The 1950s in America were a time of nostalgia and neurosis. With the victory in World War II, the U.S. believed that it could politically, culturally and militarily lead the world. But the 50’s also saw the Iron Curtain in Europe, the entrenchment of Communism in China, and a Red Scare that divided Americans at home. Bill Moyers reports on how an initial burst of optimism fostered an era of American conformity, in which fitting in led to a hostility and distrust of those who stood out.
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BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers, and this, of course, is the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion. A generation ago, that cloud, with no warning, cast a terrifying shadow across the earth. The atomic bomb brought an end to World War II, the first war to be given a number.
We understood the implications that World War III might not be very far behind. The possibility jarred us. We had such great expectations in 1945, for the peaceful enjoyment of a prosperous life. Through the Great Depression and then through war, we had deferred those hopes. Now surely, their time had come. But the postwar period turned out to be something called the Cold War. The anxiety it created symbolized in that cloud and this sign — the sign of a fallout shelter. The sign of an ominous time.
It wasn’t so long ago either. Almost all of today’s adults were alive then, at least as infants. Me, I graduated from high school, put away my band uniform, went off to college, married, finished graduate school, and wound up working in Washington with an up and coming senator from Texas, a man named Johnson. What about you? Do you remember where you were then, those many years ago?
RONALD REAGAN: My name is Ronald Reagan.
BILL MOYERS: Obviously, some of us had different jobs back then, as the war came to a close. Lyndon Johnson was in the House of Representatives preparing to run for the Senate, a race he’d win by 87 votes. To be known thereafter as Landslide Lyndon. John F. Kennedy was a freshman congressman in 1946, and so was the man on the right, Richard Nixon. Some political figures hadn’t surfaced yet.
Jane Fonda was a very young actress. Brother Peter, even younger. Sandra Day O’Connor was in Stanford Law School. Muhammad Ali had a different name — Cassius Clay — but the same talent. Many people were doing then what they would be doing later on. Billy Martin, as a Yankee, helped win the World Series. Major John Glenn, in 1957, setting a new speed record. It’s surprising, looking back, how so many of us admired the same heroes and shared the same assumptions, took similar things for granted, and held a common vision of the course a life should run.
Life centered around the traditional family. Bachelors were thought of as eccentric, career girls an exception, homosexuals people with an ugly secret. You went to college, if you could. And more could than ever. Got yourself a good job, preferably with a big company. And just assumed getting married, settling down.
Premarital sex was a no-no. For nice girls, everything would come in its season, including children. You wanted at least one child. The census said 2.4 was the normal number. You wanted a car and, of course, a home of your own. A place to share with your helpmate. Divorce was practically unheard of. You could always get twin beds instead. Tranquilizers came later. You didn’t jog or expect French wine for dinner. But you could smoke all you wanted and not even the Surgeon General would complain.
SINGING “SMOKE, SMOKE, SMOKE”: As you light up a sweet cigarette, and the vapors forms into a ring. Inhaling and blowing, smiling and knowing a smoke is a wonderful thing.
BILL MOYERS: Now I’ve been assuming, obviously, that you were a white male in or joining the middle class. That was my vantage point on the times. There was, to be sure, more variety to America, more diversity. But it was a time of standardized appetites and dreams.
BILL MOYERS: Here’s how a senior in Princeton saw his future. “Life will not be a burden for me at 35, because I will be securely anchored in my family. Remember, I hope for five children. Yes, I can describe my wife. She will be the Grace Kelly, camel’s hair coat type, feet on the ground and not an empty shell or a fake. She will also be centered in the home, a housewife. Perhaps at 45 with the children grow up, she will go in for hospital work and so on.”
The sociologist David Riesman looked closely and saw a generation that was other directed. Technology, mass production, and advertising encouraged homogeneous desires and thrived on satisfying them. And the American instinct for equality had been spurred by the collective adventure of war and our shared hopes of what victory would bring. President Harry Truman in Berlin told of the good things to come.
HARRY TRUMAN: We want peace and prosperity for the world as a whole. If we can put this tremendous machine of ours, which has made this victory possible, to work for peach, we can look forward to the greatest age in the history of mankind.
BILL MOYERS: The country exploded with exhilaration unequaled since. A clean cut victory in a righteous cause, there’s no feeling like it. So the sword would be beaten into plow shares. And bombers would become brand new cars, while supermarkets and shopping centers sprouted a harvest of abundance. Had it not all been prophesied in magazines and news reels? Moving sidewalks and conveyors for commuters. Little cars that folded up. Lawn mowers that ran themselves. Kitchens crammed with the most fantastic appliances. Gadgets so novel we couldn’t even give them a name.
