Like many other conservatives, the ’50s are a period of years I look on with fondness. Yes, I was nowhere near being born when that decade transpired. However, reading about the beginnings of the Space Race, listening to Elvis’s music, reading about the faith in atomic power and energy, and learning about the attacks on communism and socialism in the period make it one I love.
It was the time when America was at its best: wealthy without being full of profligates, generally at peace but generously funding the military, full of enthusiasm for scientific advancement, especially in the atomic and space fields, yet not irreligious. What a time!
It was with that in mind that I picked up and read The Fifties by David Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest. While it’s a reasonably adequate history of the decade, it has a number of flaws, all of which I’ll touch upon later in this review. Enjoy!
Summary of The Fifties by David Halberstam
The Fifties is a mostly chronological tale of that inspiring decade. Beginning with Truman’s victory over Dewey and ending with the televised Nixon-JFK debate, jumping between military matters, political changes, cultural shifts, paradigm-shifting inventions and innovations, and burgeoning movements, Halberstam shows how American society developed over the decade and why.
To do so, he uses dozens of short chapters that focus on a particular topic relevant to a particular part of the fifties which he is describing. For example, at the beginning of the book, there’s a chapter on Douglas MacArthur and his involvement in both the political and military realms, a chapter on McCarthy and the HUAC hearings, a chapter on the creation of McDonald’s, and a few others.
The later parts of the book cover Elvis Presley and Rock ‘n Roll, the birth control pill, and changes at GM. Of course, other topics have their own chapters too; numerous actors and writers, economic changes toward financialization, and the French War in Indochina, for example, are also described, as are various moments in the Civil Rights movement.
That means there is a vast breadth of information in The Fifties. Halberstam will describe a political battle in Washington in one chapter and another soon thereafter will be about motels or the shift to fast food. That means just about everything is covered, from advertising to von Braun and the Space Race, the creation of McDonald’s to Gary Powers being shot down over the USSR.
Additionally, it’s mostly chronological, so Halberstam periodically returns to certain topics, such as GM, to show how the major facets of American society changed over the decade and how the various chapters in the book were all interrelated.
Overall, The Fifties is exactly what the title would have you think it is; a history of one of America’s most momentous decades.
My Take on The Fifties by David Halberstam
Despite loving the fifties, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading The Fifties. That’s because of Halberstam; his leftist outlook, present as it is throughout the book, turns what would be an objective history of a decade many people want to learn more about into a schizophrenic book that jumps between objectively reporting some events and changes and giving an entirely biased, and in some cases incorrect, perspective on most others.
For example, Halberstam’s depiction of most cultural and economic innovations is fantastic. His depictions of the story of the Holiday Inn hotel chain, the story of McDonald’s, how Elvis was discovered, and the tale of how a certain TV game show (you’ll have to read the book to find out which one) made Americans cynical are terrific. Because few politics are involved, he’s able to keep it together in those chapters and remain objective in describing them.
Yet in most other chapters, especially ones about America’s response to the Red Menace, Halberstam writes with a pinko attitude that makes what he says unbelievable.
When writing about MacArthur, a brilliant general that could have solved our modern China problem had he been able to, Halberstam savages him and paints him as an incompetent commander and media-focused prima donna. Siding with Truman in the famous MacArthur-Truman fight, Halberstam describes MacArthur in an entirely unfair light and doesn’t inform the reader of any of the facts surrounding why MacArthur acted or thought as he did; instead, he simply presents the opinions of other, biased individuals as facts.
Similarly, when describing McCarthy, Halberstam is entirely unfair. Not once does he mention that most of the people McCarthy had dragged into HUAC were communists, nor does he mention the threat posed by communist spies and traitors, nor does he even describe the content of the trials. Instead, Halberstam simply peddles rumors about McCarthy’s drinking and eating habits in an attempt to paint him as an insecure and disgusting individual. It’s a sad attempt at slander and poor historical writing.
That pattern of only presenting the leftist side appears time and time again when Halberstam describes political issues in The Fifties. Every Southerner is painted as a racist redneck, every conservative as a far-right lunatic, and anyone worried about communist infiltration as a paranoid enemy of free speech. It’s unfair, uninformative, and uninspired.
As I mentioned, there are some positive attributes of The Fifties. The apolitical chapters, especially about the culture of the time, are terrific. It’s exciting and inspiring to read about Elvis, Where’s Lucy, the creation of the suburbs, and various other cultural or economic developments. Furthermore, Halberstam’s writing style makes the reader feel as if he is actually there, watching the first patties sizzle on the grill at McDonald’s or listening to Elvis on the radio in a Ford Thunderbird for the first time. It’s great and imbues the reader with a sense of confidence as an American that hasn’t existed since that decade.
But the bad chapters far out shadow the good ones. Nowhere in the political chapters is there the sense of awe or inspiration there is in the others, much less any sense of objectivity.
Instead, Halberstam seems intent on using any political content in The Fifties to bludgeon Republicans with and paint the decade as one of backwardness created by delusional, paranoid conservatives that spent too much on bombers and too little on integrating schools in the Southeast. His discussions of atomic innovations are about the dangers of the bomb and their expensive nature, not about the excitement with which most Americans viewed the harnessing of the atom. LeMay’s Strategic Air Command is a money-hungry, Armageddon-creating institution, not the fleet of brave airmen and rocketeers that kept the West safe from the Soviet menace.
I think the reason for that is that he doesn’t want the decade to be an inspiration, he wants it to be viewed with contempt. Whereas Trump and other look back on the halcyon days of American greatness with fondness, Halberstam obviously views such an “unenlightened” era with contempt; because homosexual degeneracy wasn’t tolerated, because people were religious, because we opposed communism, and most of all, because there was still a racial hierarchy in the South, Halberstam wanted to skewer the era. That’s why, in The Fifties, the men in grey suits and fedoras we think of when the era is mentioned aren’t titans of industry or happy fathers, but rather depressed, materialistic drones in a boring culture and greed-focused economy.
It’s the deconstructionism Ben Shapiro describes in How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps at its very worst.
So, should you read The Fifties? It’s hard to say. While I’d read it again, I know I’d be angry about half the time. The problem is that it isn’t good, bad, or mediocre; rather, it’s a rare amalgamation of genius and abomination.
Some of the chapters, as I previously mentioned, are fantastic and will fill you with the sense of awe, wonder, and inspiration that the decade is (or at least used to be) famous for. Like Tomorrowland at Disney, American Graffiti, or Trump’s paeans to days past, reading about the fabulous accomplishments of the period will make you proud to be an American and excited about what’s to come. In other words, they fill you with the true spirit of the era.
But the rest are horrid hogwash. Halberstam skewers conservatives, slanders great men like MacArthur and McCarthy, plays down the Soviet threat, and rarely gives a fair telling of what actually happened. No Southern traditionalist is in the right and no Yankee provocateur in the wrong. Those chapters are a shameful attempt at writing that can hardly be described as history.
So, pick your poison. If you read it, you’ll be inspired by the good parts and filled with rage at the biased, bad parts. If you don’t, you’ll miss out on both. In any case, it’s time to revive the spirit of the fifties, whether Halberstam’s book helps you with that or not.