THE 1950s ARE STILL part of living memory, but they already enjoy an uneasy status as a kind of political litmus test for retrospective distortion. Those who see as unmixed blessings the great 60s breakthroughs to sexual freedom and self-expression tend to look on the 50s as repressive and boring. Those, like this reviewer, who sometimes wonder if we'll ever recover from the mess the 60s got us into, think fondly of the 50s as a lost moment of sanity, stability and self-discipline. It is possible, of course, to hold both views at different moments of any given day, as you read the papers or watch the news.
Ideologically speaking, the years that David Halberstam brings to life in "The Fifties" are marked by mean politics as the Republicans and the Democrats, blowing the cold war out of all sensible proportion, push for bigger bombs while accusing each other of being soft on Communism. On the social scene, television sitcoms promote bland, puritanical conformity to parental authority. Bigger tail fins and planned obsolescence are turning Americans into a collection of shallow, shameless consumers. In flowering suburbia, women are miserable being wives and moms; even our economic success, which brought millions of people into the middle class, is a source of incipient moral disaster. "Were we as a nation already well on our way to becoming faceless drones, performing bland tasks that demanded no real skill save managerial obedience?" Mr. Halberstam asks at one point, taking C. Wright Mills and the New Left more seriously than they deserve.
But cheer up. In the midst of all the hypocrisy and conformity, fruitful seeds are germinating. Dr. Kinsey is at work trying to make us all talk more about sex. Goody Pincus is pressing in on the invention of the Pill. Up in Rockland County, New York, Betty Friedan is taking notes for "The Feminine Mystique." Meanwhile, Elvis Presley, James Dean, Jack Kerouac and Marlon Brando, with a little help from Hugh Hefner of Playboy, are about to make sex, teen-age melancholy and self-absorption a main stream in American life.
Happily for his readers, David Halberstam, the author of "The Best and the Brightest" and a string of best sellers, is a great reporter. His long, long thoughts are kept mercifully short. What he spends most of his time doing is presenting the 50s as a series of mini-biographies -- a sort of Dictionary of National Biography for the decade. Inevitably there are the familiar good old guys: Harry S. Truman, Dean Acheson, Adlai Stevenson. And there are the familiar bad old guys, for the most part (surprise!) hard-line, cold-war, cold-shower Republican Protestants whom, whatever our politics, most of us remember without affection. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, plunging toward the Yalu River to invite World War III -- and a deserved firing by doughty little Harry Truman. Tricky Richard Nixon, mealy-mouthing his way through the "Checkers" speech on television to keep his place on Dwight D. Eisenhower's ticket. (Nearly everything in this book either "signals" or "symbolizes" a future trend; this is one of many that let us know television is going to have a long-term grip on American politics.) And, naturally, Ike's self-righteous Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who spoke blithely of brinkmanship and did not realize the anti-Communist policies more or less appropriate to Europe would be idiotic and potentially ruinous if applied to Asia.
Senator Joseph McCarthy (no cold-shower Protestant he) flashes through in a splendid cameo appearance that spares us most of the already overexploited horror-show stuff. But the author does etch in some fine detail from McCarthy's early attack-dog period, including a scene in which the Senator from Wisconsin and an assemblage of reporters sit in silence for 15 minutes -- at a press conference, no less -- because he has refused to make good on his claim that there is a Communist on the staff of The Milwaukee Journal.
To his credit, Mr. Halberstam, who generally tends to adore the press, blames journalists for reporting McCarthy's charges deadpan when they knew he was dealing in dangerous eyewash. One "Red" cited by McCarthy was a certain "Howard Shipley . . . a Harvard astrologer." This was as close as he could get to Harlow Shapley, a world-famous Harvard astronomer.
Mr. Halberstam is also a relentless synthesizer. For his section on the rise and significance of Elvis Presley, he seems to have digested 13 books written about the Pelvis. But he freshens it up a bit by lacing in some interviewing he did on the music beat as a reporter in Nashville in 1956. Other sections are often more than twice-told tales. But for every William Levitt, yet again seen building middle-class suburban conformity in Long Island at prices most folks could afford, there is a lesser-known figure. Kemmons Wilson, for instance, a Tennessee builder who got so mad at the accommodations he and his family encountered on a trip to Washington in 1951 that he started Holiday Inns -- the rest is motel history.
The book also delves into the fateful annals of Detroit to introduce "the Cellini of Chrome," the autocratic General Motors designer Harley Earl, who is said to be responsible for big tail fins and the switch to style over performance as the standard for American cars. And Mr. Halberstam exhumes the advertising man Rosser Reeves, one of the early masters of making uncheckable claims for a product on television, who created the first 15-second Presidential campaign spots -- for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. ("Feeling sluggish, feeling sick? / Take a dose of Ike and Dick," ran a parody of the time.) Eisenhower hated them, but complied. Stevenson refused such help entirely.
Mourning the folly of an age with laughter, though, is decidedly not David Halberstam's thing, and he is most leaden when seriously weighing the value of fluff. For him the success of "I Love Lucy" merely signals the growing power of television and, as he sees it, the dread fact that viewers are confusing television with reality. When it comes to breaking a butterfly upon a wheel he can be right up there with the archfeminists, humorlessly trashing gentle, escapist comedy like "Leave It to Beaver" for being elitist (not everybody has a Mom and Dad like that) and for not providing a grimmer picture of family life.
What the author is best equipped to do is to bring to life again the civil rights struggles of the decade, starting with the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Characteristically, he has found and interviewed little-known individuals whose experiences are remarkably telling, even in an age grown used to such accounts. Frederic Morrow is an example. A Republican and former N.A.A.C.P. field secretary, he became, under Eisenhower, the first black special assistant to work in the White House. But even so, in segregated Washington, humiliations multiplied. Taxis would not pick him up. He could not eat in white restaurants, and when at last he found an apartment, he was told he could rent it only if he used the freight elevator.
MR. HALBERSTAM draws on his own experience as a reporter in the South from 1955 to 1960 to re-create the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Miss., and the subsequent trial in which the murderers went free. He also re-examines the 1958 struggle to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., when Eisenhower, flummoxed by Gov. Orval Faubus, finally had to send the 101st Airborne to keep order and escort nine black children to school.
It was the first time Federal troops had been ordered into a Southern state to protect the constitutional rights of black people since Reconstruction. Yet the most significant event of the 50s, here in the United States at least, was probably the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, an unparalleled act of communal courage by blacks, starting with Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of a bus. Even if you have lately read Taylor Branch's "Parting the Waters," Mr. Halberstam's retelling is worth the trip. It is hard to read the short speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. just before the fateful boycott decision without feeling a sense of awe, and something like gratitude. It is the same feeling stirred by the greatness of spirit of men like James Madison, or George Washington warning his soldiers not to take arms against the feckless and cowardly Continental Congress because in so doing they will destroy everything they've fought for. "If we are wrong," King told the crowd, "the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. . . . If we are wrong, justice is a lie."