Two and a Half Cheers for the 1950s!

Rediscovering the Virtues of a Maligned Decade Within what cultural historian James Billington has aptly labeled “the academic-media-foundation complex,” aversion to the 1950s is now de rigueur. The decade of the Fifties is an era that must trigger—at its very mention—shudders of revulsion at its “social regressiveness,” a regressiveness manifest by a “rush to marry and buy homes, the reinscription of traditional gender roles, and . . . overinsistence on the pleasures of family life.” Particularly because of these marriage- and child-centric patterns, the guardians of progressive orthodoxy see the Fifties as a time when Americans were subject to a “pressure to conform” so pervasive and retrograde that it constituted “a symptom of national malaise.”[1] But was the mid-twentieth century really as bad as progressives make it out to be? Was American life and culture in the Fifties, in particular, the unmitigated horror they insist it was? No one who has studied the decade carefully and soberly will claim that it was an idyllic period, free from serious cultural and social problems. Indeed, any serious review of the 1950s will remind historians of the justice in Jacques Barzun’s comment that the label “An Age of Troubles” is one that “fits every age in varying degrees.”[2] It was an era of profound anxiety over the international Communist threat, a threat rendered particularly ominous by the growth of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and by the Communist invasion of South Korea. Though the economic problems of the period seem mild compared to those of the early twenty-first century, many Americans were hurt when the economy went into recession in 1954 and unemployment rose to above 6 percent, and virtually all Americans had to cope with a troublingly high inflation rate, especially during the Korean War years. And, yes, some of the defining problems of the time were, in fact, family problems. As social historian Allan Carlso
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