Our Century: The Fifties

Our Century: The Fifties


China’s Impact

Communist China was born of a struggle not only between two rival factions or two opposing political conceptions, but between the 85 per cent of Chinese who wanted to be sure of getting their daily bowl of rice and the 15 per cent who, supported by foreign capital, wanted to go on living in luxury at the expense of the others. Anyway, Americans cannot with good grace complain if the Chinese decided to take seriously their denunciations of colonialism and poverty….

Whether we like it or not, there is leadership, a plan, and a determination hitherto unknown. Collective action, organized and directed by a centralized executive, draws upon the potential energies of 425,000,000 human beings. Nothing comparable has happened in China for 800 years.

–J. Alvarez del Vayo, March 6, 1954

Colonialism is evil. Not liking evil, we do not choose to remain colonials forever and be forever exploited, overtly or covertly. We want liberty. Count Leo Tolstoy wrote: “I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means–except by getting off his back.” What a fitting description of the relationship between the peoples of Africa and Europe!

–M.O.M. Maduagwu, “Africa: The Last Stronghold,” January 1, 1955

The Cohorts of Fear

The vitality of American liberalism is not to be measured by the volume of indignation directed against McCarthyism or against the outpouring of ex-Communists bent on expiating their past sins. It is easy to attack such inviting targets…[and] many a liberal or independent radical feels his job is done when he lands a direct hit on either one…. As for the refugees from the far left, the harm they do is just as grave, for they clothe their fanaticism in the lingo of liberalism and, like all psychotics, seek the destruction of what they fear within themselves…. From both–but from the McCarthys in particular–stems also the epidemic of official timidity that has turned too many liberal public men into cringing facsimiles of their enemies on the right.

–Freda Kirchwey, April 14, 1951

Liberation by Death

The Korean War forced a revision of the magazine’s World War II position on the relative value and morality of air war.

Some day soon the American mind, mercurial and impulsive, tough and tender, is going to react against the horrors of mechanized warfare in Korea. It will take time. We were all hardened by the methods of mass-slaughter practiced first by the Germans and Japanese and then, in self-defense, adopted and developed to the pitch of perfection illustrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Western allies and, particularly, the Americans. We became accustomed to “area” bombing, “saturation” bombing, all the hideous forms of strategic air war aimed at wiping out not only military and industrial installations but whole populations. By the time the first atom bomb burst over Hiroshima it was possible to still the sharp voice of warning, and even the anxious whisper of conscience, by calculating the greater numbers that would have died if the bomb had not been dropped. The calculations, as it turned out, were probably wrong; but even if they were not, something else was.

The damage remains…. [I]t explains the absence of protest against the orgy of agony and destruction now in progress in Korea…, the vast slaughter of civilians, the burning of whole villages…, the systematic destruction of factories and water systems and transportation facilities–down, almost to the last ox-cart.

–Freda Kirchwey, March 10, 1951

President Eisenhower’s June 16 statement to the press, in which he described the situation in Guatemala as belonging to a pattern which “we had looked at with great displeasure in more than one country,” seemed to indicate that the “roll-back” policy, which so far had not been possible to apply in Eastern Europe, was due for a trial closer to home.

–J. Alvarez del Vayo, “Aggression Is the Word,” June 26, 1954

Evita: Power Behind Perón

Eva Perón represented the spirit of vengeance, of unscrupulous violence, of cold and implacable terror, which has condemned thousands of Argentines to hunger, exile, prison, torture, and death. To her are due the first persecutions of artists, intellectuals, and politicians, whom she had hated since the days when she was an unsuccessful actress. A mere order from her was enough to doom these people to starvation.

It was she who, with the easy and condescending cooperation of her husband, attacked the unions, overcame the resistance of the old leaders, used the police to break up strikes, and filled the jails with hundreds of militant workers….

Upon her tomb the Argentines would write–if they could: “Love was unknown to her.”

