July 2009

Looking back at 1959

By Fred Kaplan
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While it’s easy enough to show that the events of any given year were pivotal to one cause or another, Fred Kaplan makes a persuasive argument in 1959: The Year Everything Changed that the highlighted year was a real political, scientific and artistic watershed. It was the year Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission issued its withering report on racial discrimination in America, the microchip and the birth control pill were introduced, and the first American soldiers were killed in Vietnam.

In addition, relations eased between the U.S. and Russia, thanks to high-level diplomatic exchanges; scientists probed deeper into space; courts overturned literary censorship laws; and jazz musicians, painters and comedians debuted exciting new forms of expression. (Having been a 24-year-old and reasonably culturally aware graduate student in 1959, this reviewer thinks Kaplan should have also mentioned the then rising tide of politically tinged folk music.)

Fortunately, the author does a great deal more than merely enumerate this torrent of transitional wonders. He also fills in each of their backstories and demonstrates subtle connections between seemingly discrete occurrences. Naturally enough, he ends the book with a chapter on Sen. John F. Kennedy laying the groundwork for what would turn out to be his successful run for the presidency the following year.

As Kaplan correctly concludes, 1959 set the stage for the massive “upheavals of the subsequent decades.” America would quickly end its love affair with Castro. The Cuban missile crisis would soon sweep away the threads of harmony between the two reigning superpowers. Civil rights would move from the courts into the streets of Little Rock, Montgomery, Birmingham and beyond. The pill would enable Americans to make love without fear even as they made war with increasing fearfulness in Vietnam.

“Above all,” says Kaplan, “there was suddenly a palpable sense [in 1959]—brought on by jet travel, space exploration, and the shift from nuclear domination to a competitive arms race—that the world was shrinking and that America was part of that world, locked into it, no longer merely affecting events but also affected by them. . . . ”

Fifty years later, the country is still coming to terms with those realities. 

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By Fred Kaplan
ISBN 9780470387818

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