People living in the 1950s did a lot more than worry about Communists and atomic bombs. They raised families, excelled at work, and built the most prosperous nation in the world. Here are ten influences that reverberate today.
10. Tail fins on cars
9. Marilyn Monroe
8. The novel Peyton Place, novice author Grace Metalious’s blockbuster expose of societal undercurrents of sex and violence
7. Elvis joins the Army (March 24, 1958)
6. The movie Ben Hur (1959 epic starring Charlton Heston, second highest-grossing film in history at the time)
5. Invention of the credit card (in 1950 by Ralph Schneider and Frank McNamara, founders of Diners Club)
4. The Twilight Zone
3. Interstate highway system
2. Rock ‘n’ Roll and it’s antecedent, rhythm and blues
In 1950, the U.S. government published a pamphlet with the hopeful title of Survival Under Atomic Attack. The publication came five years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan and one year after the Soviet Union developed its own atomic device. Both nations would develop more powerful thermonuclear weapons—hydrogen bombs—in the early years of the decade.
The booklet begins with an assessment of survival:
What are your chances? If a modern A-bomb exploded without warning in the air over your home town tonight, your calculated chances of living through the raid would run something like this:
Should you happen to be one of the unlucky people right under the bomb, there is practically no hope of living through it. In fact, anywhere within one-half mile of the center of explosion, your chances of escaping are about 1 out of 10.
On the other hand, and this is the important point, from one-half to 1 mile away, you have a 50-50 chance.
Under that hopeful assumption, the booklet goes on to explain flash burns and radiation before listing six survival tips for atomic attacks:
Try to get shielded
Drop flat on ground or floor
Bury your face in your arms
Don’t rush outside right after a bombing
Don’t take chances with food or water in open containers
Don’t start rumors
Easier said than done. In the Cold War novel Distant Early Warning, the residents of Pennsboro have a mixed reaction to that advice. Patriotic to the core, the Gouchers build a fallout shelter in their backyard. The rest of the neighbors are on their own. At work, Marshall Andersen hears the sirens blare and wonders if he can get home in time. His wife Georgia unplugs the iron and draws the curtains against a possible blast. Their son, Wil, ducks and covers in the hallway at school, frozen by the sound of impending doom.
The pamphlet offers a more hopeful appraisal.
“To sum up, If you follow the pointers in this little booklet, you stand far better than an even chance of surviving the bomb’s blast, heat, and radioactivity.”
They were all the rage in the late 1950s—fallout shelters you could build in your basement or backyard. Now viewed with comic tolerance, the shelters were a response to a series of very real threats, starting with the Korean War and the execution of the Rosenbergs for spying and culminating in launch of Sputnik in 1957. In between, the United States and the Soviet Union traded nuclear-bomb tests tit for tat. America and Canada built the Distant Early Warning Line of radar stations across the Arctic. The U.S. staged mass evacuations of its largest cities. And children huddled under their desks in duck-and-cover drills.
The threats were anything but comic.
In June 1959, the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization published a 32-page pamphlet called The Family Fallout Shelter. The text was sobering:
Let us take a hard look at the facts. In an atomic war, blast, heat, and initial radiation could kill millions close to ground zero of nuclear bursts. Many more millions—everybody else—could be threatened by radioactive fallout. But most of these could be saved. The purpose of this booklet is to show how to escape death from fallout.
The booklet contained building plans for several types of shelters: basement concrete block, above-ground double-wall, pre-shaped corrugated metal, and underground. (Harry Goucher used similar plans for his backyard shelter in the novel Distant Early Warning. Imagine you’re a young mother like Georgia Andersen watching him build a four-person bunker and wondering where the rest of your neighbors will shelter.)
The booklet listed equipment and supplies for a prolonged stay and advised readers to “be prepared to make it your home for 14 days or longer.” Four to six people in a shelter with a hand-crank air pump and a bucket for a toilet. How long do you think most of us would last?
I was old enough to remember but too young to understand the destruction and aftermath of the Flood of 1955. Back-to-back hurricanes Connie and Diane ravaged the Northeast that summer, dumping nearly two feet of rain on Northeast Pennsylvania where we lived and killing 184 people throughout the region. Some of the worst destruction happened in Connecticut.
