Bad history: John McCain as Holden Caulfield

Posted on April 28, 2008. Filed under: American history, Politics | Tags: , , , , |

There are blog carnivals out there where people collect good posts from many different blogs. One of those that I follow is the Carnival of Bad History. I ran across a shocking example of bad history in the New York Times last night.

In “When the Times Make the Man,” the idea is put forward that John McCain is not an elderly and ever-more neocon hardliner but rather a 1950s rebel: “Robert Timberg reports that when Mr. McCain recalls his youth he “describes himself as a rebel without a cause, a James Dean type, though it’s just as easy to imagine him as Holden Caulfield.” And he cultivated the part, “clad in blue jeans, motorcycle boots and his overcoat, and smoking a cigarette that dangled from his lips,” as Paul Alexander writes in his book “Man of the People: The Life of John McCain.”

This is illustrated by a 1956 photo of McCain at his sister’s wedding, smiling ear to ear as he proudly stands at attention in his full-dress Navy uniform.

Now, I can’t make any claims about the accuracy of this take on Sen. McCain. Perhaps he was really a James Dean rebel–in the Navy.  Perhaps you, unlike me, feel it is “easy” to picture McCain as Holden Caulfield. But I can doubt that accuracy based on the terrible history in the rest of the article.

The author claims that people born in the 1930s, and thus in their teens and 20s in the 1950s, experienced none of the “tumult” that people who were the same age in the 1960s experienced: “They typically came of age in the 1950s, when consensus reigned, and with it conformism. Young Americans were collectively disengaged from politics and distrustful of ideology. They were the “silent generation,” content to be guided by their elders: Eisenhower, the avuncular white-haired president who had been the hero of World War II, and the Wise Men who formulated the strategies of the cold war.  In this climate the young were more likely to serve than to lead. The Korean War, which raged from 1950 to 1953, claimed nearly as many American casualties as Vietnam, and yet, despite the universal draft, there was scarcely a protest from those waiting to be called. At home, civil rights was emerging as a great cause, but it did not attract many young activists until the 1960s.”

Why Americans put up with this common type of bad history–that the 1950s were a happy, quiet, conformity time–is beyond me. It is hard to think of a decade more gripped by terror than the 1950s. WWII was over, but danger was everywhere–China had been overtaken by Communists, “forcing” the U.S. to go to war in Korea, and Vietnam was also being prepped as an arena for war. And Europe itself was not safe, with half of it in the grips of the Soviet Union.  Would we have to go back to war against the USSR? Would it be atomic war?

Everywhere Americans looked, the spectre of atomic war loomed large. The government seemed resigned to its likelihood, and made scores of informational films to help people deal with the prospect.

On top of this, there was conflict with millions of American women, who were being forced out of their factory jobs to give the places back to men. Even women who had been working before WWII started were forced out. These women did not disappear back into happy domesticity. They seethed just under and above the surface, and were eventually described so well by Betty Friedan.

On top of this, the civil rights movement’s successful challenge to school segregation set off terrifying and disgusting violence that Americans watched on their TVs. Race war seemed as likely as atomic war.

So this was not a decade of mindless conformity and contentment. Americans were scared out of their minds by Communists, atomic war, the fundamental upheaval of desegregation, and Soviet domination. There’s a reason why the military-industrial complex was founded in the 1950s. People clung to the popular propaganda of contented bland conformity in an attempt to calm their fears of apocalypse. But the reality was that their whole way of life seemed up for grabs.

Now, the author posits that the 1950s were quiet rest time for America. But then he inevitably contradicts himself: “Mr. McCain seems to combine the two strains of the decade in which he grew up; he is skeptical toward the very expectations he stoically fulfills.”

How can skepticsm toward conservative social goals be the hallmark of a decade completely engulfed by unthinking conformity? The author also states that “he approached his Vietnam service much as 1950s men approached the Korean War, less with a sense of patriotism than of fatalism — the same fatalism that young people felt back then when many thought the cold war might end in apocalypse but quietly went about their lives.”

I am afraid you simply cannot mention fear of atomic apocalypse in the 1950s if you have already set out a thesis stating that the 1950s were a time of quiet conservatism where people followed their political leaders calmly as sheep. You also cannot say both that young men went to Korea without protest and that they were fatalistic about going to Korea, not when you have posited that the lack of protest came from total acceptance of the government’s orders.

This is all bad history. The 1960s happened because of the 1950s, not in spite of the 1950s. It was the fear that kids in the 1950s grew up with that led them to abandon the society that fueled that fear. They felt they could no longer deal with the fear, and that, unlike their parents, they would not try to live normal lives in the presence of that fear. 

Pushing this kind of bad history only damages America, by telling us that a chunk of our historical experience simply didn’t happen. To call the 1950s a happy, contented, conformist time is to deny the horrific responsibility we must take for creating and using and threatening to use atomic weapons, to deny the real anguish of black Americans, and the real response of white Americans (for good and for ill) to that segregated reality. It is to say that women were happy at home as housewives, that children took to “duck and cover” films with unruffled aplomb, and that we are not still dealing with the consequences of creating a military-industrial complex that is increasingly subbing in for democratic government in the United States today.

It was Eisenhower, the “avuncular white-haired president” who led the young of the 1950s to the brainwashers, according to this article, who named the military-industrial complex, fought its power, and warned Americans in his last address against it. He knew what the 1950s were; why don’t we?

 

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