1956 1960 19701980

A review of The Fabulous Future, America in 1980, published in 1956 by Fortune Magazine.

If we, from our twenty-first century advantage, think about the quarter century before 1980, what principle topics would come to mind? One year after The Fabulous Future was published, Sputnik launched and changed our view of ourselves, technology, space travel, and education. One month before Sputnik, Congress passed the first civil rights legislation in eighty-two years, followed by another attempt in 1960 and the landmark legislation in 1964. In Cuba, a guerrilla war kicked off as the book was being published, leading to a communist puppet regime within ninety miles of American soil, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis and decades of political turmoil. The United States undertook a ground war in Vietnam that claimed 50,000 American lives, and inspired youthful rebellion and the counterculture of the 1960s. NASA landed humans on the moon and followed up with five more successful missions. One president was assassinated and another resigned. An unelected vice president assumed the office of the presidency. The price of energy became a major economic impediment. No president completed two full terms, and the confidence of citizens in the integrity of their government reached alarming lows. An American consulate was invaded in a third-world country, and its occupants held hostage for 444 days. An American actor was elected president. That’s how we remember the period.

            Let's also check on some of the major players during that twenty-five year period, and see what they were doing in 1956. Fidel Castro was fleeing inland from a disastrous invasion attempt near Playa Las Coloradas in Cuba. John F. Kennedy was losing his bid for the Democratic Vice Presidential nomination. Lyndon Johnson had become Senate Majority leader the year before, and he also failed in an attempt at the vice presidency. John Lennon formed a singing group, “the Quarry Men.” Ho Chi Minh had been president of North Vietnam for two years. Lee Harvey Oswald enlisted in the Marines. Richard Nixon was the Vice President, running for a second term. Neil Armstrong, Korean War veteran, was getting married, and was working for the predecessor of NASA. G. Gordon Liddy, Watergate conspirator, was attending law school at Fordham. Gerald Ford won his sixth congressional race. Jimmy Carter was out of the Navy and running his late father’s peanut farm in Georgia. Ronald Reagan was hosting the TV show “General Electric Theater,” starring, with his wife, in the movie “Hell Cat of the Navy,” and delivering his first public speech at the Eureka College commencement.

            Now, let’s see what our prognosticators made of all this. Or, if you’re pressed for time, you could skip Straight To The Bottom Line.

David SarnoffDavid Sarnoff, Chairman of RCA at the time, kicks off by asking, “What is likely to be the special character of the quarter century ahead of us?” Known as General Sarnoff, for the star he earned on Ike’s communications staff during WW II, he seems to have caricatured American competence and self-promotion, claiming heroism during the Titanic’s sinking, and prescience for predicting the future of commercial radio.

            Sarnoff saw “crises and climaxes,” over the next quarter century, driven not just by atomic and electronic technology but by accumulating moral, social and political pressures.

            He noted the work RCA was then doing on what eventually became light emitting diode (LED) technology and predicted flat panel TV screens and very efficient light sources. He correctly saw where the technology was going, but underestimated the time to market by about a quarter century. He extrapolated atomic energy, from the then projected use in submarines, into all ships, airplanes and automobiles by 1980. Atomic batteries, generating electricity not from heat but from the direct conversion of nuclear energy into electricity, would be common by 1980. Solar, tide and wind energy would be exploited. Desalinization would make the deserts bloom. Ocean floor farming would be productive. Ballistic missiles would carry mail and freight, personal flying machines will crowd the airways, controlled electronically.

            He correctly foresaw advances in nuclear medicine, a direct extrapolation from the 1950s. He predicted another favorite of the time, faster and better education through color television. He correctly foresaw the robotics revolution in manufacturing.

            Beyond technology, Sarnoff didn’t predict so much as preach, which is what the editors were probably signaling. He called for greater toleration among races and nationalities, and a reduction of crime, which he believed would be possible with more plentiful food an goods from the technological revolution. Sarnoff predicted the increasing economic demand for brainpower versus brawn, as he put it, and “hoped” but didn’t predict better education.

            Sarnoff foresaw greater leisure because automation would lead to a shorter work week and expected another ten or fifteen years to have been added to the lifespan by 1980. Increased leisure would produce an increase in art and literature. Sarnoff then dropped his prophet’s pen and lapsed into a sermon on progress, a favorite topic in 1956.

            The paramount political issue of the day was the response to communism. Sarnoff prescribed all the elements of the now familiar Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) protocol that produced the collapse of the Soviet Union, but made no predictions.

            In summary, General Sarnoff presented a good summary of where he thought technology and society would, and should, go over the next quarter century. Where he made verifiable predictions, he got some right and some wrong. All his predictions were extrapolations of things he could see around him, but his vision was good and he saw a lot.


