Study Guide

The 1950s

The 1950s Introduction

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 U.S. history, it's easy to think of the '50s as a bore, a time when very little happened in America.

But in reality, the '50s 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, Americans were preoccupied with worry. Americans worried that the U.S. would be destroyed from within by hidden Soviet spies. A "Red Scare" swept the nation and had people looking under every bed for "commies" and "pinkos." 

At the same time, Americans tried to push the fear of nuclear annihilation to the back of our minds, distracting ourselves with new things to buy: cars, refrigerators, hula-hoops, provisions for our bomb shelters, Jell-O molds, you name it.

What is The 1950s About and Why Should I Care?

For those of us born in more recent decades, it's not hard to overlook the '50s. The era's reputation is pretty much Dullsville, U.S.A., after all. 

And if we do think about the '50s, 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 ol' days, in other words, and the calm before the storm of social chaos that swept over the country in the more contentious 1960s.

That's the image, one anyway, that's 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 and roll, after all, was an invention of the '50s, 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 '60s phenomenon, the African-American freedom struggle had already done much to revolutionize American race relations long before the '50s were done and over with.

  • It was during the '50s that the Beat poets let loose a radical literary howl against staid mainstream culture.
  • And it was during the '50s 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 '50s, 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?

The 1950s Resources

Books

Piers Brendon, Ike: His Life and Times (1986)
British writer Brendon brings a both sympathy and distance to his biography. He recognizes the paradoxes of Eisenhower's life and of the time in which he lived. His book is a balanced biography of a complex man.

Allen Ginsberg, Howl and other Poems (1956)
The long poem "Howl" established the Beat movement as the alternative to the white-bread '50s. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," Ginsberg begins, and goes off on an extended rant against the current order, and in favor of a passionate approach to life. The poem gave a voice to the outsiders of the day and influenced the counterculture that would emerge in the '60s.

David Halberstam, The Fifties (1993)
Okay, it's more than 700 pages long, but Halberstam's journalistic writing style will take you on a fascinating and always lively tour of the decade, from Marilyn Monroe to Mohammed Mossadegh, and from hula hoops to hydrogen bombs.

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Salinger's well-known novel embodied much of the alienation of the '50s in his character Holden Caufield. Its enduring popularity has shaped later readers' view of that decade.

Music

Various Artists, Sun Records: Collectors Edition (2008)
Sam Phillips started the Sun Record Company in 1952 and put out music that mixed hillbilly and country with rhythm and blues sounds. Elvis started at Sun, as did Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Jerry Lee Lewis.

The Kingston Trio, The Essential Kingston Trio (2006)
The group was formed in 1957 and rode the folk music trend to huge success, starting with their 1958 hit "Tom Dooley." Like much popular music of the '50s, the sound of the Kingston Trio was mellow and "safe," a contrast with the edgy music of many Black musicians and white rockers like Elvis.

Bobby Darin, Greatest Hits (2002)
Darin's music gives a good feel for the range of music that was popular in the '50s. Darin came on the scene in 1958 with "Splish Splash," an upbeat rock and roll song. Though he became a teen idol, Darin also recorded ballads like "Dream Lover," and the complicated show tune, "Mack the Knife."

Various Artists, I Love Rock & Roll: Hits of the '50s (1996)
This compilation gives a good overview of what rock was like in the '50s, ranging from Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" to "Be-Bop-a-Lula," a hit for Gene Vincent in 1956.

Thelonious Monk, Brilliant Corners (1957, reissued 2008)
Monk was one of the greatest innovators in jazz, both as a player and composer. He was at his peak in the '50s and this was his first album to include his own compositions. Angular, dissonant, hypnotic, swinging, and eerie, Monk's music was anything but bland.

Images

Two World Leaders
Eisenhower and Khrushchev pose at Camp David during the Soviet leader's 1959 visit to America.

Elvis Arrives
Elvis Presley excites crowds at a fair in his hometown, Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1956.

