The war-avoiding general
“The Silent Generation” came of age between the “Greatest Generation” that fought World War II and the Boomers born from them. Members of this silent generation therefore felt left out of the “adventures” to precede and to follow the 1950s and paved the way to the widespread rebelliousness of the 1960s and 1970s. This generation signaled the shift, perhaps permanent, from a popular culture targeted to parents to a popular culture focused on youth. More and more young people had access to cars, to television, to music, and to their own independence, and yet felt constrained by the conventions of their time and the “square” attitudes of the day.
Appropriately, then, the man to step into the “emperor” role after Truman was not a young man idealistically looking to the future (that would have to wait until the early ‘60s), but a practical, grandfatherly figure respected as a hero of World War II. General Eisenhower successfully commanded the Allied Forces to victory in Europe and now, some seven years later, was elected by many of his former troops to successfully end the next war: The Korean War. True to his campaign promises, President Eisenhower resolved to end Korea within a year and he did just that: not with the degree of absolute victory that MacArthur had hoped for, but certainly not with the loss of South Korea to “the forces of Communism.” The war ended in 1953 with an armistice and a demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas not that far away from the 38th parallel, the original boundary line the United States and the Soviet Union had established in 1945. Tensions between North and South would remain until the present—though overtures have been made, a peace treaty has never been signed between the two countries, 70 years later.
Eisenhower learned the lesson from Truman’s offensive in Korea and, as Commander-in-Chief, set about to limit the role of military intervention, in favor of containment-like assistance and covert operations. As left-leaning governments fell due to coups sponsored by the CIA in Iran and Guatemala, the United States achieved its objectives without sending soldiers to “the Third World.” Yet, covert assistance was not sufficient to keep French Indochina, a colony dating back to the 1700s, from collapsing at the surrender of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. As a result, South Vietnam and North Vietnam were created—an ominous echo of the Korean peninsula. Eisenhower’s successors would reverse these decisions, but “Ike” stayed out of war in both Vietnam and Cuba—officially. Foreign aid and “military advisers” from the U.S. attempted to keep South Vietnam “Communist-free,” and Eisenhower, in one of his last official declarations as U.S. president in 1961, cut off diplomatic ties to Cuba, which since 1959’s revolution had been under the rule of Fidel Castro, a Marxist-inspired revolutionary who soon began to accept a helping hand from the Soviet Union.
The Fifties: nifty or iffy?
Paranoia over the “Communist menace” continued into Eisenhower’s administration, as the Senate equivalent of the HUAC under Senator Joseph McCarthy exposed “subversive plots” in branches of the federal government that were more and more resembling the far-fetched schemes of a movie villain. McCarthy ended the careers of many with such accusations and witch-hunts, but went too far in 1954 when he targeted the U.S. Army and, with the advent of television, his hounding and bullying tactics lost him support and earned him an official censure for “behavior unbecoming of a U.S. senator.” Most embarrassing for the “prosecution” was a remark made by one Army “witness” that the supposed-Communist conspiracy was based on the word of “pixies” or “fairies,” a slight against an assistant to McCarthy named Roy Cohn, who was a known but closeted homosexual. (Cohn beat out Robert Kennedy for this position, as he made the valid point that if two Catholics questioned a Jewish “witness,” it might resemble the Inquisition for the viewing audience of middle America.) Cohn’s and McCarthy’s public careers were over: though Cohn would hold political clout through the Reagan years, he later succumbed to AIDS complications, and McCarthy died in 1957 of complications of alcoholism.
Television had a power to not just destroy careers, but to rescue them, as vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon discovered. Accused of taking bribes, Nixon’s defense ended with an admission: that a political supporter had given his family a dog, which the family named “Checkers,” who his kids had fallen in love with. Ignoring Nixon’s culpability, the American populace loved the relatable story about the “picture perfect” family, and he was elected as Ike’s VP—twice. Though TV would prove Nixon’s undoing in the 1960 presidential election, Nixon would likely have not been president without “the Checkers speech.”
TV also exposed Americans’ gullibility in accepting entertainment at face value. Quiz show scandals of the 1950s demonstrated not just the tactics that networks would go to in order to keep viewers engaged (feeding answers to contestants, etc.—the type of strategy that would be all too familiar to anyone used to reality television). The scandals also showed how the new medium was a powerful tool for manipulating public opinion, bringing the voices and the faces of “normal people” into living rooms across the nation. The fallout from the quiz show scandals showed how closely Americans felt connected to television personalities and other celebrities—a trend that would help launch later political careers.
Culturally, the advent of TV brought “pop” music inside the home in a way that radio could never do, and ushered in the era of “rock-n-roll” entering the mainstream, with programs like American Bandstand and Ed Sullivan’s weekly variety show introducing acts originally considered too controversial. “Rock and roll,” a term made widespread by Cleveland DJ Alan Freed, was originally taboo—like minstrel, jazz and blues before it, the genre emerged from African-American culture, increasingly present in inner cities, as whites moved to the suburbs in droves. It only became accepted when “clean-cut” (white) artists like Elvis Presley covered songs made popular in “race records” for black audiences for years. (Even then, Presley was filmed only from the waist-up for his first national TV appearances, for fear of his “rockin’” hip movements being too suggestive to young audiences.)
