In these essays, a combination of personal remembrance and broad-stroke cultural history, Philip Beidler addresses the culture and politics of post–WWII America: the national blindness toward the Holocaust and a rising China, the canker of McCarthyism, ascendant cultures of hard smoking and heavy drinking, the worship of cars and film idols, and the chronic fear of an always-possible nuclear apocalypse. In lively, driving prose, he recalls veiled episodes in the history of the Korean War, the civil rights movement, and the struggle for women’s liberation. On these subjects and many others, Beidler draws from his own experience and a penetrating grasp of American social history, offering deep, pointed, and comprehensive perspectives on iconic moments in American history.
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About the Author
Philip D. Beidler is the William and Margaret Going Endowed Professor in English at the University of Alabama and the author of many works of cultural and literary criticism, among them The Island Called Paradise: Cuba in History, Literature, and the Arts; Late Thoughts on an Old War: The Legacy of Vietnam; First Books: The Printed Word and Cultural Formation in Early Alabama; and American Wars, American Peace: Notes from a Son of the Empire.
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The Victory Album
Reflections on the Good Life After the Good War
By Philip D. Beidler
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Not a single major account of post-World War II American life and culture omits discussion of the Red Scare — as the phenomenon, alleged to have become a major preoccupation of many citizens during the late 1940s and early to mid 1950s, is now familiarly termed. Accordingly, chroniclers of the era attempt often to depict a great atmospherics of fear permeating the culture from top to bottom, within and without, and everywhere in between. This supports a certain strain of ideological argument, but thematically it never quite comes off. The effect is something vaguely humorous — like the panicked crowds of a city fleeing from space aliens or a movie monster, or of kids going fitfully to sleep at night while worrying about evil creatures under the bed. I suspect that, like me, many who came of age at the time read historical studies of it with a recurrent sense of disjunction between political accounts of the era and the recollection of how particular political moments — frequently spotlighted as nodes of scandal or crisis — were really experienced by most Americans.
For a young person such as myself growing up in post-1945 America, the Reds were certainly represented as the enemy, and in substantial degree, we were encouraged to believe, the enemy was everywhere. Most visibly, the Reds were the Russians, or, more properly, the Soviets, bent on communist world domination. Forget about the brave World War II ally, fighting for Mother Russia against the Nazis in the great patriotic war; about Stalin, the Big Three partner, along with Roosevelt and Churchill, the little father of the Russians, Uncle Joe. The Soviets became the relentless expansionists of the Communist bloc, the ruthless masters of the Iron Curtain countries, with their puppet governments. By 1949 they had the atomic bomb; as things quickly turned out, they had gained important parts of the technology through a system of spies within the United States capable of infiltrating the most secret of projects and security systems.
After 1949 the Reds also included the Communist Chinese, the new masters, under Mao Tse-tung, of the great Asian mainland; concurrently, they also extended their reach into Korea and Indochina, with the first, a communist dictatorship under Kim Ilsung, openly attacking southward in 1950 and precipitating a three-year war against U.S.-led U.N. forces; and the second, a revolutionary regime under Ho Chi Minh, waging a successful guerilla conflict against the French and eventually the United States. A notable feature of the two "anticommunist," "hot" wars Americans would actually fight, both in the latter precincts of Asia, would be that primary "communist" sponsorship could never be determined as predominantly Russian or Chinese.
On the world landscape, and in American minds, such sudden postwar reconfigurings of friend versus enemy required a certain hasty, parallel logic of geopolitical substitution. The Nazis and the Japanese were still back there in memory, to be sure, but their imperialist designs and heinous deeds were quickly fading from real-life history — good enough still for villains in war movies, comic books, and other popular-culture celebrations of Allied heroism but no longer part of the official calculus. From 1945 on, as a strategic bulwark in Europe, we needed the Germans almost immediately. Documentation of the death camps was downplayed. Some small mention of state terror against civilians was rendered at the Nuremberg Trials, but the focus of the tribunal was on war crimes in the military sense. As symbolic figures, Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, and, eventually, Goering did the Allies the favor of committing suicide; by 1947 second-line members of the Nazi hierarchy were nearly all imprisoned or executed. "West" Germany and, to a similar degree, "free" Austria, both demilitarized and democratized under Allied occupation, became key strategic pieces in the puzzle of Western defense against the Soviets, interchangeably known as Russia and the Iron Curtain countries or the Communist bloc. They were also proclaimed as exemplary new "free world" European nations, showpiece Western-style democracies and capitalist market economies. As against the menace in Europe and the Mediterranean of thriving Communist parties in the political mix of France, Italy, and Greece, the Germans in particular were quickly rehabilitated in the American mind into a nation of the defeated and misled, suffering, bombed-out veterans and their families, starving and dispossessed, propagandized and lied to, who had been ignorant of the enormity of the Nazis' crimes. Repenting of their militarism, "West" Germans became freedom loving, fervently democratic, committed to full citizenship in the community of nations.