A Taste of Freedom
In 1956, Hungarian nationalists, encouraged by the United States, revolted against Soviet domination, pulling down a statue of dictator Joseph Stalin. The rebellion was quickly crushed by Soviet tanks and troops.

The U-2
Flying at an altitude of 15 miles, this fast, light spy plane carried high-tech cameras for recording images on the grounds. When the Soviets shot one down in 1960, Eisenhower's hope of a significant Cold War breakthrough evaporated.

Nixon in Venezuela
A mob in Caracas vented their anger against the U.S. by attacking Vice President Nixon's motorcade in 1958. They smashed the windows of his limo and almost overturned it before he escaped.

Movies & TV

Mad Men (2007–2015)
This popular series, set in the early 1960s, is an interesting recreation of the Eisenhower era. The setting is a fictional advertising agency, and the series depicts the sexual and social realities of the '50s with a hint of the change that's to come in the '60s.

Revolutionary Road (2008)
Not a great piece of filmmaking, perhaps, but this movie does a great job recreating both the look and the sense of alienation that was typical of the Eisenhower years. Titanic stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio depict a young couple trapped in the dull suburbs.

New York in the '50s (2001)
This documentary offers archival footage of New York during the Eisenhower era. It shows that the decade was marked by plenty of excitement in spite of its reputation as a cultural backwater.

On the Beach (1959)
This film version of the popular 1957 novel captures the sense of impending doom that hung over the '50s. For many, it wasn't if but when an apocalyptic nuclear war would begin. It takes place after an atomic holocaust has destroyed most of the world. Australia has been spared for now, but radiation sickness is beginning to kill off the survivors.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Sci-fi was big in the '50s and this is a B-movie classic of the genre. Ordinary people are turning into imposters. Is it a case of mass hysteria? You wish. In fact, alien "pod people" are taking over the human race, killing humans and replacing them with exact duplicates.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
The generation gap wasn't invented in the '50s, but the chasm between parents and children had never been so wide. This film graphically depicts that distance and features the actor who was to become the symbol of youthful rebellion, James Dean.

Websites

The Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum
This is a good place to start for information on Eisenhower. You can read documents from his presidency, access an Eisenhower chronology, and listen to presidential addresses. The site will tell you everything about Ike, from his family tree to his pets (a parakeet and a Weimaraner named Heidi).

The Eisenhower Presidential Papers.
When he sat down in the Oval Office the day after being inaugurated, President Eisenhower confided in his journal, "My first day at President's Desk. Plenty of worries and difficult problems." By reading Ike's personal thoughts, letters, and other writings, you can gain an intimate view of a president at work.

The Cold War Museum
This site gives accounts of many of the most important events of the Cold War. The section on the '50s covers the Eisenhower years, including articles about the overthrow of the Iranian government, the Formosa Straits tensions, and the U-2 crisis.

Video & Audio

McCarthy's Demise
We're not linking you to the recorded version of the Army-McCarthy Hearings on Washington, but our learning guide on this exchange between Senator Joseph McCarthy and lawyer Joseph Welsh, in which McCarthy smeared one of Welsh's assistants, will go into depth on the turning point in the senator's vicious career.

Eisenhower's Farewell Address
Again, not the recorded version here, but in this television speech, the departing president warned of the influence of the "military-industrial" complex.

Historical Documents

First Inaugural Address
Eisenhower's first inaugural address, January 20th, 1953.

The Little Rock Crisis Speech
This is the text of a speech that Eisenhower gave to the nation on September 24th, 1957, about the school desegregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Executive Order 10730: Little Rock Nine
In a less-than-classy move, Arkansas refused to enforce federal court orders to integrate public schools in Little Rock, so Eisenhower sent in the troops.

The Civil Rights Act of 1957
Aimed at guaranteeing voting rights for African Americans, this law was made ineffectual by amendments added in Congress.

Reaction to Sputnik
Eisenhower's radio and television address on science in national security, November 7th, 1957.