A couple of years ago I came across a huge set of photographs taken all over the United States in the 1940s. They struck me with great force, mostly because they seemed to direct attention irresistibly toward what might be called the American character. While the pictures showed a country in some ways vastly more heterogeneous than it is today (there was no television, commercial jet travel, or interstate highway system), at the same time there was a strong sense of its being a single enterprise. With the great benefit of hindsight, it was possible to look at the pictures and find, in the America of the forties, what we’re so used to hearing was there: patriotism, a sense of shared burdens, the absence of today’s self-indulgence. As they raised the issue of national character, the pictures implied that it has changed for the worse since then, but of course they couldn’t explain exactly what had happened, or why.

In reading through the popular literature of the postwar years, it becomes clear that the first coherent vision of the national character in the age didn’t emerge until the early and middle fifties. The titles of a few books that encapsulated this vision will call it forth: The Lonely Crowd; The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit; The Organization Man. The idea was that large bureaucracies of government, business, and even religion and social service, were coming to dominate the life of the country as never before, and that the lives and ways of thinking of the citizenry were undergoing adjustments to accommodate the change. The generation born in the twenties was finishing school, joining up, and moving to a proliferation of rootless suburbs to raise its families; but what really bound it together was a single character trait.

William H. Whyte Jr., in The Organization Man, called it the Social Ethic, “that contemporary body of thought which makes morally legitimate the pressures of society against the individual. ” David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, called it “other-direction”: “What is common to all the other-directed people is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual.” In all these works, conformity is the word that comes up most often and resonates most. No one would take risks. No one wanted to be different. Anyone out of the mainstream was to be distrusted or ignored. It was not difficult to look at the great events of the time for confirmation of the theory: Eisenhower was the regular-guy president, people preferred hanging on to their jobs to taking on Joe McCarthy, intellectuals were preoccupied with “consensus,” and diplomacy, in the atomic age, had become risk-conscious in an entirely new way, yet also completely intolerant of different cultures.

The analysts of the day did not believe this was a fad that would pass; like Crevecoeur 150 years earlier, they felt that America was producing a new kind of man who would continue to dominate the life of the country, if not the world, for generations. Whyte’s last chapter is called “The Organization Children, ” and says the schools of the fifties are teaching the subordination of the individual to the group. Riesman ties the rise of other-direction to the end of a period of high population growth, with the idea that it will last all through our society’s long maturity. Whyte ends his book by saying gloomily that Alexis de Tocqueville’s long-feared tyranny of the majority has come at last.

But today what’s striking about the Organization Man school is how poorly it predicted the nation’s future. It has become commonplace for people to look back longingly to the forties, if not the fifties, for the strength of the glue that then bound us together. Rather than excessive conformity, we’re worried about an excess of what William Whyte said was the character trait the nation most needed—individualism, or narcissism, to use Christopher Lasch’s (and Jimmy Carter’s) word. Rather than the power of the majority, we worry about its lack of power, about the vise-like grip of interest groups on national politics and the concomitant withering away of political parties and other broad consensual bodies. Corporations? Instead of fearing their dominance, we’re trying to get them back on their feet. Company men? They’re bedeviled not by the bridge club, but by divorce lawyers and cocaine dealers. How could the seers of the fifties have been so right about their own times, and so wrong about what would follow? Maybe the Organization Man was a more complicated figure than he appeared to be. It’s worth wondering about, because if we could understand why our current ills were able to surprise us so completely, we might also see what brought those ills about, and how to beat them.

William Whyte devotes a chapter of The Organization Man to presenting Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, a novel set in the forties but addressed to the concerns of the fifties (it was published in 1954), as the apotheosis of the cowardly Social Ethic. His case turns on one scene: after brilliantly winning an acquittal at the Navy court-martial of Steve Maryk, who relieved the insane Captain Philip Queeg of his command of the minesweeper Caine during a typhoon, Maryk’s lawyer, Barney Greenwald, staggers drunk into a victory party. Though it was Maryk who got off, Tom Keefer, a young officer on the Caine who’s also a novelist, is the center of attention; he had persuaded Maryk to turn on Queeg, and he is now far more exultant than Maryk. Keefer effusively toasts Greenwald, the lawyer, but Greenwald unexpectedly turns on him with a stream of bitter invective. He says Captain Queeg was just a regular Navy man who was protecting America, whereas Keefer is a smart-aleck intellectual: “…these birds we call regulars—these stuffy, stupid Prussians, in the Navy and the Army—were manning guns. Course they weren’t doing it to save my Mom from Hitler, they were doing it for dough. Question is, in the last analysis—what do you do for dough? Old Yellowstain [Queeg’s derisive nickname], for dough, was standing guard on this fat dumb and happy country of ours.”