Most of these never made it into production. But many more wonderful things became commonplace. Television. In 1947, there were only 7,000 TV sets sold. By 1952, we were buying six million a year. Highways and superhighways. Antibiotics, wonder drugs, and much, much more. We tore up our ration cards and brought our faith in progress back from the attic, and rubbed it nice and shiny. We were impatient for things still hard to get, like chocolate, tires, bubble gum, and nylon stockings. Above all, for housing. It would be a while before construction could catch up with postwar reconversion.
BILL MOYERS: But not the reconversion of human resources. That went ahead full blast. The Saturday Evening Post showed us GI Joe, home from the war, turning into Joe College, as painted by Norman Rockwell. Veterans could get $500 a year in tuition benefits, plus a monthly allowance of $50 to $75. So what if conditions were still like the army? Our campuses had never seen so many students like this. They were older, for the most part. And many were married with babies.
And thanks to the GI Bill, men who had once hit the beaches were now hitting the books — the first wave of great postwar rush to higher education. Over two million veterans swarmed to college, an army of men now in civvies. Before the war, almost half of all college students were women, more than half during the war. Now, co-eds made up less than one third of each class. Women who had held all sorts of jobs during the war were expected to return to more conventional roles as housewives, or secretaries, or adornments on a glamorous pedestal.
BILL MOYERS: The mainstream — that was the place to be. Get on with the business of life, literally. The result was that demographic phenomenon known as the Baby Boom.
SINGING “LETS HAVE THE WORLD OF TOMORROW TODAY” Tomorrow, the world will grow plenty of wheat, and plenty of food for the hungry to eat.
BILL MOYERS: Seventy million Americans were born in the postwar era.
SINGING “LETS HAVE THE WORLD OF TOMORROW TODAY” —you will say, let’s have a world of tomorrow today. The world of tomorrow will [INAUDIBLE] for peace.
BILL MOYERS: That meant we needed more housing, more schools, more shoes, more bicycles, or just about everything. And those babies grew up expecting an ever more prosperous future.
SINGING “LETS HAVE THE WORLD OF TOMORROW TODAY” Let’s have the world of tomorrow today.
BILL MOYERS: For a while, everybody got what they wanted. There were good jobs. The houses were built, shortages vanished. It seemed a feast of plenty.
SINGING “LETS HAVE THE WORLD OF TOMORROW TODAY” Parents and children together let’s say, let’s have the world of tomorrow today.
BILL MOYERS: But there were ghosts and shadows at the banquet. The military wanted its share of postwar prosperity. And since economists had warned that maybe peace and prosperity do not go together, you heard talk of a postwar slump in case of disarmament. In Europe, what stood out above all was the stark gap between our plenty and the misery of victor and vanquished alike. We were unscathed by the war. But there, people starved and froze in the rubble.
BILL MOYERS: Some of our leaders had grim memories of another postwar period, when a young Hitler built towers of madness out of Europe’s ashes. So let’s help Europe back on its feet, they said. But a nation weary of entangling commitments and rushing pell-mell to gratify desires long deferred wasn’t so sure. However, another victorious ally had plans of its own — ambitions that seemed to betray our wartime friendship. Here’s how a 1947 film described it.
NEWSREEL NARRATOR: Gone was the spirit of wartime unity that reached it’s peak on that historic afternoon in April ’45 at the Elba River in Germany. Here, two worlds actually met. But this coalition was to be torn asunder. [EXPLOSION] Two years later, European capitals still suffering from the shooting war were battlegrounds for totalitarian aggression. The internal recovery was sabotaged through the creation of disaster and strife, to the point of civil war. Russia’s expansionism timetable called for dividing Europe in two, swallowing first one half, then the other. Already an iron curtain had dropped around Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria.
BILL MOYERS: So the world was to be divided again into hostile forces — us and them. And what did we know about them? Not much. Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, we’d been a divided mind about the USSR. Was it a contagious plague breeding world revolution, or just another great power in red clothing?
BILL MOYERS: Nevermind. Necessity had allied us with the Russians in the struggle against Hitler. Our own propaganda had encouraged us to see them as stalwart comrades whose casualties in that struggle numbered 20 million people or more. Now events required that we take a closer look. The diplomat George Kennan, who had served in Moscow, would warn us the Russians were insecure, even neurotic and impervious to the logic of reason. He said their ambition would fill every nook and cranny where it was unopposed, as indeed, it seemed to do.
