To many, the 1950s recall an idyllic era when everyone conformed and everyone lived simply and happily. Beneath this conformity, people were stirring and new ideas were simmering; some would not explode until the 1960s.
Television became a powerful medium. Commercials sold everything from chewing gum to presidents. The increased purchase of television sets was indicative of mid-century society's materialistic mood. Beatniks turned against that materialism, did drugs and advocated sexual freedom, a lifestyle that would find wider acceptance in the 1960s and 1970s. This was the decade when rock 'n' roll began in earnest.
Congress was preoccupied with the Cold War and the Red Scare. Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy began his crusade to rid the United States of Communism. This decade saw the growth of the Women's Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, though injustices lasted into future decades.
Already famous for his radio career in the 1940s, Murrow led news into television as well. As CBS News Vice President and Director of Public Affairs, Murrow remained uncomfortable as an executive and returned to reporting in 1951. Although he was wary of television, he made the transition with See It Now the first television newsmagazine. Murrow also interviewed celebrities in their homes for the popular Person to Person. This show surprised some people who preferred the more serious Murrow. The serious Murrow took on the Red Scare and McCarthy in 1954.
Covered the Korean War, despite discrimination that almost kept her out of Korea because "war was no place for a woman." She refused to return to Japan despite the Army's orders and won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1951. In 1953, while covering the French military defeat in Vietnam, Higgins received wounds from the land mine that killed the photojournalist, Robert Capa.
Swayze's show Camel News Caravan was one of the first national news shows on television. Because of the need for visuals, the show often relyed on newsreel-type footage produced by the movie industry. Camel also insisted on having an ashtray with a visible, lit Camel cigarette on camera during every show.
Although he once turned down the opportunity to be a Murrow boy, Cronkite was named a CBS anchor for the 1952 Democratic and Republican conventions. This new job popularized the term "anchor," or, in those days, "anchor man." Cronkite's popularity grew after the 1950s and CBS started the first half-hour show with Cronkite as the anchor.
Huntley was the older, more serious component of the popular Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC. Huntley broadcast from New York, while co-anchor David Brinkley was in Washington D.C. The pair became known for their famous sign-off: "Good night, David," "Good night, Chet." The Huntley-Brinkley Report would continue on the air until 1970.
As half of the successful news team of the Huntley-Brinkley Report, Brinkley, a young southerner, took to television easily. Brinkley's wry wit ushered in the role of the anchor as a national celebrity. The two first paired up at the 1956 political conventions. The relationship between Brinkley and Huntley was, ironically, never close. They lived and worked in different cities. Following Huntley's retirement in 1970, Brinkley became unhappy with reporting the news from New York. He moved to ABC -- and back to Washington -- for a new show, This Week With David Brinkley.
Wallace began his career as an announcer and game show host before he became a journalist. Wallace started on the radio for CBS and returned to CBS television during the Vietnam War. Wallace is best known for his investigative journalism and interviewing skills. In the 1950s, he interviewed the young Hugh Heffner about the role of Playboy in society. He went on to the popular Sunday news program 60 Minutes. Born in 1918, he continued his career into the next century as the oldest working journalist on television.
Frustrated by the rejection she received from magazines that would not print her articles about women who did not conform to the 1950s housewifely ideal, Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, the book marks a milestone in the women's rights movement. She also addressed the absence of women journalists in television in the 1950s.
I.F. Stone was a radically liberal journalist in the 1950s when there were not many leftists in any field. As a leftist, he started his own newspaper, The Progress, when he was 14 and worked for several papers, always leaving for one reason or another. He wrote The Hidden History of the Korean War and criticized the government openly in the 1950s. In 1952, Stone started his own paper; I.F. Stone's Weekly, a liberal paper he used to espouse his views. He escaped accusations of Communism because he had visited the Soviet Union and returned with strong negative views. His anti-Soviet stance left him without allies on the far left and made him a target for the right wing. He became popular during the 1960s and 1970s for his anti-war sentiment. He was ahead of his time in the 1950s.
