Russ Gifford
Power To the People


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Power to the People - The 1950s

PROLOGUE | In the Beginning - 1950s | The Trip - 1960's | Paying the Piper - 1970s |
The Right Turn - 1980s | Denial - 1990s | The Forever War - 2000s | Hope and ? - 2010s | EPILOGUE |

"I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be..."
 - Buddy Holly,
Not Fade Away    (Click here for Buddy)

Coming of Age: From Disneyland to Vietnam

In the beginning, there was no TV. But we had radio, and it was good. It also kept us informed with news on the hour and half hour - once you got past the farm reports. Between radio, Look, Life, Time, and the morning newspaper, we all knew the score!

The decade started rough, but most of us were not old enough to remember that.  The Cold War, prompted by the Soviet Union's takeover of the eastern European nations, had been a constant push to remain vigilant against Communists.

The Cold War had made the world a place of 'us' and them, each with our allies. Those that had not decided which side to back, the US, or the USSR were 'non aligned nations' and it was our goal to show them how good we were, to prevent the lies told by Communists from gaining traction in those places. But China becoming a communist country in 1949 had a profound affect on Americans, who felt it was somehow the American government's fault for 'losing China' to the communists.

Amid all this, early in 1950, in a tossed together speech at an insignificant tea party, a Senator from Wisconsin made an outrageous charge that "in my pocket I have a list with 205 names" – all State Department employees – who are "members of the Communist Party." Despite their Communist credentials, Senator Joe McCarthy continues, they "are still working and shaping policy."

The story commands attention when it is reported in the papers. Though the Senator refuses to supply the list, and he continues to state a different number each time he is interviewed, McCarthy snared the media. The newsmen knew Joe McCarthy as a junior Senator who is rather lazy in his habits and imprecise in his statements, so most are skeptical. They spend their time fact checking his statements, and as expected, find they never read the same way twice. Among other details, he refers to a different number each time he speaks of 'the list.'

But the news audience does not care. McCarthy's charges ignited a fire. He has the attention of people across America, but certainly church members. And in 1950, that was a majority of Americans. American churches of almost all religious denominations had long focused on bringing the gospel to people who had never heard the words of Jesus. These Americans whose visions of the people their missions touched every week thanks to their donations had no difficulty imagining them living with the terrors they had been taught that came with Communism. 

Thus we have one aspect of the dividing line in American perceptions of McCarthy in the 1950s: is it a Red Menace, or a Red Scare? Where you landed on that question decided how you felt about McCarthy.

But with the attack by the North Koreans into South Korea, that question was no longer a hypothetical one. The Cold War had become Hot war - a shooting war. Truman committed troops, and yet, troops would be pushed to the wall before Americans got it turned around. Now, those Duck and Cover drills got serious.

(click here for Red Scare)

Suddenly, the crazy talk of Joe McCarthy started to sound reasonable to some people. They called for security oaths, and tests to see if everyone was a 'real' American, and not a commie pushing their propaganda into movies and news shows.

But not to all.  (Click here to see Truman's Response)

Of course, the Congress quickly passed the security act, and overrode Truman's veto.

McCarthy, up for re-election in 1952, ran on a the "Three Cs - Crime, Corruption, and Communism" -- but the only thing he focused on was Communism, because that got him media attention. And media attention was as good as an advertisement for a junior Senator up for re-election 1952.

(Click here to see McCarthy speak)

The idea of shadowy Communist spies or traitors excited the American public. While few were ever found in government - but they were all over the place in the entertainment world! Not in real life - just between the pages. Books, radio shows, movies, and soon TV shows would be overrun with spies! Commies were everywhere - from the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift to Mike Hammer and Matt Helm. Fiction certainly enjoyed the boom that spies brought to us, and little did we know how long they would last. 

In all these stories, good prevails - but only after terrible trials and losses. Usually, the victim was a best friend who may not have believed that communists were dangerous. After that friend suffers a terrible and needless death, a resolute American stands up to the subversive, hidden threats faced by Americans everywhere. And usually, they deal death back to those 'godless commies.'

Of course, we were not old enough to read the book on the right when it came out, but lots of people did. (So did we as soon as we could get our hands on it. Spoiler alert - the Commies are behind everything.) 

Mickey Spillane created the tough guy Mike Hammer, who would dominate the best seller lists for the 1950s. Spillane held nine of the top ten places at the end of the decade, and the only book on the list he had not written was the Holy Bible. The author said that made sense. His books and the Bible talked about the same issues: Right and wrong, life and death, betrayal, passion, -- and choices. (No word of Communists in the Bible, however. But that is likely why Spillane beat it out of the number one slot.)