One after another, Communist regimes were imposed on eastern Europe until finally, in 1948, there occurred the emotional trigger that snapped us wholeheartedly into Cold War. The place was hard to spell, but impossible to forget — Czechoslovakia.
BILL MOYERS: We remember that 10 years earlier, Czechoslovakia had been offered up to Hitler as an appeasement by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. A democracy sacrificed to preserve peace in our time. In 1948, Czechoslovakia, although allied by treaty with Russia, was again free and democratic. It’s leader, of the popular Jan Masaryk, a friend of the West. But in February, Communists seized control. The world was told that Masaryk would be allowed to stay in office. A few days later, the government officially announced that he had committed suicide by throwing himself out the window.
The American public was outraged. What economic and humane appeals had failed to do, spreading Communist influence now achieved. Congress approved billions of dollars for massive economic assistance to Europe — the Marshall Plan. Hardly had congress acted than the Soviets forced confrontation in Berlin, the exposed nerve of the Cold War. Occupied Germany was governed in four zones — the British, French, American, and Russian sectors. The former capital, Berlin, also in four zones, lay entirely within the Soviet sphere.
BILL MOYERS: In June of ’48, the Russians imposed a blockade on Berlin, shutting off truck and train travels to the western zone. The only routes left open were air corridors. The United States faced desperate choices — force the road open and risk all out war, or leave Berlin to fall like Czechoslovakia. But our generals proposed an absurd solution — supply Berlin’s two million people completely by air.
Fly in everything from potatoes to coal. A crazy idea, indeed, but somehow fitted for a topsy turvy world. US planes flew 4,500 tons of supplies a day in over 250,000 flights to people who only a few years earlier were Hitler’s loyal folk. It worked, this mini Marshall Plan in the skies. It worked. In May of 1949, the outmaneuvered Russians called of the blockade. No European country has gone Communist since.
BILL MOYERS: President Harry S. Truman had drawn the line in Europe. The United States had been willing to share its economic power with the Europeans. And as a military power, we could rest secure, because the atom bomb, the super weapon that had ended World War II, was an American invention and an American monopoly.
[EXPLOSION] The monopoly ended September 2, 1949, four years and one month after Hiroshima. It was officially confirmed by the end of the month, the Russians had exploded their own A-bomb.
BILL MOYERS: So incredibly, just four years after the end of the war, the world was full of new dangers. Of course, we’ve been told that ever since 1946, when Churchill coined the term “Iron Curtain.” The glow of wartime warmth toward our Soviet ally faded fast.
We were sold the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan with the argument that without them, Soviet troops might march through all of Europe, even though we had a monopoly on the bomb and Russia was still a war ravaged land with more reason to worry than we. Stalin fed our phobias by rejecting our offer of economic help as financial aggression, by quickly condemning the idea for mutual control of the atom, by making Eastern Europe a Communist prison camp.
BILL MOYERS: Now in 1949, all of China fell to the Communist forces a Mao Zedong. We saw red almost everywhere. And the Russians — the technologically backward, primitive Russians — got the bomb. We leaped from what knew to what we needed to think. Somehow, somewhere, possibly right here at home, we were being betrayed. Insistent questions resounded in Washington.
Who helped the Russians gain the secret of the A-bomb? Who lost China to the Communists? Suspicions fell on fertile ground. There had been concern about Communist spies even before the war. Now we learned in 1946 of a big Soviet espionage ring in Canada, with possible links in the US.
BILL MOYERS: So Washington launched a wide hunt for security risks in government. The litany of people attesting to their loyalty became as familiar as once had been “The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.”
DOROTHY KENYON: I am not and never have been a Communist. I am not and never have been a fellow traveler. I am not and never have been a supporter of, a member of, or a sympathizer with any organization known to me to be or suspected by me of being controlled or dominated by Communists.
BILL MOYERS: Not only bureaucrats had to stand the test, so did movie stars. Some were glad to do it, even eager.
ADOLPHE MENJOU: I have seen things that I thought were against what I consider good Americanism. In my feeling, I have seen pictures I thought shouldn’t have been made. Shouldn’t have been made. Let me put it that way.
BILL MOYERS: Why Hollywood? Because the Communist party in America had indeed seen in movies a glamorous way to promote political ideas. During the war, it had been patriotic to make movies extolling our ally Russia. No more. With Moscow now our nemesis, anti-Communist congressmen found that red hunting in movie land guaranteed them klieg light publicity.
