices these opinions can be elected. He [Dewey] quotes efforts of Hoover, Landon, Willkie, Himself. Consequently we must look around for someone of great popularity and who has not frittered away his political assets by taking positive stands against national planning, etc, etc. Elect such a man to Presidency, after which [N.B.: italics Ike's] he must lead us back to safe channels and paths." In effect Dewey was saying that the solid citizens who could make the right decisions for the future of the country had, because of the New Deal, become a minority and that the nation had fallen into the clutches of dark and alien forces.
Not surprisingly, the Republican party was traumatized and bitterly divided. Certainly, the Democratic party was divided as well, between the liberal Northern urban coalition and the Southern conservative Jim Crow wing. But for all their differences, the Democrats had a certain glue: They won, and in victory there was patronage and power, a combination that transcended ideology. For the Republicans there was only the taste of ashes. They had been out of office since 1932. The shadow of the Depression still hung over them, and the Democrats were still running against Herbert Hoover, portraying the Republicans as the party of cold, uncaring bankers. Were the Republicans forever to be trapped by those events then twenty years in the past?
Of the divisions within the Republican party, the most obvious was a historic, regional one. On one side were the lawyers and bankers of Wall Street and State Street, their colleagues through the great Eastern industrial cities, and those in the powerful national media, based in New York. They were internationalist by tradition and by instinct: They had fought against the New Deal in states where the power of labor was considerable but had eventually come to accept certain premises of the New Deal. By contrast, the Republicans of the heartland were essentially unchanged by the great events that had overtaken them; they were resentful of World War Two and suspicious of how Roosevelt had gotten them into it. This was particularly true of the many German-Americans in the region. Instinctively Anglophobic, they were wary of our growing involvement in Western Europe and our close alliance with the British. If they had a bible other than the Bible, it was the conservative, isolationist Chicago Tribune of Colonel Robert R. McCormick. They were anxious to go back to the simple, comfortable world of the twenties, before the New Deal had empowered labor unions, before air travel had shrunk the Atlantic Ocean into a pond, and before scientists had ever thought about developing intercontinental ballistic missiles to catapult atomic warheads into their midst.
They lived in God's country, a land far from oceans and far from foreigners, and they were all-powerful in their own small towns. Many had gone to college and returned home to succeed their fathers in family businesses. They had always controlled their political and economic destinies locally, and they presumed that by acting in concert with others like themselves in other small towns, they could control the national destiny. Earlier in the century they had regarded Taft, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover as the guardians of their values in Washington; they had considered the nation's capital an extension of their own small towns. Now they looked at Washington and saw the enemy. Even in their own towns, their mastery had been limited by the rise of arrogant, impertinent labor unions. Even worse, they seemed to have lost control of their own party. That was the final insult. Confident that they represented Republicanism and true patriotism, they were at war with the Eastern Republicans, who, in their eyes, were traitors, tainted by cooperation with the New Deal. Robert Taft, the conservative wing's great leader, believed Easterners had fallen victim to the liberal press and labor unions. As Taft wrote in a letter to a friend about Tom Dewey: "Tom Dewey has no real courage to stand up against the crowd that wants to smear any Republican who takes a forthright position against the New Deal."
The conservatives had lost in 1940, when the Easterners had blitzed them at the last minute with Wendell Willkie at the convention. A Hoosier by birth, Willkie had to their minds lost touch with his roots and become a captive of the East. "The barefoot boy from Wall Street," he was called. Willkie had, said Alice Roosevelt Longworth, "grass roots in every country club in America." Then in 1944, with Willkie virtually supporting Roosevelt against his own party (which, of course, did not surprise the conservatives—they had known that about him before he knew it himself), the same Eastern forces coalesced behind Thomas E. Dewey, the modern, reform-minded governor of New York. The Easterners knew, after all, what it took to be elected governor of New York in this day and age—the kind of deals necessary with labor and ethnic groups. The first time around, Dewey was easily defeated by an aging, sickly Roosevelt, who won his fourth term. But in 1948, the Republicans were finally free from Roosevelt's personal charm. The Easterners nominated Dewey a second time.