Corruption

McCarthy talked about the three C's, but ignored the real one: Corruption, meaning, the power of payoffs to convince people to bend the rules. With the booming economy and the many projects that had been delayed over the decades of the Depression and the War, money flowed into new building construction for local and regional governments and private businesses. Corruption became common as long-delayed major projects and projects took off fast and ate up the money. How? Some needed help to get fast tracked and that could happen with the right influence. The same is true where sometimes, local rules or requirements needed set aside to get the bid approved. One common target was the 'low bid' system of selecting a vendor - with the right 'in' one could get a technicality highlighted, have the bids thrown out, and get a better shot at getting the bid. And as in the case of the parking meters, or perhaps the new City Auditorium, recoup the money by not providing what the bid required? The big boom in construction in the post war years made cash abundant, and cash made corruption possible.

Sioux City celebrated the long delayed construction of the new Auditorium in 1950. (And just in time for the last major Missouri river flood of 1952. But that is a different story.)

The price of the Auditorium construction had skyrocketed, and added overruns required multiple new bond efforts to make the building happen. City taxpayers approved the bonds and paid the extra costs.

But what had they bought? After taking possession, stories abound of finding electrical plugs with no connection to the electrical system, water fountains that had no plumbing connections, and similar issues.  These would result in additional spending after the job was considered done  and the original bills paid. While the price had more than doubled, it certainly appeared the taxpayers did not get what they thought they were buying - a completed job.

In short, the word Corruption was on the lips of many in the early 1950s. But no charges were filed.

More exciting was the scandal of Sioux City tavern owners caught in after-hours operations in 1952. Some protest being busted because their protection payments are up-to-date. They stopped talking, but many want to talk to Mark Sabel before their next step. Sable is not a lawyer - just someone with a lot of friends, it appears.

When a bomb goes off in the early morning hours at 3515 Pierce, it is in Sabel's garage! Why target a fruit seller? People begin question what Sabel is actually selling...

Some claim the answer is: 'Influence.'

The case soon widens, and leads to City Hall. Two City Commissioners plead guilty of accepting gratuities. They will get fines and suspended sentence. The third, who denied the charges, will be found guilty in court, and get the same results. A City Purchasing Agent resigns over practices in his office, including bidding 'irregularities.' An equipment vendor pleads guilty related to the City parking meters. (By outside methods of influence the City decided to reject the initial meter low bid, and the vendor won on the re-bid. Yet their meters required an additional purchase to achieve the minimum required functions. They claimed they were unaware of the issues or any offers made by the salesman, who was also found guilty of a separate charge.

Six Tavern owners are found guilty of violating the liquor laws.

And Mark Sabel? The trial finds him innocent on all charges.

That does not last. New charges are brought, and this time  he will be found guilty.  He will go to prison for a bit over a year.

By the end 23 persons are indicted, and all are found guilty of something.

The headline case with its far reaching results bring shame on Sioux City, at least in the eyes of those pushing hard to make Sioux City a model for the state. Looking for options to rehabilitate the city's image, the Rockefeller Commission is invited to study the situation and city government.

The entire affair is the last gasp for the Commissioner form of local government. The depth of the scandal and the study point to years of a poorly run City Hall and the reality that the Commissioner form of government puts people with no experience in charge of departments with great responsibilities. And in the go-go era of the 1950s, departments that can be subverted with cash.

A majority of the Sioux City voters follow the Rockefeller recommendations, and approve a new charter to change to the City Manager system. The Commission is replaced by a Council who appoints a City Manager, and the departments are operated by supervisors who report to the City Manager. This removes City Council members from direct control of City departments, and will usher in a new time of professionalism at City Hall. It is a ‘great leap forward’ for Sioux City.

I Like Ike

Eisenhower dominated the race for the Presidency in 1952. His election majority overwhelmed the Democrats, as voters agreed with the campaign slogan "I Like Ike." Not only Ike, but the Republican party was swept into power in the Senate as well, the first time since Hoover's term 20 years before. Ike's election was all but ordained. A bona fide hero whose judgment was trusted by millions of Americans, Eisenhower provided the calming presence after Truman's trouble with the three C's - Crime, Corruption, and Communism. The fall of China to Communists was blamed on the belief that the Democrats had indeed been soft on Communism. The charge that the Democrats "lost China" stuck, as Truman had cut the amount of money America was sending to China before the fall. Truman, who hated fraud and the theft of American taxpayers dollars more than anyone, knew Chiang Kai-shek was pocket millions of those hard earned American dollars, and chopped the aid. But the 'China Lobby' was strong in the US, thanks to those American churchgoers, and Chiang Kai-shek played on their sympathies while denying everything. Truman wasn't wrong, but either way it made him an easy target for blame from McCarthy when China did fall to Mao's Red Army forces in 1949.)

