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5 Important Fifties Events Nobody Noticed in the Fifties

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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Bea Arthur: Golden Girl, U.S. Marine
Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

When Bea Arthur joined the cast of The Golden Girls in 1985, she had already established an impressive career on stage and television. But one of her most important jobs predates her acting career—for 2.5 years, Arthur served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

According to the National World War II Museum, her service came at a time when women enlisting in the military was still an anomaly. The country had recently entered the Second World War, and the Marines began recruiting women as a way to free more men to fill combat roles. The Marines opened the Women's Reserve in 1943 after every other military branch had already started accepting female members.

One of the program's first enrollees was a 20-year-old woman who was called Bernice Frankel at the time, and who's best known as Bea Arthur today. Prior to enlisting, she had attended Blackstone College in Virginia for a year, worked as a food analyst at the Phillips Packing Company, and volunteered as a civilian air-raid warden. As she later wrote in a letter, she joined the Marines on a whim: “I was supposed to start work yesterday, but heard last week that enlistments for women in the Marines were open, so [I] decided the only thing to do was to join.”

After attending the first Women Reservists school at Hunter College in New York, Arthur spent the remainder of her service at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina as a truck driver and typist. According to her Official Military Personnel File (OMPF), she exhibited “meticulous good taste” and was "argumentative," "over aggressive," and “officious—but probably a good worker if she has her own way!”

Bea Arthur entered the Marines a private and had risen to staff sergeant by the time she was discharged. Her exit paperwork shows that she expressed interest in going to drama school after the military, foreshadowing a long career ahead.

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5 Things You Might Not Know About Henry Kissinger
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Keystone/Getty Images

You probably know Henry Kissinger as a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Let’s take a look at five things you might not know about the German-born political scientist and diplomat.

1. MAO ZEDONG TRIED TO GIVE HIM "10 MILLION" WOMEN.

In 1973, Henry Kissinger was engaged in a discussion of trade with Mao Zedong when the chairman abruptly changed the subject by saying, “We [China] don't have much. What we have in excess is women. So if you want them we can give a few of those to you, some tens of thousands.”

Kissinger sidestepped this bizarre offer and changed the subject, but Mao later returned to the subject by jokingly asking, “Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you 10 million.”

This time Kissinger diplomatically replied, “It is such a novel proposition. We will have to study it.”

Other Chinese officials in the room pointed out that Mao’s attitudes toward women would cause quite a stir if the press got their hands on these quotes, so Mao apologized to his female interpreter and talked Kissinger into having the comments removed from the records of the meeting.

2. NO, HE'S NOT THE INSPIRATION FOR DR. STRANGELOVE.

Here’s a riddle that’s been bugging film buffs for decades: who was the basis for the title character in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove? For years many observers thought that Kissinger might have inspired Peter Sellers’s memorable performance. Blame it on the accent and the glasses. Even though Kissinger was still a relatively obscure Harvard professor when the film premiered in 1964, the rumor that Kubrick modeled the character on him just wouldn't die.

Kubrick did what he could to dispel this notion before his death, saying, “I think this is slightly unfair to Kissinger ... It was unintentional. Neither Peter nor I had ever seen Kissinger before the film was shot.” Most observers now think that Dr. Strangelove was actually a distorted version of Herman Kahn, an eccentric nuclear strategist for the RAND Corporation.

3. HE WAS QUITE THE LADIES MAN.

Even in his youth, Kissinger didn’t quite fit the bill of a matinee idol, but he has always been a hit with the ladies. A 1972 poll of Playboy bunnies selected Kissinger as the man with whom Hef’s ladies would most like to go out on a date. He also had a string of celebrity girlfriends in his younger days, including Diane Sawyer, Candice Bergen, Jill St. John, Shirley Maclaine, and Liv Ullman, who called Kissinger, “the most interesting man I have ever met.”

Kissinger’s swinging bachelor days are long gone, though. He was married to Ann Fleischer from 1949 to 1964 then married philanthropist Nancy Maginnes in 1974—a union that at one point seemed so improbable that just a year before they tied the knot, Maginnes had called speculation that she and Kissinger would marry “outrageous.”

4. PROTECTING HIM ISN'T ALWAYS EASY.

In 1985 former Secret Service agent Dennis McCarthy released the memoir Protecting the President—The Inside Story of a Secret Service Agent, in which he described being on Kissinger’s security detail as “a real pain.” McCarthy shared a funny anecdote about a 1977 trip to Acapulco with Kissinger and his wife. There were signs warning of sharks in the water, but Nancy wanted to go for a swim. Kissinger then told his security detail to get in the water to guard for sharks.

Personal protection is one thing, but McCarthy and his fellow agents drew the line at fighting off sharks. Instead, they made the reasonable point that if the Kissingers were afraid of sharks, they shouldn’t go swimming. Agent McCarthy did, however, offer a compromise; he told Kissinger, “If the sharks come up on this beach, my agents will fight them.”

5. THE STATE DEPARTMENT NIXED HIS OFFICIAL PORTRAIT.

Official portraits of government luminaries don’t usually become big news, but in 1978 the painting of Kissinger commissioned by the State Department for its gallery made headlines. Boston artist Gardner Cox had previously painted Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk, so he got the $12,000 commission to paint Kissinger. The finished product didn’t earn rave reviews, though.

Some viewers at the State Department thought the painting lacked Kissinger’s dynamism and made him look “somewhat a dwarf.” Others felt the portrait was “a rogues' gallery thing." The State Department offered to let Cox fix the painting, but he said he didn’t see anything that need changing. He lost the commission but got $700 for his expenses.

Kissinger took the whole episode in stride, though. When Houston artist J. Anthony Wills painted a replacement, Kissinger declared it to be, “an excellent likeness, swelled head and all,” and called the unveiling "one of my most fulfilling moments. Until they do Mount Rushmore."

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