–Fermin Gonzalez, Letter to the Editor, August 9, 1952

Why “Operation Dixie” Failed

“Operation Dixie” was the CIO’s vast organizing campaign in the South.

Some Taft-Hartley supporters say the C.I.O.’s failure is explained by the “simple fact” that Southern textile mill hands “don’t want unions.” But if this were so, employers would not need to oppose union organization. If the mill hands “don’t want unions,” why did they carry on a succession of strikes lasting from a few weeks to nearly two years in the fight for recognition and contracts? How did the T. W. U. A. manage to win twenty-eight of the first twenty-nine union-shop elections held under the Taft-Hartley law in plants where it is strongly established? Why did the legislatures of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia feel moved to pass laws going beyond Taft-Hartley to forbid union shops completely?

Some effects of Taft-Hartley, in point of fact, can be easily measured. In the two years before the statute was passed, the T. W. U. A. won seventy-six representation elections covering 22,872 workers. In the two following years it won only twenty-eight elections covering 5,104 workers.

–Willard Shelton, April 29, 1950

Mercy for the Rosenbergs

Whether Julius and Ethel Rosenberg live or die, their case will be tried over and over again in the minds of people everywhere…. We have not yet hardened ourselves to endure the ruthless dictates of “political justice”; we still reject concepts of vengeance and exemplary punishment. If the Rosenbergs die, we shall feel that both concepts presided at their execution.

–Editorial, January 10, 1953

In 1952, there were nearly 1,900 deaths from polio among youngsters under the age of twenty, but over 20,000 in this age group alone were killed in accidents and nearly 4,500 died from cancer.

–Eric Josephson, “Why the Dimes March On,” November 10, 1956


Levitt has been called the Henry Ford of the housing industry; he mass-produces his houses in “cycles.” First, a team of bulldozers scoops out a block of perhaps fifty foundation excavations; a crew follows to lay down the foundations; another crew sets up the walls in assembly-line fashion….

The other day I dropped into a Levittown office and applied for a house. “But,” I told the salesman, “there’s something I want to ask you about that’s very important to me.” The salesman lifted a reassuring hand. “You mean the talk that’s going around about colored people living here?” he asked. “Listen, this is the point of sale–strictly between you and me–and believe me, we sell to whites only, mister.”

–Charles R. Allen, Jr., May 31, 1952

Intervention in Indo-China

The Nation‘s opposition to intervention in Vietnam can be traced back to 1948, with its criticism of French colonialism. It would take until the 1960s for that critique to be set within the context of morality and anti-imperialism.

Indo-China is not Korea. In the Korean tragedy American intervention had the sanction of international legal and moral doctrine. It is not China, where at least there was a sovereign government to aid. Of course ethical consistency may be of no consequence in dealing with Communists, but more than that is involved here. It is the prospect of tremendous additional waste of material and life in vain. For it is almost mathematically predictable that large-scale American intervention in this colonial war, which has already cost almost as much in casualties and treasure as Korea, could not accomplish its political aims.

–Edgar Snow, April 24, 1954

Hungary Suppressed

Few post-war events have touched the conscience of man as much as the revolt and repression in Hungary; few have shaken the Red world as badly. The recent parade of Chinese intellectuals who have publicly confessed to “deviationism” have frankly traced their heresy to the Budapest barricades. When Dr. Wolfgang Harrich, the young Marxist theoretician, was brought to trial on charges of plotting revolution in East Germany, he was pointedly linked with the Hungarian rebels. In Poland, the most devastating criticism of Soviet high-handedness could be found in Communist organs, and in Yugoslavia no one had seen such popular resentment since the day Tito was read out of the Soviet fraternity. In the West, Communists by the tens of thousands tore up their party cards.

–Editorial, August 31, 1957

There are times when Mme de Beauvoir seems to resort to a form of shock therapy. Concerning the connection–or lack of it–between love and marriage, she says that adultery is “the form that love will assume as long as the institution of marriage lasts.” There are some who consider such a notion a product of neurotic anxiety.

