The Year That Changed Everything

by: Lance Morrow

No one knew it at the time,

But 1948

 launched three men towards their destinies!


P EOPLE WHO LIVED THROUGH TUMULTUOUS YEARS LIKE 1914 or 1941 or 1968 recognized them at the time for what they were: pivotal and world changing. But sometimes it is only after the passage of a generation or two, as a phase of history rolls on and its direction becomes clearer, that its point of origin emerges. 1948 was one of those years.

The nation turned away from depression and world war to what became America’s vast peacetime imperial consumerism—the automobile-and-suburb culture. The baby boom was in utero, or in diapers. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were approaching the terrible twos. In LIFE, an ad for Mutual Life Insurance showed a drawing of a man just about Richard Nixon’s age (35)—hair Brylcreemed straight back like Nixon’s—bending over a child about 2 years old sleeping in a crib. The father in the ad says, “Goodnight, Mr. President .....and big dreams’

That summer, Nixon, a freshman member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, presided over the Alger Hiss case—a gaudy, sensational, two-year-long pageant of congressional hearings and court trials that would bring the cold war home, divide Americans and launch the young Nixon on a trajectory toward the White House.

Congressman Lyndon Johnson was locked in a fight for his political life in Texas —an epic run for the U.S. Senate against the popular conservative former Governor, Coke Stevenson. Johnson beat Stevenson, in a runoff primary election, by just 87 suspect, late-counted votes from south Texas.

Freshman Congressman John Kennedy, recovering from his first onset of Addis-on’s disease, learned that his sister Kathleen—the third of the golden trio of Joe Jr., Jack and “Kick”—had been killed in a plane crash while flying with her married lover for a holiday on the Riviera. Joe Jr. had died toward the end of the war in another plane, which blew up over the English Channel. Jack fell into a period of morbidity. The Kennedy family concealed the truth about Kathleen’s aristocratic lover. Kennedy ever after concealed the truth about his Addison’s disease; if voters had known that Kennedy suffered from a debilitating illness, his future political career, and his world ( being elected as president) would have been impossible.

If there had been no Hiss case, if Johnson had lost, if Kennedy had told the truth about his disease—history would have been different. The dramas turned on secrets. Nixon probed the hidden communist lives of Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. Kennedy locked the truth of his medical condition in a secret compart-ment . Johnson went to desperate lengths to prevent the disputed ballot box from being opened. It was an era of secrets—political, personal, atomic. The cold war, just beginning, took form upon a battlefield of deadly concealed knowledge, of espionage and counterespionage, the terrible prize of which was the secret of the power to destroy the world. The Saturday Evening Post still gave Americans a Norman Rockwell version of themselves as an essentially lovable and virtuous people. The first programs in the new medium of television worked the same vein. But the war—as war always is—had been a violent exploration of the possibilities of human nature. Technology had expanded the possibilities in the direction of apocalypse. Americans asked what they always ask about themselves: Are we a good people or a bad people?

In 1948 Alfred Kinsey published his report on Americans’ previously concealed sex lives. The Nobel Prize in Medicine went to the Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller, for his work in developing the “miracle” compound DDT. Fourteen years later, during the Kennedy Administration, the New Yorker would begin serializing Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. George Orwell transposed two numbers to get 1984. Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu militant from an organization called Mahasabha (the Great Society). The Marshall Plan began. The state of Israel was born. In the summer of the Berlin airlift, Lyndon Johnson clattered across Texas in history’s first campaign-by-helicopter—Lyndon swooping down ex machina to meet and greet the astonished farmers. 1948 was the year when three future U.S. Presidents passed through formative ordeals and emerged reborn—launched toward their destinies. All three of those destinies would be literally or politically fatal years later, in the Vietnam-Watergate era, which, in turn, formed the U.S.’s present leaders. The year 1948 was the seedbed.





by. Lance Morrow, Copyright 2005

Published by Basic Books, Inc.

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