Clearly, anyone suspected of being 'soft on Communism' could be unelected. Thus tossed from power, many Democrats took it as an article of faith it was better to be in office and wrong than out of office and right. (To which Truman would have sneered and called them all unprintable answer, but certainly a fourth C would have been part of it - Coward.)

The new Senate Minority Leader, smarting under the loss of Senate control to the Republicans, vowed to never again be in a position where he or his party could be seen as having 'lost' a country to communism. His name was Lyndon Johnson, and that lesson would have terrible consequences long term for the country. 

But facts are, Ike would be a good president. His capabilities soon prove out, and his promise to end the war in Korea leads to an armistice.  It is never finished - both sides simply agreed to go home. We didn't care. We had stood up to the commies, and we knew we had won. We were fighting the good fight.

Movies

Lots of good fights on movies, too! We got Juvenile Delinquents in Blackboard Jungle, Teenage Rebellion in The Wild One, and Dissatisfied Youth in Rebel Without a Cause.

Each of these movies showcased actors that would be contenders in the coming years. Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, and James Dean, respectively, with lots of great supporting actors.

But it is the soundtrack to Blackboard Jungle that proved an  immediate standout. The title song, Rock Around the Clock powered the show so well it became an instant hit on radio - and was big enough to get used in yet again in another movie!

What did they call the new movie? Rock Around the Clock!  (Click here to see the song and dancing!)

This new movie offers lots of Rock and Roll and crazy dancing, and uses the changing times as audiences move from big band music to rock and roll as a vehicle to move forward a romance. That stuff was obviously for the older crowd - all we wanted was the Rock and Roll! The move provides a timeless showcase of some great groups at the dawn of this new age!

Not the least of which is Bill Haley and his Comets, the former western crooners turned into... well, what are they? The new slang will say they are rockers, thanks to the song title. It will soon apply to all the groups that follow in the song's frenetic, fast-paced sonic footsteps. Alan Freed is also in the show, as himself, introducing the groups and their songs. It inspired others to follow. That includes the next movie, Rip It Up, which dispenses with the subplot. Long before MTV, Freed becomes the first VeeJay.

Here is the scene from Rip it Up! (Click here to see Rip It Up - and LOTS of crazy dancing!)

Lots of great movies aimed at the Boomers would flow into the theatres. From SciFi classics to Elvis comedy romances, all have a teen audience in mind. The biggest ones, of course, have Elvis and lots of songs. It would be another decade before the mainstream movies are aimed at the Boomer - but the day is certainly coming! 

What's Good for General Motors is Good for America

The decade started strong, again, with some help from the Boomers. What's that? How could Boomers, only a few years old, help the economy?

As the good job market prevailed in the 1950s post war families, flush with cash from savings stockpiled during WWII, moved out of the crowded housing in the cities to give their kids a better life. Overnight, the housing market responded to the demand, creating new housing developments out of farm fields and vacant spaces. These efforts produced affordable low-cost homes that could provide bedrooms and a yard for the new 2.3 kids American families would average over the coming decade.

Much of this is made possible by rising wages in America. Business boomed, and as a business leader would soon tell Congress while lobbying for friendlier business laws, "What's good for General Motors is good for America." Everyone knew that, and it would be the second 'truth' to come from the 1950s.

Of course, living in a suburb meant mass transit would not be an option to get to the job. Cars were needed and GM and Ford responded. Demand for products meant a demand for workers, and wages rose to attract them. By 1955 American incomes for workers are at an all-time high, averaging $3850 a year. At almost $2 an hour it is twice the new minimum wage, which really did not cover anyone.  

All this leads to a new phenomenon in America - the rise of an actual middle class. It had previously been mostly occupied by the small business owner, and perhaps shift managers. But by 1955, wage workers - hourly laborers - achieved an income that could purchase good homes and cars, as well as pay for the necessities of food and utilities. These purchases fuel more jobs and more income, as people are hired to build the houses, the cars, and the TVs that are quickly being purchased - along will lots of other goods! Costs remain low, too.  The average house is listed as between $11,700 and $22,000. Rent is only $75 a month.

