As the 1950s were drawing to a close, issues of who we were as people were starting to surface. We were, in America, financially well-off, we were working, we were conspicuous consumers, we were relatively secure in our abilities to defend ourselves, we prided ourselves in being the beacon of Democracy and the epitome of the Free Society.
So what was wrong? The use a well-worn phrase, that didn’t originate in the 1950s; the best things in life aren’t things. We were suffering a moral dilemma – our basic human principles were eroding. We were a driven society – driven to achieve more, buy more, consume more – and what lost out in the equation was that sense of human goodness, of responsibility. We viewed the rest of the world with a certain arrogance, a certain pious belief that only the strong and the accomplished survived.
And that was causing a problem. You could see and feel the American dream starting to lose shape, come apart at the seams. We were a fractured and divided society in the late 1950s. We fought for integration yet we still practiced lynching. We proudly boasted our freedom of the Press, while burning books and magazines – blacklisting writers as Communist. We espoused chastity and purity, while back-alley abortions rose at an alarming rate. We were, for all intents and purposes, a nation of hypocrites – we talked a good talk when we needed to, but we couldn’t walk the walk to save our lives.
So this discussion, the last part of a series CBS Radio produced in 1958 called The Great Challenge, asked the question “What Beliefs Sustain The Free World?” – and on hand to answer and argue were Arnold J. Toynbee, Reinhold Niebuhr and Prof. Charles Frankel of Columbia University.
It’s a fascinating discussion, particularly from the 1950s, when society was in a state of emotional flux, but not entirely aware of it at the time. Compared to 2017, the difference is too vast to even remotely compare.
But have a listen – this is what we were talking about and thinking about in 1958. There were big pictures and big questions.