A converted newspaper columnist, Sullivan's on-air mannerisms were more often the subject of ridicule than reverence. But his ability to spot talent and cater to the tastes of younger Americans made his Sunday night variety show a TV staple, and provided the nation with a slew of historical moments in popular culture.
Wisconsin juniour Senator Joseph McCarthy accused everyone from officials in the State Department to the United States Army of being Communist sympathizers. These claims, without validation, earned him press coverage, often biased in his favor. He knew how the press worked and timed his charges to reporters who, in many cases, did not have enough time to get a response from the accused before the accusations ran in the press.
As McCarthy's accusations became more strident, Murrow and his show See It Now decided to expose McCarthy. The show and the televised Army hearings, in which the senator was pitted against attorney Joseph Welch, led to the unraveling of his career and an end to what was called McCarthyism.
The Cold War turne hot in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea at the 38th Parallel. President Harry Truman acted quickly and gave command to General Douglas MacArthur who was stationed in Japan. U.S. troops were able to push back the Communist North Koreans, but Truman feared Chinese involvement in the war if the U.S. went too far.The Chinese eventually joined the war and pushed the U.S. troops back to the 38th Parallel.
MacArthur's call for more aggressive tactics and open criticism of civilian strategy in Korea led to a rift between himself and Truman, eventually leading to MacArthur's dismissal. MacArthur received a heroic welcome in the U.S. Truman's popularity dropped and he did not run for re-election. When Republican Gen. Dwight Eisenhower won the 1952 election, he pushed for an armistice in Korea.
Cold war tensions would continue to simmer following the Soviet Union's crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. At the end of the decade, Communist Leader Fidel Castro would consolidate power in Cuba on January 1, 1959, and relations between the Cold War protagonmists would continue to deteriorate.
Defeating Democrat Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower became the first Republican in the White House after five terms of Democrats. His campaign was proof that a candidate needed to be able to work with the broadcast media to get elected. Eisenhower's controversial Vice Presidential candidate Richard Nixon saved himself with the famous Checkers speech on national television and Eisenhower took the advertising advice that fellow Republican Tom Dewey ignored.
Eisenhower did commercials on television, and also experimented with the use of public relations during his presidency, especially during the Guatemala incident. Eisenhower and Nixon won another term in 1956.
The Beat Generation signified everything the 1950s culture did not. Beatniks looked on the materialism of the 1950s and turned against it. Beat cultures centered around Greenwich Village and San Francisco. The Beat Generation did drugs, advocated sexual freedom and wrote about it in some detail. Major figures of the counterculture group include Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg's Howl, published in 1956, and Kerouac's On the Road, published in 1957, characterized the movement. The media reacted negatively toward the Beat generation and society feared its continuation by college students.
The majority of Americans accepted 1950s uniformity and prosperity and this acceptance was no more obvious than in sex roles in the 1950s. Media portrayed women as the perfect housewives in television shows and teen magazines. Marriage was a woman's main goal in life. There was no birth control marketed. Sex outside of marriage was illegal in many states. Women went to college to find a husband and only "bad" women were interested in sex.
Alfred C. Kinsey was collecting data for his Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Female at this time and found information contrary to what the media depicted. Although his 1948 report on males was generally accepted, when the female volume came out in 1953, the public reacted harshly and negatively. Kinsey had to defend himself against his critics who said he used a biased sample of women. Meanwhile, society allowed media to push the boundaries on sex with Heffner's first Playboy.
Conservative Americans' fears about sex found audio form in the rock 'n' roll craze. American teens took their portable radios and record players of their parent-controlled living rooms and into their own spaces and began choosing a new kind of music. Radio changed to accommodate a television-dominated entertainment world by playing music, the "Top 40, news, weather and sports"format. Rock 'n' roll originally called race music took off when white teenagers began buying black musicians' records. Elvis Presely became one of the first white males to popularize race music. He soon epitomized rock 'n' roll for teenagers and sex 'n' danger for their parents.