The car to the left, the 1955 Chevy, starts at $1600 in the basic model - more of course for those new V-8 engines. But gasoline to feed these new 'hill-flatteners' is only 22 cents a gallon. A First class stamp is 3 cents, rent is $75 a month. Prices on radios are dropping fast, no longer the central entertainment provider in the home. But there are so many things today to purchase, and best of all, money to do so! Automatic washers and dryers lead the list by the mid 1950s. The refrigerator has replaced the ice box - and the ice man and the coal truck will both disappear, too. Coal furnaces with boilers are on their way out, replaced by oil and natural gas furnaces.   

There is so much more you could spend your money on. But you still have some left to put in the bank. Not that anyone really does, but their parents, who lived through the Great Depression try to instill that in their kids, the parents of the boomers. 

Television

Television is the newest gadget everyone has to have! Families with their new income are buying the TV! Those new TVs are $150 for one with a 17-inch black and white picture, which is about a half month's work in the early 1950s. Not too many channels to watch though. KVTV signed on in Sioux City March 19, 1953, and KTIV in October the following year. Omaha already had two channels, but that was too far for a normal antenna to pick up.  With only two channels and a limited amount of programming, television managed to rapidly change lots of things. Primarily, how people spent their free time. 

Linda Ellerbee, later a TV newscaster and programming producer, noted in her biography that as a child at the age of 7, her formerly inseparable best friend had suddenly stopped coming outside to play. Ellerbee, worried about her, and after a few days of this, knocked on her door. The friend's mother told her 'they had gotten a TV, and she can't come outside.'  Oh my gosh, the young Ellerbee thought, "TV ate my best friend!"

Ellerbee's friend was not the only person to change their ways. Americans changed their habits to conform to television's schedule. Dining habits were affected when network programming originating on the east coast started at dinner time in the midwest! Swanson Foods, based in Omaha, rose to the challenge. In 1954 they created and introduced the TV dinner in 1954. The cover LOOKED like a TV! And it worked perfectly with the new TV trays that appeared in Sears that year.

Swanson only produced 5000 of turkey dinners in late 1954. By 1955, Swanson sold 25 MILLION.

TV had lots of available broadcast hours, but limited programs. In the early days, networks NBC and CBS produced shows for their affilated stations, but it was slow to start. Most of their programming was for prime time viewing - so we got really used to seeing that test pattern during the day.

But Sioux City stations stepped up, and a number of programs popped up on the black on gray TV screens of the time. To fill the daytime void, local stations made their own shows, creating local programs where they could offer something on the airwaves. These local producers likely had as little experience making TV shows as the people watching had - none at all. This was a completely new medium for most of the people involved. Some came to TV from radio, like Don Stone, who had been so popular on radio he was chosen to fill in on The Breakfast Club when the host took vacation. (This would be the equivalent of taking Johnny Carson's place on the Tonight Show at Carson's zenith. So there was no lack of talent available. (Ironically, Sioux City would provide a launching pad for two that would become nationally famous.)

But like radio when it launched, TV was completely new. There were no ground rules, other than the legal regulations. Radio people understood the requirements of a good talking program - but nothing about the setup beyond the microphones. The use of the cameras, the positioning of lights, the use of a background set in the studio - these were new situations. Yet those shows drew viewers and remain fond memories for many.

Local news and weather became the first shows, certainly meeting a need in our region. Interestingly, more than one local TV weatherman would go on to become a prominent name in the community, and two were elected to local government years after their TV time was over. At least one became mayor of Sioux City. Perhaps their humble beginnings  pointing a stick at a curtain shade to discuss lines drawn on a map gave them insights on talking to people? Or is it possible that people believed the persona they displayed on TV was who they were in 'real' life? In their cases, it was, but, as we would learn soon with politicians and TV, that is not always true.

TV shows for and about kids was the next effort, and if it was low hanging fruit, it would still prove to be very sweet. Kids shows offered an easy format, with a host entertaining a room full of kids with funny banter interspersed with cartoons. It could all happen in the corner of the studio, with no real difficulties day to day. But the memories it would create would last a lifetime for those kids.

TV helped make Bowling a major sport in the US in the 1950s. The fixed location of the action allowed TV stations to venture outside the studio and showcase local people, which was an important. Channel 9 produced many local programs, including  "Big Bowl," and "Saturday Afternoon Dance Party." Both were popular, but it was "Canyon Kid's Corner" that stuck around the longest.  Local kids could come on the show as a group, and many did. We could actually see ourselves on that exciting new media, television!

