800 pages. $28.
David Halberstam's big, luminous book on America during the 1950s makes the decade seem like only yesterday. Elvis Presley and James Dean hit the scene then; so did television, the Marlboro Man, Holiday Inns, Dr. Kinsey, "double ugly" tail fins on Detroit's gas guzzlers, "I Love Lucy," Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando, Playboy magazine, hoop skirts for girls, flattops or greaser haircuts for boys, gray flannel suits for organization men, the Pill for women, and McDonald's 10-cent hamburgers and golden arches for everybody.
Mr. Halberstam, a star of the New Journalism that enlivens reporting with passion and a personal, sometimes idiosyncratic style, is just the writer to chronicle the decade. He's a grand storyteller, and he does an enormous amount of research. He can cram chunks of information, ideas, gossip and anecdotes onto every page -- all the while dishing out razor-sharp judgments, usually of the liberal persuasion. Such was true in spades in his powerful books "The Best and the Brightest," on America's fateful entry into the Vietnam War, and "The Powers That Be," a caustic look at the media kingpins.
Like those books, the pace of "The Fifties" often has the feel of a basketball game between two fast-break teams. Mr. Halberstam sprints from Truman, the Korean War and Douglas MacArthur, the arrogant general Truman had to sack, to Eisenhower, J. Edgar Hoover and General Motors' glory days. He follows McDonald's rise in the fast-food business; Ray Kroc had "seen the future and it was hamburgers." Bill Levitt, the builder of inexpensive, look-alike houses, gets a chapter. So does Kemmons Wilson, another self-made dynamo, who had a vision in 1951: nice-priced Holiday Inns for the newly prosperous Americans seeing the U.S.A. in their Chevrolets.
Others cruised the new federal highways in Fords, Cadillacs or, by the end of the decade, German's Volkswagen "Bug" -- Detroit disdained even the idea of a small, energy-efficient car. The several chapters on the automotive industry's rapid growth and impact on America are first-rate. Detroit built bigger cars and sold them as "dreams" and "rewards" while admen everywhere told Americans not to feel guilty about spending. In the '50s, the annual "model change" rolled off the assembly lines, but one Ford executive moaned: "We design a car, and the minute it's done, we hate it -- we've got to do another one. We design a car to make a man unhappy with his 1957 Ford along about the end of 1958."
Sales soared. (My father, a real working-class Joe, bought three new Fords between 1954 and 1957.) Like many others, Mr. Halberstam sees something dangerous behind the new frenzy to buy -- a "capitalism that was driven by a ferocious consumerism, where the impulse was not so much about what people needed in their lives but what they needed to consume in order to keep up with their neighbors and, of course, to drive the GNP endlessly upward." Consumerism masked a "crisis of the American spirit," but Mr. Halberstam fails to probe it.
So many other topics vie for his attention: the squabble between the scientists at Los Alamos over whether to pursue a Super Bomb,
one far greater than the two dropped on the Japanese; the painstaking and unheralded work of Gregory "Goody" Pincus, father of the birth control pill. Then there was Alfred Kinsey out in Indiana, a respected, obscure professor until he insisted on asking folks about S-E-X (even the word was not nice then). His findings made the Rev. Billy Graham mad. Along with many others, he denounced "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female," saying, "It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America."
Mr. Halberstam glides gracefully along the surface of popular culture -- the TV quiz show scandals, the white-bread unreality of "The Ozzie and Harriet Show" and such impresarios of wholesome taste as Ed Sullivan, who once intoned, "Let's hear it for the Lord's Prayer." Sullivan grudgingly allowed Elvis on his show, but demanded that the camera show the singer only from the waist up.
Usually Mr. Halberstam's books have a strong point of view, a clear, forceful -- sometimes blunt -- message. But "The Fifties" doesn't. It doesn't even have an introduction or a conclusion. The author's liberalism is evident -- he doesn't much like Ike or Richard Nixon or Republicans in general. He excoriates Joe McCarthy's brutal red-baiting, but reserves his strongest condemnation for timid conservatives and the Washington press corps, who secretly enjoyed McCarthy's antics, even if it meant that a courageous critic such as Maryland's Millard Tydings lost his Senate seat in 1950 because of smear tactics.
The closest Mr. Halberstam gets to telling us what to make of the technicolored decade comes in his ongoing commentary on television. He never quite says so, but it's clear TV created the first real mass society. The tube changed everything, from advertising (it had to be visual) to entertainment (it better be idiotic) to war (Korea was the last non-TV war) to politics. Looking back years later on the first Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate in 1960, Russell Baker observed, "That night, image replaced the printed word as the natural language of politics."
Where would the civil rights movement have been without television? It was one thing to read about racial violence; it was another thing to see it. In the Little Rock school desegregation crisis in 1957, when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus defied the law, the nation waited anxiously for leadership from Eisenhower, who reluctantly sent in the troops.
Mr. Halberstam writes: "The President, uneasy with the course of events, had failed to give any kind of moral leadership, and he had deliberately refused to define the issue in moral terms; now, almost unconsciously, the media was doing it instead, for the ugliness and cruelty of it all, the white mob encouraged by a
local governor tormenting young children, carried its own indictment."
But TV didn't cover everything, and neither does Mr. Halberstam. Everyday people -- workers and the poor, farmers, women and blacks, and non-whites generally -- are ignored or treated as backdrops for something else. Oddly, given Mr. Halberstam's wonderful book, "The Summer of '49," he gives short shrift to baseball, surely the nation's pastime in the '50s. And what about all that great non-Elvis music?
Enough carping. Anyone who wants to hear -- again, or for the first time -- the hum and buzz of the 1950s should go directly to David Halberstam's big book. Take it to the beach with you.
Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at Allegheny College.