The Fifties were more than the happy days portrayed by the entertainment industry, more than a collection of nostalgic tropes like doo-wop, poodle skirts, Elvis, and the Fonz. People faced existential issues ranging from over-consumption to nuclear annihilation in a collision of consumerism and the Cold War that brought us bomb shelters and barbecues, McCarthy and Maypo, strontium and Schlitz.
Americans faced a host of global events that shape our lives to this day, from the Korean War and the Rosenberg spy trial to Levittown, the polio pandemic, and the racial battles embodied by the Little Rock Nine.
Yet Communism was the real focus–some might say obsession–of the decade. America tested its first full-scale thermonuclear device in 1952. A year later, the Soviets tested theirs. During the ensuing years, Russia matched the Americans bomb test for bomb test, then moved the competition into space with the launch of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in October of 1957. In response, the U.S. government staged mass evacuations of its cities. It encouraged citizens to build fallout shelters in basements and backyards. It published booklets like 100 Things You Should Know About Communism to aid in the identification of fellow travelers. The phrase “Better Dead than Red” became common currency.
Today, we have coronavirus disease instead of polio; hypersonic weapons in addition to H-bombs; George Floyd on top of Little Rock; Ukraine instead of the Suez Canal.
What do you remember? What would you like to forget?