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Book Review : Ike’s ‘50s and Reagan’s ‘80s: Decades Apart and Yet . . .

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God’s Country: America in the Fifties by J. Ronald Oakley (Dembner Books: $24.95)

Private Lives: Men and Women of the Fifties by Benita Eisler (Franklin Watts: $18.95)

The ‘80s are a rerun of the ‘50s: It’s on everyone’s lips. Our students are complacent plodders; our President is grandfatherly, platitudinous and Republican; and we’ve all been seduced by the passive pleasures of a consumer culture. Or so a generalized assessment of both decades would have us believe. While similarities between Reagan’s ‘80s and Eisenhower’s ‘50s abound, the analogy ultimately collapses before the reality of two distinct periods, separated by 20 years of social evolution--as is borne out by these two fine volumes analyzing that decade.

“God’s Country” and “Private Lives” range over a vast terrain, drawing upon pop culture and political history in their examinations of that period of unprecedented prosperity. Highly readable and vigorously researched, J. Ronald Oakley’s chronological account emphasizes the political landmarks and forces that gave the decade its character: President Truman’s controversial firing of an insubordinate Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War and the attendant public outcry; the McCarthy hearings; the Sputnik scare.

“Private Lives” is a more subjective account of the decade in which the author went to college and came of age. Benita Eisler, who teaches at Princeton, contends that members of her generation were systematically schooled in evasion, learning early to hide behind masks and to resist authority, Eisler weaves her personal history together with those of 16 contemporaries to build the argument that the repressive, conformist social ecology of the ‘50s forced her generation to develop “private"--or hidden--lives. “Faking normalcy was the name of the game,” she writes. “The good fight would only be won by the fifth columnists--by skillful liars and con artists, role-players and gamesmen--by men and women who could be counted on to carry their closets with them wherever they went.”

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An Illusion

Walking through the milestones and minutiae of the ‘50s with these books reveals that today’s elaborate myth of, and nostalgia for, the “Nifty ‘50s” is itself an illusion, a comforting but obtuse self-deception in an era with a reluctant handle on reality. Granted, the ‘50s presented a surface calm and a surface surfeit of material novelties (hula hoops, circle skirts, cars equipped with fins and new-age TV dinners), but there was then an inescapable undercurrent of change.

Like the ‘80s, the ‘50s was a time of quiet--not public--desperation; it was a Nuclear Age, the first decade in which large-scale, life-threatening nuclear attack became a documented possibility and a public fear. Despite the happy homemaker image presented in the major magazines, women of the ‘50s were beating a path to the work place in record numbers. (The coming female revolt from a secondary role in society was presaged in the wacky but rebellious antics of Lucille Ball in “I Love Lucy.”) Likewise, rumblings of discontent over an unjust society were beginning to issue forth from the black community, with Martin Luther King Jr. emerging as a national figure in the mid-1950s. The decade began during the Cold War, the rhetoric of which grew to a fever pitch when Sen. Joseph McCarthy latched onto the communists-in-government issue to make his political name. But by decade’s end, the Cold War had thawed enough for Nikita Khrushchev to denounce Stalin and tour America. Like the impressed foreigner that he was, Khrushchev vowed the U.S.S.R. would catch up--in seven year’s time.

Both Books Contribute

Neither of these authors presents a hard-edged revisionist thesis, marshaling historical evidence in its defense, as did Barbara Ehrenreich in her masterful work (covering some of the same ground), “The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment.” However, both books contribute to the overall canon of work on the decade--Oakley’s book as a source book and Eisler’s as an anecdotal memoir.

Oakley concludes that the ‘50s was “a seminal age, a time when the seeds of future dramatic changes were sown.” And Eisler laments that she will never fully enjoy life’s offerings, saddled as she is by her ‘50s upbringing, occasionally retreating into a self she doesn’t really respect: “More shameful though, when I am feeling down about my professional . . . I take psychological refuge at home base . . . I lean gratefully on the social approval (still) claimed by a wife and mother in our society.”

At times hyperbolic in her conclusions, Eisler likens members of her “transitional” generation to “former prisoners” who will never escape their jailers. “We are the last men and women in America to have expected to live the way our parents lived, only to be cast into uncharted terrain, with neither compass nor maps.”

Have Moved Forward

It is clear from reading these books that rather than returning to ‘50s mores, Americans in the 1980s have moved forward. While today’s college students--indeed, the entire population--appear quiescent, we are, in fact, internalizing and enjoying unparalleled freedoms in the personal domain. Women, men and minorities have never had so many options, so few restrictions, so little prejudice. There exists a freedom of choice in the sexual arena altogether absent in the ‘50s. Young adults in the ‘80s are marrying later or not at all, with the feeling that the single status is an acceptable one and that homosexuality is no disgrace.

Decades that appear to be stagnant often do their growing in dormancy. In our national need to sentimentalize the ‘50s, to fix it in time as an oasis of tranquillity and sterling values, too often we clutch at the symbols, the consumer goods, the Mickey Mouse ears, without examining the undertow of change. Taken as companion pieces, these two books help illuminate a decade that tells us a lot about ourselves in the ‘80s and beyond--but not everything.


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