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June 2024
14min read

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

It was a very good year. Certainly it was if you were seventeen. I was a senior in high school in 1954, a member of the class of January 1955, at Lincoln High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. They told us these were the best years of our lives, so we had better enjoy them. We all laughed at that, of course, but as I look back, they may have been right, particularly in September of 1954, when the first Thunderbird and the totally new 1955 Chevy V-8 lit up our limited horizons.

More important things happened then—the H-bomb, the Salk polio vaccine, and the rise and fall of Joe McCarthy among them—but I doubt that there is a male my age in the country who does not remember the first time he saw the T-bird or the amazing new Chevrolet and looked under the hood and at that new overhead-valve 162-horsepower V-8. I could give it historical significance by pointing out that putting a big engine in a small car meant that for the first time the poor (or at least the middle class) could drive as fast as the rich. I know I’m not alone on all this. Who do you think are the men buying those “classic” Bel Airs today for upward of thirty thousand dollars?


Back under the hood forty years ago—and here’s the point—a guy could understand everything in there. The fan belt and the generator, the plugs and the points, the needle valve on the carburetor. It was not that anyone I knew could afford a car, especially a new car—the Chevies started at $1,593—or needed one, really. Only one of my classmates, Donny Sherman, had a car, an old Dodge, I think, because his father, who ran a hardware store, got sick and Donny had to make deliveries or something. What we knew about was Pep Boys on Bergen Avenue. We could walk through the store and build a complete car in our heads.

Our riches seemed the natural order of things, the will of the Almighty. But in fact, we were scared all the time.

In 1954 we knew how everything worked—or thought we did. A typewriter, for instance. Now open up the hood of a computer and tell me how it works.

That, of course, can be interpreted, and usually is, to mean it was a simpler time. But I am not at all sure it was. In retrospect the past always seems simpler because we or somebody survived to tell the tale. History is the way we clean up the mess we made. Ah, yes, America was number one then. With only 6 percent of the world’s population, we had 60 percent of all the automobiles on the planet, 54 percent of the telephones, 45 percent of the radios. And twentynine million American homes already had television sets.


Just in case anyone doubted where we stood, President Eisenhower modified the Pledge of Allegiance, adding two words, under God . But partly because of our Calvinist background, we did not think about that at all; our riches were considered the natural order of things, the will of the Almighty. That’s the way it seemed and is usually written. But in fact, we were scared all the time. We were scaring ourselves to death in those days.

Scared of what? Of the Bomb. Of the Reds. The United States exploded its second hydrogen bomb in March of 1954. It was small enough to be used, big enough to vaporize Pittsburgh. (The first one, exploded in secrecy in November of 1952, weighed more than ten tons, and the Soviet Union had exploded one too big to be delivered, late in 1953.) Life magazine, which was still the national mirror —portable television before we realized that television was not a new mass medium but a new environment, more like weather than communication—tried to cheer us up with a photograph of President Eisenhower, grinning, leading his staff to the bomb shelter under the White House. Beacon Wax celebrated the explosion by running a newspaper advertisement saying: “The bomb’s brilliant gleam reminds me of the brilliant gleam Beacon Wax gives to floors. It’s a scientific marvel!”

The fact that the Russians seemed so close behind us was as surprising as it was terrifying to believers in our God-given number-oneness. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and more than a few others made a career out of that confused fear by saying that the only way the Russian communists could have gotten the Bomb, or running water for that matter, was that traitors had given them our secrets. His list of the dirty spies began with former President Truman and his Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, and sometimes, when he had a drink too many, he hinted maybe Eisenhower was in on it too. And we believed him. At least we did in my house.

We tried to get away from all that by turning to our new televisions, usually to “I Love Lucy,” “The Jackie Gleason Show,” and “Dragnet” or to radio programs almost every night featuring Arthur Godfrey, a redheaded radio “personality.” The thought had not yet occurred that television might be more powerful (or dangerous) than communism, but people already knew that technological explosions of all kinds were changing their lives every day in ways obvious and not so obvious; that’s why they were afraid. It was, in fact, a time of extraordinary, even exponential change, complete with new language — suburban, superhighways, shopping centers, automation, civil rights, blockbusting, rock ’n’ roll, hi-fi, tranquilizers, transistors .

