- Historic Sites
America looked good to a high school senior then, and that year looks wonderfully safe to us now, but it was a time of tumult for all that, and there were plenty of shadows along with the sunshine
December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
Both McCarthy and Dr. Jonas Salk, the University of Pittsburgh researcher who led the team that developed a polio vaccine, are featured in the February 22 issue of Life . The senator from Wisconsin was touring the country repeating a speech called “Twenty Years of Treason” attacking Truman and even the U.S. Army for not court-martialing a dentist who was a member of the left-wing American Labor party. “Who promoted Peress?” became one of America’s oddest political slogans. In San Mateo, California, that week six thousand people paid $1.50 each to hear McCarthy attack the “idiocy” of Truman and the “deceit” of Acheson. In Washington the U.S. Senate voted 85 to 1 to give McCarthy $215,000 to hold public hearings on such alleged Army treachery. At the same time, the United States Information Service ordered that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden be removed from its libraries in U.S. embassies around the world because it was, said USIS, “downright socialistic.”
Of Dr. Salk, who was in charge of the testing of the polio vaccine on more than five hundred thousand schoolchildren that spring, Life said: “It is a dramatic story—one of the great medical detective stories of all time. It involves thousands of scientists, notably ... Dr. Salk and Dr. John Enders of Harvard. ...” Dramatic, indeed, the vaccine ended year after fearful year when thirty to forty thousand Americans, mostly children, contracted poliomyelitis during summer epidemics. Some died, some ended up in iron lungs, some were crippled for life. There had been a lot of Americans with withered “polio legs,” including Franklin D. Roosevelt. Now that fear was ending.
Headlines in that issue of Life and a half-dozen others through the year include these: DECISION APPROACHES FOR HAWAII (islanders had signed a petition to become the fiftieth state); KIDS THRIVE ON COMPETITION IN LITTLE LEAGUE BASEBALL; CATHOLIC REFUGEES FLEE REDHELD VIETNAM; and STOCK MARKET ZOOMS PAST A HISTORIC PEAK (382, topping, after twenty-five years, the Dow Jones industrial average before the crash of 1929). Times were good for most everybody, with per capita income rising almost 5 percent a year. People were building and buying—houses, cars, air conditioners, televisions, and a new product that year, frozen TV dinners, so it was easier to eat while you watched.
For those who still read, the best-seller lists were dominated by religious books. The Bible, as usual, was number one on the year’s nonfiction list. Number two was the The Power of Positive Thinking by the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, and number seven was The Prayers of Peter Marshall .
Back at Life , which had a circulation of nearly 5.5 million, the October 11 issue decried violence over the admission of 11 Negroes to the schools of a town of 5,179 people —Milford, Delaware. The editors proclaimed that such demonstrators were just aiding Communist propaganda “in 1954, a year when the Supreme Court, including three Southern justices, has unanimously decreed an end to segregated schools . . . when the U.S. saw its third consecutive year without a lynching and when three of the most popular stars of the World Series-winning Giants were Negroes (Willie Mays, Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson).”
It was on May 17, 1954, that the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education . “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” read Chief Justice Earl Warren in the case of the daughter of a black minister denied admission to a fourth-grade class near her home in Topeka, Kansas, because of her race. “We hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated . . . are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The people running the country, it is true, had been dealing with segregation. Slowly, very slowly. President Truman began and President Eisenhower continued the desegregation of the military, though both of them would be (and sometimes are) called racists by current standards. Earl Warren, in fact, said Ike was barely polite to him whenever they saw each other after that day in May.
The attitude of elites in the country is preserved today in old copies of popular magazines. More than anything, race was seen as a foreign affairs problem, making the good old U.S.A. look bad around the world in our struggle against Godless communism. The issue of The Saturday Evening Post on the newsstands the month before the Brown decision contained an article on segregation in Washington, D.C., by Walter White, the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, introduced this way: “The author, a distinguished Negro spokesman, senses a changing—and heartening—attitude toward racial discrimination in our capital. But, he says, indignities are still forced on dark-skinned foreigners and Americans there—and that’s the story Moscow loves to exploit.”