Time and Place: 1950’s USA

Screenshot from "Duck and Cover" fil...

Screenshot from “Duck and Cover” film, a 1952 movie. The ‘Duck and Cover’ propaganda movie was probably one of the most famous of all the pieces of propaganda during the early stages of the cold war. It was targeted at school children and was intended to install the constant fear of a nuclear attack from the Soviets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Anti- communist newsletter.

I’ve recently finished the first draft of my second novel, “Under the Bed”. It’s set in New York in both 1969 and 1952. Time and place are integral to the story; the commonality between the two eras is anti-communism in the USA. I’ll only deal with the 1950’s in this blog.

McCarthyism”, which was at the heart of the anti-communist movement, started in the late forties. You may be aware of the havoc and horror the Hollywood blacklist had on the lives of actors and screenwriters, many of whom were banned from writing or acting. Their careers, and often their entire lives were left in shambles. A number also went to jail. Dashiell Hammett is one of the more famous names of people who served time. He died a year after his release. Lillian Hellman, was also brought before by the House Un-American Activities Committee  – HUAC. She took a landmark stand, later known as the ‘Diminished Fifth’, in which she was willing to talk about her own activities but refused to talk of others .

Paul Robeson and Charlie Chaplin were also victims of the HUAC. Chaplin, who was born in England, was refused re-entry into the USA in 1952, and ultimately never returned to America. Paul Robeson’s passport was confiscated, leaving him unable to work abroad – he was already blacklisted from working in America. His career as a singer and his International Human Rights advocacy work were severely curtailed.


Paul Robeson,American actor, athlete, bass-bar...

Paul Robeson,American actor, athlete, bass-baritone concert singer, writer, civil rights activist, Spingarn Medal winner, and Stalin peace prize laureate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)







Influence of the House Un-American Activities Committee, reached far beyond Hollywood into many professions, including those in public service. University professors and elementary schoolteachers  were asked to sign an oath swearing that they were not, nor ever had been a member of the Communist Party. Those who refused, which many did on principle, lost their jobs.

All serious stuff – but in researching the period, I came across some hilarious footage from the public service announcement of the ‘Duck and Cover Campaign’ that told people, and especially schoolchildren, what to do in the case of a nuclear attack – “Why, duck and cover of course!”.


Its simplicity might seem ludicrous to us now –  perhaps it did to many people at the time  –  but it gives us a certain insight into an era of fear, tinged with naïveté , in the USA of the 1950’s.

I love the whole idea of exploring different time and place in writing. They’re usually the two challenges I first  set myself when I start a new project. It’s so important in a novel in setting the tone.

Where do you set your work? Is it is always in the present, or in the town or country where you live? How does time and place affect your choice in the novels you read?

Let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

English: Portrait of Charlie Chaplin

English: Portrait of Charlie Chaplin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




  1. Thanks for checking out my post defrosting the cold war http://www.envisioningtheamericandream.wordpress.com
    It would seem we are on the same wave length. Enjoyed looking at your posta as well and will look out for them

    • Your welcome Sally – you have some great images on your site. Sometimes I find it hard to get good ones that are in the public domain, though since I’ve discovered Zemanta, that has certainly helped.
      I appreciate the comment. Thanks.

  2. Duck and cover! Life sure was simple then. That said, when I was in school, the shackles of communism were coming apart in erswhile USSR. There was talk of Glasnot, our newspapers in India (India was a firm ally of USSR) were filled with news of Glasnot.
    I agree that time and setting are important. I am not a writer of books and the book I read are varied. But yes, I love Pico Iyer because he captures each place, its mood, its emotions, so beautifully and not just the sights and sounds. Capturing the emotions of a place, the undercurrents makes a book great.
    Lubna recently posted..If Truth were to be ToldMy Profile

    • Hi Lubna – good to see you again. I think we have this vision of life being simple back in the ‘Duck & Cover’ days, but I wonder how much of that is just a myth of the times. Certainly some things were, but then it depends on who you were. Certainly for African Americans or Gay people life was anything but simple.
      It was really interesting to hear your perspective of the USSR from the newspapers in India – it would be interesting to compare coverage.
      I’m not familiar with Pico Lyer – so I’ll be sure to look up his work – good point you made about capturing the emotions as well as the undercurrents. Thanks.

  3. Truly like your article A.K. !

    “McCarthyism” was a shameful chapter in your country. When I started reading, like you, I started to comparing it with the current war on terror. If I go to the US I will get another passport since there’s no way I will land at JFK with stamps from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, The United Arab Emirates and Pakistan in my passport. Would be like asking from trouble:-)

    Wish it was as easy as “Duck & Cover”. Nuclear war wouldn’t be as bad then, would it:-)
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    • Thanks so much Catarina – I’m flattered, especially as your coverage of world affairs is so good.
      I know exactly what you mean about having dual passports – having those stamps would be like waving a red flag, which is a sad commentary on the state of affairs and the prejudices that lie behind them. But there are real threats, so security is an unfortunate necessity.
      I must find someone who can remember Duck and Cover – I mean really -a newspaper stopping the burns of a nuclear explosion! Good to see you again. Thank you.

  4. That was such a horrible shameful time in our country. Fear can reek great havoc when allowed to run rampant and the time period so well displays that. We could take some lesson from that time with our attitude towards the muslin community. We should learn that the few misguided muslin slugs are not a reflection on a whole community of people but somehow we need to relearn those lessons again and again.

