I turn 60 this week. Which doesn’t seem possible. I finished my PhD fifteen years ago. I got married nine years ago. I’m just now reaching my stride in a career I love. By any reasonable accounting of a life that would make me about forty. And yet the year is clearly printed on my birth certificate: 1958.
In 1958, the Cold War was at its height, or perhaps its depths.
- Elvis Presley entered the army on March 24. He had received his draft notice on December 20, 1957. When the story hit the news, tens of thousands of fans sent letters to the army begging them not to send Presley into service. The American military offered him a variety of cushy jobs, including entertaining the troops.* Presley chose instead to serve as a regular soldier, to the extent that was possible. (Most soldiers didn’t get fourteen bags of fan mail a day.) After a brief deferment, while he finished filming King Creole, Presley received a more-or-less standard military haircut** and began his two years of service. He worked first as a truck driver in an armored division in Frankfort, was transferred to a scout platoon, and was eventually promoted to sergeant. (He also partied hard when he was off-duty and was introduced to the drugs that would ultimately end his life.) His decision not to use his fame to avoid the draft or to cherrypick an assignment was widely praised.
Only a few years later, in 1965, the draft became a headline story again when President Johnson announced that monthly draft inductions would increase from 17,000 to 35,000 men.
- Nikita Khrushchev became Premier of the Soviet Union–also in March. He pursued a policy of de-Stalinization within Russia. Khrushchev’s relationship with the west was complicated: an official policy of “peaceful coexistence” and “peaceful competition” undermined by gestures of aggression. (The construction of the Berlin Wall, in August, 1961, for example. )
- A month after Khrushchev took power, American pianist Van Cliburn won first-place at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow –an international music competition designed to demonstrate Russia’s cultural preeminence. Time magazine dubbed him the “Texan who conquered Russia.” (The temptation to look at Van Cliburn and Presley as bookends of American music in 1958 is almost irresistible. Both were young international phenoms with passionate fans and distinctive pompadours.)
- President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29; NASA opened shop on October 1. The creation of NASA was inspired by the launch of Sputnik in October, 1957, but its objectives, as laid out in the Space Act , were broader than Cold War politics:
1. The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space;
2. The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles;
3. The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space;
4. The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes;
5. The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere;
6. The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency;
7. Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results thereof;
8. The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities and equipment
Those objectives have remained fundamentally unchanged. Politicians sometimes manage to create something bigger than their immediate squabbles, whether they mean to or not. Anyone ready to give it a try?
*Asked whether the Army could use Presley to help with recruiting, a military spokesman replied “Our studies indicate that his basic appeal is to young girls. Our interest in that field is somewhat limited.” Limited is an understatement. At the time the number of women in the American military was capped at two percent of the whole and women were legally barred from having command authority over men. But I digress.
**Despite the efforts of Senator Clifford P. Case of New Jersey to intervene on behalf of the famous pompadour. Case obviously understood that young girls grow up to vote.