Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Bob Dylan 1964
Never a truer word sang and now that I’ve passed my pół-centennial landmark I have a good enough reason to take a peek at just how much the times have been a-changin’ while I’ve been around. Looking back at how things were in the year of your birth is an exercise in self flagellation, especially if you’re over 30. Things are going to look very dated and make you feel like the last of the dinosaurs but from time to time I think it helps to put things in perspective. It is staggering how much can be achieved, or destroyed, in one small lifetime. It is also shocking to see just how much doesn’t really change at all.
Back in ’59, the international political scene was far more characterful than it is today. Full of mysterious revolutionaries like Castro and Mao and dominated by the enigmatic Cold War that would spawn thousands of books, films, witch-hunts, red telephones and atomic bomb scares.
In January of ’59, Castro and the pop idol of the day Ernesto “Che” Guevara had just taken control of Cuba. While Fidel managed to hold on in Cuba until very recently, Che left in ’65 and was executed by Bolivians in ’67. It is interesting to note the similarities between these images and ponder whether Obama might be the one to bring matters to a close by bringing Cuba into the USA?
Unlike the emerging giant of today, the China of ’59 was an enigma ruled, since 1943, by Chairman Mao and his little red book. Mao actually stepped down as the State Chairman in ’59, recognising what an unmitigated disaster his “Great Leap Forward” had been. He remained Chairman of the Communist Party of the PRC until his death in 1976 but had clearly not learned any lessons from the great backwards leap because he went on to create the equally disastrous “Cultural Revolution” a few years later in ’66.
Closer to home, the scene was dominated by the Cold War with powerful but very different characters on both sides. Eisenhower had been President of the USA since 1953 and would give way to JFK in ’61. Nixon was Eisenhower’s vice-President. Nikita Khrushchev had taken over directly from Stalin to become General Secretary of the Communist Party and Premier of the Soviet Union in 1953 and remained in office after Eisenhower was constitutionally forced to leave. Khrushchev gave way to Brezhnev in 1964. With hindsight, the Cold War looks a bit like an episode of ‘Allo Allo‘. There were some seriously dangerous moments but it was mostly just a series of farcical episodes such as 1959’s “Kitchen debate“.
Nixon: “This is the newest model. This is the kind which is built in thousands of units for direct installation in the houses…. Our steel workers, as you know, are on strike. But any steel worker could buy this house. They earn $3 an hour. This house costs about $100 a month to buy on a contract running 25 to 30 years.”
Khrushchev: “The Americans have created their own image of the Soviet man and thinks he is as you want him to be. But he is not as you think. You think the Russian people will be dumbfounded to see these things, but the fact is that newly built Russian houses have all this equipment right now. Moreover, all you have to do to get a house is to be born in the Soviet Union… Yet you say that we are slaves to communism.”
A couple of months later Khrushchev arrived in the United States for an extended visit and summit with Eisenhower. The first days of the Russian’s visit were a mixture of pomp, tourism, and a few moments of tension. While visiting Los Angeles, Khrushchev became infuriated by comments by the head of Twentieth Century Fox Studio and then threw a tantrum when he was barred from visiting Disneyland because of security concerns. On September 25, however, the real business part of Khrushchev’s trip began as he and President Eisenhower met at Camp David in Maryland to begin two days of talks about the Cold War. Eisenhower indicated that he was going into the talks with high hopes, but also warned that progress would only come if the Soviets were willing to make concessions on several issues, notably Germany and Berlin. Khrushchev and his entourage also seemed optimistic about the talks.
After two days of meetings, the two leaders issued a joint communique. It suggested that both “agreed that these discussions have been useful in clarifying each other’s position on a number of subjects.” They hoped “their exchanges of views will contribute to a better understanding of the motives and position of each, and thus to the achievement of a just and lasting peace.” In particular, they believed that “the question of general disarmament is the most important one facing the world today.” There were no specific agreements or treaties, but both nations did resolve to reopen talks about Berlin and other issues related to cultural exchanges and trade. Eisenhower and Khrushchev also agreed to hold another summit in the near future and the president announced that he would visit the Soviet Union sometime in the next year.
