207 of 209 people found the following review helpful
This is a delightful and encyclopedic survey of the major events and personalities in the United States in the 1950s. The title is, therefore, a bit of a misnomer. The book is not about the decade on a global scale, but merely the fifties in America. Halberstam writes of the decade in a clear, fast-moving prose, and despite the books enormous bulk, is actually a remarkably fast read.
Halberstam offers no explicit themes or theses, but if there is an overarching implicit theme, it is the Fifties not as a time of innocence as frequently assumed, but a time of viciousness, meanness, and loss of whatever remaining innocence American might possess. Indeed, the book ends with Eisenhower looking at Nixon and Kennedy, and exclaiming that he didn't like either of them.
What THE FIFTIES primarily does is hold up a mirror to the fifties, and reflects the major events and especially the major figures of the decade. In fact, while specific events do receive attention, the book is essentially a succession of character sketches, and even the major events themselves are discussed through focusing on particular individuals. What is amazing is what a satisfactory job Halberstam does of writing about both unfamiliar and famous individuals.
By and large, Halberstam deals with just about every major figure one would expect. If I had any complaints--and these would be minor--I would argue that some major art forms received almost no attention in the book. For instance, while he has a full chapter on the bestseller PEYTON PLACE and writes about pulp master Micky Spillane, there is no discussion of any major writers. Nor does he write about cinema in general (though James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Marilyn Monroe receive attention), or changes in art. Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips receive a chapter, but surprisingly little about the development of rock and roll is mentioned apart from that. I think there are two reasons for this. First, even though the text runs to around 730 excluding notes and index, a book of this scale can't deal with everything. Second, despite the books enormous scope, Halberstam isn't determined to write about every aspect of the fifties, but only on every aspect that was distinctive of the decade and made it unique in comparison to what came before and that led to what would come after. Implicit throughout the book is the question, "What made this decade unique and different?"
By the end of the book, the reader will have read about Truman, Ike, Korea, Matt Ridgway, McCarthy, Elia Kazan, Orville Faubus, Holiday Inn, MacDonald's, Little Rock, Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, the Kinsey report, the development of the Pill, Tennessee Williams, the Dulles brothers, Robert Taft, Adlai Stevenson, Jack Kerouac and the Beats, Oppenheimer and Teller and the Super, Hoover, MacArthur, Giap, Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel, the CIA, Levittown, Francis Gary Powers, Werner von Braun, Kelly Johnson, Martin Luther King, Emmitt Till, John Chancellor, Harry Ashmore, Lucy, Milton Berle, and a vast host of other major and minor figures.
I recommend this book as strongly as possible both for those who either lived through the decade or through the wake of the decade, or those who no little or nothing about it. At the end of the book, I was convinced that the Fifties was perhaps one of the two or three key decades of the century, and perhaps the decade in which the world we know now, dominated by TV, mass communication, fast food, sexuality, celebrity, massive military expenditures, computers, advertising, and technology, was born.
83 of 88 people found the following review helpful
on February 24, 2008
Honestly, this book should be required reading for all of our high school students. It is far better than any traditional school texts we had covering this era. "The Fifties," is a finely written history of the decade that the author considers "seminal in determining what our nation is today."
The author combines a very engaging historical narrative with deep social commentary that illuminates the controversial & complex events & people which made the 1950's so important to the USA. From the unexpected victory of Harry Truman over Republican rival Thomas Dewey in the 1948 Presidential election, the Korean War, the firing of General Douglass MacArthur, Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, the Sputnik satellite launch 1957, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, & the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. To the rise of Senator Mccarthy, Khrushev, & Fidel Castro taking over Cuba in 1959.
Mr. Halberstam argues persuasively that despite, its tranquill facade, that the 1950's was a time of huge social upheavel. He goes about this by pointing out the laeders of the anti-establishment movement. Such as Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, & the Beatniks. The latters philosophy would come to full bloom in the "hippie" culture of the 1960's. The influence of Katherine Mccormick & Margeret Sanger led to strides in birth control & Feminism. While Television helped the Alpha entertainment careers of Steve Allen, Cid Caeser, Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, & Milton Berle. TV also helped popularize the Meteoric popularity of Rock & Roll & its main icon Elvis Presley & the new fast food culture. Which saw the steady growth of the original California based McDonalds Hamburger chain after the McDonald brothers sold it to entrepeneur Ray Kroc.
Lastly, this was the decade that saw the huge rise in the interstate highway system that led to our car culture & enabled millions of Americans to travel around the country easier than ever before.
33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2006
What is it about the 1950's that so many Americans cherish? Is it the homespun food of apple pie and burgers devoid of GM products, foreign influences and weight concerns? Or is it the large cars made possible by cheap gas? Maybe its the music; a lot of new and exciting stuff, but without the undertones of death, government corruption, street violence and broken families... Maybe it is all of this and more, for the 50's represent to many the last decade in which everything seemed to fit together and all was well in the USA. David Halberstam, journalist par excellence, examines this most pivotal of decades and reveals all that festered under the surface, waiting to blow in the following decades.