ROBERT TAYLOR: I personally, with all due regard to Mr. Hoover, whose opinion I respect most highly, certainly do believe that the Communist party should be outlawed. However, I’m not an expert on politics or of what the reaction would be. If I had my way about it, they’d all be sent back to Russia or some other unpleasant place.
BILL MOYERS: The applause soon grew to hysteria. Large numbers of Americans decided the Red Menace had to be rooted out. If you were accused and refused to cooperate or insisted on your right to remain silent, you could find yourself unemployed or blacklisted and unemployable. The issue had become black or white. Were you with us or with them? Who did lose China? Who gave away those atomic secrets? Who, indeed, is un-American? Why, anybody might be, was the answer. Spies, subversives, and fellow travelers seemed to look just like anyone else. Or better than anyone else, like Alger Hiss, a former government official, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, now accused of having been a Communist. His accuser, Whittaker Chambers, asserted that it was difficult to sort out those who were spies.
WHITTAKER CHAMBERS: Mr. Hiss represents the concealed enemy against which we are all fighting and I am fighting. The conclusion was inescapable. The person next door, down the street, on the bus, could be a spy. Or in sympathy with the enemy, and thus capable of springing forth full blown to betray America, if given the chance. And that made it difficult to tell who was them and who was us.
The conclusion, in a nation cradled by the Bill of Rights, was frightening. And people began to behave in frightened ways. Films and dramas reflected fear that the enemy was coming. If not by conquering arms, then by infiltrating ideology. In one movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an entire community is converted into aliens one by one.
MAN: [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
OFFICER: Speak English, comrade. Remember, it is about the only freedom you do not have in this town, this American town.
MAN: Americans, they have too many freedoms.
OFFICER: That is another thing you must remember, comrade. For one day, it will be your mission to destroy those bourgeois capitalist freedoms.
BILL MOYERS: Another film called Red Nightmare presents a town so transformed in a dream that a man is confronted by his entire family, small children included, who are suddenly fervent Communists.
FATHER: Hey, what is this? Someone going on a trip?
MOTHER: You could call it a trip. Actually, the children are going away to a state school.
FATHER: Now wait a minute. Wait just a minute. I don’t know what’s happened to you or what they’ve done to change you, but you’re not going to send these kids away.
DAUGHTER: Oh, she’s not sending us away. It was our idea. We learned in school that home life does not encourage the growth of the collective character which the party wishes to develop in its young people.
SON: It’s your fault. You should have spent more time training us to think along partly lines. As a member of the Young Pioneers, it will be my duty to report you.
FATHER: You better listen to me, all of you. I don’t want to hear anymore talk about state schools and party lines and collective character and deviationism. It’s going to be a family again, and I know just where to start. You two are going to Sunday School, and you’re going right now.
BILL MOYERS: It was but a short route from the fear of being taken over to the fear of those who were different, to the fear of being different yourself. Conformity became the best defense, a refuge of smooth similarity. “I’m an American Day” and “Loyalty Day” became the high holy days of this anxious time.
And at the head of the parade appeared this man, Joseph R. McCarthy, the junior senator from Wisconsin. Looking for an issue that would get him reelected, he seized on the fears of millions, and launched the squalid campaign that became known as McCarthyism. It’s tactic, reckless and undocumented accusations against government employees.
JOSEPH MCCARTHY: Mr. Chairman, today this man, John S. Service, is a ranking officer in the policy making group of untouchables on duty in Calcutta, India, one of the most strategically important listening posts in the world today. He was not an acceptable risk under Mr. Acheson’s own yardstick of loyalty the day he entered the government.
BILL MOYERS: Intimidation bred audacity. And audacity fed upon itself. McCarthy soon had the celebrity he sought. The stage was his alone to command.
JOSEPH MCCARTHY: You’re not fooling anyone. I have offered to go before any committee, do anything you ask, if I can just get you to come down here and take the oath so we can get the answers to some questions. Now you’re not fooling anyone at all. I’m sure of that.
BILL MOYERS: Some victims understood his methods well enough.
OWEN LATTIMORE: The technique used by the senator in making these charges is apparently typical. He first announced at a press conference that he had discovered the top Russian espionage agent in the United States. At this time, he withheld my name. But later, after the drama of his announcement was intensified by delay, he whispered my name to a group of newspaper men, with full knowledge that it would be bandied about by rumor and gossip and eventually published. I say to you that this was unworthy of a senator or an American.