–Patrick Mullahy, review of The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, February 21, 1953

Phoenix Pyre

Must every new national power, as it emerges in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, learn to live with its neighbors only after it has fought with them?… Are the older imperial powers incapable of learning anything from past follies? The recent behavior of France and Britain prompts the thought that old nations, like some old men, must have a final fling of folly and wickedness before they will accept the mandates of their own experience.

–Editorial, on occasion of the Suez crisis, November 10, 1956

“Sputnik,”…it has an amusing, outboard motor sound to it.

–Editorial, “A Bully of a Word,” October 26, 1957

I Won’t Vote

In 1956, I shall not go to the polls. I have not registered. I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no “two evils” exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say….

[H]ow does Stevenson differ from Eisenhower? He uses better English than Dulles, thank God! He has a sly humor, where Eisenhower has none. Beyond this Stevenson stands on the race question in the South not far from where his godfather Adlai stood sixty-three years ago, which reconciles him to the South. He has no clear policy on war or preparation for war; on water and flood control; on reduction of taxation; on the welfare state….

I have no advice for others in this election. Are you voting Democratic? Well and good; all I ask is why? Are you voting for Eisenhower and his smooth team of bright ghost writers? Again, why? Will your helpless vote either way support or restore democracy to America?

–W.E.B. Du Bois, October 20, 1956

The Myth of the Happy Worker

Arecently-published article [informed us that]…”there are no workers left in America; we are almost all middle-class as to income and expectations.”… If I understand the writer correctly, he is [saying that] if the worker earns like the middle-class, votes like the middle-class, dresses like the middle-class, dreams like the middle-class, then he ceases to exist as a worker.

But there is one thing that the worker doesn’t do like the middle-class: he works like a worker. The steel-mill puddler does not yet sort memos, the coal miner does not yet sit in conferences, the cotton mill-hand does not yet sip martinis from his lunchbox. The worker’s attitude toward his work is generally compounded of hatred, shame and resignation….

…Even if he puts in fifty, sixty or seventy hours a week at one or two jobs, he has to count on his wife’s paycheck, or his son’s, his daughter’s, his brother-in-law’s; or on his mother’s social pension….

It is at best a precarious arrangement; as for its toll on the physical organism and the psyche, that is a question perhaps worthy of further investigation by those who currently pronounce themselves bored with Utopia Unlimited in the Fat Fifties.

–Harvey Swados, August 17, 1957

In brief, automobiles are so designed as to be dangerous at any speed.

–Ralph Nader, “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy,” April 11, 1959

Judy Garland

Everything about Judy Garland touches me….

She is professionally bound to be “happy.” The free and easy style which she mentions in song is more akin to frenzy…. She has the freedom of spirit of the old time troupers (or troubadours), but to fit our up-to-date entertainment business she allows herself to be slightly “industrialized.”… Miss Garland escapes this “industrialization” with a humorous cuteness, but the marks of pain it has caused her are evident in her every glance….

She is at bottom a sort of early twentieth century country kid, but the…big city wounds of our day are upon her. Her poetry is not only in the things she has survived, but in a violent need to pour them forth in vivid popular form, which makes her the very epitome of the theatrical personality.

–Harold Clurman, “Theatre,” October 13, 1956

The markets should be full of produce; the pantries of our homes should be well-stocked; every hand should be industriously at work. No, this is not inconceivable;…what is inconceivable is that the majority of our rural families live in conditions worse than those of the Indians whom Columbus found when he discovered “the most beautiful land that human eyes have seen.”

–Fidel Castro, “What Cuba’s Rebels Want,” November 30, 1957

Eyewitness: South African Racism

Designed to crush the passive-resistance movement against racial discrimination, the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the Public Safety Act raise dictatorship to a racial fury hitherto exceeded only by Hitler….