Here is a quintessential moment of crisis for the fifties mind—so close to the heart of things that Wouk, a Jewish novelist, builds the questionof the Caine mutiny around a fight betwen a Jew and a novelist, as if to express that it’s a passionate close call in his own mind. Keefer, as William Whyte is quick to point out, was right to lead the charge against Queeg, who should not have been commanding a warship. But Wouk is careful to portray Keefer with suspicion. He is supercilious, odd, difficult to like, and a coward. In the very next scene after Greenwald’s tirade Keefer is given command of the Caine, and, after a kamikaze attack, he jumps ship, leaving his men to fend for themselves—but in the water he is clutching to his breast the manuscript of his novel! Meanwhile his half brother, Roland Keefer, a Regular Guy, has already died a hero in a kamikaze attack on his ship a couple of hundred pages back. The implication is that Tom’s urge to blow the whistle stems from his lacking the courage and self-effacement necessary to stay on the team even when the team is wrong. To take it further, as Greenwald does, the degree of individualism that it takes to be a novelist is antithetical to the achievement of great organized triumphs like the defeat of Hitler.

That may be Wouk’s message, but the message of The Caine Mutiny to someone reading it today is that there was a direct causal link between World War II and what was perceived as the conformist ethic in the fifties—a link the social analysts of the day barely acknowledged. But it makes sense. The war was a psychologically powerful and universally shared experience on a scale that this country has not seen since, and it pathetically dwarfs such later claimants as Woodstock. It was a fundamental triumph of good over evil that was engineered not only by a bureaucracy but by military bureaucracy. It was a triumph of the organization, not the individual.

All those are fairly obvious points of departure for the fifties ethos, but there’s one other that’s not so obvious. War is horrible almost beyond the imagination of people who have lived their lives in peace. It is horrible for everyone who has to worry, at every moment for years on end, about someone they love dying, and it is especially horrible for the soldier in combat, whose experience, by all accounts, inflicts long-term psychological devastation along with its better-known wounds. Could it be that the Organization Man was suffering from shell shock?

Ample support for that theory can be found in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a novel that’s not quite what it’s remembered as being. Yes, it’s about a junior executive with a wife, three kids, and a too-small house in Westport, Connecticut; yes, he rides the commuter train, works for a big corporation, and drinks too many martinis. Even in his own mind he is “Thomas R. Rath, 33 years old, making $7,000 a year, owner of a 1939 Ford, a six-room house, and $10,000-worth of GI Life Insurance, which, in the case of his death, would pay his widow about $40 a month.” Lest anyone miss the point, there’s a gumption-filled wife in the book to make it crystal clear. “And now,” she tells Tom, “all you want is security, and life insurance, and money in the bank to send the kids to college 12 or 15 years from now, and you’re scared because for six months you’ll be on trial on a new job, and you always look at the dark side of everything, and you’ve got no guts!” But what’s really bothering Tom is not the corporate life (his corporation is portrayed as fairly benevolent, with a kindly, lonesome genius at the helm) or peer pressure (no peers appear in the book) or rootlessness (he was born ten minutes from Westport). It’s the war.

He suffers from what viewers of made-for-TV movies know as the Vietnam flashback syndrome. In the war he killed 17 men, one of whom it gave him an eerie flash of pleasure to stab, another of, whom was his best friend, the target of an errant grenade thrown in the wrong direction in the heat of battle. Before being shipped from Italy to the Pacific, he had an affair with a teenage girl, though he was already married, and left her pregnant. He has never told anyone any of this, but, ten years after the fact, it consumes him emotionally.

It’s quite clear that his Organization Man-ness is just a manifestation of his continuing anguish over combat; here’s the passage that gives the book its title:

“They ought to begin wars with a course in basic training and end them with a course in basic forgetting. The trick is to learn to believe that it’s a disconnected world, a lunatic world, where what is true now was not true then; where Thou Shalt Not Kill and the fact that one has killed a great many men means nothing, absolutely nothing, for now is the time to raise legitimate children, and make money, and dress properly, and be kind to one’s wife, and admire one’s boss, and learn not to worry, and think of oneself as what? That makes no difference, he thought—I’m just a man in a gray flannel suit.”

So strong are the war scenes that, perhaps more than the author intended, they drain the juice out of the rest of the novel. Tom’s corporate career turns out to be almost absurdly easy, arid he is made to hesitate over a series of wonderful promotions proffered by the company’s president while he tries to set his war-fevered mind at rest. Although in the end he does decide, in classic fifties-novel fashion, to get out of the rat race, real moment of epiphany comes when he tells his wife, finally, about the war; after she takes in the news of his Italian son in a torrent of emotion, you know everything is going to be all right.

