The decade before brought World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, and the dawn of the atomic age; the decade after brought disaster in Vietnam and an explosive counterculture among young people in home.
But the 1950s? The Eisenhower era? Sandwiched in between some of the most dramatic periods in US history, it's easy to think of the Fifties as a bore, a time when very little happened in America.
But in reality the fifties were anything but a simple sleepy interlude in our history. With American and Soviet forces stockpiling H-bombs in preparation for a nuclear showdown, President Eisenhower had to negotiate the tensest decade of the Cold War. Many of the social tensions that would later erupt in the 1960s—especially over race and civil rights—were already moving into the forefront of America's social consciousness. And all the while, the era's widespread prosperity fundamentally reshaped the American way of life.
For those of us born in more recent decades, it's not hard to overlook the Fifties. The era's reputation is pretty much Dullsville, USA, after all. And if we do think about the Fifties at all, we tend to view the decade through a lens heavily fogged with nostalgia (or its flipside, contempt) for the supposed social cohesion (or its flipside, conformity) of the era. This was a time, we tend to assume, of peace, prosperity, and apple-pie values—the good ole' days, in other words, the calm before the storm of social chaos that swept over the country in the more contentious 1960s.
That's the image, anyway, one enshrined in our popular memory through cultural artifacts like the hopelessly sweet and corny TV programs Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show. America in the 1950s, it's easy to think, was just one great big Mayberry.
But the true story is more complex.
Yes, there really were elements of American culture and society in the 1950s that looked a lot like the placid middle-class utopia of Mayberry. But there were also all kinds of tumultuous historical currents swirling just beneath the decade's calm surface.
Rock n' roll, after all, was an invention of the Fifties, bringing with it many of the attitudes of teenage rebellion that remain so familiar today. And though we now tend to classify the Civil Rights Movement as a Sixties phenomenon, in fact the African American freedom struggle had already done much to revolutionize American race relations long before the Fifties were out. It was during the Fifties that the Beat poets let loose a radical literary howl against staid mainstream culture. And it was during the Fifties that many radical technological innovations—starting with the computer—began to transform the way we live our lives. Dramatic changes in technology, transportation, culture, race relations, and social structures all came hot and heavy during the Fifties, and all left their mark on our modern world.
The decade was, more than we usually imagine, a time of change.
And the man who led America through most of the era was one of our most paradoxical presidents. When he left the White House in 1961 after eight years in office, Dwight D. Eisenhower was considered by many political experts to be one of history's least accomplished (and perhaps even worst) presidents, but he was also one of the most popular with the public at large. Later, many historians changed their views; today many have retrospectively come to see the man called "Ike" as a surprisingly astute leader. What was up with this grinning, bald-headed, golf-playing former general who led us through one of our most misunderstood decades?