Unfortunately, the hopeful optimism generated by the September 1959 meeting did not last long. In May 1960, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane over Russia and captured the pilot. The Eisenhower administration compounded the situation by initially disclaiming any knowledge of espionage flights over the Soviet Union. A summit meeting scheduled for Geneva was scrapped, as were plans for Eisenhower to visit to the Soviet Union.
For the USA, the real trouble was only just starting in 1959, over in Vietnam.
The interests of all the above nations; USA, USSR, China and Cuba were often connected. It can be argued that Che left Cuba because he was more in tune with Sino Communism than Soviet. Fidel and Khrushchev were big pals, which led, in the early ’60s, to Khrushchev versus Kennedy and perhaps the moment the world came closest to full scale nuclear war, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the UK it was very much boring business as usual, Labour versus the Tories.
Let’s have a better Britain – October 8 1959: These three people symbolised Labour’s 1959 election campaign – the party had a new leader, Hugh Gaitskell (left – famous for dying suddenly of Lupus, leading to rumours that he was bumped off by the Soviets so that Wilson, supposedly a Soviet spy, could take power!); he was joined in the shadow cabinet by bright young MPs like Barbara Castle (centre – despite being a non-driver herself was responsible for things like 70 mph speed limit, breathalysers and compulsory fitting of seat belts to cars) and experienced old hands from the 1945 government, represented by Nye Bevan (right – responsible for formation of the National Health Service in 1948).
However, the Tories were even stronger. Having sacrificed Anthony Eden following the Suez crisis Harold Macmillan took the reins. He started to dismantle the British empire, signalled with his “winds of change” speech. He then captured the public’s growing consumerism with his much misquoted soundbite, “You’ve never had it so good.” More importantly he implemented a major public housing building programme which added flesh to the bones of his record. SuperMac, as he was dubbed by the press, increased the Conservative’s majority at the polls from 58 to 100.
Here in Poland, the head of the United Polish Workers’ Party (UPWP, Polish: PZPR) was Władysław Gomulka, on whom the Soviet invasion of Hungary in ’56 had made a deep impression.
He soon began to crack down on the liberalization unleashed by the “Polish October,” 1956 by reimposing censorship of the press in August 1957, and taking away the power of Workers’ Councils in the factories. He turned against the R.C.Church in 1959 by ending the teaching of religion in the schools, but allowed it to continue after school hours in “Catechism Points,” generally located in churches. He also closed down schools run by religious orders such as the Ursulines, but allowed the Catholic University of Lublin to continue in existence.
Interpreting the history myself, there’s a possibility that everyone got a bit carried away by Khrushchev’s process of de-Stalinization of the USSR. This may have led countries like Poland to overstep the mark, prompting other countries like Hungary to go even further thus leading to an inevitable (?) clampdown by the Soviets. Similar sort of domino effect that was eventually seen in ’89/’90 but without the backlash.
Nevertheless, it didn’t stop people visiting Warsaw to have their picture taken outside the very recently (1955) completed Palace of Culture & Science though!
What do we have to compete with that lot fifty years on? I suppose Hugo Chavez has to be the nearest thing to a revolutionary people’s hero, even though he’s not. In the UK nothing has changed, still a bunch of boring nobodies. Some of the flowery characters that were around are either retired (Nelson Mandela), dead (Maddas Hussein, Idi Amin), just about to be chucked out (Mugabe) or very lame (Colonel Gaddafi). Who’s ever heard of Hu Jintao, the guy who’s running China these days? Poland has the twins exiting stage left, Tusk centre stage and who knows which misfits are coming next. No, the only inspirational spark in the entire globes political arena these days has to be the Barack of Obama himself!
People today are still doing fundamentally the same things they were in ’59 – working 5 days a week, sleeping, eating, loving, socialising, using money to buy stuff, raising families…..and so on. So, no massive revolution has taken place. One could go on for many, many pages comparing family values then and now but I’ll avoid doing that as I really will start sounding like an old fart. There are however a few other things that have changed significantly.