Even in the rural America, we could see kids just like us on all the shows, because new TV shows were aimed at us. From Howdy Doody to The Mickey Mouse Club, we saw ourselves on those shows. And that never stopped. (Left: Jim Henry, right, interviews cowboy star 'Hoot' Gibson on a Canyon Kid episode.

(Click here for an Canyon Kid retrospective.)

Lots of channels around the country took advantage of the mix of Rock and Roll and dancing, and created TV shows with dancing. Here is Iowa's version on WOI-TV from Des Moines. But of course, Philadelphia did it best, with the Beech Nut Show, which later became American Bandstand.

(Click here for an Iowa Dance show, Seventeen)

As we aged, television matured. We saw newer programs with great actors and incredible themes. We traded the Disney Hardy Boys for Tod and Buz and took to the road in a Corvette. They traveled much further than just old Route 66 - they saw America! Books were aimed at us too, from Kerouac to comics, and everything in between. By the mid 50s, movies started coming around, but it would be another decade before we became their prime audience - but that was coming.

 

Bringing the World Home

Of course, TV also showed us things that didn't seem right - kids at lunch counters being beaten just for sitting there. Mobs milling around a school in Little Rock. What was that about? We might not be certain, but when we saw the crowds yelling at that little girl just walking to school, we were knew which side was wrong.

 

The events of the mid 1950s gave many of us our first experience with the situations faced by people that were not like us. The murder of Emmitt Till proved too graphic for early TV, though networks in the big cities did carry it. But the happenings of Rosa Parks and her refusal to give up her seat to a man on the bus struck us as ridiculous. What man would insist a lady give up her seat? But the following events of the Montgomery Bus Boycott introduced us to the new face of the south, a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr. We would certainly hear more of him.

And while the while the news of Brown vs. The Board of Education was a big news item, it didn't seem all that important to those of us that it did not effect. But it opened the world to those that did not look like we the majority. It would spark the events we would remember, though - the insane television pictures from Little Rock, Arkansas.

What we saw most, though, was Ike was steamed. Later we would learn he had gotten an agreement from Arkansas Gov. Faubus to bring the children into the school, and protect them, so that it would not be necessary for the Federal government to act. If so, it would remain an issue for the state, which is what Ike wanted. But the Governor went back on his word to get the endorsement of an Arkansas crowd. Faubus learned one thing - he might keep his job, but you did not go back on an agreement with President Eisenhower. The 101st Airborne rolled into Little Rock quickly, and in force. Then Ike went on TV to explain why, in no uncertain terms. All of us with fathers knew the tone of that voice and that look. Ike was steamed.

It was the first time troops were sent into the South since Reconstruction, to enforce the Constitution. Ike didn't like it, and didn't want to be the one to do it. But unlike Faubus, Ike would do his job.

(Click here for Little Rock video)

(Click here for a later program but complete with video from the time.)

(Click here for Eisenhower address from the Oval Office)

Sioux City couldn't feel too smug, of course. During the 1940s and 1950s, lots of big band era names played Sioux City, but they could not stay at the Warrior Motor Inn, or any of the downtown hotels. Worse though, as recently as 1951, Sioux City Memorial Park cemetery stopped the funeral of Sgt. Rice rather than allow a Native American to be buried in their all white cemetery. The cemetery had gladly taken the money and signed the papers prior to the event - but when they realized all the mourners were Natives, they voided the contract.

Sgt. John Rice had died fighting for America in Korea. But the freedom he fought for did not include the ability to be buried in his home town.

Reading the story in newspaper, President Truman was outraged. He grabbed a phone, and Sgt. Rice and his wife found themselves transported to D.C. where Sgt. Rice was given full military honors and interred as a hero at Arlington National Cemetery.

But most of us didn't really notice this event. It didn't affect us. And that is the problem - discrimination by its nature removes people from sight. It makes people invisible to those it does not affect.  That makes it difficult to fix, until like Rice, like the Little Rock 9, like Rosa Parks or the lunch counter sit ins, or like the murder of Emmitt Till, their story is finally big enough, outrageous enough, painful enough, to find a place on the national news media. And as we see with most of these stories, we can read about them - but when TV or the newspapers make you see the hate filled looks, or the actual beatings, that finally make their story visible.

The Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling destroyed the legal fiction that separate is equal. It unlocks that door, but social threats of violence dare anyone to walk through that door, to become visible, and to make themselves the target for that hate and violence. Change is hard, and it will require more than being seen.

Eventually, it will require all people - the viewers - to consider how they would feel if they were in the same situation, where their rights were diminished by something beyond their control. Something like the color of their skin. But for that to happen, there will have to be more confrontations that reach the newspaper, or now, the television. This generation, on both sides, will live in that crucible for coming decades. We will see how it impacts the end of the 1950s, and becomes the center of attention for the coming decade.