Jon Von NeumannJohn von Neumann, asked the question, “Can We Survive Technlogy?” Von Neumann was qualified to both raise and answer his question. He was a mathematician and physicists whose broadly ranging contributions went from the foundations of mathematics, to quantum physics, to economics, to game theory. He was a principle intellect on the Manhattan Project, and helped build the computer used in developing the hydrogen bomb. When he asked if we could “survive,” he meant it literally.

            Von Neumann provided the sort of hopeful but anxious answer we should expect from a genius, someone who sees far, wide and deep. He saw technology as an unstoppable force of human intellect with inherent potential for good and evil. Technology would, he believed, continue increasing the volume of human interaction, and reducing the time for human response, thereby straining human institutions and increasing the likelihood and severity of their breakdown. Atomic energy made this increasing fragility lethal on a global scale. This formulation was the reasoned analysis of the time and reaction to it determined world-wide political decisions and informed all predictions and prescriptions from that time. On this existential question, Von Neumann offered no prediction, saying the outcome would be determined by future choices, and no one could say how those choices would be made.

            Von Neumann did make some technological predictions, and they are interesting. He believed it possible and likely atomic energy would become the dominant energy source, providing essentially free energy. This would be effected by two things that did not come to pass: radically more efficient and cheaper fission reactors, and moving beyond fission, he did not speculate to what, for the exploitation of nuclear power. He did predict nuclear technology would lead to the wholesale transmutation of elements, alchemy.

            He predicted correctly the rapid adaptation of computers to the entire economy.

            Von Neumann predicted, with great certitude but incorrectly, great strides in climate control. He rightly understood that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels could have dramatic impact on climate. He incorrectly believed world-wide climate control could be effected because he, like many people then and since, assumed computer modeling of highly complex systems would be more linear than it has proven. He was writing before the discoveries of the 1960s, now called “chaos theory,” that complex systems can produce catastrophically large variations in outcomes from infinitesimal changes in inputs. Overestimating the predictability of complex systems drove many bad predictions from that time, and from this. Climate control and weather control, he predicted, would be driving political policy by 1980, locally and globally.

            How does Von Neumann answer his own question? Can we survive technology? He predicted it would be possible. He’s been right so far.


  George MeanyGeorge Meany contributed an essay on organized labor titled, “What Labor Means by ‘More.’” Meany, at the time, was president of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the free world, distinguished from groups of workers in totalitarian regimes. Meany eschewed prediction in favor of setting goals for organized labor. Nevertheless he made a few predictions. Decentralization of manufacturing plants, he correctly believed, would be a trend in the trek toward 1980. Automation would disrupt manufacturing and labor unions, many plants becoming fully automated. Right. By 1980 the standard work week would have shrunk to thirty hours. Wrong. Labor would become more involved in politics. Right. Elimination of racism should and would be a major effort. Right.


Nathan M. PuseyNathan M. Pusey wrote about, “The Exploding World of Education.” Dr. Pusey was the President of Harvard University, himself a product of Iowa public education. He made no predictions beyond the need, in 1980, for more, and more competent, teachers in all levels of education. Much more money would be needed to attract these highly qualified numbers of educators. The only prediction was that by 1980 the debate about teacher qualifications and educational goals would not be settled. Right.


Earl WarrenEarl Warren provided an essay on, “The Law and the Future.” Mr. Warren was the Chief Justice of the United States and had, just two years before, presided over one of the most socially, morally and politically disruptive legal matters in history, the overturning of racial segregation in public schools.

            Mr. Warren predicted the most difficult legal problems of the succeeding twenty-five years would be driven by technological advance, and the tension between freedom and national security. Mr. Warren hoped for an international advancement of freedom and the rule of law by 1980, but made no predictions.


Crawford H. GreenewaltCrawford H. Greenewalt discussed, “The Slow, Steady Way of Progress. Mr. Greenewalt was President of E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, the chemical business. He made few predictions beyond believing progress in technology, particularly chemical technology would continue apace, propelled by the steady, incremental work of institutions and the unpredictable breakthroughs that would be spawned from it. He believed nuclear power might become ascendant, but predicted the real energy breakthrough would be harnessing solar energy through some biological-like advance. He predicted this would not happen by 1980. Right. Mr. Green also pointed out the burden being imposed on business by high taxation and predicted a slowing of technological breakthroughs unless it was reduced.


George M. HumphreyGeorge M. Humphrey wrote about money in, “The Future: Sound as a Dollar.” Mr. Humphrey was the Secretary of Treasury under president Eisenhower. Mr. Humphrey, like others, did not make predictions so much as give prescriptions. One was for the need to control inflation. Business confidence, he said, is paramount to economic success and controlling inflation is fundamental to confidence. Certainly, by 1980, the wisdom of this statement was born out by the misery index of high inflation and low growth. He predicted that by 1980, if his monetary policies were followed, the national budget would be in better balance than it was then. Who can say if this was right, since his premise was not fully met.