    I agree about the duck and cover stuff. It is funny to see now but it was all so very serious then. :-), Susan Cooper from LinkedIn
    Susan Cooper recently posted..Renwood Old Vine Zinfandel 2008: WineMy Profile

    • Hi Susan, nice to see you – I’ve been down for a while. It was an unbelievably awful time in the US – I didn’t realize quite how bad until I did my research. And yes , its’ impossible not to draw comparisons of present day bigotry. The fear mongering that was started by the Bush administration and is continued by some today is really appalling. As you say, if we could only learn by history we might have a better perspective on the current situation.
      Do you remember that campaign as a child? They didn’t have anything like that in the UK where I grew up.
      I can understand children believing it , but adults? What were they thinking?
      I have to find something to smile about in dealing with these subjects otherwise it’s a bit much. Glad you got a smile out of it.

  5. I read a great book quite a number of years back called Reds – it was a great overview of communism in the U.S. My grandmother lived through the Russian Revolution in Leningrad, and she experienced the real Communists. They weren’t pleasant to have as leaders. She lost many of her teeth during the starvation era.

    It was unfortunate that a large number of Americans did think communism was a good thing. My understanding is by the time Joe McCarthy went on his witch hunt, the real threat within the U.S. government was gone. But there were some (at least one who killed himself) who did make into the U.S. govt and were spies for the communists.
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    • Thanks for the comment Leora. I shall definitely look for ‘Reds’. I think it’s a good point you make about the true horrors of Communism particularly during the Stalin years. I think at the time in which a lot of Americans were involved in the CP was during the Spanish Civil War when the Russians were the only ones who were standing up to the Fascists. So they were seen as a cause to fight. But then once the Stalin-Hitler packed, then a lot of people dropped the CP as fast as they could. It’s a complex issue, especially if you go back a far as the Russian Revolution, as to what the perception was in the the rest of the world and what was happening in the country itself. Your grandmothers experience sounds awful and I’m sure her’s was widespread.
      I think the really objectionable aspect of McCathyism was pitting American’s against each other in an atmosphere when in many of the case accusations were unfounded.
      I really appreciate you putting forward the ‘other side of the coin’ to this period in history. Thank you.

  6. Good to read, AK! I’m a fan of the Hollywood movies from the 40s and 50s, so have also read about the HUAC, etc. I’m also working on a novel set in the present, but with reach-backs to the 1950s. It’s set in Pittsburgh, where I live, and I’m having great fun researching the city. We writers get to learn so much, don’t we? Good luck. Rose

    • Thanks so much for comment Rose. It certainly is a fascinating period, that’s also rarely referenced today. So as you are finding too, the research was fascinating. Coincidence on the same period. We’ll have to share experiences as we go along. 🙂

  7. Hi A.K.
    I really liked this article. When I was watching the video, I just kept thinking about how horrible it was that they propogated fear this way. It’s ridiculous to think that you can duck and cover, put a newspaper over your head, or get to the side of the road and that’s going to help in some way. If these children (who the movie is aimed at) were exposed to a nuclear bomb, this just wouldn’t help. Get under a desk? Goodness.
    Someone wrote in the comments about the “myth” of simplicity in the 50’s, I agree with you that it was a myth. You mentioned for groups of people, like gays, yes of course it was hard for them too. But then I see a video like this and it felt almost evil that they would propogate fear in this way–to children no less. I say they are propogating fear because if this is aimed at children, it would cause great stress, and their “answer” for what to do about a nuclear bomb is not an answer at all!! As long as they weren’t going to give good advice, they might as well have said nothing at all.
    And then, yes, I have heard of how some people lost their jobs, were blacklisted and such to the point that it ruined even their lives. It makes me angry to think about it, because, like Susan commented, we are doing the same thing again with Muslims.
    Very good article. When I do start working on my book again, I too will have to research time and place. It starts in the early sixties (and I already have done a good amount of research). Place: my hometown, but my hometown of the sixties would have been very different than when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s.
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    • Bethany – thanks so much for your comment. It seems as if we are on the same page with these issues. It must have been incredibly scary for the children involved. People who did these drills have told me this in response to the post.
      I think the scariest part is history repeating itself today in terms of persecution & prejudice.
      I’m glad to hear you’ll be doing research for your upcoming novel. I’ve found it both interesting and illuminating. I’m happy to share sources I’ve found(it’s not an in depth list) but keep me posted and perhaps we can help each other.
      Looking forward to hearing more about your novel. 🙂

  8. A.K. I remember duck and cover particularly in Memphis, Tennessee in 1959. We used to practice atomic bomb threat drills. Silly things fear does to individuals and to countries. Carley

    • It’s been really interesting hearing from people who can remember doing these drills. Fear is a very strong motivator. I guess people needed to feel they were doing something to help, both as a nation and individuals.
      Thanks so much for your comment. Good to see you here.
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  9. Wondering if you might be interested to read my novel: METAL MAN WALKING at https://www.createspace.com


  1. […] I’ve recently finished the first draft of my second novel, “Under the Bed”. It’s set in New York in both 1969 and 1952. Time and place are integral to the story; the commonality between the two eras is anti-communism in the USA.  click here to read more… […]

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