BILL MOYERS: But with his innuendos and lies and bull-boy deceits, Joseph McCarthy pushed the boundaries of fair play too far and was finally destroyed by his own excess.
ROBERT WELCH: Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gaged your cruelty or your recklessness. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
BILL MOYERS: The Senate and the national audience had also had their fill. Within months, McCarthy was formally condemned by his colleagues. His four years of influence were over.
BILL MOYERS: How had this inquisition gone on for so long? Why didn’t more people stand up sooner? Well, after four years of total war against fascism, we found it hard to come down from the patriotic high of the righteous cause. We saw Communist police states that reminded us of the ugly totalitarian powers of the ’30s. And real Communist spies turned up among our allies.
Our leaders made the most of these combustible materials. To embolden us for our new world role, they created an official case of the jitters from just about every quarter. From churches, industrialists, unions, schools, the press, and the military, we were bombarded with a hate the enemy campaign, rare for peace time. The attorney general’s list of subversive organizations made it open season on scapegoats.
And the fear, well, the fear got out of control. It created an irrational craving for the safety of conformity, a stampede of patriotic fervor. A lot of things got trampled — careers, lives, and good judgment. It became easy to win votes with charges of conspiracy and hard to fight back, especially when the air was thick with suspicion.
Things weren’t going in the world the way we wanted them to go. We couldn’t even win a little war in Korea.
BILL MOYERS: It wasn’t supposed to be called a war. The proper name was the United Nations Police Action. Tell that to the men who fought there, most of them Americans. Communist North Korea started it, pouring troops into South Korea in June of 1950, and raising fears in Washington that a Russian Chinese axis was trying to repeat in Asia what Moscow had accomplished in Eastern Europe. The South Koreans were quickly backed into a corner of their peninsula and on the verge of defeat, when the Americans arrived under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.
Only a fluke got Americans there at all. Russia was in the midst of a tantrum at the United Nations and boycotted the very session where the vote was taken to send a mutual security force to help South Korea. So the Russians lost the chance to veto the decision. And Harry Truman was able to dispatch American troops under the UN umbrella without even consulting Congress.
BILL MOYERS: There wasn’t, at first, much opposition at home. Most of us thought the line had to be drawn in Asia as it had been drawn in Europe, or else the Communists would keep testing their luck. At first, all went well. MacArthur launched a brilliant amphibious attack behind the North Korean border, cutting the Communist forces in half and taking almost all of North Korea. So much of it, in the fact, that UN units were able to approach the border between Korea and Communist China.
There were warning signals from the Chinese, signals that were ignored. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops hurdled the border and came slashing down on the Americans. Now we were trapped. And our troops had to fight their way out in the bitterest of winter cold to be evacuated back to South Korea. With the snow melted hopes of quick victory.
BILL MOYERS: This was the second war in five years for some of these men. They were sick of violence, mud and GI rations. Sick of being away from home. Their folks back home lost enthusiasm, too. All those cries in ’45 of peace, peace, and where was it? It wasn’t even victory, just stalemate.
When it was all over, the truce line was very near the original borders violated by the Communist in 1950. Douglas MacArthur hadn’t wanted it to end that way. Let’s renew the offensive and take on China, if need be, he said. His superiors feared this would set off a third World War. And when MacArthur persisted, Harry Truman fired him.
BILL MOYERS: MacArthur came home from the army to a hero’s welcome. There was talk of running him for president. He fancied the idea, but it never bloomed, and he faded away. There would be a general in the White House, all right, but one less given to military flourish. At heart, a civilian like us.
The campaign button said it all. We did like Ike. And small wonder, soldier, statesman, liberator of Europe. Born in a small Texas town, not in a log cabin, but close enough to it so that “aw shucks” came easily for him. Now the president of Columbia University and everyone’s prize catch, Democrat or Republican. The Republicans got him. He was a military man, so the Russians couldn’t fool him. He was middle of the road, as were the majority of Americans. And he was friendly to business. That’s what most voters wanted. Weary of too much politics and all those foreign crises, they wanted someone trustworthy to tend the store while we got on with the business of getting ahead.
BILL MOYERS: Making it was the game. And money was the means of keeping score. Now GI Joe was the man in the gray flannel suit. Sociologists called him the organization man. He symbolized the era of making it big. Of course, there wasn’t room at the top for all of us. Not enough status to go around. But there were plenty of status symbols. And our mass economy democratized our access to them. Cars, for example. You started with a Chevy, aimed for a Pontiac, then an Oldsmobile — a 98, of course — or a Buick Roadmaster. The other lines, Ford and Chrysler, had their own hierarchies, too. And there were lots of different models to choose from.