My first selection is the behaviour of teachers in schools and the general issue of the use of violence as a way of disciplining children in and out of the home. All children of my generation, those who weren’t “swots” at least, were beaten at school. Even the swots were picked on by some teachers. The range of devices used to deliver this ‘justice’ was bewildering, ranging from thrown blackboard rubbers (with heavy wooden backs), wooden rulers brought down on knuckles or other sensitive parts, ‘the slipper’ a plimsoll or other flexible sports shoe often just the sole part to get maximum whipping ability brought down on the backside with as much force as could be mustered. The cane, or any kind of wooden stick was usually reserved for use by the headmaster. Verbal abuse verging on psychological torture was also very common. Such punishments were not rare occurrences in an otherwise calm school life, they happened every day. In this regard, things have changed a great deal. Some might argue, looking at the behaviour of kids today, that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
Secondly, homosexuality. In 1959, homosexual acts were illegal in the UK and the word ‘gay’ still had its original meaning. Interestingly, homosexual acts had been legal in Poland since 1932. Playground insults such as ‘queer’, ‘poof’, ‘bender’ and so on were, to be honest, perfectly normal behaviour for the massive majority of people (including myself) and being homosexual was very much a seedy underground pastime. You just didn’t see it in public at all. I mean, it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, thus negating its previous definition of homosexuality as a clinical mental disorder.
Nevertheless, when the tide started shifting on this issue it moved with the speed of herd of rampaging wildebeest! As a result, I’m sure I don’t need to explain how much this particular issue has changed during my lifetime! In my childhood it was unthinkable that I’d ever knowingly meet a homosexual. Since then I’ve met plenty of them and a few remain good friends. Being homosexual is now very trendy and in some walks of life, almost a necessity to get on. I’ve witnessed situations where being gay was the new version of being a mason and without it, you were going nowhere fast. I’m sure homosexuals think there is still a long way to go and I’m equally sure there are others who think this is far enough, if not too far already. Let’s see what the next 50 years bring.
Lastly has to be racial equality. Another issue where there will be some people thinking it has gone too far already whilst many think we still need to work harder, but there has been significant change.
Prominent figures of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Top left: W. E. B. Du Bois; top right: Malcolm X; bottom left: Martin Luther King, Jr.; bottom right: Rosa Parks.
In 1959 it would still be another four years before Martin Luther delivered his “I have a dream” speech but things were already changing. What was happening in 1959, in America, was the story of nine schoolchildren in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Little Rock, Arkansas, was in a relatively progressive southern state. A crisis erupted, however, when Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus called out the National Guard on September 4 to prevent entry to the nine African-American students who had sued for the right to attend an integrated school, Little Rock Central High School. The nine students had been chosen to attend Central High because of their excellent grades. On the first day of school, only one of the nine students showed up because she did not receive the phone call about the danger of going to school. She was harassed by white protesters outside the school, and the police had to take her away in a patrol car to protect her. Afterwards, the nine students had to be driven to school escorted by military personnel.
The issue received the attention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was determined to enforce the orders of the Federal courts to allow the children into the school. Critics had charged he was lukewarm, at best, on the goal of desegregation of public schools. Eisenhower ordered the National Guard to return to their barracks and then deployed elements of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect the students.
The students were able to attend high school. They had to pass through a gauntlet of spitting, jeering whites to arrive at school on their first day, and to put up with harassment from fellow students for the rest of the year. Although federal troops escorted the students between classes, the students were still teased and even attacked by white students when the soldiers weren’t around. One of the Little Rock Nine, Minnijean Brown, was expelled for spilling a bowl of chili on the head of a white student who was allegedly harassing her in the school lunch line. Only one of the Little Rock Nine, Ernest Green, got the chance to graduate; after the 1957-58 school year was over, the Little Rock school system decided to shut public schools completely rather than continue to integrate. Other school systems across the South followed suit.
I think attitudes have changed.
The UK, meanwhile, had just received its first significant wave of black immigrants, from the West Indies. From a trickle of 1-2,000 a year in the early ’50s the number of people coming to Britain had risen to over 20,000 a year in the late ’50s. Amongst these were the Barbadian parents of some of my best friends at school, and since. Here’s an extremely stereotypical image of those times.
You only need to walk around the UK today to see how this trickle of West Indians became a flood of others and to see just how multi-ethnic Britain has become.
Of course, some people took the movement in the above issues as a signal that we should invent a whole new way of life called ‘political correctness’. That got to be incredibly silly at one point but is thankfully now dying the death it so surely deserves.