The storms hit that August. Connie swept through with little to show except for rain. As if to blow the all-clear, the sun came out. I ventured into the backyard. Rain had turned the grass into a pond. It seemed miraculous.
Then, on August 18, came Diane, with its torrential rains and raging creeks that took a region by surprise. When the sun returned, my father packed me in the Buick for what came to be known as the disaster tour. One location remains embedded in memory: a stop by the Brodhead Creek along Stokes Mill Road just north of Stroudsburg, Pa. Climbing from the car, we viewed a great plain of mud, dried and cracked as if an earthquake had hit. Not a single tree, house, or rock. Just acres and acres of nothing.
I remember other things about that time: air-raid sirens near the Y, duck-and-cover drills in school, playground bullies and kick the can. Knowledge of the Cold War, the fear and paranoia over spies and nuclear attack, would come later.
Researching and writing about that era allowed me to explore the events and feelings of people who, at the time of the flood, were, for a child, out of reach. The result is Distant Early Warning, the story of a family—Marsh, Georgia, Penny and seven-year-old Wil—as they struggle with the perils and promise of the 1950s. The title refers to the line of radar stations strung across the Arctic Circle to detect incoming Russian bombers, but it could easily serve as a metaphor for a young boy’s discovery of the friendship of girls and the darkness that haunts his family, secrets buried deep beneath the mud.
That research also led me to discover these family photos of the aftermath of the flood, images unpublished until now.
Postscript: Thanks to members of two Facebook groups for their help in identifying the location of these photos: “I remember East Stroudsburg and Stroudsburg when . . . ” and “1955 Flood in Monroe County, PA, and environs.”
They were the best of times and the worst of times. America in the 1950s was booming. From Detroit to Levittown, people bought cars and houses in record numbers. President Dwight Eisenhower established the interstate highway system to boost commerce and provide escape routes during atomic evacuations. Low inflation and rising GDP. Drag races and sock hops, flattops and greasers, Elvis and Buddy. The dawn of the space age and color TV. A time of infinite possibilities.
But the 1950s weren’t all happy days.
Political conflicts generated a fearful response: Communist witch hunts, nuclear tests, fallout shelters, air-raid drills. Across the country, Americans faced a host of existential issues, from over-consumption to Russian aggression, racism, nuclear war and the threat of epidemic disease, issues that reverberate today.
Then there were the natural disasters that plagued small towns like the one where I lived: the Flood of ’55, the blizzard of ’58, and a fire that destroyed a block of Main Street that summer. One storm alone, Hurricane Diane, took 180 lives and caused more than $832 million in damage, making it the most-costly hurricane in U.S. history to that date. (Those challenges form the heart of Distant Early Warning, a new book about one family’s struggle with the challenges of the Cold War.)
If anything, it was a decade of contrasts, both backward- and forward-looking: the USSR and the USA, eastern steel and western gold, San Francisco and Selma, beatniks and bottlenecks, Gunsmoke and The Twilight Zone.
Prosperity and paranoia. Do times ever change?
What do you remember? What would you like to forget?
It is the late 1950s, and the Andersen family is at war with itself. As back-to-back hurricanes ravage the rural town of Pennsboro, the family suffers an irredeemable loss. Georgia becomes mired in a haze of medication and TV. Marsh retreats into work and fantasies of the redhead next door. Wil, a precocious boy with a fondness for a girl with almond eyes, suspects his parents are possessed by the aliens from his favorite movie.
Adding to their private grief is the collision of consumerism and the Cold War, amid the rising threat of Soviet missiles that may render obsolete America’s last hope for defense, the newly completed Distant Early Warning Line. With the launch of Sputnik, the family’s anguish comes to a head.
As the Andersens watch the first man-made satellite write history across the sky, they wonder if they, and the world, will ever find peace.
Based on true events, Distant Early Warning portrays the fears and dreams of a generation as it navigates the promise and perils of mid-century America. The book is available here.