While white music artists brought African-American musical stylings into people’s homes, the matter was quite different for bringing actual African-American people into the “mainstream” (white) culture outside of radio and TV. The integration of the U.S. Army had done little to progress the integration of American cities and especially American schools. The efforts to expose such inequalities met with open hostility and accusations of being “un-American,” as Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights advocates came under the FBI’s surveillance. Like the foreign conflicts, President Eisenhower attempted to stay out it. Even after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, decided under the liberal-leaning Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Warren, Ike left the enforcement of de-segregation up to local and state leadership. When violence erupted against the “Little Rock Nine,” a small group of African-American students in Arkansas who attempted to cross racial lines in high school, Eisenhower finally acted in providing federal troops in 1957, as the Arkansas governor had refused to offer any protection. “Rock-n-roll” had broken the color line, controversially enough, but the line remained.
Nonetheless, as controversial as “rock-n-roll” was, it was tame in comparison to the underground literary movement that threatened to expose the anxieties under the veneer of the “swell” lifestyle of the ‘40s and ‘50s. The “Beat Generation” was a self-identified group of writers who revealed the underbelly of tension underneath the “nifty” domestic life featured on television sitcoms. Instead, the Beats felt that all of popular American culture was like a quiz show: predictable, phony, and ultimately meaningless in holding any real value. In former advertising writer Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem “Howl,” tried for obscenity for its sexual language in the 1950s, he writes that “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed… burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising.”
The shocking research of Alfred Kinsey in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s revealed that more Americans were rebels to the “Ozzie & Harriet” lifestyle than they would publicly admit: Kinsey discovered 10% of participants reflected some form of “homosexual inclination” and 50% of married males anonymously admitted to some form of infidelity. Given the fact that even married couples on television often slept in separate beds, and that the American Psychological Association classified homosexuality as a “psychological disorder” through the 1970s, these were shocking claims. Though the media demonstrated the norms, the “square” values did not match the “roundness” of reality. Radical members of the “silent generation” like the Beatniks were desperately trying to get away from the “squareness” of their times and sought escape.
President Eisenhower provided such possibility for escape with the new interstate highway system. The U.S. was highly embarrassed by the fact that, had the Japanese invaded the continental U.S. during the Second World War, there was no effective, efficient transport for the armed services to attempt to halt the invasion. Like that other “inter,” the Internet, interstate highways originally served a military defense purpose, but had widespread public use. Nonetheless, the interstate highways, over their period of development, threatened to keep static the growing “ghetto-ization” of cities, offering suburban residents a quick bypass through “undesirable” areas, eliminating many neighborhoods in the process of construction. (It should be noted that when areas such as Shaker Heights were proposed as routes for interstates, “highway protests” were successful.)
“I like Ike”… but, Ike, we need space
“Emperor Eisenhower” offered much-needed stability in an era of growing Cold War tensions, and offered a model he dubbed “modern Republicanism”: keep federal government involvement (and federal budget) low. Nonetheless, military and defense expenses were skyrocketing, as the “arms race” for nuclear weapons with the Soviet Union now developed in tandem with the “space race.” In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, a satellite, and in effect laid down the first card in a game of raised stakes that would continue for 30+ years, if not longer. If the Soviet Union had both “the bomb” and satellite technology, the United States could be vulnerable to attack from space.
The focus turned on education: Boomers then in school would be the ones to witness the space race at its peak, when the Soviet and American space programs competed to launch humans into space, orbiting Earth, and then to place humans on the surface of the moon. Therefore, the American education system re-doubled its attention to science, math, and technology. Even as the students were generally just as segregated, the curriculum became even more integrated in its approach.
As with most of the “emperors,” it’s hard for us to say in retrospect whether Eisenhower molded his times, or was molded by them; perhaps a less moderate “modern Republican” (one way or the other) would have responded directly and forcefully to the burgeoning civil rights movement and the civil war in Vietnam—and, as a result, would have brought on the chaos that the U.S. experienced in the ‘60s, just a decade earlier. Nonetheless, one would have expected a former commanding general to be more decisive and “take charge” in the battle against segregation or against foreign imbalance of power. (Then again, one of the most indecisive of presidents was Ulysses S. Grant, famous general of the Civil War.) The 1955 Emmet Till case, in which a Northern African-American boy was lynched while visiting the South for (supposedly) whistling at a white woman, became a call to action for the civil rights movement in an era of bus boycotts and sit-ins to defy segregation. While the 1957 Civil Rights Act was passed—and signed by Eisenhower—due to such national attention to discrimination, especially in the South, it was tame in comparison to the legislation to follow under the next two “emperors” and, even then and continuing unto today, American cities across the country (and not just in the South) began to be a cause of concern. Despite the fact that violent crime did not escalate at all during the ‘50s, popular culture linked the youth culture, especially of the “ghettoes,” with violence and disobedience, as in such films as The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and such musicals as West Side Story (1959). Though Latinx and African-American musical artists had broken through the airwaves, their political struggles remained off the air.
As the last of the 50 states entered the Union in 1959—Alaska and Hawaii—the “empire” remained somewhat inauthentic as the decade closed. A new flag with 50 stars could not compensate for the tears in the “national fabric” that were only increasing throughout the 1950s. The “all-American family” represented on television, the movies, and the radio was supposed to be the ideal life and yet the 1950s presented signs that it was not what everyone in America wanted. While the Beats were certainly the most bold in expressing their contempt of such a “white bread” world, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, and not all the Third World conflicts could be taken care of covertly, as Vietnam would soon demonstrate.
Eisenhower left the presidency as he entered it—“liked.” Nonetheless, when given the choice to replace him with his vice president, Richard Nixon, Americans turned instead—by a very narrow margin—to a youthful, photogenic leader who projected a vibrant optimism and ambition into “the empire’s” living rooms—discernible even on the black-and-white television screens of the 1950s era.