Experiencing the World via Radio and Movies

Radio was our ticket to another world. Largely abandoned by businesses as our parents migrated to television, radio sparked the beginning of the change of the old order. We heard DJ's tell us of distant lands and far away places, and we heard music that moved us. The lyrics spoke to us, and about us. Things were already changing in America.

(Click here for audio of Alan Freed Dance Party - with Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers as the first song. )

But those DJs, going back to the early 1950s, were making a huge difference. They were playing black rhythm and blues singers, and later soul and doo-wop. (Click here for Doo-Wop's greatest songs.)

But Doo Woop wasn't a thing n the South. It was the wilder songs, and the blues, like Muddy Waters and others, that Southern Citizen's groups did not want heard. (Click here to hear Alan Freed's Moon Dog program.)

When white kids, like Aaron Elvis Presley did Hound Dog, and acted and sounded ... well, black, the White Councils were concerned. But things started to simmer when TV showed Elvis gyrating on TV.

Radio had long been separated, and in the South, they, like the Black citizens, were considered to 'know their place.' They did not try to draw kids to black establishments, and the only blacks in White Establishments were the help.

But Northern white kids didn't know this, any more than those kids in England listening to black Rhythm and Blues records did. They all started emulating the sound, the beat, the emotion, and the dancing. For the first time, the South's Citizen's Councils could not prevent white kids from experiencing what they called 'Race' music, and the first cracks in the wall of Southern segregation appeared. They would strike back, but it would be too late. There was no color barrier on the air -- at least outside the South. And the South could not stop the radio signals coming in. But they could try to force local radio to follow their rules. (See the links below.)

(Click here for Rock and Roll has got to go)

(Click here for the Blow Back to Stop the Rock)

It was radio that stretched the color line. Where a young guy named Robert Zimmerman far to the north tuned in everything from southern country to the crazy sounds of Little Richard. It was the radio and Chuck Berry who taught the Beach Boys how to 'play a guitar like ringing a bell.'  The radio was really 'where it was at, man!'

On radio, you couldn't tell Chuck Berry wasn't white, or that Elvis wasn't black. But we didn't care either way. We heard Ray Charles and Roy Orbison, Little Richard and Buddy Holly, Fats Domino and Pat Boone - and liked them all. The radio gave us Elvis, Buddy, the Beach Boys, and soon, the Beatles. 

(Click here for Elvis on Ed Sullivan for first time - Don't Be Cruel)

(Click here for Chuck Berry on Hollywood A Go Go - Johnny B. Goode)

(Click here for Chuck Berry on Beech Nut Show - School Days)

(Click here for Buddy Holly on Ed Sullivan - Peggy Sue)

(Click here for Buddy Holly on Ed Sullivan - That'll Be the Day)

(Click here for Johnny Cash on Tex Ritter Ranch Party )

(Click here for Johnny Cash impersonating Elvis)

Radio would continue to be our ticket to another world, even as the 1950s ended. Alan Freed was finished by the Payola scandal, Buddy Holly dead in a plane crash, Chuck Berry was in prison, and Elvis was in the Army.

But Rock would prove to be resilient, as we will see next week!

The Sputnik Moment

In the fall of 1957 though, a stranger sound than all of this can be picked up on some radios. It is a distant 'Beep ... beep... beep.' It is coming from outer space, and no one on this side of the world is happy about it. The beep of Sputnik announced the U.S.S.R. to be the first country to place an object into orbit. The U.S.S.R. The Russians. The Commies. Americans... at least American officials are in shock. The first step into space is not made by the 'Leader of the Free world' but by a country thought to be too backward to feed themselves. Worst of all, by Communists. It is a bitter moment for American leaders.

It will become more than bitter though as the true meaning of this moment becomes clear. Many leading American scientists had publically stated they didn't believe anything larger than a bowling ball could be placed into orbit. Yet here it was, not only orbiting, but emitting its own signal to broadcast to the world its grand achievement.

If it could place something into orbit, were cameras far behind? And if orbiting is possible, why stop at cameras? Why not nukes?

The Space race was on.

This technological achievement becomes a pivotal moment for the United States. Changes from this single event will reverberate through the next two decades, and in some ways, much longer.

America, spurred by incident, will commit to a future in space, and that commitment will be felt in many ways:

 - a true race with the U.S.S.R. to be the country that claims the victory in space exploration.