This book examines the whos, whats and whys of various political, economic, social, and cultural events of the 1950s. The important things covered touch upon every US state, both political parties, and individuals from Washington D.C. to tenant black farmers in the deep South. Some of these topics include Elvis, McCarthyism, the rising civil rights movement, suburbanization, Iran, the rise of JFK, the spread of TV, and the dawning of the space race.
One of the best points of this book is how the author connects events in the 1950s with history that would come later. One example; Halberstam looks at the Red-baiting of McCarthy and shows how the fallout over this one episode would set the tones of many public careers over the ensuing decades, such as future president Nixon. Another good example provided by the book; the US CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Iran's first ever elected president because he wouldn't give the British a good enough deal on Iranian oil. This event would begin several decades of an American foreign policy that sold out democracy for corporate gains. And it would officially begin a relationship between the US and the Middle East that has brought sorrow to both. A third example is the deal between GM and the US government. GM bought most of America's rail tracks, ripped it up and turned the resulting metal into cars. Congress in turn built freeways to replace the lost mass transit system. In one bold stroke, GM and Congress sealed America's dependence on oil for the next several decades...
All in all, a great book. This work interweves the politics, economics, and history of one decade together to show how key events, some public and others private, could decide the fate of a country.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2003
This book is an excellent combination of political and social history told in a compelling narrative fashion. I was often disappointed when I came to the end of a chapter and had to switch topics. I found myself wanting to know more about the matter at hand, to find out how everything turned out.
The author does a good job of avoiding any particular political bias. He rarely comments on whether a particular action was right or wrong. He just presents the facts and let them speak for themselves.
One insight that reading this book has given me is how drastically the advent of television altered the landscape of American society. Television lead to the trivialization of the political process, the evolution of advertising into a cultural force, and the steady growth of consumerism. With the large exception of the nuclear bomb, television is the worst thing the 1950's handed down to us.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2007
How can you be so broad on so narrow a strip of time. Well, Halberstam could. A great work of journalistic synthesis, a great synopsis of themes and actors and icons: Truman and Acheson, McCarthy and McArthur, Ike and Stevenson, Nixon (much) and Kennedy (much less), Oppenheimer and Teller, Tennessee Williams and Kerouac, Kazan and Brando, Kinsey and Hoover (Edgar of course), the Dulles brothers, Elvis and B.B.King, M.L.King and Betty Freedan, James Dean and Ricky Nelson, W.v.Braun and G.Powers.... The bomb, the car, the house, the store, the burger, the motel, the television, the pill... Primaries and elections, Korean War, Cold War, regime changes, race war, party war... Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Cuba. Suburbia, advertising, sitcoms, quiz shows...
The party conflict probably the most important theme carrying the frame of the whole decade. From outside looking in: amazing, this emotion over mole hills. From Europe it is usually hard to see any difference between the Reps and the Dems, but how wrong that perception seems to be!
Clearly, DH is generally more on the 'liberal' side, though he minces no words about shameful histories of bosses and mobsters. No home run for Democrats. But I find that DH tries and succeeds to be balanced in his short portraits of most protagonists. There are 2 exceptions: Joe McCarthy and Foster Dulles are entirely negative. Not even a tiny attempt at mitigating circumstances.
The story includes a tale of 'original sin': the removal of Mossadegh and re-instatement of the Shah may well have been the start of a lot that we can observe now, definitely a major groundstone in the long term destruction of US relations with Iran. Was that the turning point when US foreign policy lost legitimacy in the eyes of large parts of the world?
Did you know that the model for Greene's Quiet American was the CIA agent who led the action against Mossadegh and that the man was a Roosevelt, a grandson of Teddy's? For your next trivial pursuit.
My favorite quote: somebody said about McCarthy, 'he didn't know Karl Marx from Groucho'.
Masterful arrangement of a broad mass of information about America and the world in a short piece of time. One negative comment: why are there no signposts? The chapters just carry numbers. If you look for a certain subject, you have to work your way through the index. Why no chapter titles?
I stumbled over one sentence in the chapter on MLK though: MLK is said to have 'studied Marxism diligently and found it formidable as a critique of capitalism but empty as theology - shamelessly materialistic in its antimaterialism'. Now that is either a misprint, or a serious mis-use of terms. Definitely no Marxist can ever have claimed to be antimaterialist, that would have led to straight excommunication.
Has anybody written the 60s epos yet? 70s?