The 1948 campaign proved to be a watershed for the Republicans. They were absolutely confident that Thomas E. Dewey would beat Truman, whom they saw as a small-town haberdasher, devoid of Roosevelt's charm and as uncomfortable with an open radio microphone as the average Republican. But there was the problem of Dewey's stiffness. Alice Longworth described Dewey as looking like "the little man on the wedding cake." "The chocolate soldier," the Chicago Tribune called him. He had come to prominence as a crime-busting D.A. and then had proved a capable governor of New York. During the 1940s he had become a serious internationalist, thus becoming the singular target of the Republican isolationists. To Colonel Robert McCormick, of the Chicago Tribune, and his followers, Dewey was virtually a New Deal Democrat. "If you read the Chicago Tribune you'd know I am a direct lineal descendant of FDR," Dewey once noted.
For all his bureaucratic skills, Dewey was a cold piece of work. He was, said one longtime associate, "cold—cold as a February icicle." "The little man," Roosevelt had called him privately, referring not merely to his lack of height. Even those who worked closely with him and who admired him thought he was unbending and self-righteous. "He struts sitting down," said Lillian Dykstra, a close friend of Martha Taft, and thus not an entirely unbiased source. Dewey was uncomfortable with political bonhomie; he would spend as little time as possible with working politicians (and when he did, more often than not he offended them); he could not bear to go to wakes or funerals, a crucial ritual in the Irish-dominated politics of New York City. His disrespect for other politicians extended to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, whom he referred to privately as "those congressional bums." Campaigning for the presidential nomination on his own train with such supporters as the governor of Connecticut, he would excuse himself from his guests after the morning's stops and lunch alone. "Smile, Governor," a photographer once said to him. "I thought I was," he answered.
His strengths were his sense of purpose, his integrity, and his political cleanliness. "An honest cop with the mind of an honest cop," William Allen White called him. When he signed autographs he would date them, so that no stranger could imply a closer relationship than truly existed. In 1948 he refused—and this was a point of honor—to use the Communist-in-government issue as a political weapon, and he refused, despite mounting pressure from the Republican right, to do any red-baiting, even as that was becoming ever more fashionable in postwar American politics. He had forbidden one of his New York colleagues to mail a letter critical of George Marshall and his policies in China to the editor of a local paper. During the 1948 campaign, when Harold Stassen had presented something of a surprise challenge to Dewey's renomination, he and Dewey had debated during the Oregon primary on the question of whether or not the Communist party should be outlawed or not. Dewey argued that it should not. He was against outlawing it, he said, because "you can't shoot an idea with a gun." Some of his advisers suggested that he soft-pedal his advocacy of civil liberties, that this was not the right time for it. He refused, telling them, "If I'm going to lose, I'm going to lose on something I believe in." The debate had been the forerunner of the televised presidential campaign debates to come twelve years later, and some 40 to 60 million people were said to have listened. Dewey carried Oregon, and won the nomination. During the regular campaign, the right-wing New Hampshire publisher William Loeb and his favorite senator, Styles Bridges, pleaded with Dewey to start hitting the Communist-in-government issue. He listened to them and then, in the words of Hugh Scott, one of his campaign aides and later a senator, he said he would "fleck it lightly." The right-wingers were furious. As far as they were concerned, he was throwing away their best issue. Yet Dewey remained adamant. He thought it degrading to accuse the President of the United States of being soft on Communism. He was not, he told Styles Bridges, the Republican national campaign manager, "going around looking under beds." His aides got nowhere, Herbert Brownell, his top political adviser, decided, because his wife hated the idea of partisan attacks. She wanted him to be, in her words, more presidential. This was not the first time she had blocked the requests of the political men around him. For years Brownell and others had thought his trademark mustache—which perhaps gave him a crisp nononsense look as a district attorney—was a detriment for him as a national politician, because it made him look cold and unfeeling. In photographs and in newsreels, it was the only thing that people seemed to remember about him. "His face was so small, and the mustache was so large," Brownell later lamented. Again and again his political people suggested the removal of the mustache, but every time the idea was vetoed by Mrs. Dewey.
He was a heavy favorite to win, and he took the high road. Thus there was not a great deal dividing Truman and Dewey on foreign policy, and on domestic issues Dewey had no great desire to emphasize whatever differences existed. Dewey was also wary of attacking too hard; he did not want to appear as the prosecutor he had been. He would be above pettiness, above partisanship. His platform, said Samuel Rosenman, the Roosevelt-Truman speechwriter, was fit for any good New Dealer to run on.