This was the time for things. Lots of things. Here were the kitchens of tomorrow, today. And Mrs. America was an expert in the use of every appliance. She could prove it, if she had to. The little homemaker was supposed to be a good looker, of course. But queen or not, her family was tops in her book. Togetherness reigned, it’s kingdom the suburbs. Suburbs, like cars, had different status according to price and style. But the difference was more in appearance than function. There was the two car garage and the barbecue grill in back. And the workshop in the basement for do-it-yourself types. And the catalog cornucopia of ready-made marvels. And of course, the rec rooms flickered with that ubiquitous light, as the family gathered around the modern campfire to enjoy tales of its time and of itself.
[SCENE FROM OZZIE & HARRIET]
DAVE: Hi Pop! Hi Ma!
OZZIE & HARRIET: Good morning, dear.
OZZIE: Hey, you look pretty sharp this morning.
DAVE: Oh, thanks Pop!
HARRIET: Yes, you certainly do.
RICKY: Yeah, sharp as a meatball.
DAVE: Nobody asked you, Ricky.
BILL MOYERS: And to receive messages as reassuring as Father Knows Best. And reminders that Americans do not live by bread alone, but by countless facsimiles thereof. We bought the products and the way of life. They were our great expectations, ’50s style.
BILL MOYERS: A curious thing about those expectations. You made plans for a future that might not happen. My wife Judith was busily engaged at the university in chemistry and biology courses, preparing to teach. She was required in one nutrition course to spend a whole semester studying techniques for feeding the entire population of Texas in a nuclear disaster. She also learned to guide children through drills for an atomic attack. All these years later, she remembers the instructions. Under the desk, arms over your head, head on the floor, eyes closed, and don’t turn toward the window. It was a time of testing, literally. Out there somewhere, bombs seemed to be going off constantly. [EXPLOSION]
BILL MOYERS: Government publicity tried to keep us on the narrow path between complacency and panic about atomic weapons. Some of us fell off on either side. By 1953, we and the Russians were adding to our inventory of atom bombs something even more powerful — hydrogen bombs. A hydrogen bomb is an explosive so massive that it needs an atomic bomb to set it off. The biggest hydrogen bomb is thousands of times more destructive than the atom bombs that ended World War II. The comparisons, at first, commanded awe and even dread. The more the stockpiles grew, however, the more people could not comprehend the scale of destruction possible.
BILL MOYERS: The government didn’t want us to forget. It wanted us on our toes. [SIREN] Paul Revere was now a periodic, metallic prophet warning us of massive retaliation. Sometimes the drill was small scale and a surprise. Other times, whole regions were threatened with imagined overkill and hustle to the hills.
For a while, each family was encouraged to build its own little shelter. My uncle Carl in California said, to hell with it. The race may have started in the cave, but he wasn’t going to die in one. Gradually, there were more rebels like him, and a kind of people’s revolt put an end to the idea of America surviving underground when the big bang burst. We all learned to joke about it. If the third World War is fought with atomic bombs, we asked, what will the fourth World War be fought with? Sticks and stones, we answered. And let the government worry about such things.
BILL MOYERS: The government was men like John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, America’s champion brinksman. Brinksmanship was a sporty term for the willingness to take confrontations with the Soviet Union to the very brink of atomic war. At one point, it was termed the New Look Policy.
RICHARD NIXON: But what is this New Look Policy? Very briefly, what it provides is that we are not going to allow the Communists to nibble us to death with little wars like the one in Korea. That rather than do that, that we are going to rely on the massive retaliatory power of our new weapons to be used against the real source of the aggression at times and places that we choose.
BILL MOYERS: Since neither side could count on being around for the spoils, neither side would ever go over the brink. so reasoned the strategists. This allowed the government room to pursue American interests anywhere in the world by conventional as well as by clandestine means. Each of which proved to be stepping stones to future trouble.
In Iran, for example. Our Central Intelligence Agency, run by Foster Dulles’ brother Allen, helped to throw out a nationalist regime, which, it was said, might bring Communists into high places or even into control of the oil field. The man reinstated in power by the CIA was the young shah, Reza Pahlavi. He lasted until 1979, to be succeeded by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
BILL MOYERS: And Guatemala. Our government feared the Communists were taking over there, too. So we helped bring to power forces friendly to us. CIA pilots actually bombed the capital from unmarked planes.
