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The Fifties by David Halberstam

The Fifties (original 1994; edition 1994)

by David Halberstam

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1,208186,620 (4.11)13
Title:The Fifties
Authors:David Halberstam
Info:Ballantine Books (1994), Edition: First Ballantine Edition, Jun 1994, Paperback, 816 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:American History, K

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The Fifties by David Halberstam (1994)



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  ChrisPisarczyk | Mar 17, 2016 |
The practice of using decades as a units of history seems to be popular in the US but not elsewhere. Appropriately, The Fifties is primarily about the United States; its topics may seem as insular as some of the individuals who figure in the story.. Another characteristic of the decade as an American historical unit is that it is probably more of a popular rather than an academic way to think about the past. The Fifties is popular not academic history.

CONS: Ends rather abruptly. Tend to lose track of the year being covered; since a lot of the biographical sketches naturally pre-date the period under consideration. Noteworthy gaps in coverage: general financial history, infrastructure and the economy, and taxes. Feminist history lacks nuance. Focusing on Betty Friedan limits scope to college-educated women’s careers. LGBT history barely touched on. Nothing on the environment although to be fair, the book was written before it became a big topic. Maybe too much attention paid to what I would consider relatively trivial popular culture topics: basketball, rock and roll, quiz shows. The juxtaposition with the themes of race relations and the development of the birth control pill (and the hydrogen bomb) with lengthy coverage of the passion of Charles Van Doren or the adventures of Allen Ginsberg at Columbia made me a little uncomfortable.

PROS. Highly readable. The biographies and the details of the topics the author chooses to cover are skillful and on point. The technique is not all that different from pre-modern histories except the biographies aren’t about kings, emperors, generals and clerics. History as a series of interesting lives can be a little misleading, on the other hand. Some items I found interesting:

Theme. The triumph of the Midwest. The image of the family, the family car, and the interaction of family and car on TV, all come out of the Midwest.

Biography. Pat Nixon meets Gloria Steinem. Pat Nixon did not have a Betty Friedan childhood. While, understandably, the author emphasizes the growth of the economy in the 50s, one wonders what portion of the population was not able to float with the rising tide.

The ironies of US foreign policy. Eisenhower, a former general, was nevertheless a fiscal conservative. His objection to the military industrial complex was that its minions spent too much taxpayer money. The trump card for the MI complex was the conventional wisdom that the Soviets were devoting most of their economy to weapons development. The U2 spyplane showed that the size and power of the Soviet arsenal was highly exaggerated. Eisenhower and his staff knew this, but the thinking was that making this common knowledge would be admitting that the US was flying over Soviet airspace and would, in addition, undermine the CIA, so the information had to be classified. So during the Eisenhower presidency the Democrats and the Republicans out of the classified loop constantly attacked the administration for not keeping up with the Soviets because the government was not spending enough on weapons development. This also resulted in the administration considering nuclear weapons as the first resort in times of crisis because they were seen as the cheaper alternative to conventional weapons development.

Detail: the pill. Gregory (Goody) Pincus was denied tenure at Harvard (possibly because he was Jewish). With financing via Margaret Sanger, he put together a laboratory and staff that isolated the steroid that would be used to regulate ovulation. The big pharma company Searle controlled the patent on progesterone, the basis of the oral contraceptive, and did not pay out royalties to Pincus, his widow, and his staff, but Searle generously donated a half million dollars to Harvard research! Related detail: during the 20s it was apparently against Roman Catholic doctrine to perform a Caesarean section (logically as unnatural as condoms and the pill, after all). John Rock, instrumental in the development of the pill, was Roman Catholic (devout, not nominal) and was nearly denied the sacrament because he performed Caesareans in his practice.

Detail. In segregated Alabama, African-Americans paid fare to the bus driver, but were then required to exit from the front and enter through the back door of the bus. Some bus drivers did not open the back door and simply drove off. Many more details about life as it was lived by African Americans in the decade. Micro and macro aggression squared. Eisenhower’s racism (see the anecdote about Ralph Bunche) and how it allowed the Little Rock crisis to expand. ( )
  featherbear | Jan 24, 2016 |
The Fifties by David Halberstam was a massive look at practically all aspects of the decade. Even though I lived through the fifties I was largely unaware of anything outside my immediate orbit until the sixties came along so I learned a great deal from this book. He began with the aftermath of WWII in the U.S. and Truman's Presidency before moving into the various events that the author felt defined the decade for the United States and then ended with the Kennedy-Nixon televised debate. The chapters on social trends and the early push for broadening the civil rights of minorities held my interest better than the ones on the political infighting and the meddling overseas in places like Central America.

As far as Halberstam's writing goes, some chapters flowed along smoothly but others really needed better editing to take care of wrong words that got by his spell-checker and the occasional awkward sentence.
  hailelib | Jan 22, 2016 |
I started off really liking this book and then got a little bogged down in it. Was disappointed that there wasn't more analysis that teased out the broader context. After a point, I realized the book was really just a bunch of historical short 'stories' about big things that happened in the 50's that shaped the world in hindsight. Again I liked it, just wished there had been more to tie it all together. ( )
  Charlie-Ravioli | Jan 18, 2016 |
I read this book because I'm writing a novel set in the '50s and I wanted to learn as much about the period as I could, and it certainly did teach me a lot. I found the author's lack of objectivity (giving very strong opinions about different people) interesting.

My only frustration with the book was the lack of attention paid to women. I understand that in certain areas of life (e.g. politics) there just weren't many prominent women to discuss, but it seemed like there were other chapters when women could've been focused on more but were pushed aside in favour of men. And the discussion of the oppression of women in mainstream society at large was shoved way back towards the very end of the book. ( )
  selfcallednowhere | Oct 19, 2015 |
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In the beginning, that era was dominated by the shadow of a man no longer there—Franklin D. Roosevelt.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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This ebook features an extended biography of David Halberstam.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0449909336, Paperback)

"In retrospect," writes David Halberstam, "the pace of the fifties seemed slower, almost languid. Social ferment, however, was beginning just beneath this placid surface." He shows how the United States began to emerge from the long shadow of FDR's 12-year presidency, with the military-industrial complex and the Beat movement simultaneously growing strong. Television brought not only situation comedies but controversial congressional hearings into millions of living rooms. While Alfred Kinsey was studying people's sex lives, Gregory Pincus and other researchers began work on a pill that would forever alter the course of American reproductive practices. Halberstam takes on these social upheavals and more, charting a course that is as easy to navigate as it is wide-ranging.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:08 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"The Fifties is a sweeping social, political, economic, and cultural history of the ten years that David Halberstam regards as seminal in determining what our nation is today. It is the decade of Joe McCarthy and the young Martin Luther King, the Korean War and Levittown, Jack Kerouac and Elvis Presley." "Halberstam not only gives us the titans of the age - Eisenhower, Dulles, Oppenheimer, MacArthur, Hoover, and Nixon - but also Harley Earl, who put fins on cars; Dick and Mac McDonald and Ray Kroc, who mass-produced the American hamburger; Kemmons Wilson, who placed his Holiday Inns along the nation's roadsides; U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers; Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place; and "Goody" Pincus, who led the team that invented the Pill. Here is a portrait of a time of conflict, at once an age of astonishing material affluence and a period of great political anxiety." "We follow, among other things, the quickening pace of American life and the powerful impact of national television, still in its infancy, on American society: from the Kefauver hearings to I Love Lucy to Charles Van Doren and the quiz-show scandals to the young John Chancellor of NBC covering the Little Rock riots and holding up a disturbing mirror to America."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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