What's black and white and red all over? America 1950What often comes back to me from the early 1950s is the word communist. I vividly recall, growing up on the gritty sidewalks of the north side of Binghamton, New York, one of my playmates becoming angry when his mother wouldn't give him money so he could join me in going to the movies. He ranted and stormed and raved and, at the height of his frustration, he reached for the most wounding insult he could think of. You . . . you . . . COMMUNIST! he spat at her, and stormed out the door.
I do not know now if we ever got to the movies, or if my friend was punished for his audacious outburst. I do know that neither he nor I nor his mother could tell a communist from a coloratura, but we all knew communist was not a nice thing to be called.
Communism is one of two chief topics of Lisle A. Rose's The Cold War Comes to Main Street: America in 1950. Rose is not concerned with the social and cultural aspects of an age in which eight- and nine-year-old boys could walk unescorted to and from the movies in perfect safety. His canvas is national and global in extent and portrays an impulsive, often absurd obsession with communism so pervasive that it provided a ready epithet for a witless boy in upstate New York.
1950 is critical, Rose says, because it is when our postwar mood turned sour and uncertain. In 1949, we still exuded a breezy, can-do confidence. One year later, he writes, the United States had become another country. His subtitle could as accurately be America Leading up to 1950, because he roams back in time at some length to explain how the United States got to this pass. Basically, Rose finds a crisis in the old order, the Main Street-Wall Street nexus of Republicans that had ruled the country for decades under the comfortable myth of the moral superiority of commerce.
An entire way of life seemed to be slipping away from Main Street, Rose writes, and the fact that he seems to argue from an old-fashioned liberal point of view in no way diminishes the force of his argument. Anti-communism held an appeal for these foes of the liberal establishment who saw what they believed to be a golden age disappearing.
The apex of anti-communism was, of course, McCarthyism, which to Rose was not merely a partisan attack on the Democratic administration but the first and most piercing middle American protest against all the real and apparent soullessness and incompetence of a large, distant, often unresponsive and, above all, liberal government. As a political and diplomatic history, The Cold War Comes to Main Street is briskly told and formidably documented, though the author is harder on Whittaker Chambers than the facts warrant. He makes him out to be a kind of up-market McCarthy, which is certainly not true, as Sam Tanenhaus showed in his recent biography of Chambers.
Rose's other chief topic is a related one: the Korean War, which was the Cold War against communism grown hot. In four chapters, he captures its salient political and combat elements. There are, however, a couple of highly disputable assertions.
For instance, he says of the North Korean People's Army invasion of the south in June 1950, the criminal slowness of the NKPA in advancing into South Korea would cost it the war. For one thing, many Korea historians would disagree with this assessment. For another, why criminal ? Would he prefer that the invaders had succeeded?On the other hand, he is quite right to condemn MacArthur's vainglorious hot pursuit of the North Koreans right up to the Yalu River. If anything was criminal, it was that. It led to, among other things, the bitter campaign of November-December 1950 when U.
N. forces were overwhelmed by the Chinese and the cold. Through mining newspapers and other contemporary periodicals, Rose gives us a sense of how awful the campaign was for the combatants.
Finally, one of the malicious pleasures of reading a history such as this lies in discovering how wrong newspaper and other pundits of the day got things. For example, in 1950 Hans J. Morgenthau, a leading political scientist, intoned about the Soviet acquisition of the atomic bomb, In comparison with it, all the great issues of the postwar period fade into insignificance. Well, actually, no. Remember that the next time Rush or Maureen tells you something of national or global importance.
Roger Miller is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.