A Clean Break With The Past

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Beginning with the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, the Korean war was a time of nightmare. There was a kind of déjá vu about finding ourselves again embroiled in a war when we had just settled down to peace, and for thousands of veterans of the Second World War who had signed up for the reserves without thinking twice about it (I remember, for example, that when I was separated from the Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in 1945, they encouraged reserve enlistment by’letting you out one day sooner if you signed up), it meant an actual return to combat. It was a new kind of war—not even officially called a war, but rather a “police action”—as frustrating as an unpleasant dream, that we could not win and apparently were not supposed to win. (We would learn more about that kind of war later.) The rumors we heard, later confirmed, that American prisoners were being subjected to a new and horrifying form of mental torture called brainwashing were literally the stuff of nightmare. So was the vision of an endless mass of humanity, bent on killing and seemingly unconcerned about being killed, that was embodied in the phrase “human wave,” used to describe the Chinese Communist hordes that streamed south across the Yalu River in November, 1950. Finally, during the two years that the armistice talks dragged on at Panmunjom while the shooting continued, there was the nightmare sense of trying to wake up to a pleasanter reality and being unable to do so.

Shaken but relieved, the country finally awoke with the signing of the armistice on July 27, 1953—but awoke merely, as sometimes happens, from one level of nightmare to another. The time of the paid informer and the false witness had already come. As early as 1948 Whittaker Chambers had first made his charges of Communist spying against Alger Hiss, the apparently exemplary young statesman who had been a framer of the United Nations charter, and the Dreyfus case of modern America was launched. In 1949 eleven leaders of the U.S. Communist Party had been sent to prison; the following year Judith Coplon and Dr. Klaus Fuchs had been convicted of spying, the latter with reference to vital atomic secrets, and the young Senator Joseph McCarthy, seeing his chance, had made his famous series of accusations that there were 205 (or 57 or 8l or 10 or 116) Communists in the State Department. With that, the hounds of fear and distrust slipped their leashes, and by the time of the Korean armistice Senator McCarthy had made the nightmarishly irrational term “Fifth Amendment Communist” into a household expression; hardly any professional in the country could feel his job or his way of life safe from the random malice of almost anyone, and constitutional guarantees against just this sort of mischief were becoming all but meaningless.

“… the word existentialism was coming into the American language’

That nightmare almost drove us crazy—perhaps came closer than we care to admit, even now. But finally our underlying national health asserted itself, and we awoke at last, this time definitively, in December, 1954, when the Senate censured McCarthy and McCarthyism went into decline. Small wonder, after such horrors, that the next mood should have been a recessive one, one of huddling in our shells and comforting ourselves with material things while remaining heedless of the mess we were making. The essence of the Eisenhower mood was long-deferred self-indulgence. It was a time of soaring stockmarket prices and soaring participation in the boodle. The members of the middle class, the hugely expanding group that dominated the country, were becoming capitalists at last and were doing very well at it. It was a time of rocketing corporate profits and resulting fat dividends—at the cost of inflation and polluted air and water. It was a time of greatly increased leisure for millions—at the cost of littered roadsides and tamed and uglified national parks and forests. It was a time of more and more automobiles for more and more people—at the cost of traffic jams, more air pollution, eyesore automobile graveyards, and neglected public transportation. It was a time of bursting cities and proliferating suburbs—at the cost of increasingly neglected slums full of explosive anger quietly ticking away. It was a time when we thought of our “race problem” as being mainly a political matter confined to the South; when, in foreign policy, we fatalistically hid behind the dangerously provocative shield of “massive retaliation” and “brinkmanship” (and meanwhile were sowing the seeds of our Asian disaster); when college students kept a low profile, politically and otherwise, so as not to jeopardize their chances of flowing smoothly onto the production line to affluence right after graduation; and when—not so paradoxically as it may seem at first glance—the federal budget grew year by year and social security and other public benefits were greatly widened. The Eisenhower era is not to be compared too closely to that of Coolidge in terms of free enterprise’s running wild. In the earlier time the country had been all too truly committed to unrestricted free enterprise, but by the late fifties, despite Fourth of July paeans to the “American system” as fulsome as ever, the notion of cradle-to-grave security for most people had been thoroughly accepted and, indeed, assimilated into the system. The mood was heedless hedonism.