For every Tom Rath there were ten other soldiers who went through the war without a truly searing combat experience. But those the war didn’t scar, it nonetheless marked. Even the most back-line soldier at least theoretically risked his life, and caused tremors of worry to run through his family back home. He gave up two or three or four prime years to the service of his country, and at first it looked like it would be much more than that. He lived in cramped, crowded quarters, lonely for long periods, and in the fever of homesickness imagined life back home to have been much more harmonious than it really was. “If he ever came back alive,” Wouk wrote of Willie Keith, the hero of The Caine Mutiny and a far more typical World War II soldier than Tom Rath, “He wanted peace and luxury.” If prewar America hadn’t offered much in that line, the returning veterans would create surroundings for themselves that conformed to what they had dreamed about during the war—tree-lined streets, neat lawns, growing families. What made them Organization Men wasn’t a grand historical shift in the behavior of the species; it was the war.

A second misapprehension of the Organization Man school has to do with the nature of authority—the authority that they then worried was too strong and that is now viewed by such seers as Robert Nisbet as being in “twilight.” With the modern corporation still a relatively new beast in the fifties, and huge government bureaucracy even newer, and totalitarianism on a continuous 20-year roll around the world, it’s easy to see how the American bureaucratic life might have been misapprehended. All the tenets of sociology and the powers of observation pointed to the erosion of traditional forms of authority (family, church, town, custom) in favor of the authority of the large organization, and there was every reason to believe that this authority would prove to be oppressive. Wasn’t that the case in all of the communist world? Didn’t the American corporations seem systematically to be breaking down the ties of their employees to place, to church, to relatives, to everything but the corporation? Wasn’t everyone now encoded onto a computer card, and didn’t the leading computer company, IBM, force every one of its employees to wear a white shirt every day?

Although you still see this vision of corporate fascism discussed here and there, it has long lost its suasion and now seems almost comically A wrong. Daniel Yankelovich, the pollster, is making a fortune explaining to corporations their “new rules” employees, who aren’t loyal, won’t accept transfers, won’t work long hours, and demand interesting assignments. The writers of the fifties wildly underestimated the extent to which the corporate economy would remain a freemarket for white-collar labor; instead of cracking down on their young whiners, as the fifties script would have dictated, our board chairmen are forced to turn plaintive eyes toward their management consultants and grumble among themselves about how much better their counterparts in Japan have it.

In the fifties, to pick one more irony nobody dreamed of at the time, there were a dozen or so computers in the country, all in the possession of large institutions, which stored vast banks of information and inevitably got the patronage of anyone interested in data processing—hence the computer as symbol of the organization’s stranglehold on America. Now, thanks to the silicon chip, every freelance writer, backwoods elementary school, and Brill Building talent agent owns a computer, and it has become one of the postwar inventions that have made the country vastly more decentralized.

For each of these specific features of the modern world there’s a specific cause, but overall there is also a sensible reason why authority appears to have declined. A turn-of-the-century German sociologist named Georg Simmel spoke of authority moving through three stages: subordination under an individual, subordination under a group, and subordination under a principle. The first stage finds its classic expression in feudalism, and in this country it has been approximated most closely in the relationship of slave to master, indentured servant to employer, sharecropper to landowner, or illegal alien to boss. There are traces of it in many small businesses, too. In the second stage, a small town of the Sinclair Lewis variety, with its rigid communally determined restrictions on behavior, would be the model. The third stage is the trickiest. Simmel points out that as a society becomes large, complex, and bureaucratic, authority exercised capriciously has the effect of screwing up the smooth operation of the system; so broadly applicable rules, regulations, and laws are passed, and they become the real source of authority.

Assuming, always, that we remain a fairly prosperous democracy, the increasing number and force of government and internal rules make it increasingly difficult for corporations to poke around in their employees’ personal lives. There can be no doubt that it’s easier now to be a gay employee, for example, than it was in the age before the huge corporation and huge government were our leading source of jobs. When we talk today about the diminution of authority, we certainly don’t mean the authority of the legal system; we mean the older forms, the authority of the town and the parent and the boss, and these were the inevitable casualties of the bureaucratic age.

A final reason why the Organization Man theorists were wrong could be that theirs were self-negating prophecies. While through the late forties the team-player ethos was widely articulated at all levels of the culture, by the middle fifties the perceptions of The Organization Man were shared by millions of people, and particularly by intellectuals and those who felt left out of the political consensus of the time. Those who hung around with the cultured had by then gotten used to hearing high-falutin’ complaints about conformity at every cocktail party, to the point that a backlash against the snobs began. Herman Wouk was part of that; in Marjorie Morningstar, his next novel after The Caine Mutiny, a detestably artsy writer named Noel Airman woos the nice Jewish heroine, but in the end (with the author’s obvious blessing) she throws him over to become Mrs. Milton Schwartz of Mamaroneck.

