A new year, a new decade, and continuing conflict
■ Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
Harry Truman was beginning his second year as president in his own right as Jan. 1, 1950 dawned clear and cold. The Korean War was still raging. American hopes were that it would not spread further because of China’s involvement.
A somewhat insignificant senator from Wisconsin gained more power than he deserved as chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations. During the first four years of the fifties, McCarthyism was coined and brought fear into the hearts and lives of anyone who even thought “liberal.”
Anyone who didn’t agree with McCarthy was a pinko, leftist or traitor. He saw communism in every corner of the country and destroyed the lives and careers of decent Americans who dared speak for up peace. He wanted war and raged his kind of war in the papers, on radio, television and every form of communication known to mankind. He was destroyed by his own colleagues when the U. S. Senate formerly censored him on two counts:
1. Contempt and abuse of a Senate committee that looked into his financial affairs in 1952.
2. Insulting members of this committee on national television and thereby bringing the Senate into dishonor and disrepute and obstructing the constitutional process.
McCarthy eventually sank into the morass of his own self-aggrandizement.
Harry Truman and his family moved into Blair House while a White House in disrepair was being renovated. On Nov. 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican activists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, stormed Blair House in an attempt to assassinate President Truman. Torresola mortally wounded White House Police officer Leslie Coffelt, who killed him on return fire. Secret Service agents wounded Collazo. President Truman, upstairs in the residence, was unaware and unharmed.
Black and white—a redux
During the fifties, there were an unusually high number of black-skinned people from a variety of countries across the globe coming to the U.S. for a chance at a better life. This was in contrast to the first group of black immigrants who were brought to the country as slaves in shackles and chains.
However, some things seem never seem to change. Jobs were controlled by whites, many of whom would not hire blacks, despite their abilities or training. This was primarily in the Southeast part of the country, but do not be deluded. It occurred in every city or community across the fruited plains. The problem was, as it often is today, racism is just below the skin.
During the early fifties, a house could be purchased for $8,450. Wages averaged $3,200 a year. Most of us today would look at that as more of a monthly income. At 18 cents a gallon for gas, $3.50 would fill the tank of even a Cadillac. Five dollars would feed a family for a week. Except for veterans taking advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights, higher education still escaped many who would have wanted to get an education. Professors and regents have always been outspoken activists against free education.
A general takes command of the country
“I like Ike” was the mantle for Eisenhower’s charge toward the Presidency in 1952 and 1956. His opponent, Adlai Stevenson, whose grandfather had been the vice-president, was swept aside in both elections in which he opposed the popular general who had conquered Europe. The most memorable thing about Stevenson was a lapel button crafted from a hole in the sole of one of his shoes.
For the eight years of Eisenhower’s term in office, we were officially at peace with the world. However, at home our social habits were changing at a rapid pace. We were introduced to the slogan, “Do Your Own Thing,” and the invention of TV Dinners. Everybody had a social agenda that did not include sitting down to family dinners. It was too easy to slip a packaged meal into the oven and voila, dinner. Then it was, “Sorry, I’ve got to run. I have an important event this evening.” And so it went.
Teenagers had always, from childhood up, been told to speak when spoken to and not to interrupt an adult or have an opinion of their own. All of that was about to change. Black musicians were mostly limited to black radio stations. The idea of a black entertainer being accepted by white Americans was something only jazz enthusiasts entertained, despite the Duke Ellington’s and Cab Calloways. All of that changed when a young black man (adopted by a white family after being tossed out on his ear by his father because of his homosexuality) hit the airways with a song called “Tutti Fruitti.” It skyrocketed in the charts and suddenly a new medium called rock-and-roll became part of American culture, although several years earlier a white group, Bill Haley and the Comets, performed “Rock around the Clock” in a film, “Blackboard Jungle” which integrated white, Hispanic, and black into what would actually become the basis for the fifties teenage revolution that rocked this country like nothing since the Boston Tea Party.
Then came Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and a melange of copycats that had the big-band parents shaking their heads. Popular music would never be the same.
More changes were coming
On June 19, 1953, for the first time in American history, a man and wife, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed by electrocution in Sing Sing Prison for espionage after being convicted of selling atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union. Both were members of the young Communist League.
Eisenhower had campaigned on the premise that he would end the Korean conflict if elected. He kept his word. On July 27, 1953 all sides involved signed an agreement ending the bloodshed. Prisoners of war on both sides were allowed to choose their futures. They could stay where they were or return to their homelands. A neutral zone was established between North and South Korea, which continues today.
Civil rights become paramount
Civil Rights was about to become an issue far more than anyone expected when, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that all public schools would be integrated post haste. The resistance by some states was tantamount to revolution. West Virginia, one of the last states to accept the Court’s decision, officially de-segregated in the middle of the night, rather than face the wrath of voters in a daytime session.
The Dow Jones Industrial average closed at an all-time high of 382.74, the first time the Dow surpassed its peak level since the market crash of 1929. Wall Street moguls were sitting on cloud nine.
In 1954 Steve Allen hosted the first Tonight Show on NBC, the beginning of social television that continues today.
In 1955 we went hamburger crazy when Ray Croc opened his first MacDonald’s fast food restaurant.
Also in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black woman, refused to cede her seat on a bus to a white and set off the beginning—which, by the 1960’s, would become the culmination—of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
Other changes came about during the peaceful fifties. AFL and CIO merged into America’s largest labor union federation, while Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California.
Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio, soon to be followed by a Russian, Albert Sabin, with another polio vaccine in 1957, which would not be recognized in the United States until 1962.
In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik and the race to space began, while televison’s “Bonanza” became the first drama to be broadcast in color.
By the end of the fifties, the pace for the future was speeding up considerably. In 1959, Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th U. S. States, the last two states to be admitted to the Union.
First-class postage went up from 3 cents to 4 cents, the first rise in first class in almost 30 years and people did not like it.
The industrial nations went crazy with nuclear tests. It was a decade of the H-bomb and Pacific Atoll nuclear explosions that may have been the onset of climate change as some scientists have ascertained, although it is still a debatable subject.
Seeds of another war
The United States, it seems, could not go for any length of time without a war. In the mid-fifties, the French were soundly defeated at Dien Bien Phu and barely got out of Viet Nam with their scalps. Not too long afterward, mostly unbeknownst to the American public, President Eisenhower began—at South Vietnam’s request—to send “advisory troops,” to South Vietnam in order to “curb communism.”
According to government sources, those advisors were sent to assist the military. Eisenhower felt that if Viet Nam fell to Communism, it wouldn’t be long before all of Southeast Asia would become Communist. Thus was the origin of “the Domino Theory,” that if one country fell, others would subsequently fall over in due time.
Eisenhower’s advisors were there to aid and advise the South Vietnamese military and were not permitted to engage in combat. They were there for training and advice only. Or so it was said.
As the 1950’s wound down, we were feeling as though the world was our oyster. What could happen? We had a popular general as our president and commander in chief. He knew war and did not embrace it as a solution. As he parted the presidency, he also had advice for his own countrymen: “Beware the military industrial complex.” A statement that sidles up along the words of George Washington, “Beware Foreign Entanglements,” and James Monroe, “Protect the Western Hemisphere.”
How quickly we forget the wisdom of those who came before us. Learning can be a painful experience. Just sayin’.