Book Review: The Fifties by David Halberstam

This is a terrific book by a terrific writer.  When I came across it in a used bookstore in Pacific Beach, San Diego, I was first put off by its size.  In its hardcover edition it’s a real doorstopper of a book.  I left it on the shelf, came back to it another day, and finally figured, “Why not?”  I’m glad I did.

David Halberstam was a journalist who died in a car accident in 2007 at the age of 73.  He won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism for his coverage of the Vietnam War, and his book “The Best and the Brightest” is considered by many one of the best books on the politicians, military men, and events of the Vietnam War.  It was the first book of Halberstam’s that I tackled, and I have to admit that at first it was slow going.  Halberstam doesn’t just tell you what happened; he shows you why it happened by going into the background not only of the event itself but the important players in it – sometimes all the way back to the childhoods and even ancestors of the people involved.  His style takes some getting used to, but when you do realize what he is up to, it is irresistible and addicting.  The next book of his I read was “War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals”, which is about America’s foreign policy makers after the Vietnam War, and how America became involved in such places as the Persian Gulf, Haiti, Somalia, and the Balkans.  It was a fascinating read.

“The Fifties” reads like a novel – or perhaps like a series of long short stories.  It goes into many of the events that shaped the decade in all sorts of fields.  It was particularly fascinating for me because I have read much about historical events of the sixties and seventies, the era in which I grew up, and not so much about the fifties, the decade in which I was born.  He writes of the politics of the era, of course, of Truman, and Eisenhower, and of other powerful political figures such as Thomas Dewey and Adlai Stevenson.  He writes of the McCarthy communist witch hunts; of the Korean War and General MacArthur’s pomposity and subsequent demotion and humiliation; of Oppenheimer and the development of the hydrogen bomb; of racial inequalities in the South and the birth of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. as its leader; of the business success of General Motors and Holiday Inn and McDonald’s and of the people behind them; of the scientific research and sociological turmoil leading up to the development of the birth control pill; of the shaping of American cinema by outstanding figures such as Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe; of the influence of Elvis Presley on modern rock music; of the rise of the beat generation as embodied by such iconoclasts as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs; of the shaping of American popular literature by Mickey Spillane, the novel “Peyton Place”, and cheap paperbacks; of the rise of television as a force in American society and advertising, epitomized by “I Love Lucy”, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”, and “The $64,000 Question”.  The list could go on and on, and each story is as fascinating as the last.  The juxtaposition of so many such diverse but enthralling stories gives an amazing mosaic of a crucial formative decade in American history.

I cannot praise this book enough.  I greatly enjoy reading good modern history books, but even amongst my favorites this books shines as not only absorbing and entertaining, but illuminating as well.  I looked forward to reading this book every day as much as I would a fast-paced novel.  I couldn’t put it down, and despite its length I enjoyed it so much that I was disappointed when it was over.

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