The Cold War
The explosions of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, brought World War II to an end, and the rapid growth of the Soviet Union’s military power and ambition cast a pall over the Western world, including the United States, in the post-war years. The Cold War is a term used to describe the tensions, both political and ideological, between the United States and the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1990. This tension created fear in both nations as both countries stood ready to escalate to nuclear war.
A direct result of the Cold War on the population of the United States was a sense of dread and anxiety, brought about by the awareness that the world could end in a flash, with little or no warning. Russian dictator Nikita Khrushchev’s famous 1956 speech did nothing to alleviate these fears. As reported in the November 26, 1956 issue of Time magazine, Khrushchev declared, ‘‘About the capitalist states, it doesn’t depend on you whether or not we exist. . . .Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!’’
Khrushchev’s speech and other events of the year, including hostilities between Egypt and Israel and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, led people to wonder if the end of the world was near. This questioning led people to seriously question their values and goals. Some people became alienated and disengaged from life itself; others sought to find ways to make their lives meaningful. Writing in the midst of this milieu, it is little wonder that Finney pictured his protagonist alone on a ledge, trying desperately to return to a time and place where he has been secure.
After World War II, there was considerable worry among U. S. economists about how to sustain the economy that had been fueled for nearly a decade by demands of the war, first as the U. S. helped England and France, and later as the nation became an active participant in the war. With the war over, the demands for products and services might drop precipitously, just at the same time thousands of men were returning home in need of jobs. However, as Alfred E. Eckes and Thomas W. Zeiler wrote in Globalization and the American Century, ‘‘Some had worried that demobilization would bring a renewal of the Depression, but this concern proved unfounded. American consumers had a pent-up demand for consumer goods—especially automobiles, televisions, washing machines, and houses.’’
In the early 1950s, the television industry was just beginning. Television programming, paid for with advertising dollars, further spurred the growth of the consumer society. As more and more homes obtained televisions, more and more people were exposed to advertisers trying to persuade viewers to buy products. In an ongoing cycle, advertisers urged people to buy televisions, television programming was paid for through advertising revenues, and television commercials embedded in the programming created the desire for the viewer to buy more goods, including televisions.
For many Americans, success became measured by how much money one could earn and how many goods one could buy with that money. Grasping for material success is what motivates Finney’s protagonist to go out on the ledge to risk his life for a scrap of paper in ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket.’’ Significantly, young Tom Benecke learns that security, meaning, and life itself are not consumer goods, and cannot be purchased for any amount of money.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Jack Finney, Published by Gale Group, 2001.