What will happen next?… [T]he struggle is bound to be long and painful. The [ANC] leaders have apparently learned a great deal. When the African National Congress began its campaign, it had only 5,000 dues-paying members; today, according to Walter Sisulu, it has 60,000.

–Basil Davidson, on enforcement of 1949 apartheid decree, June 27, 1953

Hip, Cool, Beat–and Frantic

The hipster-writer is a perennial perverse bar mitzvah boy, proudly announcing: “Today I am a madman. Now give me the fountain pen.” The frozen thugs gathered west of Sheridan Square or in the hopped-up cars do not bother with talk. That’s why they say “man” to everybody–they can’t remember anybody’s name. But Ginsberg and Kerouac are frantic. They care too much, and they care aloud. “I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!” That they care mostly for themselves is a sign of adolescence, but at least they care for something, and it’s a beginning. The hipster is past caring. He is the criminal with no motivation in hunger, the delinquent with no zest, the gang follower with no love of the gang; i.e., the worker without ambition or pleasure in work, the youngster with undescended passions, the organization man with sloanwilsonian gregory-peckerism in his cold, cold heart.

–Herbert Gold, review of On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, November 16, 1957

Nasser: Pharaoh in Shirtsleeves

Nasser is a genuine product–at once a symbol and an inspiration–of the Bandung era. He is the first powerful indigenous spokesman of the Afro-Asian resurgence. Chou En-lai’s dogmas come from Russia. Nehru is a product of the British Empire. Sukarno is little more than a cipher…. But Nasser reflects to perfection the groping, half-grown, ill-read, eclectic nature of the Bandung philosophers. He is a through-and-through Afro-Asian; and he sees his country pre-eminently as a link between those two rumbling continents.

–James Morris (later Jan Morris), January 12, 1957

Say It Ain’t So

The tearful plea of the newsboy to Shoeless Joe Jackson in the White Sox baseball scandal of forty years ago may now be echoed, mutatis mutandi, by any of the millions of suckers, including ourselves, who trustingly believe in the honesty of TV quiz programs, in particular the now defunct “Twenty-One.”

–Editorial, October 17, 1959

Pay-off at Miami

“Honest Tom” Hickey, the only Teamsters leader to claim that obsolete adjective before his name, stood in the sunlit pressroom of the Miami Beach auditorium on the second day of the convention of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, facing a few reporters and the awful future…. “There’s never been a convention like this before. For forty-five years we had Tobin and then for five years we had Beck.” He paused for a moment, and said, “Now we’re at the end of the road.”

The end of the road was, appropriately, Miami Beach, where the garish hotels must borrow the names and display the knick-knacks of other civilizations to compensate for the lack of its own in this vast, air-conditioned casket where ulcered citizens come to die. The man at the end of the road was Jimmy Hoffa, and that, too, was appropriate, for Jimmy Hoffa, in one form or another, is always the man at the end of the road…. Hoffa is the man offstage who does the chopping in the last act of The Cherry Orchard; Hoffa is Faulkner’s Flem Snopes with thick wrists and a vengeance.

–Dan Wakefield, October 12, 1957

Robot-machines are opening Coke bottles, science is reaching for the moon, and the rest of us are doing cross-word puzzles, watching Ed Sullivan, and hoping for the best.

–Dan Wakefield, “The Robot Reaches for a Coke,” December 15, 1956

If It Takes All Winter

In the excitement over Little Rock, editors and columnists have been seriously debating the question, “Is a Civil War Brewing in the South?” It is difficult to see just what prompts this hysterical question. At the time of the firing on Fort Sumter, there was no mistaking the martial atmosphere that prevailed; swords flashed, flags waved, men marched and bugles blared. This is hardly the atmosphere that prevails these brisk fall days as the Yankees square off against the Braves…. No, another Civil War, gentlemen, is not brewing in the South; what impends in that handsome land is a day of triumph in the long struggle to kill Jim Crow.

–Editorial, October 12, 1957

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