Gee Wally, Was There Really A Cold War?

Leave it To Beaver and Nuclear Blast

Mayfield is in mourning.

Wally Cleaver, Beaver’s gentle, big brother was reported to have died this past Tuesday. No prank of Eddie Haskell, the fact was Wally remained in hospice close to death.

Now with his confirmed passing on July 27th, a generation of baby boomers will have lost yet another cultural icon with the passing of Tony Dow who played Wally, in six seasons of Leave it to Beaver.  Thanks to the endless loop of black and white reruns the likable teenager became an indelible character in our lives.

Although Tony Dow would forever be identified with Wally Cleaver, he was not the first Wally. In the pilot episode of the show, the character of Wally was portrayed by actor Paul Sullivan. However, after filming the first episode, Sullivan had a major growth spurt and was replaced by Tony Dow who remained in the part from the second episode on.

And remained in our hearts as well.

Wally And Beaver Cleaver

Tony Dow as Wally Cleaver and Jerry Matthis as the Beaver.

Gee, Wally

Wally was the gold standard when it came to big brothers.

Unfailingly polite, trustworthy, popular with his peers, and liked by his teachers, he was the perfect foil to the antics of his dim-witted friends Lumpy Rutherford and snarky Eddie Haskell that two-faced, smooth-talking suck-up.

The Cleavers, the quintessential post-war nuclear family portrayed in this often achingly saccharine show was the perfect balm for an age of nuclear anxiety distracting us from the chilly tensions of the cold war.

They were that spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Leave it To Beaver Mayfield HS and Little Rock HS Students 1957

That fall of 1957 as Wally and Eddie walked the steps of Mayfield HS, Governor Faubus called in Arkansas National Guard to block the first class of Black students entry into Central High in Little Rock. Later, President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into school.

In Mayfield, there was no cold war.

There were no fall-out shelters, no Communists to worry about, and never ever any racial strife.

As though in a cocoon, the outside world never seeped into the wholesome day-to-day life of that family.  Politics and international issues that plagued the world were never brought up. The show that ran from 1957- 1963 at the height of the cold war was a placid escape. In the pages of Ward Cleaver’s newspaper that he read at breakfast with the family, there was no mention of Little Rock,  no Berlin, no Cuban Missile Crises.

 

Birmingham race riots and Leave it To Beaver

L) Birmingham erupted into chaos in 1963. A 17-year-old civil rights demonstrator being attacked by a police dog during protests ( Bill Hudson AP) (R) Eddie Haskell, Wally, and Beaver Cleaver

The wholesome show stood in sharp contrast to the nightly news which we watched that began to show a very different picture of the world around us.

On the same familiar RCA TV that brought us pleasant fictional towns like Beaver Cleaver’s Mayfield, we began seeing real towns like Selma and Birmingham where real American teenagers were clubbed by police for sitting at a Birmingham Woolworths, and police attacked helpless schoolchildren with fire hoses.

 

Headline for Sputnik October 1957 and Opening of Leave it to Beaver

For a show so removed from issues, it is not lost on me that this sitcom debuted on one of the most anxious days of the Cold War.

History changed on October  4, 1957. Along with the debut of  Leave it to Beaver, the Soviet Union successfully launched the first satellite named Sputnik into orbit around the earth.

The importance of that event can’t be overestimated. Americans were shaken to the core.

Though no larger than a beachball and sending meaningless signals back to earth it nonetheless sent shockwaves, having a profound effect on the mindset of people and governments around the globe. Russian engineers wanted to make sure that people around the globe could both see and hear it so the shiny steel sphere broadcast a “beep-beep” pattern of signals that could be picked up by amateur radio operators around the world.

Americans were astonished coupled with fear.

All of a sudden there was an enemy satellite streaking across the sky over the U.S. At the time no one knew what it was capable of doing. What our leaders did know was that if the Soviet Union had rockets powerful enough to launch a satellite that had rockets powerful enough to launch a nuclear bomb on the U.S.  Military strategists worried that the success of the Sputnik program demonstrated the Soviet potential to launch intercontinental missiles.

To many Americans Sputnik I represented a dark future where the Soviets reigned as the world’s dominant superpower. The very thought of Soviet technological supremacy sent off a chain reaction of panic, rising fear levels, and soaring defense spending. We would pay any price, bear any burden to fill any Missile gap.

The space race was on.

So was the missile race.

Jerry Mathers as the Beaver and Duck and Cover

Unlike Beaver Cleaver who we never once saw hiding under his school desk, the rest of the baby boomers began ducking and covering.

But if he had, his big brother Wally would likely have comforted him.

 © Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2022 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

3 comments

  1. Sally, when folks get nostalgic for the past, they seem to be remembering the “Pleasantville” version not remembering the Cold War or Jim Crow. An African-American will not be as nostalgic about having to avert eye contact with white person, having to take a test to vote, or being worried about your life when stopped for a traffic violation. Keith

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  2. You are a masterful historian, Sally. Truly in a class by yourself. This is entertaining, thoughtful and a contrast in ’60s TV vs. ’60s reality that will be little more than an aside in most reporting of Wally’s passing and the show’s rightful though myopic place in history. I hope it helps some people (those who work in black robes, in particular) realize that turning back the clock should be for entertainment purposes only.

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