Criticism, of course, cannot prevent lies from being told. But it does make it its business to see that they do not establish themselves as truth.
—George Watson, The Literary Critics
It is a melancholy task to return to the subject of David Halberstam’s book on The Fifties,1 first published to much misguided acclaim nearly five years ago and lately turned into a lengthy television series on the so-called History Channel that is an even worse travesty of the period than the author’s original text. The book itself, running to some eight hundred pages of recycled myths, clichés, and caricatures drawn from the received wisdom of the Left-liberal media, is a monstrous compendium of misinformation about one of the most admirable epochs in American history. In the History Channel series this compendium of misinformation is, with a single exception—the segment on the Civil Rights movement in the South—translated into what is little more than a sequence of stupefying historical cartoons.2 The result certainly isn’t history, and it isn’t exactly journalism, either. It looks more like an extended political campaign commercial in which the ideological battles of the 1960s and 1990s are being reenacted in the costumes and vocabularies of a mythical 1950s.
Regarding every improvement in American life in the 1950s, this version of The Fifties is utterly indifferent when not openly hostile.
Regarding every improvement in American life in the 1950s, this version of The Fifties is utterly indifferent when not openly hostile. In virtually every act of enlightened generosity and national self-interest by the American government in that period, the History Channel series finds only conspiracy, deception, and paranoia. About the formidable dangers faced by the United States in the 1950s, this cartoon history is either contemptuous, prevaricating, or silent. As for the nation’s achievements in that momentous decade, Mr. Halberstam and his guest commentators simply consign them to the Orwellian memory hole. About George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four itself, by the way, which was published in 1949 and became one of the most widely discussed books of the 1950s in this country, contributing a whole new political lexicon to the language, we hear not a word. But then, of course, almost the entire history of literary, artistic, and intellectual thought in the 1950s is similarly consigned to oblivion. In this account of cultural life in the 1950s, pop music and consumer advertising dominate, and what passes for the realm of intellectual accomplishment is left to be represented by the self-aggrandizing hokum of Allen Ginsberg—who, by the way, is never questioned about his role in creating the country’s drug culture in the lengthy interview he is accorded in the series.
It is therefore worth recalling for amnesiac consumers of the History Channel— for its producers, too—that in the 1950s the people of the United States acted with extraordinary political magnanimity toward our vanquished adversaries in the Second World War, going to immense expense to lay the foundations for the creation of democratic societies in Germany and Japan, nations which had so recently attempted to destroy us. It was in the 1950s, too, that the U.S. devoted enormous resources to the rehabilitation of Western Europe through the Marshall plan—a political project that effectively saved Europe from the worst consequences of its own political cowardice and moral folly in the 1930s, a failure of nerve that led directly to the eruption of the war itself. Above all, it was in the 1950s that the U.S. shouldered at still greater expense the unwelcome burden of leadership in the Cold War, standing in opposition to a nuclear-armed Soviet Union that was rapidly expanding its domain of totalitarian terror into the far corners of the world—a burden that often met with fierce criticism not only from leftist fools in America but from the intellectual elites in the very nations that would have been the first to perish had American resolve not been so steadfast in its resistance to Communist tyranny.
Virtually all of this political history, which defined America’s position in the world in the 1950s, is passed over in silence on the History Channel. In this version of The Fifties, political events in Guatemala are given major attention while the political momentum achieved by the Soviet Union is—except for some footage on the launching of Sputnik in 1957—given none. (For Halberstam and company, Sputnik is an OK Soviet subject, for it had the virtue of administering a blow to American pride.) As for the nuclear arms race that dominated the world-historical situation in the 1950s, it is of course depicted on the History Channel in a way that makes the United States the principal villain of the story. There is never a hint or a suggestion that our policy of nuclear deterrence proved in the end to be a complete success in preventing a nuclear war and ultimately bringing down the Soviet Union. Needless to say, there is no reference to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” for that would surely have compromised the governing donnée of this series: that the principal evil influence on the world scene in the 1950s was the United States.
