IT’S MORE THAN the skinnylegged pants, narrow neckties and flat-top haircuts now in vogue that makes us pause in the mid-1980s and think of the 1950s. There is something suspiciously familiar about the politics, too. A writer for the Wall Street Journal last month allowed that Dwight D. Eisenhower “is enjoying something of a comeback.” And why not? As a recently published biography put it, “He was so comforting, so grandfatherly, so calm, so sure of himself, so skillful in managing the economy, so experienced in ensuring America’s defenses, so expert in his control of the intelligence community. . . .” A real Man For The ’80s. A President known as much for for his time on. A President who caused some worry that advisors were running the White House. A two-term Republican just right for the times. When Ronald Reagan campaigned for re-election in 1984 on the theme “America is back,” we suspect that, in his mind, this is what it’s back to: Fifties America. No two historical times are exactly alike, but the outward similarities between the 1950s and the 1980s are, at times, uncanny. A left-leaning government had come to power in Central America and for Eisenhower and his foreign policy toughniks this would not do. From neighboring Honduras and Nicaragua, we organized the attack on the government of Guatemala. With the help of the Central Intelligence Agency, a dictatorship was put in place there in 1954. We did the same favor for Iran in the same year. In 1958, Eisenhower even sent the Marines into Lebanon, without the sanction of Congress. He pulled them out when he was good and ready. As William Appleman Williams described it in 1957, “we have misconceived leadership among equals as the exercise of predominance over others.” At home, the watchword was “prosperity” \(although one ill-tempered critic in The Nation called it “voodoo was material satisfaction. There were agonizing questions at hand but neither the Republicans nor the Democrats would speak to them racism, McCarthyism, the H-bomb, or runaway military spending. Said I. F. Stone in 1955, “The country, generally as contented as the Borden cow, will take all this without a moo, as long as business holds up.” Criticism from the left, of course, was risky business then. After attending a meeting of the American Committee for the Defense of the Foreign Born in 1953, Stone noted that almost all the participants were elderly. “It is as if those with their lives still ahead of them are too cautious or cowed to appear at such affairs,” he wrote. The liberal opposition was disappointing. “The most striking political phenomenon in the past week,” Stone wrote in May of 1957, “was the way American liberals abdicated their responsibility in dealing with military spending. . . . The real question is whether we are to accept at face value the Pentagon’s notion of what the real security needs and the real costs are. . . . Is the money being spent carefully or wastefully?” HAVING SAID all this, I must now confess that I wasn’t there this is not an eyewitness account. The last 13 months of the ’50s decade that I did get in on do not stand out in my political memory, though I believe I caught some of the lingering odor of the decade merely by growing up in Catholic schools in Indiana, where all change comes slowly. I get conflicting reports from those who remember the 50s. “I don’t think it’s as bad now as it was then,” says Maury Maverick. “Then there was almost total silence.” Maverick remembers the decade as a “total disaster” with “no hope.” Former U.S. Representative Bob Eckhardt remembers the ’50s as a “know-nothing period,” and sees similarities in our fear,. then and now, of the Soviets. The reaction now, however, “is not as brutal as it was then,” he says. Maverick, who was fresh back from a protest meeting on Central America when I got him on the phone, sees “vastly more people speaking out. People are talking now, they’re ready to go to jail, they’re less afraid,” he says. It gives him hope. Eckhardt says, “I have never seen the American public so warped in their sense of values as today.” Both Maverick and Eckhardt see Reagan as much more threatening than Eisenhower. Others tell me that the times are bleaker in 1984, that the evils are all the more entrenched, that we are in an “advanced stage” of the 1950s in which successful opposition is all the more difficult. But which period is worse is really not the point. We may not be susceptible now to the crude and ugly rampage of fear led by Joe McCarthy, but we may have had more of a chance to stop the arms race then, when it was still young, than we do now. What is important to remember about the 1950s is how important the dissenting voices were then. A few people had the courage to stand up to McCarthy, and he was eventually disposed of \(though McCarthyism died a zines kept the flame alive in the ’50s, and a few new magazines were born \(I. F. Stone’s Weekly, Liberation, the Observer in protest, criticism, and simple truthtelling about America’s role in the world that we saw in the 1960s is tied directly to the tenacious dissenters of the 1950s. According to the late Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation, “So much attention has been centered on the movement to halt the war in Vietnam . . . that the rebirth of the peace movement that began in the late 1950s has been largely forgotten. The youth revolt that grew noisy and powerful in the 1960s also has its roots in the 1950s. C. Wright Mills and other critics attacked the materialism, the conformism and complacency, and the very structure of the society. “One who thinks of happiness as a thing, can be and wants to be persuaded that there are things for sale to catch it with, prepackaged, worth the money: Listerine, Mum, Joy, a Cadillac, a wallto-wall split-level ranch-style, fullymechanized $28,000 home . . .” wrote George P. Elliott in “The Happiness Rat Race” in The Nation in 1959, and more and more young people began to conclude that, as Lily Tomlin put it much later, “The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” The rat race, the Big Sell, the middle class debauch all back in style in the mid-1980s. The arms race, the profit ethic, the he-man foreign policy worse than ever. We take our cue from I. F. Stone, Carey McWilliams, and the other heroes: Question. Resist. Dissent. O Afterword America is Back By Dave Denison 78 DECEMBER 14, 1984
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