In private life, as became clear in the late sixties, rank upon rank of those junior executives in the suburbs were reading their William Whyte and madly inoculating their own children against the plague of conformity. The corporations themselves, tired of being the bad guys, became less demanding; at the same time their employees, wary that anyone think of them as men in gray flannel suits, increasingly partook of the unloyal MBA-hired-gun ethos. In public life, the institutions of politics and government began to heed prescriptions in harmony with the perceptions of The Organization Man. These ranged from the glorification of political pluralism that Phillip Longman discussed in the June issue of this magazine; to John Kenneth Galbraith’s advice, offered in The Affluent Society and elsewhere, that we stop worrying about production and turn our attention to distribution and “social goods”; to John E Kennedy’s dashing, James-Bondish ideas about foreign affairs; to Paul Goodman’s proto-hippie cultural ideas in Growing Up Absurd. A generation of teachers taught the anti-Organization Man gospel.

When the Berkeley riots of 1964 made it clear that the Organization Man vision of American society was becoming seriously inaccurate, they did so under the banner originally raised by William Whyte; one of the great complaints of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement was that Berkeley students had been issued computerized ID cards. In many ways the country was ready to take the fears expressed in The Organization Man and run with them, and it did so to the extent that the cure came to overshadow the disease.

Today, as we wake up hung over from the spree that followed and survey the overturned ashtrays and broken lamps in the living room, what seems most clear is that the notion of national consensus is not inherently evil and must be brought back in some form more palatable than it was in the fifties. Even the Organization Man theorists now agree on this; as early as 1969, David Riesman, who ended The Lonely Crowd with a chapter called “Autonomy and Utopia,” implying that the relationship between those two concepts is that of horse and carriage, had partially recanted. Patriotism, the good of the nation, a concern for the community as well as the individual—even now the legacy of the Organization Man is strong enough to make one hate to say it, but these are noble and necessary concerns. Since the latter half of the 1970s, incipient Organization Man tendencies have manifested themselves in the generation born during the long course of the baby boom. There is a genuine desire abroad in the land to join up again, partly ignoble (young people no longer trust in American abundance and want risk-free, bountiful jobs) and partly admirable. The issue now is finding a setting for these sentiments that will produce, not the world of the fifties all over again, but an enthusiastic, inclusive spirit of community.

What can we learn from what went wrong in the fifties? A series of pitfalls clearly present themselves. First is the soul-exhaustion, the desire to lay that burden down, that World War II produced. But today, despite Vietnam and whatever disillusionments come to mind, that excuse of the fifties holds only for the most determinedly self-pitying. Most people now bearing children and moving past the beginnings of their careers ought to have considerable reserves of energy. What their parents put into the war in a single concentrated dose, they can put into forms of national service that can be pursued steadily for decades without wearing out the batteries.

The second pitfall is the corrosive pressure to conform that was, after all, part of the culture of the fifties. Imagine a social atmosphere that could induce Allen Ginsberg to spend time working in an ad agency—a spectacular act of self-erasure—or Herman Wouk to feel a self-hatred about being an artist strong enough to produce his portraits of Tom Keefer and Noel Airman. Whyte and Riesman weren’t kidding. Times of national purpose often create as their byproduct an intolerance at worst, an inattention at best, toward those who don’t fit into the grand design—it’s no accident that the phrase “national unity” has always been a great favorite of fascists.

The best that can be said about avoiding this problem is that it crops up most in societies that are tired (America in the fifties) or scared (Italy in the twenties), neither of which our society is right now. On the other hand, in the fifties the quite understandable feeling of distress with the narrowness of the times found its expression in ways that served to destroy, rather than strengthen and deepen, the consensus. The good-hearted made Whyte’s and Riesman’s mistake of running like mad in the other direction and being blind to the virtues of community; the not-so-good-hearted created a minority culture based on sneering. Don’t think for a minute that we are incapable of this today. Jimmy Carter’s well-meaning if bumbling attempts to call us to the good fight—particularly his trip to the mountain-top in the summer of 1979—were widely greeted with snickers about his being so uncool.

In the annals of the national character, now seems to be a time when the Organization Man phase and the long reaction against it have finally run their course. There is a combination of inclination and need. People are no longer automatically hostile to organized effort. Meanwhile, organized effort—organized, that is, on unselfish lines—is what the country most needs. America is disintegrating into its component parts before our eyes. Single-interest groups absolutely unwilling to consider the general good have politics nearly locked up. Each social class sees less and less of the others as the public schools wither away. The air of a nation divided into camps is so pervasive that even the debate about what to do tends toward opinion-mongering and faction-promoting without any passion to find out what underlies our problems and convince the unconverted of the right solutions. So finding a national spirit that sticks, and works, and that people believe in even when there’s nothing in it for them, and that will consume a good part of the life-energies of most of the country, is simply necessary. For the next phase in the life of the nation, it is the great cause.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.