1950s New Zealand walked the line between British tradition and new US influences. New Zealand and Britain celebrated the Queen’s coronation and Hillary’s conquest of Everest together. But the country signed the Anzus Treaty with the US. Pop culture swept the country, debatably corrupting morals. And America’s anti-communist crusade took hold during the 1951 waterfront dispute.
- ‘One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock rock …’
- ‘Rock Around the Clock’, Bill Haley and His Comets, 1954
The 1950s are sometimes called a ‘golden age’ in New Zealand history. With World War II over and the economy booming, spirits were high. But the decade was not all golden weather – optimism and fear lived side by side. Likewise, the influences of Britain and the United States struck an uneasy balance.
British ties – from the Queen’s coronation to Everest
New Zealand remained closely tied to Britain. People were jubilant when Queen Elizabeth was crowned in 1953 and when she toured the country later in the year.
The conquest of Mt Everest by New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, within a British expedition, coincided with the Queen’s coronation. This was a great moment for New Zealand and the British Empire, inspiring widespread celebration.
US influences – from Anzus to pop culture
But with ‘mother country’ Britain weakened by World War II, New Zealand looked to the US and Australia for security. The Anzus Treaty, signed in 1951, sealed this relationship.
On the nation’s streets, there was no stopping American pop culture. Rock ’n’ roll burst onto the scene, challenging the British tradition of ballroom dancing. Hollywood movies, comic strips, and pulp fiction all found eager young audiences.
Juvenile delinquency & murder
Not everyone was pleased about the new American influence. Pop culture was charged with corrupting morals and breeding juvenile delinquents.
New Zealand rock ’n’ roller Johnny Devlin, though loved by young people, was damned by critics as the ‘Satin Satan’. And there was disapproval of ‘milk-bar cowboys’ and ‘bodgies and widgies’. These groups shared a love of rock ’n’ roll and, debatably, inappropriate behaviour and outrageous clothing.
Murders committed by teenagers, like the Parker–Hulme and ‘milk-bar’ murders, fuelled the ‘moral panic’. Teenage sex scandals worsened matters still, enough to prompt a government inquiry into teen morality. The resulting 1954 ‘Mazengarb report’ (Report of the Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents) led to increased censorship.
Fear also fuelled the ‘reds under the beds’ mentality. In 1951, America’s crusade against communism struck a real chord here during the waterfront dispute, which was blamed on ‘communist wreckers’. The government declared a state of emergency and gave itself sweeping new powers to combat the ‘dissidents’.
Fear of communism persisted throughout the decade and beyond.