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 1997
The scope of this book could turn readers away -- Beaver Cleaver to Elvis, John Foster Dulles to Betty Friedan, Rosa Parks to Ray Kroc, Jack Kerouac to Gary Powers. What keeps it from being daunting -- and it is daunting not just in scope, but in size (700+ pages)-- is its eminently readable style. Halberstam writes with a journalist's eye for what is critical and important, and his writing is precise and focused. This is, believe it or not, great beach reading. The chapters are never more than 15 pages long, he sprinkles the themes throughout -- a chapter here and another chapter there. And his scope is fascinating: music, politics, civil rights, war, McDonalds/GM/other industry, feminism, beat poets, advertising and the rise of things to spend your disposable income on. The last 400 pages zip by like reading Elmore Leonard. As one born after the decade (in 1961), I learned a fantastic amount that explains a lot of what I grew up with. My advice: go out, go out NOW, and buy a copy. I finished this and bought 4, to give to friends and to my dad who actually lived through the 50s and was piqued by the book. READ THIS BOOK
30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on June 21, 2001
Halberstam tells a good story, and he does so in this book about the 1950s. Unfortunately, in this book he is content to spout back the conventional wisdom rather than do any new reporting. So what you get is a vivid re-telling of things already known, with his usual depth thrown in.
This book covers immense changes, not only in the economy with the rise of fast food, mass retail, hotel chains, etc., but in politics with McCarthyism, the Cold War and its proxy wars, civil rights for blacks, and the wave of suburban prosperity.
If this is his worst, it is still very good. Halberstam is one of our truly great writers. It is a solid introduction to a formative decade. Recommended.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2001
In "The Fifties", David Halberstam covers a huge range of political, historical and cultural events that defined this pivotal decade. The Korean War, the development of the H-Bomb, the rise of Castro and Kruschev, the violent reactions to the end of racism in America, the fiasco of the U-2 spy plane over Russia is explained and analyzed alongside the rise of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Nixon, Television, Levittown, MacDonald's, Holiday Inn, and even the great game show fraud on "Twenty One". The events are integrated with a thorough look into the biographies of the people at the center of the events. An element of hindsight in such a recent historical era may incline biases; but they are largely absent. There is no underlying theme carrying through the narrations; just a look at some of the amazing developments. Halberstam writes with genuine interest and leaves us with a picture that is a joy and a real education. He is masterful covering such a range of events yet is able to include significant detail of the people and the events, giving you a perspective absent the social or media biases of the era.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2006
This is a totally engrossing introduction to the events and concepts that launched us into the modern age. Imagine what life was like during the advent of space travel, television, and suburban life. Can you imagine what it would've been like to be one of the first people to eat a McDonald's burger or watch Richard Nixon on national teevee insist for the first time that he wasn't a crook? This book details these facets of life in a very entertaining but informative manner.
To me, the most valuable sections of this book were the beginnings of the Vietnam War (which Halberstam's "Best and The Brightest" details) and the advent of the Civil Rights movement. Here, Halberstam has his best moments with very poignant and eloquent writing. I was deeply moved and disturbed by the account of the murder of Emmett Till and inspired by the courage of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the people involved in the Montgomery bus boycott.
In the last pages of the book, the birth of Communist Cuba is also explained. Political bumbling and face-saving is as American and timeless as Apple Pie!
As a Gen-Xer who has had to teach myself history due to a public education that always ended with Harper's Ferry, this book was helpful in filling in the holes between WWII and JFK's election. I heartily recommend it to everyone.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2010
I write this to tell anyone that is interested that David Halberstam is a fine storyteller. This is true. You will like his books. There is nothing I know to say otherwise. I think knowing this is important, especially if you have not yet opened up a book of his yet.
You see, the 50s is my second book of his, and the same general rule applies. David Halberstam is a fine storyteller, period. However, this is both a pat on the back and a critique. He tells great stories based on the people living the stories he tells. The shame is that his gift is limited. A reader of this book may know some of the big events that happened in the 50s and the people associated with those events, but they will not know what it was like to live those events.
I like Halberstam's books. They work, but.. But. He writes biographies. This may work if they were not expected to be histories. Individual men (and they are mostly men) are profiled and what they do are profiled. They make actions and they do things that have an effect in the culture. The shame is that they build walls around the world. I have no idea what it was like to be a person in the 50s based on the book. I know, on some level, what happened but I am not that person.
Buy the book, by all means. He does a good job of bringing you in. I am glad I read the book and learned all he brought forth for me to learn. I just wish there was less a focus on people and more of a cultural criticism of the people and the time covered in the book. My own facile view of the time is based on the television shows of the time. These are dealt with much too late in the book to really view the considerations I care about. I wanted to compare reality versus the television shows that granted the best view of reality I knew. Halberstam shows that the visual culture is far removed from reality, but I hoped to engage that much earlier. That necessary and important social criticism does not happen until chapter 34 (pg 508).
Overall, I would recommend this book, as I would the entire author's work, but I would recommend that you explore more works for context of the period and the