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5 Important Fifties Events Nobody Noticed in the Fifties

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We all know about Elvis, McCarthyism, Sputnik, the Korean War, Rosa Parks’ fateful bus ride, and Castro taking over Cuba – defining moments of the 1950s. In the decade itself, everyone was talking about now-forgotten moments like the Suez crisis, the “Busby Babes” plane crash and the hula-hoop craze. But then there were a few big events in the decade that hardly anyone noticed at the time. Here are just five of them…

1. Rocket ‘88’ launches (1951)

The first rock’n’roll song? We don’t want to start any arguments here, but we can safely say that it wasn’t anything by Elvis, or even "Rock Around the Clock." Jackie Brenston’s rocking ode to wild nights in an eight-cylinder Oldsmobile, released three years before Elvis’s first record, made it clear that a new style of music had arrived. At the time, of course, it was unknown just how big this new music would become. It was a Billboard #1 hit, turning Chicago’s Chess Records into a major blues and R&B label. (They would soon record Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and others.) The song was covered later that year by a yokel from small-town Pennsylvania called Bill Haley, who would go on to become the first rock’n’roll superstar with songs like "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock." Brenston, a singer and saxophone player in Ike Turner’s band, had no other solo hits, dying in 1979 at age 49.

2. Dawn of the electronic brain (1954)

International Business Machines (IBM) had made their name (among science geeks, at least) in the 1940s, constructing huge mainframe machines for scientific laboratories. But in May 1954, they announced the development of a model “electronic brain” for business use. Though it sounded like something from one of the scary sci-fi movies of the time (and would later strike fear into many workers, afraid of losing their jobs in the automated workplace), it was really the dawn of the computer revolution. With a central logic unit, processing information from reels of magnetic tape (each able to hold as much information as a large city phone-book), these new machines could do 10 million arithmetical operations in an hour. Nonetheless, IBM had low expectations for sales of these unwieldy devices, planning to rent them instead. Even this would cost $25,000 a month – a lot of money in 1954. However, the orders were already proving Thomas J. Watson wrong. In 1943, the 69-year-old IBM chairman and sales genius had predicted “a world market for maybe five computers.”

3. The coup of Guatemala (1954)

In one of the American military’s more dubious episodes, a CIA-financed coup in Guatemala overthrew the popularly elected government of President Jacobo Árbenz. Officially, it was to combat a plan by Árbenz to align Guatemala with the Soviet Bloc. However, this plan was disputed. The true reason may have been slightly less ideological. Árbenz’ land reform had included nationalizing the property of the United Fruit Company, which had friends in high places. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ law firm had written the contracts with Guatemala, 20 years earlier. CIA director Allen Dulles had been president of United Fruit, and his predecessor at the CIA, General Walter Bedell Smith, went on to become the company’s vice-president. Árbenz’ government was replaced by a military junta, and Árbenz spent the rest of his life in exile. The coup went almost unnoticed in America at the time, and is still not widely known. Yet it might well have been a case of a corporation causing the violent end of a government.

4. Testing the pill (1956)

You probably think that – along with Twister and concept albums – the oral contraceptive pill was one of the great inventions of the swinging sixties. In fact, it was a product of the more famously staid and conservative fifties. Developed by a team of biologists led by Gregory Pincus, it was first tested in Puerto Rico April 1956. The Food and Drug Administration did not approve the marketing of the pill until 1960, just in time for it to be a symbol of sixties freedom. Still, when Pincus died in 1967 (in the middle of the peace-and-love era), he went almost unknown. Even today, he’s not exactly a household name.

5. Tibet strikes back (1956)

Chinese troops invaded Tibet in 1950, forcing the leaders to sign the ironically named “Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” (that’s the short title), in which Tibetan delegates agreed to recognize Chinese authority. Later, human rights activists would suggest that this was one of China’s worst human rights violations, with the death estimates ranging from 400,000 to 1.2 million. The Tibetans fought back in 1956, guided by prominent exiles and supported by the CIA. By July 1958, 50,000 Chinese troops had died in the conflict. However, to maintain good (or at least, steady) relations with China, other nations did not officially recognize their struggle, and the tide soon turned against the insurgency. In March 1959, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, was forced to flee his homeland disguised as a servant. “There was nothing I could do for my people if I stayed,” he later said. Chinese soldiers were ordered to capture him alive, as his death would cause even the most peaceful Tibetans to rise against them. He evaded capture, escaping to Dharamsala in India, where he would establish a democratic alternative government and become a symbol of peace and non-violent liberation, winning far more fame and promotion for his cause in exile than he had ever won in Tibet.


Mark Juddery is an author and historian based in Australia. His latest book, Overrated: The 50 Most Overhyped Things in History (Perigree), is already causing a stir. You can order it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can see a slideshow excerpt from the book, and you can argue with Mark's choices (or suggest new ones) on his blog. Mark offers one tip: If you want to say "This book is overrated"... it's been done.

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P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all-time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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