Given this Halberstam-in-Wonderland view of the 1950s, it comes as no surprise that while Stalin and his immediate successors in the Kremlin remain offstage in The Fifties, Joe McCarthy is given top billing. The segment of the series devoted to McCarthy and McCarthyism conforms in every detail to what might be called the I. F. Stone version of the Cold War: to wit, there was no Communist menace either here or abroad, and there was thus no need to worry about Communist spies stealing atomic secrets or penetrating the State Department. The whole Communist issue, in this scenario, was nothing but a malign political fantasy conjured up by unscrupulous Republican politicians intent upon smearing innocent liberals in the Democratic party in order to elect a Republican president.
No doubt I. F. Stone himself would have been summoned for an interview on this subject had he still been living when this History Channel series was in production. Instead, we are treated to a mini-interview with the cartoonist Jules Feiffer, who solemnly recounts for 1990s viewers the desperate fear he felt when he was starting out as a commercial artist in New York in the early 1950s and had, he claims, to conceal his “Stevenson for President” button lest he be taken to be a Communist sympathizer. Gosh! I was living in New York during that first Stevenson campaign in the fall of 1952, and my recollection is that you would have had to penetrate the inner sanctum of the Knickerbocker Club or the Republican Party’s campaign headquarters to find anyone who wasn’t rooting for Stevenson. But as the script of this History Channel production of The Fifties called for total paranoia on this subject, everyone summoned to speak for the camera obliged with a personal tale of political victimization.
Meanwhile, between completion of the History Channel’s production of The Fifties and its airing of the McCarthyism segment on November 30, a good many more inconvenient facts about Communist activities in this country had come to light, some of them from the Soviet archives. So it was left to Roger Mudd, who provided the commentary at the opening and closing of each broadcast in the series, to correct some of the more egregious misrepresentations in what had just been recounted on screen. This unhappy task he performed as best he could, but the script didn’t actually allow for much in the way of correction, and it was certainly not to be expected that he would tell viewers of The Fifties that they had just been treated to a political fiction.
One of Mudd’s comments was sort of interesting, however. “There is an old saying,” he told us, that “even paranoids have enemies,” and then went on to point out that Julius Rosenberg was now known to have been one of the Soviet spies who stole atomic secrets and that Alger Hiss, too, had “probably” been guilty of spying for the Soviet Union. But by the time these few lines of correction were uttered, most viewers of that November 30 broadcast had likely gone off to the bathroom or the refrigerator. The impact of the basic lie remained undiminished. Still, it was interesting to hear that line about paranoids having enemies described as an “old saying,” because in fact it isn’t such an old saying. It was well-known in intellectual circles to have been uttered by Delmore Schwartz, one of the most accomplished poets of the period, and was itself derived from a phenomenon that occupied an important place in American social and cultural life of the 1950s: Freudian psychoanalysis.
History is always something of a cartoon show on television.
If, back in the 1950s, anyone had suggested that you could write a historical account of that decade without giving major attention to the role of psychoanalysis in shaping not only the intellectual temper of the period but much about its sexual mores and the conduct of family life, such a suggestion would have been ridiculed as preposterous—and with good reason. Freudian concepts of sexuality and the family, often in popularized versions, exerted a far greater influence on both private life and cultural life in the late 1940s and 1950s than, say, the Cold War. They dominated the advertising industry as well as Hollywood and Broadway, and deeply affected the way many people lived—even people who had never read a line that Freud himself had written or submitted to the ordeals of the psychoanalytic couch. For as W. H. Auden wrote of Freud in the poem dedicated to his memory: “to us he is no more a person/ now but a whole climate of opinion.” That was still true in the real 1950s. Yet in the History Channel series on The Fifties, Freud—like Stalin—remains offstage.
