Historians do the entire period between 1935 and 1960 a complete disservice by exclusively segmenting it into discreet "prewar, war, postwar" segments. Our western penchant for wedging everything into triptychs of "beginning, middle, end" has lead us to completely ignore the transformations that people went through at this time. It has lead us to be completely disconnected from our own past, and caused no end of boomer identity-crises angst.
What I find remarkable about this period is that Henry Fonda's Tom Joad, Tom Hank's Capt. John Miller, and Gregory Peck's Tom Rath can, and by and large do, represent the experiences of a single person.
And what a transformation... a generation of young people universally characterized as idealistic, hardworking, rural, and, largely, poorly educated would turn into the astroturfed suburban college grads that straightjacketted an entire decade in Ozzie and Harriet style.
At no other time before or since has an entire nation of people had its clocks synchronized in quite the same way that December 7th, 1941 did to the generation born 18 years before. The whole country went through nearly a decade of common experience from that point forward... from draft boards to boot camps, farm life to factory work, housewife to riveter, store clerk to soldier. Parents learned what it was like to put a boy on a train only to receive a man in a box. Wives learned to run not only the inside of a household, which they'd grown up watching their mom do, but also the outside of the household, which they hadn't. Husbands were given a whole set of skills that were in general useless to them for anything other than staying alive and killing, and a set of experiences impossible to share with anyone who didn't live through it all. And they did it all at the same time.
The idealism so remarked on in the "pre-war" generation didn't really go away. Instead it got twisted and darkened and blinkered. This now "post-war" generation was trained to accept a command structure without question and thereby was manipulated into the grossest excesses imaginable. You see, there were actually two generations at work... the youth who fought the war and the grownups who engineered it, and retained power in its aftermath.
The 50s were not about leather jackets and poodle skirts and shiny cars and funny movies. They were about governments that demanded unquestioning trust and repaid that trust with nuclear brinksmanship and pointless, expensive hot and cold wars. They were about businessmen who asked for and received government assistance to overthrow democratically elected governments because they threatened the price of bananas. They were about sexual, cultural, and racial repressions so brutal that it took television holding up a mirror to the ugliness before action started to be taken.
Our particularly warped view of the 50s came about because, in a completely bizarre twist of fait, the generation that wrote that history was not the one that lived it as adults, but instead was written by the generation that grew up in it. It looks like a kiddyland because it has been chronicled by the kids.
The lid was screwed down so tight that it took the death of the generation that engineered the war before the generation that fought it could start fixing things. In spite of the narcissistic claims of the boomers, they were not directly responsible for everything good in the sixties. Do you really think a bunch of pothead kids with no jobs singing peace songs could make that much of a difference? You weren't watching youth become king, you were watching the iceberg tip, the edges, of a vast battle for power as the generation that bled for freedom wrested power from the dying hands of those who took advantage of it.
We've missed this point because, again, the people that are writing these histories are the children of the people who actually made things happen. This point in particular puzzles me the most. It is as if all those kids that walked into the soda bar at the corner drug store on that Sunday afternoon, who then walked out and literally changed the world, decided to quietly indulge their children one last time by letting their kids tell their stories.
Considering what they believed, what they lived through, what they accomplished, and what they were manipulated into doing, this is completely in their character.