I’m a child of the 1950s and am plowing my way through Tony Judt’s voluminous history of Europe from 1945 to 1989, titled simply enough “Postwar.” But reading it got me wondering if there was a social or cultural history of America for the same period. The political history is familiar enough and there is David Halberstam’s chatty, “The Fifties,” but it isn’t quite what I was after.
This brought me to a wonderfully oddball volume called “Welcome to Mars: Politics, Pop Culture, and Weird Science in 1950s America” by Ken Hollings. It, too, is not exactly at I as after, is not particularly well written nor anything an academic historian would approve, but it does provide an irresistable mirror image of the usual stereotype of Grey Flannel suited, corporate conformists barbecuing in the suburban backyard.
It is comprised of a chapter a year from 1947 through 1959 that juxtaposes the B movies I loved as a kid — “War of the Worlds,” “It Came From Outer Space,” “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers,” — with the weird science of the era that they provide a running commentary on.
For instance, the intelligence services of America became alarmed that our Cold War rivals in Moscow, Beijing and Korea were perfecting brainwashing techniques using pharmacological secrets rather than brute torture. It is often forgotten that L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics,” the precursor to his Scientology cult, was pitched to the government as a scientific antidote to communist mind control. Soon the CIA was on the hunt for substances that would allow them to practice foolproof interrogation and even mind control.
As early as 1947, a promising candidate marketed under the brand name Delysid came to their attention. It is now known as LSD, and by 1953 the CIA under Allen Dulles had become the biggest customer for the stuff in the world. Soon they were testing it on unwitting soldiers, prisoners and even businessmen. The latter would be enticed by government-funded hookers who would spike the drinks of the suits while CIA monitors watched from behind one-way mirrors to see what happened to the sususecting schnooks. Your tax dollars at work.
Long before Timothy Leary became a household name in the sixtes, word got around elite circles that a mind-expanding miracle drug had been discovered. Soon people like zen advocate Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Cary Grant, Allen Ginsburg, conservative publisher Henry Luce, investment banker Gordon Wasson were experimenting with LSD, magic mushrooms, mescaline and other psychedelics.
In a particularly piquant vignette Hermann Kahn makes a cameo appearance. This was the defense intellectual who was an advocate of the use of thermonuclear weapons. He wrote “Thinking about the Unthinkable” and was one of the models for Dr. Strangelove. We see him lying on the floor of the RAND defense think tank gooned on LSD saying “Wow! over and over again. No wonder Hollywood was offering films like “Dark Mirror,” “The Snake Pit”, “The Three Faces of Eve” and “The Manchurian Candidate.” Crazy was in vogue.
Or take the popularity of movies featuring genetically altered organisms, all attributed to fallout from nuclear tests — giant ants in “Them,” moths, moles, spiders, and people in “I was a Teenage Werewolf” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” These were prompted by the dawning realization after Hiroshima that radiation might not be good for the health of living things.
Many are set in the desert southwest which is only right since numerous atmospheric tests took place in Utah, New Mexico and Nevada and irradiated people familiarly known as downwinders. For a while folks in Las Vegas could go watch mushroom clouds rise in the distance. Radioactive leaks from the plutonium plant in Hanford, Washington produced mutant animals on adjacent ranches, and Japanese fishermen were exposed to fallout from a 15-megaton H-bomb blast in the Pacific, an incident that was the origin of the Godzilla mythos.
There may not have been actual flying saucers in the 1950s, but there were plenty of other things to worry about aloft. The final words of “The Thing from Another World” were a ‘50ish warning: “Tell this to everybody wherever they are. Watch the skies.” There were jet planes, missile tests, the U2 spy plane, Russia’s Sputnik beeping as it passed. Soon we knew there were nuclear-tipped missiles waiting in prairie silos, and submerged atomic submarines prepared at a moment’s notice to incinerate our enemies and that they had a similar arsenal aimed at us. Watch the skies!
This book reminds us that under its placid exterior, the fifties were rife with wild-eyed paranoia. The McCarthy witch hunts for aliens in our midst were matched by a dread of the conformity imposed by fear of the other, so that the director of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Don Siegel, could say the story appealed to him because he realized one day he was surrounded by pod people. Like the little houses made of ticky tacky, their inhabitants were all the same.
On the flip side was a far-out utopianism which was scary in its own way. People like John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, Bucky Fuller and Edward Teller predicted a world of robots, atomic terraforming, migration to other planets, computerized brain implants, and machines that thought for us. When a Univac computer predicted an electoral college landslide for Ike over Adlai, CBS didn’t report it because it was too farfetched. When it turned out to be true, that was creepy in another way.
The soon-to-be hippie culture of the 1960s, with its California psychedelia and “Whole Earth Catalog” utopianism was actually fathered by loony Cold Warriors at places like RAND and the CIA. An aside concerning Jack Parsons of Cal Tech and the Jet Propulsion Lab captures the strangeness just below the surface of the era. He was a scientist in his day job, but in his spare time a devotee of satanist Alistair Crowley, His leisure was devoted to trying to establish a temple to the Great Beast of the Apocalypse on Mt. Palomar and to create a Moon Child by magical means in his home in Pasadena.