White society was not only confronted with an African-American presence in music, but also with the grim reality of racism in schools and public services. In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas set off a series of battles between determined blacks and stubborn whites.
The murder of Emmett Till showed the nation the brutality of racism, no longer easy to ignore with pictures in the African-American press and national television coverage. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to prominence with his non-violent tactics.
The media's role in the 1950s Civil Rights movement spawned a hatred for the Northern press in the South, especially during coverage of the forced integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
Vice Presidential Candidate Richard Nixon delivers the famous Checkers speech on television. Nixon addresses the nation detailing the use of his funds, denying any wrongdoing and appealing to the audience's hearts by claiming the only gift that he was keeping was the family dog, Checkers.
Newspaper employees strike in New York City over wages. After these strikes many papers have a hard time regaining subscribers and suffer due to competition with television.
Edward Murrow's See It Now broadcast exposes McCarthy's accusations, which contributes to his downfall. The Murrow's confrontation of McCarthy is considered one of many high points in Murrow's career, but would help sour his relationship with CBS management.
Supreme Court rules segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. The unanimous decision declared that "separate is inherently unequal." But in Little Rock, Ark., it takes federal troops to force integration of the high schools.
Two white men brutally beat and kill Till, a black Chicago teenager visiting Mississippi, after the boy allegedly flirts with a white woman. Till's mother chooses to leave her son's casket open and Jet magazine publishes a photo of Till's battered body on its cover. Northern press covers the funeral and the resulting trial. The two men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, are acquitted and later sell the story of killing the boy to Look magazine. The pair cannot be tried again because of double jeopardy.
Dwight Eisenhower orders the Arkansas National Guard and the 101st Airborne Division to protect nine black students attempting to enter Little Rock Central High School. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus (pictured) had previously used the Arkansas National Guard and local police to prevent the students from attending school.
The Russians launch the first satellite in space. Sputnik means the United States is losing the Space Race and makes Americans worry that their enemies have gained the advantage, especially in math and science. The familiar "beep-beep," which the satellite emitted, was a constant reminder that could be heard on the radio 24-hours-a-day. Explorer 1, the first Earth satellite from the United States, would not enter orbit until January 31, 1958.
America learns that the popular television quiz shows of the decade are fixed. Columbia University Professor Charles Van Doren and popular winner of the show Twenty-One had been given the questions and answers before the show.
Famous Rock 'n' Roll Singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson and a pilot died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, while on tour. The date lives on in history as "the day the music died" in Don McLean's song American Pie.
The "payola" scandals revealed that record promoters had paid disc jockeys to play certain songs and insured some songs more success than they could earn on their own. Famous Disc Jockey Alan Freed was questioned in the scandal, but maintained "he only played songs he liked."
With the popularity of television, older sources of information had to adapt to a new audience. Radio changed programming to a mix of music, news, sports and weather. Popular disc jockeys, such as Freed in Cleveland and Dewey Phillips in Memphis, achieved celebrity status by playing rock 'n' roll. Magazines learned to find specialized audiences and men and women's magazines dictated social culture for their readers.
Television became a powerful medium selling everything from headache medicine to a president. Commercials — originally presented live — began to be filmed and edited together in order to perfect the message, and prevent mistakes. President Eisenhower hired Rosser Reeves, a successful advertising executive known for his Anacin commercial, for his 1952 campaign.
Public relations grew as a popular method for a business to position itself positively in the public eye. United Fruit hired Edward Bernays, a long-time public relations guru, to throw the public's support behind their cause in Guatemala. The Guatemalan government wanted to nationalize their fruit production and United Fruit, an U.S. company, didn't want to see this happen. United Fruit and the U.S. government supported an uprising in Guatemala and tried to spin the news their way.