- a willingness to spend the money on research, on development, and on testing to catch up, and surpass the USSR.

- the dedication to improve the educational opportunities to attract and to train students in the mathematics and science programs necessary to continue and expand the race.

- a visible reminder through the years of this dedication in the form of public space launches and the excitement that those continuous efforts bring.

While the US has trouble off the start, and will continue chasing the USSR for more than 5 years on human launches, the infrastructure already in place makes US satellite development lucrative, and desirable. By the dawn of the 1960s, the United States will have deployed important first generation weather satellites and communication satellites. Within a few years, they will have revolutionized the young television industry, allowing near instantaneous communications around the world. The 1964 Olympics will be broadcast live from Japan - an unheard of concept. Telephone communications also leaped forward. Weather satellites are changing our concept of forecasts, with real data to tell us what awaits over the horizon. And spy satellites will quickly make the dangerous U2 flights unnecessary - but not soon enough. Ike's 'Open Skies' offer is replaced by the 'Eye in the Sky' that tracks troop moments - and missile development.

Much is made in America of the tax dollars spent in space. Not a single dollar is spent in space , and the Americans on the ground will be the true benefactors of these improvements. While interest in human space exploration will wane in two decades, the US never pauses on continued development of ever-evolving satellites that will improve American's lives in the United States.

McCarthy Goes... McCarthyism Stays

By the end of the decade, McCarthy would finally be hung by his own words, and censured by the Senate. But McCarthyism will never really be gone. Fear of appearing soft on communism will run American policy for at least 25 more years.

It is the television broadcaster William Murrow who finally starts the process. Murrow pits his prestige on the line, and his See it Now program, using his formidable skills as a journalist to present the case against McCarthy on the air - using only McCarthy's own statements. The public listens and appears to agree if they are open to reason at all. But even now, six years into McCarthy's reign of terror, whose drinking has only made him increasingly sloppy in his use of lies stated as facts, survives the encounter. That he is not taken down by Murrow's well researched list of facts, his point by point assessment of McCarthy statements that are clearly manufactured lies, shows the truth of the situation. People make emotional choices, not ones based on logic. Truth matters less than feelings, it appears, and the program does not turn the tide completely against McCarthy.

It is a sobering moment for many people. How does one combat a demagogue, a liar, a charlatan? Someone that simply states wrong is right and fiction as fact?

Clearly, it is an answer that still eludes us.

But Murrow's use of McCarthy's own words in the program does protect Murrow from most of the blowback that could have hit him, and for years, Murrow is credited with delivering the mortal blow to McCarthy.

That simply is not true. McCarthy continued to be a force. McCarthy real enemy is himself. His greatest failing was his diminished capacity to see the world had changed, now, and he was no longer invulnerable. His alcoholism and his inflated ego, coupled with lazy work habits made him susceptible to manipulation. His staff, consisting of two young men who provided most of the legwork and effort and what little thought that there was, managed to turn McCarthy toward a foe he could never take down: The United States Army. Anyone with any smarts would know that, but McCarthy had always been cunning, but never smart.

Anyone with any intelligence at all would have realized that the sitting President, who was also the most popular man in the United States, and whose standing was never tarnished, who had spent his entire professional life as part of the United States Army, would not find anyone trying to tarnish the reputation of the Army would not be tolerated.

McCarthy never had a chance of winning this. His hubris made him appear exceedingly foolish, and did the most to undercut his standing with the public. But a bigger factor is live coverage, gavel to gavel, of the hearings. This time, it was not the edited news clips of seeing only the moments of McCarthy thundering away at the individuals that had come under his glare. This time, every moment of the hearing was shown. McCarthy's sometimes befuddled looks told Americans watching a different story than the clips had. His sometimes lost look as he thrashed about looking for a thread to seize for a sound bit moment, for a perfect picture for the newspaper began to wear thin quickly.

McCarthy's efforts finally broke his stranglehold on the public, when the opposing council looked at McCarthy and expressed not scorn, but pity for him. It was a moment of embarrassment caught on film, and McCarthy looked more lost than all his former victims had turning their moment in the spotlight.

This weakness later allowed the Senate to censure McCarthy - and much is made of that as a bipartisan effort. That too, is an overstatement. McCarthy still had a strong group of GOP Senators that had his back. But Ike, who saw McCarthy for what he was, a glory hound with no sense and little value, wanted McCarthy gone. Ike in 1957 had more pull with the party than McCarthy.

