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article imageOp-Ed: "1956" book tells of radical change in the air, not 'Happy Days' Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Feb 24, 2017 in World
When people here in the United States think of the 1950s they usually think of the music, the styles and the post-WWII prosperity that accompanied the 'Baby Boomer generation'
But a new book by University of Leeds professor Simon Hall,PhD tells of a more complex social fabric that seemed to resonate globally and simultaneously the desire for freedom at around the year 1956. This reporter was able to contact Hall from his university office and asked him a few questions about his book.
What inspired you to write the book?
"Much of my previous research had concentrated on the 1960s and early 1970s – and I had tended to sort of dismiss the 1950s as a kind of prequel to the real excitement that came later. But when teaching a course on post-war America, he said, I came to really enjoy lecturing on America in the 1950s. Those years, said Hall are far more complicated and interesting than their popular reputation for drabness and conformity would have you believe."
Certainly in the collective imagination, most people view the 1950's (especially in America) as a time of unprecedented prosperity and 'Happy Days.'
But as a professor who specializes in Civil Rights and Peace Movement history, Hall noted. "It also began to dawn on me that 1956 stood out as an extraordinary year – both in the United States (with the rise of rock and roll, and epic clashes between civil rights activists and segregationists) and internationally (especially the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis)."
As seen in Chapter 15 of Prof. Hall s book  then prime minister Sir Anthony Eden meets with French p...
As seen in Chapter 15 of Prof. Hall's book, then prime minister Sir Anthony Eden meets with French prime minister, French foreign minister and British foreign secretary to discuss the Suez Crisis in Sept. of 1956. The recent Netflix series "The Crown" mentions Eden attending such meetings, as Great Britain had to deal with major social changes, demanding it relinquish its colonial power as an empire.
Popperfoto, courtesy of Simon Hall, PhD and Pegasus Books/W.W. Norton & Co.
"1968 actually was in many ways a re-run of what had happened a decade earlier. I thought that, while historians had written a lot on various ‘bits’ of 1956, it hadn’t really been considered as a ‘year of revolution’, or as a watershed moment in its own right," he said.
In reading the professor's book and trying to focus a bit more on the complexity, this reporter recognized something from the Netflix series "The Crown." At the start of Chapter 15 in Hall's book is a photo of British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden meeting with three other officials to discuss the Suez Crisis. In the Netflix series prime minister Eden is portrayed by actor Jeremy Northam. Much of the series which premiered last year talks about the declining colonial power of Great Britain and social changes taking place.
Hall noted to me that what was happening in Great Britain and America was not isolated. The stirring for more freedom and autonomy was happening many places.
"Given the drama of many of the events – Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ denouncing Stalin; uprisings in Poland and Hungary; the challenge to British and French colonialism in Gold Coast, Cyprus and North Africa; the escalation of the war in Algeria; the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Autherine Lucy’s attempt to desegregate the University of Alabama; the Suez Crisis; ‘rock ‘n’ roll riots’ and the rise of Elvis Presley – it seemed like there was a great story here, said Hall. And, that needed telling, and in a way that people would enjoy reading about."
Was there any one event or aspect that you enjoyed most?
"My partner is Hungarian... and so, writing about the Hungarian Uprising came to feel quite personal to me. For a few days in the autumn of 1956 it really looked as if the revolutionaries might have won; and that a new more optimistic era in the Cold War might be beginning."
"But then, of course," he added, "the Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the uprising decisively – so it’s a story that’s dramatic, inspirational, and kind of heartbreaking."
The reviews the book has received thus far are positive. The Independent praises the book and Hall for his work. Yet the paper also describes it as sweeping and that "Any readers who are not already short of breath soon will be." While, it may seem that way to some, it is clear to this reporter that Hall's intent is to provide an overview - a world perspective.
The U.K.'s 'The Telegraph' found Hall's book engrossing and that he achieves providing details "as a CinemaScope epic."
For someone like me who grew up in the U.S. believing that apart from the Cold War and the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement, the 1950's were a time of peace and prosperity, Hall's book got me to ponder deeply.
While the post World War II era was a time of unprecedented prosperity, much of it did not reach everyone in American society. This is something Hall points out in the very first chapter of the book.
"Having not written about the American civil rights movement for several years," he said. "I also enjoyed writing about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the clashes between African Americans, seeking to exercise their constitutional rights, and white southerners determined to maintain segregation no matter what, at the University of Alabama and at high schools in Texas, Tennessee and Kentucky. Going back to these extraordinary events reminded me of why I fell in love with the history of the American South and the struggle for African American freedom in the first place."
Or, was there anything you found most challenging in your research, Etc?
"I had to break out of my U.S. history comfort zone for this book, said Hall. And writing about the end of the British Empire, the French war in Algeria, and de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was enormously challenging (and, to begin with, pretty intimidating). But it also ended up being tremendously rewarding."
In response to the U.K.'s Independent review Hall noted. "The other big challenge was how to tell the story of a year – you can’t include everything. And have to get around the fact that, often, he said, things are happening simultaneously. But I think that my approach, which, involved honing in on particular moments before drawing back to provide the reader with the wider context. (And, that worked)" he said.
Financial Times in is review back in December points out that Hall recognized the social aspects with regards to politics. "Hall demonstrates how the language of revolt in 1956 was shaped by the ideological polarities of the cold war." While the review critiqued that in focusing on social history, "little attention is given to the ideas that reflected, or even shaped, the hopes and disillusions of 1956." Still even with some criticism, Financial Times, like the other reviews praises him; saying, "Hall succeeds admirably..."
1956 The World In Revolt, by Simon Hall, PhD published by Pegasus Books, NY, NY can be purchased through Amazon and other sellers in Kindle format, paperback and hardcover.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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