I've had David Halberstam's book The Fifties sitting in my bookcase for a while now, thinking I ought to read it. The book got a lot of attention when it came out a few years ago, I remembered, and so I wanted to see what was so great about it. I'd read a couple of Halberstam's previous books, like The Best and the Brightest, but hardly followed his entire output (after all, he wrote more than 20 books in all.)
So after glancing at this title on my shelf for far too long, I finally picked it up the other day. I wondered: Is David Halberstam even still alive? Then I turned to the back of the title page, looking to see when the book was published. I knew it was a few years ago.
|Then: The last president with no college degree|
Anyway, belatedly, I'm finally reading The Fifties, and I intend to plow my way through the whole thing, all 700+ pages of it. But what strikes me right away are the similarities between the world of over half a century ago, and our world today.
In the late 1940s, America had a monopoly on atomic weapons. We were the only country that had used them, in Japan in 1945, and we were also the only country that had developed them. It put the United States in a powerful position in the world, particularly compared to our new international competitor, the Soviet Union. So all during the late 1940s American scientific and political leaders worried that the Soviets would get the Bomb, and also tried to predict when they would develop it -- much like we are worrying about Iran developing a nuclear weapon today.
Some people ridiculed the Russians, presumably believing they were too dumb and boorish to organize the intellectual firepower to develop the bomb. One American scientist quipped: "The Russians could not surreptitiously introduce nuclear bombs in suitcases into the United States because they have not yet been able to perfect the suitcase."
Of course, the Soviets did get the atomic bomb in 1949 which launched the arms race of the 1950s, and the whole military notion of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) which was supposed to prevent the use of the Bomb -- and which, so far, has proved effective.
|And now: The first black president|
I was also struck by Halberstam's analysis of the political strains across the American landscape in the middle of the 20th century. Thomas Dewey, governor of New York, was the Republican nominee for president against Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. No one expected him to win. But in 1948, running against the much-less-popular Harry Truman, Dewey was considered a shoo-in for the presidency. Well, we all know what happened.
As it turns out, Dewey was kind of the Mitt Romney of his day. He was a liberal Eastern establishment Republican who did not inspire much enthusiasm among those "real Americans" out in the Midwest. The split in the Republican party is a little different now -- between establishment Republicans and Tea Party Republicans who reside mostly in the South -- but there's still a fairly dramatic gap that reflects very separate views of the world.
Of course the Democrats are different. At mid-20th-century, the Democrats consisted of Northern liberals and Southern segregationists. Now it arguably consists of East Coast liberals, West Coast liberals, and some union and academic strongholds in between.
As the 1950s dawned, as always I suppose, we had both internationalists and isolationists vying for the public mind. In 1950 the foreign policy establishment located in the East, both Democratic and Republican, was in favor of engaging in the world, sending money and weapons to Europe, meddling in Asian affairs, preparing to take over world leadership from a declining British empire. But small-town Midwesterners simply wanted to bring the boys home from the war, forget about foreign entanglements, and get on with their lives.
Today, it doesn't seem much different. People in the foreign policy establishment, Democrat or Republican, are invested in relations with other countries, from Europe to the Middle East and Asia. But a lot of regular people want us to get out of Afghanistan, keep China at arms length, stay away from conflicts in Syria and elsewhere, and pull back from commitments to questionable governments in the Middle East.
Anyway, don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with stories from the 1950s as I progress through this book. But I did look up David Halberstam. He died in 2007, at age 73, in a car accident in Menlo Park, Calif. And as I reflected on his book, (I've read a hundred pages so far, covering McCarthy and the Korean War) I couldn't help but think: Times sure do change, but people don't change very much, do they?