America and the world, it seemed, might be getting harder to understand than a Chevy. White gloves were still required for ladies, and there were pages of girdle advertising in the most popular magazines, Life and The Saturday Evening Post . But there were more ads for liberating technology, particularly air conditioning, which was like the Oregon Trail and the railroads, opening up whole new areas for development, beginning with cities like Houston and Phoenix, which had less than half the population of my Jersey City. Among the pharmaceuticals introduced that year were Miltown and Thorazine. In Worcester, Massachusetts, three foundation researchers announced they had developed an experimental oral contraceptive, a “birth-control pill.” Doctors at Harvard transplanted a kidney from one human being to another. In Dallas, Texas Instruments announced it had developed a “silicon transistor.” Bell Laboratories in New Jersey developed “solar power"—and was one of twenty purchasers of thinking-machines called computers. Boeing in Seattle rolled out a prototype plane it designated 707, a jet designed to carry commercial passengers. Eastman Kodak in upstate New York began selling faster film, meaning it needed less light for clear pictures, and called it Tri-X. And Trix was the name given a new General Mills cereal that tested out at 46.6 percent sugar. A milk-shake machine salesman named Ray Kroc secured the franchise rights to the recipes and name of one of his accounts, a hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California, owned by two brothers named McDonald.


We also looked different from the way we do now. I picked up the February 22 issue of Life magazine—twenty cents then—and on the first page there was an advertisement for Vitalis hair tonic, featuring Godfrey pitching the wonders of “greaseless” V-7, a secret ingredient guaranteed to make “Mr. G’s tousled cowlicks stay put.” Hair was flat, some of it greasy. Hand-held hair dryers had not appeared yet, and Americans still believed Bristol-Myers had secret and magic ingredients.

Flipping through the magazine, I learned (or was reminded) that the persons deemed worthy of pitching products then included: Bing Crosby (GE televisions), Art Linkletter (Surf detergent and Lux soap flakes), Fredric March (L&M cigarettes), Deborah Kerr (Chesterfields), Rita Hayworth (Brach’s toffee), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Smirnoff vodka), and Godfrey again, pitching for Kleenex this time.

One of the most revealing advertisements to run that year, I thought, was a two-pager from the Bell Telephone System titled “Up from the Ranks.” It featured photographs of nineteen middle-aged or old white men, the presidents of Bell’s parent and regional companies and laboratories. The men had been at Bell for an average of thirty-four years each; only two were college graduates, and the rest had worked their way from being office boys, linemen, and clerks. The president of AT&T, Cleo F. Craig, had begun as a fifteen-dollar-a-week “Equipment Man” in St. Louis.

Down the ranks, though, America had already been changed in the nine years since the end of World War II. Women were working; one in three had a job outside the home, compared with one in five in 1940. Reaction to that particular change may have had something to do with the fact that during 1954 a women’s magazine, McCall’s , created a value called Togetherness, the idea being that women should be there when and wherever their men wanted them. And education had been democratized by the GI Bill of Rights: 1,659,249 million men entered colleges and universities beginning in 1947, and they were marrying the women they met there. New American marriages were determined by ambition, not by geography. The girl next door was likely as not to marry a boy from another part of the country and of another religion who happened to be in the dorm next door.

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.”

Then the Post added its thoughts on the white man’s burden: “During the past few years the Post has published a number of articles, expressing various viewpoints, on Negro problems. As a variant, we believe it is illuminating to take a look at the question occasionally through the eyes of a well-known leader of that race.”

It was, in fact, the NAACP that carried the Brown case to the Supreme Court, Northern black attorneys acting for their disenfranchised brothers and sisters in the Old South. The case and the decision were aimed at the segregated school systems in seventeen Southern and border states. But soon enough it would change the lives not only of the 16 million black Americans but also of the nearly 150 million whites in the United States in every classroom, every community, and every state. The trouble in Milford was among the tiniest of incidents, North and South, in the ongoing American attempt to remake the United States and to give new meaning to a history that contradicted itself from the day in 1619 when the first black slaves were brought from Africa to North America.

The Brown decision would change the lives not only of the 16 million black Americans but also of the 150 million white.

Life, it turned out, was not as simple as Life .

Not far north of the Polo Grounds, in the Bronx, where Willie Mays, the son of a black steel-mill worker in Westfield, Alabama, had hit .345 that year before starring in the World Series, New York State opened a toll road, the New York Thruway, which was to cross the state for 559 miles all the way to Buffalo on Lake Erie. That was something, all right, but in July President Eisenhower announced a road project that was practically revolutionary: a fifteenyear, $26-billion, 42,000-mile interstate highway system! That does not seem so extraordinary now, but it was an idea resisted for almost two hundred years. In 1831, on a bumpy and muddy road north from North Carolina to Norfolk, Virginia, Alexis de Tocqueville shared a stagecoach with a former congressman from South Carolina, Joel Roberts Poinsett. Tell me, said the young Frenchman, who was collecting notes for the book he would call Democracy in America , why are the roads so bad in the United States? “


It’s a great constitutional question whether Congress has the right to make anything but military roads,” Poinsett answered, and states and counties often had no incentive to maintain good roads to other states, other towns.

