Thursday, November 3, 2011
Every time I lecture on "Cold War Culture" I realize I've done almost the entire lecture without referring once to Joseph McCarthy. This can't be right. His polarizing presence animated much of the possibilities of politics of the 1950s. Some have even called it the Age of McCarthy.
But still, was McCarthy more important than the development of suburbia? How about the reversion of gender roles? How about the hardened lines of racial segregation? The crisis of conformity? The development of extreme consumer culture? The military-industrial complex? Brown v. Board? Where do the Hollywood Ten fit into that spectrum?
There are a whole panoply of pattern-setting events in the 1950s. It has got to be the new "First Years of Our Time" (or is that the 1970s?). At any rate, it's no wonder David Halberstam's big book on "The Fifties" argues that "the Fifties" were really a precursor to "the Sixties" and all that followed.
It's also no wonder, then, that McCarthy hardly appeared in my initial lectures on the subject. There was too much else going on. To remedy this, I make a big deal about McCarthy in my introductory comments, to show that there was a dark shadow over the entire era. Then I conclude with a brief return to the man, to explain how he, and others, used the Cold War and the Long Telegram and Containment to great political effect. The atmosphere of fear seems most important to me.
Nevertheless, it seems like McCarthyism is slipping as a quintessential topic of the 1950s. Other things have emerged as more important, and more interesting.