National Archives Assignment

ILS 512 National Archives Assignment
Martha Blume
Assignment: Postwar U.S. (1945-1970’s)
I chose this era because it is one I know little about; I was born toward the end of it and it isn’t
one that I studied very thoroughly in school. After looking through several of the options, I decided on
an assignment entitled “America during the 1950’s (and early 1960’s)”.
This assignment was meant to be done as part of a unit related to reading One Flew Over the
Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey, 1962). It is meant to provide a context for the decade prior to the committal
of the book’s main character, McMurphy, to an insane asylum.
The assignment is a series of slides from the 1950’s and early 1960’s. All the slides are photos of
original documents. Each slide is accompanied by an explanation as to the context in which it was
created. First, the student is to examine the slides and their captions. Then there is a reading response in
which the student is to comment on events of this decade in the context of the social environment in
which One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is set.
I found the slides thoroughly fascinating. Among them are several related to the building and
supplying of nuclear fallout shelters; documents related to race riots and the desegregation of “Ole
Miss” (the University of Mississippi); notes that JFK scribbled in an executive council meeting during the
Cuban Missile Crisis; a photo of the March on Washington in 1963; references to Elvis getting drafted,
including a great note sent by three girls to President Eisenhower, begging him not to require Elvis to get
a “G.I. haircut”; and the draft of a public law for the “prevention and abatement” of air pollution. It was
really thrilling to see and read these original documents.
The reader response segment focused on the fact that the 1950’s is viewed by many as an era of
progress and optimism, and yet for many it was a time of turmoil, violence, racism, fear of nuclear war,
conformity and intolerance. It’s been a long time since I’ve read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so I
can’t really comment on how the events of that era may have shaped the characters in the book. But
what is interesting is that I recently read Girl, Interrupted (Susanna Kaysen), from the nonfiction portion
of our YA reading list. One could draw the same parallels in relating Susanna’s environment to her stay
in the mental hospital, as one could draw from society’s influence on McMurphy and the other patients
in Cuckoo.
It seems to me that the overlying theme is “who is really crazy”? How we view society, based on
our place in it, has a lot to do with how we view ourselves. Those on the top of the social ladder, in the
50’s and 60’s, were the ones with the authority providing judgment on those under their control.
Viewing the slides in this National Archives assignment helps one see the worldview of those who were
not in control at the time, and how life looked to them and at them.
I thought it was a great assignment—very interesting and educational as well. I would definitely
recommend it to high school literature or historical events classes.