Not a great deal happened to change that until 1954. Even then the pitch was not that they were obviously essential to the growth of interstate commerce in the richest country in the world—nor I am sure did Ike share my seventeen-year-old’s romanticism about the 1955 Chevy. He probably did not understand, either, that the interstates would speed the creation of a new American landscape, a suburban country. The President the nation saw as a nice guy but not much of a politician, when exactly the opposite would have been closer to reality, did sell interstate transportation as a military necessity, by saying, “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” He called it the National Defense Highway Act, the idea being that the roads were necessary to move troops and tanks around if the Reds invaded Long Island or Long Beach.

That’s the way it was done in those days. The United States was not yet a welfare state—or, as we now say, there were few “middle-class entitlements"—and defense spending accounted for more than half of the $67.6 billion federal budget. I was in on it myself, getting National Defense Education loans for college. The Cold War was an intellectual construct, a window or prism through which we looked at the world—and that made Senator McCarthy’s absurd charges of treason seem almost rational. It was not just that the Russians were coming. So, it seemed, were the Chinese, the Indians, even the Guatemalans. HOW RED IS INDIA ? asked a headline in The Saturday Evening Post in April; “too Red” was the predictable answer. “A Guatemalan Revolution That Everybody Expected,” reported Life of an American-backed coup to overthrow the country’s elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who had made the big mistake of refusing to pay the United Fruit Company the fifteen million dollars the company wanted for 174,000 acres of banana plantations expropriated by his new government. Perhaps no one had told the Guatemalan that the New York lawyer who had negotiated the United Fruit leases was now Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.

The defense spending was based on the assumption that communism, whether in Moscow, Peking, or Guatemala City, was monolithic and determined to take over the world bit by bit. The theory was articulated by the columnist Joseph Alsop early in 1954 in the Washington Post : “You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last is that it will go over very quickly.” The last domino was the United States of America.

That year we sent 105 U.S. Air Force technicians to South Vietnam to service World War II-surplus B-26 bombers.

So when the French were defeated on May 7 by a Vietnamese army at a place called Dien Bien Phu and withdrew from North Vietnam after a Geneva conference that separated Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel, the United States took over the job of stopping the Reds in Southeast Asia, installing Ngo Dinh Diem as president of the Republic or South Vietnam. We sent 105 U.S. Air Force technicians there to service World War II-surplus B-26 bombers. At home that same month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7 to 2 that the government had the right to deport former members of the Communist party.


Two of the forces moving 1954, television and Joe McCarthy, converged toward the end of the year. Only a couple of months after the Senate had almost unanimously voted to finance McCarthy’s investigations of Communists in government in February, Edward R. Murrow, the most respected of the new television newsmen, devoted three unfriendly hours of his CBS documentary series See It Now to the senator and his tactics. There was little comment from Murrow, but the exposure showed a sorry string of contradictions and lies from a zealot without scruples. Then, from April 22 to June 17, McCarthy’s investigations subcommittee conducted the Army hearings—187 hours, most of them on television. The senator thought that exposure would take him to new levels of fame and power, but it destroyed him. There was no place to hide from the hot lights, and he was revealed—a liar, a nasty, dirty man. With public opinion turned around, on December 2, 1954, the same senators who had funded him ten months earlier voted 67 to 22 to “condemn” Joseph McCarthy.

At the end of that month, the seniors at Lincoln High got their yearbooks. The theme of The Quill was “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” The class will by Jeannette Allen—"Quo Vadis”—showed that most of us expected to be teachers, nurses, or housewives, soldiers, clerks, or mechanics. We said that the quarterback of the football team, Jimmy McMahon, would go far, but it was his son of the same name who got to the Super Bowl in 1986 with the Chicago Bears. The class essay was written by Frank Finnerty, the son of a policeman, my best friend at Lincoln. His voice was pure:

“In the past few decades our storehouse of technical knowledge has increased by leaps and bounds and shows every sign of its continuance on an ever-increasing scale. . . . Our country is known as the stronghold of democracy, free enterprise and equal opportunity for all; however, on the debit side of the ledger, corruption and graft in politics disgust the conscientious citizen.” (We were from Jersey City, after all.) “Dark-age discrimination against certain religious and racial factions persists because of an unreasoning, blind hatred passed down from father to son. This dislike is continued on a bigger scale in the form of international jealousies which, along with fears stemming from old wounds still smartins from orevious world conflicts, cause dissension in the ranks of the world community and impede progress toward the ultimate elusive goal of total global peace. . . .

“As mankind’s mass mind matures with the passage of time, the petty prejudices of the preceding generations will vanish, and thus unshackled from the shortcomings of ‘human’ nature, man’s inventive genius will forge a better world for posterity. If this statement is not true, men have an excellent chance of vaporizing themselves in a cloud of radioactive dust.”

So it seemed in 1954 when we began. Frank Finnerty went on to Princeton, graduated as an engineer, and then designed warplanes for Grumman Aircraft on Long Island.


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