            Mr. Humphrey predicted a world population of over 3 billion by 1980, versus 4.5 billion in actuality, and U. S. population of 200 million, versus an actual of 227 million.

            Mr. Humphrey made one prediction that set him at odds with many contemporary great thinkers. He believed time was the great ally of the free world in its contest with the Soviet Union, that communism would prove an unsuccessful economic model. Right.


Adlai E. StevensonAdlai E. Stevenson discussed, “My Faith in Democratic Capitalism.” Mr. Stevenson was Mr. Eisenhower’s unsuccessful opponent for the presidency in 1952, and again in 1956. He was an attorney, practicing in Chicago. Mr. Stevenson made no predictions, and, instead, delivered a campaign argument intended to convince the readers of Fortune Magazine he was not an enemy of the business community. Two predictions, however, were implicit in his comments. He believed automation would lead to increased leisure and government would have to play a role in helping people cope with it. He believe it likely there would be a marked draw down in defense spending by 1966, and government would have to smooth the economic transition. In the event, by 1980 the increased leisure had become ephemeral, and by 1966 defense spending was accelerating into the Vietnam War.


Robert E. SherwoodRobert E. Sherwood predicted, “There is No Alternative to Peace.” Mr. Sherwood was a playwright, author, historian and presidential speechwriter for President Franklin Roosevelt. Mr. Sherwood’s one prediction was a conditional, if the world had not disarmed by 1980, the human race would have ceased to exist. Wrong and wrong. He urged what sounded like voluntary disarmament under the auspices of a world government to which American sovereignty was to be ceded. He acknowledged the risk of treachery by our enemies but saw no other way for the world to survive. His thoughts on the subject of world peace and disarmament reflected the popular wisdom of a wide swath of American society at that perilous time, a position sometimes parodied as, "Better Red than Dead."


Charles P. TaftCharles P. Taft wrote, “The Familiar Man of 1980.” Mr. Taft was the son of president William Taft and the brother of Senator Robert Taft. He made some solid predictions. Economic productivity would continue increasing at about the same rate. There would be no war with either Russia or China before 1980. Southeast Asia was the most dangerous place for a localized war because of Chinese adventurism. He believed international trade would continue to become freer. The demand for “unskilled” workers would lead to persistent unemployment. Churches would grow in influence and provide increased spiritual help to businesses and employees. Hmm. A foreshadowing of religion entering politics?


Henry R. LuceHenry R. Luce wrote, “A Speculation About A. D. 1980.” Mr. Luce was the Editor-in-Chief of Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. Mr. Luce foresaw, by 1980, a fundamental spiritual change in Americans, manifesting in a greater mutual awareness of each other as individuals and members of a vast economic organization. He saw an almost metaphysical evolution of American citizens and their business organizations into increasing awareness of the purpose of life. The cynical view would be that if such a thing happened by 1980, it is yet to be discovered, and yet, certainly the great civil rights upheaval, the war on poverty, and the spiritual emphasis of the coming counter culture could be viewed as symptoms of such a change.

The Bottom Line  Few of the events of this period, great or small, were foreshadowed by these essays except in the vaguest of references, or in the depths of labored analysis. The closest hints of things to come were in Charles Taft’s references to Southeast Asia, and expanding international trade, George M. Humphrey’s suggestion that the Soviet Union would eventually decline on its own (although not by 1980), and David Sarnoff’s vague thoughts about improved racial relations and industrial automation (Meany also foresaw the robotic manufacturing plant). Civil rights was not mentioned and barely hinted. Cuba was not mentioned. Vietnam was not mentioned. Nor were space travel, hyper-inflation, college riots, the decline of the American auto industry, the crisis in gas prices, or the loss of confidence in the government. Our essayists had the same problem we all have in trying to peer into the future. What we see is not the future but the past. We don’t predict, we memorialize and preach. How could it be otherwise? We have memories and moral values, but memory doesn’t penetrate even to the current moment, and moral values are merely aspirational.

            Actually, space travel was mentioned, in a way, and the reference is instructive. Henry R. Luce began his essay by recalling a female reporter who'd asked that she get the assignment to go to the moon. He agreed. His retelling of the incident sounds almost dismissive, as if a first flight to the moon might be routine commerce in short order and covering it would be like covering a war or an expedition to the South Pole. He would decide who should go to the moon. His underestimation of the complexity of such an undertaking is riveting, and his story illustrates the difficulty of saying things about the future. Even someone as deeply involved in the culture as Henry R. Luce had no idea what he was talking about when he ventured outside his daily boundaries. His view of everything filtered through the prism of journalism. None of us has the breadth of view, and robustness of intellect to make coherent all the things going on in the world that are ever conspiring to create the very next moment after this one.