Derek Leebaert
The Fifty-Year Wound

The merits of mass and hierarchy had not yet begun to lose their allure. Big government and big business, ideally working together, appeared to be the driving forces of innovation. This seemed to be confirmed by technology. Computers were still housed in glass rooms and attended to by white-coated experts. The machines could even be depicted making government decisions, as in Robert Jungk's Tomorrow Is Already Here, a misguided account of the United States during these years. 'It was the Cold War that helped IBM make itself the king of the computer business.' recalled Thomas J. Watson Jr., about the fact that half his profits as head of U.S. sales at IBM during the 1950s came from contracts for the SAGE air defense system.'

The imperious Lionel Trilling writes in The Liberal Imagination about his literature students at Columbia being determined to join the largest corporations, such as IBM. A professor schooled in the Old Left who had gone on to master the literary, psychoanalytically sophisticated high culture of the 1950s. Trilling came to regard himself as an aging Machiavelli in a gathering of risk-averse choir-boys. It was not just that the people at the top were believed supremely to understand crises and uncertainty but that any rung in the big organization was deemed a wiser, safer place to be than the chilly outside world. Elsenhower himself had been the organization man of the Army—delegating, calculatingly democratic, no more loyal than necessary. It is telling that the idiosyncratic MacArthur went nowhere politically in 1952, although he was the greatest American field commander since Ulysses S. Grant.

The country was in the hands of a leadership generation oddly short on the actual founders of enterprises. With the exception of Fairchild Semiconductor and a handful of other start-ups, few firms begun in the 1950s correspond to the countless high-tech and other enterprises created after, say, 1968, when Fairchild's original engineers, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore, rounded up $2.5 million to start Intel. Certainly, Fairchild had a plethora of spin-offs in the 1960s, but it was not yet the time for Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, Steve lobs, and the rest of the last quarter century's startling roster of entrepreneurs. Galbraith, for instance, could easily mock the business executive for identifying himself with the dashing entrepreneur of economic legend, comparing him to the commander of an armored division worrying about gasoline while imagining himself at the head of an old-time cavalry charge. Entrepreneurs and warriors, he reminds people in the know like himself, had both been euthanized. The future would belong to rigid, pyramidal organizations, whether of business or government. The Cold War did not create this belief, but it reinforced it by canonizing predictability, solidity, and size. 'The man in the gray flannel suit' of Sloan Wilson's 1956 novel was a stepchild of these decades. Taxes remained high.

One consequence of extolling size and centralization was that it became all the easier to assume that the state had a primary role in American life. 'Politicians today hold the key roles crucial to our country's survival,' concluded William Benton, advertising man briefly turned U.S. senator, when discussing the disruptive new technologies. 'The pace of change will make the politician's role ever more important.' After all, what had the 'private sector'—as the world of commerce and industry came to be called—done recently to match the Manhattan Project; the overthrow of the Axis; the highways, satellites, and race to the heavens?

Presidential power expanded further. For example, the right of 'executive privilege,' at first used sensibly by Elsenhower in 1954 to shield executive branch witnesses from McCarthy's investigators, was quickly extended to withhold from Congress any information that a President might deem secret. Although Elsenhower's predecessors had been more circumspect, the doctrine thereafter came to be regarded as traditional. It became easy to deify political power, one aspect of what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. would call the 'imperial presidency.' An early example is the 1956 election, in which a TV commercial ended with a cabdriver looking at Eisenhower's White House and sighing, 'I need you.' This silly bleat would be echoed twenty-one years later when journalist Barbara Walters ended her interview with Jimmy Carter by saying, 'Be kind to us, Mr. President. Be good to us.' By the late 1950s, a belief was forming that the people at the center possessed extraordinary abilities, which in turn required that such abilities be exaggerated. The distance between powerful institutions and the public naturally increased.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.