It is not that the series neglects the subject of sex. Far from it. Yet in The Fifties, instead of an intelligent discussion of Freud and his influence, we are treated to some very unreliable glimpses of Alfred Kinsey, Hugh Hefner, Marilyn Monroe, Margaret Sanger, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Thus, just as the history of McCarthyism was treated in complete isolation from the realities of the Communist movement, the subject of sex in the 1950s was treated in complete isolation from the single biggest sexual influence on the life of the time.
It is fatuous, in any case, to suggest—as the History Channel series does—that the young in this country were universally fearful of sex in the 1950s. The 1950s may not have been quite the saturnalia that came into vogue in the 1960s, but then the 1950s didn’t produce the horrors of drugs, disease, and illegitimacy that have ruined so many lives in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. On the subject of sexual freedom in the 1950s, it is morally obtuse to mistake discretion for repression. Contrary to the hilarious line in Philip Larkin’s famous poem, sexual intercourse did not, after all, begin in 1963. And on this subject, too, poor Roger Mudd had some hapless corrections to make, reminding viewers who had not yet turned off the set that, among other things, Kinsey’s research wasn’t everything he claimed it to be and that Margaret Sanger entertained some pretty bizarre ideas about who should be permitted the freedom to produce children. But who pays attention to corrections, anyway? It’s the image on the screen and the gloss given it in a quick, glib commentary that endures in the viewer’s mind.
Whether the subject is sex, Communism, the Korean War, or cultural life in the 1950s, the History Channel’s series is an even more shameless embodiment of what I wrote about David Halberstam’s book in 1993. “What dominates this Left-liberal mythology of the 1950s,” I wrote, “is the notion of an entire society in the grip of a politically inspired paranoid fear, abject social conformism, empty-headed consumerism, and spiritual sterility.” What was a lie in the book is an even greater lie in the television version of The Fifties.
Now it is invariably true, of course, that television distorts, cheapens, and otherwise renders unrecognizable any serious subject it lays claim to, for it is in the nature of television as a medium to simplify its materials in the interest of speed, visual clarity, and instant comprehension. That is why it is such a boon to both political and consumer advertising—and it is also why it is so inimical to intellectual discourse. It can effectively, if superficially, project personalities and evoke dramatic events like natural disasters, but it cannot deal with ideas or explain complex issues that require a good deal of painstaking explication to be even minimally understood. History is therefore always something of a cartoon show on television.
In the History Channel’s television version of David Halberstam’s The Fifties, however, there is something more going on than the usual cartoon-show travesty of history. Besides the outright lies and distortions it displays in its accounts of the 1950s, the entire series is an unconscionable exercise in political mystification. For what is being played out in this falsified history of the 1950s is a transparent attempt to vindicate the radical politics of the 1960s and its counterculture by portraying America in the 1950s as a nation that was too evil, too silly, too repressed, and otherwise too stupid to merit anything but ridicule and contempt. Call it the Vietnamization of American history, for its driving motive has been to project back on the decade of the 1950s all of the anti-American sentiments that were generated by the political Left in this country in the 1960s as a result of the Vietnam War. Thus, the Korean War is turned into an exact replica of the Vietnam War—and just about everything else in the 1950s is treated to the same process of political transfiguration.
A few years ago, a local paper in the part of Maine where I spend some time in the summer published a letter to the editor in which the writer—an attorney—suggested that the invention of television must be considered second only to the creation of the atom bomb in a list of the greatest disasters that have befallen the twentieth century. After seeing The Fifties, I am myself inclined to give television first place. For further comment on The Fifties, see James Bowman on The Media, page 51.
- See my article “Myths of the Fifties” in The New Criterion for June 1993.
- The Fifties, an eight-hour series based on the book by David Halberstam, is a production of The Fifties, Inc. and was shown on the History Channel on November 30–December 5, 1997. Alex Gibney and Tracy Dahlby were the series directors (The History Channel, $99.95 for the six-cassette set).
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 5, on page 12
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