Vice President Nixon went down to help celebrate our friendship with the new head of state. But the whole affair would have far reaching results. A young Communist student named Che Guevvara was in the city when the CIA bombed it, and would never forget or forgive. He became economic adviser to Fidel Castro.
BILL MOYERS: The American people didn’t know what their government was up to in such clandestine events. It’s not clear if public opinion would have approved. But there was one crisis in which the US didn’t interfere and many wished we had.
Hungary, October 1956. A Soviet satellite, one of those countries behind the Iron Curtain, wanted its freedom. When partisans rose up and took control of the streets, there was fierce fighting. Hungarian in army units joined the revolt and victory seemed possible. The pro-Soviet regime collapsed. A new Hungarian state was proclaimed socialist, but independent of Moscow.
BILL MOYERS: World opinion cheered for Hungary. The Kremlin was dazed. It even announced that Soviet troops were withdrawing from Hungarian soil. Hungary belonged to the Hungarians. The West was jubilant. A suppressed people overthrowing their Communist oppressors was almost too good to be true.
Suddenly, another crisis diverted the world’s attention and muddied the moral waters. Three American allies — the British, the French, and the Israelis — had been disputing with Egypt over access to the Suez Canal. Now they launched a surprise bombing raid on the canal and on the Egyptian capital Cairo.
BILL MOYERS: World opinion branded these Western nations as aggressors. And the UN sent a police force. It was a convenient time for the Russians to throw off restraint in Hungary. Back into Budapest went the tanks. The new government was crushed, its leaders executed. The Iron Curtain descended on Hungary once again.
If the Russians had shocked us in Europe, they would now shock us in space. 1957 was to be the beginning of the Space Age. We had announced that we were going to launch the first artificial earth satellite in history. Explore One was to be an electronics package about the size of a grapefruit. But once again, the Soviets had prepared a technological surprise.
BILL MOYERS: It was called Sputnik, Russian for traveling companion. And travel it did, into orbit around the earth in October 1957. Not only did it weigh 20 times more than our own satellite, but we could actually see it in the night sky over our own country. President Eisenhower tried to make light of it.
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Indeed, this launching of the satellite proves that they can hurl an object a considerable distance. But when you stop to consider that even now, and apparently they have — the Russians, under a dictatorial society, where they had some of the finest scientists in the world have, for many years, been working on this, apparently, from what they say. They have put one small ball in the air.
BILL MOYERS: But as if to mock us, the Russians put up another Sputnik, bigger than the first, and this time with a passenger, a cosmo-mutt, the dog Laika. Enough was enough. The rocket bearing our entry into the Space Race was hurried to the launching pad, in the full glare of publicity. [ROCKET EXPLOSION] Only to expire minutes later in the glare of failure.
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: This is, for the American people, the most critical problem of all. We need scientists. The Soviet Union now has, in the combined category of scientists and engineers, a greater number than the United States. And it is producing graduates in these fields at a much faster rate.
BILL MOYERS: Thus began the great race to catch up. We were in a horse race for space, said the pundits and critics. And our trainers, our teachers, were being compared unfavorably with Russian teachers. Their students were seen to be hard working, dedicated, disciplined. Our students, who had been given all the benefits of our hard earned prosperity, well, they were out of shape, mentally and physically. Lazy and spoiled, it was said. Unless the kid’s pitched in and did their bit, how would we ever beat the Russians?
Then we notice that a lot of our kids really didn’t think that was all important. They had, almost without our noticing it, become a distinct social group, their own separate culture.
BILL MOYERS: They liked different music. No more Dorothy Collins on the Hit Parade. They wore their own special clothing, sported their own hairstyles, and even had their own heroes. They gave the impression of rebellion, but it was more style than substance. On the whole, they were an unprotesting lot. Someone called them the Silent Generation. Rebels without a cause, like the film star, James Dean, one of their heroes.
Actually, there was a cause. It was called peer pressure. Beyond the split level, mother and father no longer knew best, not even on the tube. The first signs of the famous generation gap that would become a Grand Canyon in the ’60s were beginning to appear. Parents were accused of being unfeeling and hypocritical. The kids of being egocentric, irresponsible.
BILL MOYERS: And there were other cracks in the facade, other disparities beginning to surface. Not everyone was making it into the middle class. There was another America — poor, sick, and neglected. And not all of us were white. The American negro, as blacks were called at the time, were here and there nudging open those doors marked white only. Some made it in the army, a few in baseball. And others to those segregated southern lunch counters, the buses, and even schools.
Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. The government sent in federal troops to back up the admission of black teenagers to Central High School. It was an assault on the status quo, ordered by the United States Supreme Court. It was the end of one long road, and the first step on another that would be just as long and just as hard.
BILL MOYERS: The world was in flux, both home and abroad. Nikita Khrushchev had come to power in Moscow. Joseph Stalin was dead, his hard cold paranoid face replaced by the roly-poly uncle-like countenance of the gregarious politician.
For a spell, the personalities of Khrushchev and Eisenhower transcended the Iron Curtain. Person to person diplomacy raised hopes in the world that confrontation might be eased.
BILL MOYERS: An American pianist from Texas, Van Cliburn, showed up in Moscow, wowed the Russians, and came home with the prestigious Tchaikovsky prize in music. Was it possible we actually enjoyed each other’s company? Certainly we enjoyed their ballet company.
The Space Race even took on less of a menacing and more of a sporting contest. Richard Nixon, Vice President Nixon, went to Moscow. Khrushchev came to America and visited Iowa farms. He met the stars in Hollywood, and swapped life stories with the movie mogul Spiros Skouras.
SPIROS SKOURAS MOYERS: My two brothers and I came from one of the smallest villages of Greece and from a very poor family. In 1910 when coming here, we work as humble busboys. Because of the American system of great opportunity, now I’m fortunate to be president of 20th Century Fox.
NIKITA KHRUSCHEV: [SPEAKING RUSSIAN] It impressed me, too. But you can’t surprise me by that, because if you want to know who I am, I started working as soon as I learned how to walk. And I am the prime minister of the great Soviet state.
[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]
BILL MOYERS: It was as if both sides had wearied of the threats and confrontations. There was even a voluntary moratorium on atomic tests. A fall, in the Cold War. Eisenhower and Khrushchev talked publicly of peaceful coexistence. Historians would look back and write that not since the beginning of the Cold War had hopes for a peaceful world run so high. So high, so briefly.
In the days before surveillance by satellite laid every nation’s territory open to inspection from above, you needed a special plane to look over a potential enemy’s territory. One that could fly high enough to escape radar detection and anti-aircraft missiles. That was the U-2, or so it was though.
BILL MOYERS: Less than two weeks before he was to meet Eisenhower at the summit conference in Paris, Khrushchev announced angrily that Russian air space had been violated by a spy plane. Oh, said the American government, thinking that if indeed the plane had been shot down, there would be little left of it or the pilot to prove anything. Oh, said the government, maybe, just possibly, perhaps, perhaps a weather plane might have strayed off course and been shot down.
DWIGHT EISENHOWER: The emphasis given to a flight of an unarmed non-military plane can only reflect a fetish of secrecy.
BILL MOYERS: The American people knew nothing of spy planes and were prepared to believe the government’s story. Until the Russians produced first photographs, then the large clearly identifiable wreckage, and a photograph of the pilot and his pressure suit. And like Houdini back from the depths, the pilot himself, a civilian working for the CIA, Francis Gary Powers. He was put on trial in Moscow, convicted, and eventually traded back to the United States. But not before the credibility of the American government, including the revered Eisenhower, had been placed in the dock and found wanting.
It was a bizarre moment when the Russians could chastise another nation for espionage. But Khrushchev milked it for the opportunity it gave him to call the kettle black. We would catch such a cat by the tail and bang its head against the wall, he said.
BILL MOYERS: The U-2 two incident marked an end for the moment of cordiality and collaboration. It had been a false spring. The thaw was over.
A few days after I graduated from high school in 1952, my hometown newspaper carried an Associated Press story with this headline. “Nation getting ready to live with Cold War.” Little did we know then just what that meant — multibillion dollar arms budgets every year, a foreign policy geared to contesting real or imagined Soviet influence everywhere on the globe, living with the CIA and the top secret stamp, and hoping the Constitution can stand it, and discovering it almost didn’t. Learning a weird new vocabulary for some future Rosetta Stone — MX, SALT, MIRV, ABM.
BILL MOYERS: And above all, finding out that a nation does not reach the summit of global engagement without living on the edge of its nerves. We came out of World War II thinking it ended like a Western, with the bad guy dispatched and peace dropping over us like a restful veil of twilight. Instead, we got the age of anxiety that continues today.
The circle keeps rounding, from hope, to fear, to hope, and again to fear. And we don’t know just when and how and if ever it will end. But this we do know. No powerful nation has ever played out a great historic role without producing the stuff of epic drama — from stupidities that appeal to heroism that inspires. We’re no exception. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 7, 2015.