The Fifties are an unfortunate decade, located between the Forties, which is known for World War II, and the Sixties, which is known for the Sixties. The Fifties is almost the decade that time forgot. Even people who were adult then are called the forgotten generation, too young to serve in World War II, they served in the Korean War, which is also pretty much forgotten, not nearly as notorious as was the Vietnam War, that, naturally, occurred in the Sixties.
But of course the decade of the Nineteen Fifties is just as important as any other time, and perhaps more so since it set the ground for what was to come after, and that includes now. A book has been written about this decade, called The Fifties, but David Halberstam, who also wrote a definite book about the Vietnam War.
The decade was dominated by one aspect, the closing square between Uranus and Neptune; the conjunction of the two, and thus the culmination of the cycle that started in 1820, was in the 1990s.
There are several meanings that can be attached to this square, and most of them involve the word “drugs” because Neptune is part of the aspect, but not always “drugs” as commonly thought of.
The Fifties was the decade for the introduction of the first, very popular tranquilizer drug called Miltown, whose scientific name was meprobamate. This was an anti-anxiety drug that became very popular with bored housewives (eg. Betty Friedan The Feminine Mystique) and business executives. This started the psychoactive drug craze — treat mental problems with drugs not counseling — that led to Valium and Prozac in later years. This decade also saw the publication of the first DSM – –Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — that prescribed all sorts of drugs for what ailed you in the psychological realm. It was a bible for psychiatrists. Ever since that point — the Fifties — drugs have been prescribed more and more for more and more conditions, many of which did not exist when the first DSM came out. Some psychiatrists have worried that the use of these drugs make the underlying conditions worse, see for example, the book Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker.
Another activity that also became addictive was one that first became important to the world under the Uranus-Neptune opposition of the first decade of the Twentieth Century, and that was driving. The Interstate Highway system was built, spanning the United States. This allowed people to drive coast to coast much more easily than in the days of Route 66. It now became a tradition in many families for the males to go inspect the new model cars when they were introduced every year like clockwork, with major changes happening every three years. American car manufacturers, especially General Motors, became huge industries, and the head of GM was even in the Eisenhower administration. American families would get a new car often — it was a point of pride — and automobiles played a part in many American movies. A teenager — a concept that became important in the Fifties — was expected to learn to drive early and get his (more often that her) own car, it was a sign of adulthood.
But the most important drug of this decades, what I call an electronic drug, was television. Halberstam, in the book mention above, discusses the important place television held in American life in the Fifties. While television had existed before the decade began, through the decade it became more and more popular. In 1950 relatively few people owned television sets, and crowds were often found around store windows that displayed sets whenever an important show was on, while by the end of the decade many, many people owned television sets, so that it made sense to have the first televised debate between Presidential candidate John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. The powerful effect of television was shown by the fact that listeners to the debate on radio thought that Nixon had won, where viewers of the debate on television were convinced that the handsome Kennedy had won over the recovering-from-illness Nixon.
There was another reference to drugs during this decade in a more conventional sense.
In the early Fifties the Beat poet and novelist William Burroughs went to South America to explore the psychedelic substance known as yage or ayahuasca. The active component of this substance is DMT — dimethyltryptamine — which later became popular in the Sixties –the band known as the Grateful Dead is rumoured to have come up with their name while on a DMT trip — and is found in the common road side plant known as reed canary grass. Burroughs wrote a series of letters to the then unknown poet Allen Ginsberg describing his experience. The book was finally published in another ten years. But this was one one the first accounts of a Western writer exploring mind-altering substances in a third world country.
Later that decade the ethnomycologists and vice president of the investment bank J. P. Morgan R. Gordon Wasson explored “magic mushroons” in Mexico. He was married to a Russian woman, and the Russians have always been interested in mushrooms, hence his interest. He discovered a dying cult in Mexico that use psilocybin mushrooms to alter their state of consciousness. These mushrooms would also become popular in the next decade, after he rescued them from obscurity. He published an article in Life magazine in May of 1957 called “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” that brought the mushroom to world attention, and a few years later a popular TV show — television now being available for the masses — called One Step Beyond devoted an episode to the mushrooms.
Then in 1959 a graduate student in creative writing at Stanford University in the Bay Area of California took part in government experiments with psychedelic drugs such as LSD. The student, who later became a well-known writer, was Ken Kesey, and his experiments with drugs later led to many developments of the Sixties counter culture and the famous Acid Tests and a group called the Merry Pranksters, who drove a acid-fueled bus across the United States, as recounted most famously in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
But the experiments that Kesey was taking part were sponsored by the CIA – Central Intelligence Agency — as part of their program called MKULTRA. MKULTRA was run mostly in the Fifties, and was finally revealed in the aftermath of the Watergate crisis in the United States. It was a program designed to look at various ways of controlling the human mind, with implications for interrogation. Various drugs were explored, the most interesting of which was LSD. Among other things done with this drug, in one experiment prostitutes were instructed to give their customers a liquid dosed with LSD while CIA agents watched their reaction. Army members were given LSD without their knowledge. In one case a Canadian jumped from a high building under the influence of MKULTRA-supplied LSD. The experiments at Stanford that Kesey took part in were part of this program.
But the CIA was formed by the National Security Act of 1947 (which also renamed the accurately-named War Department as the Department of Defense) as a combination of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and the German intelligence organization during World War II as headed by Reinhard Gehlen, who was charged with spying on the Soviet Union during the emerging Cold War. So one can see a trail between the Nazis and the Merry Pranksters.
These two charts above show the first and last exact square of Uranus and Neptune during this decade. But there was one other important transit during this decade that shows why the effects noted were so strong in the United States. For that country, this decade also saw the transiting Pluto opposite the Moon. This transit only happens once every 250 years, and so this transit had never happened before in the history of the country. There was a conjunction in the early days of the United States, the decade of the 1790s, and that had to do with the formation of the first political parties, among other things, and will be discussed at a later date. Since the Moon represents the people of the country, as opposed to the government, it was in this transit that the people of the country that were most affected. Again, the Halberstam book mentioned above details this connection. During this decade citizens went from being those who would catch Your Show of Shows at the house of someone who had a television set to citizens who stayed home Monday nights to watch I Love Lucy. The next chart shows one instance of this opposition, but since Pluto is a slow moving planet, this transit and its effects lasted for many years.
This graphical ephemeris show the ten year period of the Fifties and gives an overview of the astrological influences discussed. We can see the square approaches exact (black arrow) and leaves exact (red arrow) over a period of years. For a square I would give an orb of three degrees before and after exactitude. To give you a sense of this, each gray or white band in the graphical ephemeris represents 7.5 degrees. The only natal planet illustrated is the US Moon, so you can see where the conjunction with Pluto takes place (green arrow). With the orb I give for an opposition of six degrees, you can see that this opposition lasts for much of the decade.