But there is a further proof of the danger of McCarthy: Murrow, who had been unassailable himself in the newsroom at CBS, found from that moment forward, he too, had been damaged. When the contract with his sponsor came up, they did not renew. And no new long term sponsor was waiting. Paley, the head of CBS who had fought with Murrow at times but never simply ordered him to do anything, became more distant, and less receptive. The News became more under the control of CBS, removing Murrow's defense of the institution as separate from the profit making side of the company.

It was not an instant change, but the slide started when Murrow challenged McCarthy. And there are many that did not miss that fact, either.

But the American public will never stop using the label of 'Communism' as a club to batter  anything they disagree with. Sadly, 55 years later, reports show false stories planted on Facebook by Russian counter intelligence groups were gladly picked up and shared, mostly by people who would label themselves as anti communists.  Those fake news stories  were designed to spread doubt and distrust in the American government, much as the agents in the Warsaw Pact nations used fake news stories and rumors to undercut and destroy those countries. We come full circle to our opening.

That will be especially true when McCarthy's key aid, Roy Cohn, will later befriend and mentor a wealthy New York businessman, who later becomes President of the United States.

A Chance for a Thaw? Khrushchev Visits Iowa

In 1959 the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev finally is invited to visit the United States - by an Iowa farmer, Roswell Garst. Garst had met  Khrushchev after reading a state policy speech by the Premier bragging about the U.S.S.R.'s  increasing corn production. 'Come to Iowa,' if you want to see the right way to do it, states Garst in an open 'letter to the editors' newspaper response. Khrushchev snaps up the offer. It is cleared by the State Department, and Khrushchev is coming for his long awaited chance to visit the U.S.A. But where most heads of State might visit for a day or two - Khrushchev is staying for two weeks! He wants to tour the country - and especially, Disneyland.

Khrushchev maneuvered his way to the Premier position after Stalin’s death. Now he’s trying to win over the world – and the rest of the Politburo back home. It is a balancing act on a high wire, and yet we have no recognition of that tricky situation. We have been preaching the evils of communism for close to a decade now, and finally a real communist shows up to visit. One that acts at time generous and other times boorish. But his sense of drama is perfect for the audience, in person and on the TV. He draws crowds everywhere, even in Coon Rapids, Iowa, where cars line the country roads leading to the Garst farm. And later, Iowa State University in Ames.

Khrushchev takes most things in stride. He loves the massive crowds he draws, and discounts the occasional protester carrying signs. One sign reads, "The only good Communist is a Dead one." It is understandable, he says with a shrug. They've never seen a live one before.

Americans are fascinated by what they see, as Khrushchev is a combination huckster and two-bit dramatic actor. For his part, he rises to the occasion, and is on his best behavior, though he has his moments. He is not put off by the nasty questions from the newsmen, though the lecturing speeches by California mayors that should be welcoming him begins to get on his nerves. But the near breaking point is when he is denied access to Disneyland. Safety concerns, they say. 'You hide state secrets at Disneyland?'

But the meeting with Eisenhower at Camp David goes well, and plans are laid for a summit in Moscow in 1960.

More Changes Ahead

There were more changes as the decade ended. Women moving into the workforce at greater numbers. Women entering college, not for their 'MRS' degree, but for an actual degree. (OK, in the vernacular of the time, perhaps it was 'to have something to fall back on' - usually a teaching certificate - if 'Mister Right' turned out to be 'Mister GONE.'

Women had a long tough road ahead. But change was coming soon.


 

As the 1960s dawned, even the sky would not be the limit. When that young new President stood tall on TV, his words came out as white clouds that hung in the air. As he spoke of the torch passing to a new generation, we knew he was talking to us. It was a stirring moment in history, and TV was there, which meant, we were there, too.

That is the story of the 1960s and beyond - through the new communications devices, we were there.

Of course, TV also showed us things we didn't want to see. And that, too, left an impact.

What Makes the Boomers the Boomers?But we were coming of age. By 1965, as many people were under 30 as over 30! As the earliest Baby Boomers graduated, and we knew we'd make a difference. We would change things.

As soon as we got Vietnam straightened out. We weren't certain why we were going there, but, well, Ike had said there were those dominos, and it was our job, our duty. I mean, they were commies, right? So we had to fight. Good news - we weren't going to be there long. Six months. A year, tops. I mean, we won WWII. Who could stop us?

Join me next Monday night as we move into the 1960s! 

NEXT CHAPTER -- Next week!

PROLOGUE | In the Beginning - 1950s | The Trip - 1960's | Paying the Piper - 1970s |
The Right Turn - 1980s | Denial - 1990s | The Forever War - 2000s | Hope and ? - 2010s | EPILOGUE |


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