In truth he campaigned not as the challenger but as the incumbent, as a man who had already been elected President by endless polls and surveys. He would be the good administrator who cleaned out the mess in Washington after sixteen years of Democratic rule. The idea of a Truman victory seemed impossible to nearly everyone. George Gallup even told the Republican high command that it was a waste of their money to continue polling, since the results were a foregone conclusion. But Harry Truman had not spent all those years in the Pendergast machine for nothing. That summer he ambushed Dewey; he called the Congress back into session and fed it legislation that underlined the vast differences between Dewey the modern Republican as presidential candidate and the Republican party as embodied by those conservatives still powerful in the Congress and still fighting the New Deal. It was the defining moment of the campaign. It resurrected Truman and gave him something to run against. Even so, no one really believed he could win. Dewey's chief campaign tactic was to make no mistakes, to offend no one. His major speeches, wrote the Louisville Courier Journal, could be boiled down "to these historic four sentences: Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. The future lies ahead ..." In the final few weeks a few Republicans sensed that the tide had turned against Dewey. Among them was Bob Taft. He knew Dewey was going to lose, he told The New York Times writer Bill White, when his wife Martha stopped listening to his speeches on the radio and watching his occasional appearances on television.
On election eve, the Chicago Tribune had its famous headline proclaiming Dewey's victory, and Alistair Cooke had already sent in his piece for the Manchester Guardian entitled, "Harry S Truman, A Study in Failure." But even with Roosevelt gone, the Republicans blew the election. But Truman won and the Republicans now faced four more years out of office. The bitterness within the party grew. So much for the high road in American politics. The Communist issue would be fair game in the near future. It was the only way they knew how to fight back.
It was a mean time. The nation was ready for witch-hunts. We had come out of World War Two stronger and more powerful and more affluent than ever before, but the rest of the world, alien and unsettling, seemed to press closer now than many Americans wanted it to. An unwanted war had not brought a true peace, and there would be many accusations that the Democrats had won the war but lost the peace. As David Caute wrote in The Great Fear, the true isolationists thought that Roosevelt had dragged us "into the wrong war: wrong allies, wrong enemies, wrong outcome." A peace that permitted Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe was unacceptable to many Americans. There had to be an answer; there had to be a scapegoat: These things could not merely have happened, not in a fair and just world. Nor would anyone in the United States Congress score points with the folks back home by pointing out that the Soviets held Eastern Europe because they, more than anyone, had borne the brunt of the Wehrmacht, and at a terrible price—the loss of some 20 million people. We knew of the war what we chose to know; to most Americans it had begun only on December 7, 1941, and as for the action in Europe, it had begun only after the American forces landed on the continent in June 1944.
Excerpted from The Fifties by David Halberstam. Copyright © 1993 The Amateurs Limited. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted February 23, 2009
THE FIFTIES is researched extensively and the chapters are full of examples, quotes, and background information that make the Age of Conformity alive to the reader. A lengthy book, the decade takes on flesh as the author examines the many factors that shaped it. If you're interested in the time that gave us both Joe McCarthy and rock and roll, this book is highly recommended.
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Posted November 30, 2006
If you want to understand, regardless of your perspective, how we've arrived where we are today as a nation, this is the book for you. It does an excellent job of bridging the old U.S. to the new U.S. I was born in the early 50s, and was surprised at how this took my knowledge and memory of isolated events, and wove them into a complete, and logical result of the events of that decade. The book is written in vignette form - a chapter or two for each issue, going back periodically to keep you in a timeline perspective. I've read some in-dpeth writings in the past on the topics covered, and Halberstam somehow manages to give you all the most important details, and concensus opinions on each. I highly encourage those in the generation born between 1970-1990 to read this - it will explain a lot about your grandparents, your parents and you.
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Posted June 7, 2004
I, as they say, came of age in the 50s. Belately reading this book, I found it amazingly timely. Take away the 'communists' and insert 'terrorists' and you get a sense of what America is facing. Many of the fundamentals in our policies started during this era and unfortunately continue. A well-written, people-driven narrative of an amazing period. Highly recommended for those who lived through it or for those trying to understand them.
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Posted December 20, 2014
Posted March 8, 2013
Far too long. Far too many words on relatively minor topics. Seems to see no influence or driving force other than television.
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Posted April 28, 2009
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Posted November 2, 2013
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Posted August 28, 2010
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Posted May 10, 2009
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