The world was a tense place during that mid-century decade. Communist governments controlled land from Czechoslovakia to China --- and approximately one-third of the worlds population. The Western nations formed the capitalist bloc, and because of greater industrial progress Western Europe was much wealthier than Eastern Europe. That boosted their recovery from the wars, but the United States quickly became the dominant world power, offering the highest standard of living. It was also the envy of other nations and for some an enemy to be feared.
Yet even in the United States, things were not at peace. The youth culture resisted the naïve mainstream emphasis on clean, orderly, and disciplined families in perfect homes pursuing the materialistic American dream. As citizens struggled to restore a sense of innocence after the devastating world war, television came into more and more homes, offering guidelines for specific roles: Fathers were to be providers and mothers contented homemakers. Shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet taught Americans how to manage their households.
Yet bucking this idealistic trend were those who rebelled, and while some turned to art or communications to shake the system, some reacted with violence. For example, former convict William Cook got out of prison and went on a murder spree. Once abandoned by his father, he forced people to become his hostages before killing them. First was a family of five, whom he shot in their car. He drove around with their corpses before depositing them in an abandoned mineshaft in Missouri
. Then he headed to California
, where he killed a salesman. From there, he took two men hostage, but authorities grabbed him before he could harm them, and California
convicted and executed him.
President Harry S. Truman emphasized the U.S. mission to defend free countries from communism, so armies increased on both sides of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe, and economic relief was exchanged in needy countries for political control. Those on each side viewed the other as the aggressor. In Indochina, French troops fought the spread of communism southward, while a political conflict in Korea provoked the United Nations to assist the South against the communist North. Eventually boundaries were defined between democracy and totalitarianism, and each side set about developing the most powerful weaponry possible. Advanced technology ushered in the age of military secrets, clandestine missions, and espionage.
Soon, paranoia became formalized. Starting in 1950, a young senator named Joseph McCarthy led a campaign against card-carrying communists that he claimed had infiltrated the government and the countrys communications systems. As the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee provided a venue for his hysteria, people were labeled as communist sympathizers and blackmailed into giving up other names. During the red scare government employees had to go through loyalty tests, and illegal measures were tolerated in the name of national security. The FBI kept records on people considered subversive and many people were ruined. Finally, in 1954, McCarthy was discredited by a senate censure. During this time, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were tried and executed for giving nuclear secrets to the Soviets.
Those who could, gave voice to this gripping tension between good and bad people, and among them, one author wrote a chilling tale that seemed to both absorb and anticipate the national anxiety over threats to domestic safety.