In Asia we turned out quickly to need the Japanese very badly as well. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had changed everything, conferring immediate, colossal victim status. As with the Germans, reimagined as a people preyed on by their ruthless leaders, the Japanese were deemed largely unwitting parties to imperialist designs for Asian domination. Tojo and a handful of war criminals were tried and executed. The emperor, strategically retained, was himself re-enshrined as peace-loving, misled by militarists in government, at the end indeed the only figure resolute enough to brave a coup and even possible assassination by assenting to Allied demands for surrender. American catastrophes, such as Bataan, Wake Island, or Guam, and POWs and captured fliers, in their sufferings and tortures, got left to war movies, as did suicidal, crazy, Jap soldiers and kamikaze pilots, somehow no longer representative of the peace-loving Japanese people. Also played down, as with the Nazi mass murders of Jews and other conquered peoples, were Japanese war crimes against the Chinese. Played up instead, in the latter case, were ideological warlord rapine and murder, with the Communist Chinese never to be confused with the Christian, freedom-loving, Chiang Kai-shek Nationalists. Under the MacArthur shogunate, for five years, Japan itself became the great Asian laboratory of American-style capitalist free enterprise and democracy. Like a rehabilitated Germany teeming with U.S. military bases, soldiers, and weaponry, and war-destroyed industries up and running, in short order Japan became the great American bastion of freedom and economic productivity in Asia.
One may be surprised more than a half century later at the alacrity with which the postwar American mind undertook such overnight re-organizations of geopolitical consciousness, the sudden revisions of recent history and redistributions of friend and foe, ally and enemy, according to the new Red specter, the plot of Communist world domination. At the time, one now sees, perhaps only the instatement of a "plot" requiring such bizarre reimaginings and reinventions may have seemed an adequate response to a set of new political developments, actions, and events, at home and abroad, so putatively orchestrated, monolithic, unitary. It is frequently forgotten, for instance, that it was President Dwight Eisenhower who proposed the "domino theory" as a model of communist operation and that although the reference was to Southeast Asia, the idea seemed at the time (1954) to involve a natural and justified logic by extension from a constant atmosphere of Red crisis among Western nations where any location of the globe could suddenly spawn a pattern of communist takeover activities. In fact, before World War II had formally concluded, things were taking a bad turn, with the February 1945 Yalta conference of the Big Three allies being distinguished by obstructionist tensions between Stalin and Roosevelt on one hand and Roosevelt and Churchill on the other. By August 1945 at Potsdam, with Stalin facing off against Truman, replacing the dead Roosevelt, albeit not privy to many of the latter's previous agreements, promises, concessions, and with Churchill participating initially, already somewhat toothless as British representative, but shortly to be voted out of office and replaced by Atlee, the cold war began early and openly. At the meeting itself Truman was able to announce detonation by the U.S. of an atomic bomb; Stalin, apace, casting off the cloak of wartime antifascism, engineered a complete replacement of any spirit of allied cooperation with a climate of postwar distrust and deception. Bitter quarrels took place over divisions of Germany, Austria, zones of occupation, reallocations of territory, spheres of postwar influence, regional alliances. Refusals of comity or cooperation, when not achievable through constant obstructionism, escalated into threats of open hostility. Meanwhile, toppling regimes blotted great regions of the globe. In 1946 Poland was subjected to communist takeover, and in 1947 Hungary and Romania were as well; in the same year, China's Communist and Nationalist factions erupted into mass civil war. In 1948 a communist takeover in Czechoslovakia was accompanied by the near-victory of Communists in Italian elections; the blockade of Berlin by the Russians was followed by the highly publicized Berlin Airlift, bringing relief to the residents of the allied zones of occupation; direct U.S. intervention, under what came to be called the Truman Doctrine, was required to defeat a communist insurgency in Greece; larger U.S. strategic interests in Europe were evidenced in the creation of a full-blown military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. In Asia the Communist Kim Il-sung was installed by Russians as dictator of North Korea; to the South, on the Indochinese peninsula, open war began between the French and the communist Viet Minh.
Two catastrophic developments occurred in 1949: Russia successfully tested an atomic bomb, and mainland China fell to the Communists. Then, in 1950, came the Korean War, launched by a Communist invasion of the South and eventuating in an initial rout of U.S. and South Korean forces. The military situation became stabilized late in the year, with a countermarch northward, in turn culminating in a new catastrophe, Chinese intervention. The first hot war of the cold war, as things came to be termed, would continue for another two years, petering out into a bitter contest over terrain, position, and jockeying for endgame advantage.
As a source of geopolitical fear, then, the rise of global monolithic communism, at whoever's instigation wherever, certainly seemed real enough. In Europe a distinguishable Communist bloc commanded a solid center of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. To the south lay Rumania and Bulgaria, along with Tito's maverick Yugoslavia, comprising the former Balkan states, and on the Adriatic, strange, isolated Albania. To the north were the reclaimed Baltic lands of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Concurrently in Asia, an enormous new Chinese Communist state, with an overnight ascendancy to great-power status comparable to that of the Soviet Union in Europe, controlled the mainland, with the remains of a Nationalist government reduced to saber-rattling offshore on Formosa and a handful of buffer islands. In North Korea a bristling militaristic dictatorship separated from the South by a demilitarized zone required — in a defense responsibility increasingly considered parallel to that in Europe — a permanent U.S. commitment of active military forces. North Vietnam lay firmly in Communist hands, with an ascendant insurgency in the South and concomitant menaces visible in Laos, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Only Japan, Formosa, South Korea, South Vietnam, the Philippines (where a postwar Communist Huk insurgency had been barely put down), and various smaller Pacific island bases remained available as toeholds in Asia. Again, it now seems striking that the idea of "containment" as a major U.S. political doctrine for halting the spread of communism has become largely associated with efforts in Asia. At the time, it was known to be the intellectual brainchild of the government's most highly respected young Kremlinist. The fact was that communist expansionism had become essentially ubiquitous, a matter of East and West, as well as an experience being repeated across what was coming to be known as the Third World. "Nonaligned" nations of all sorts began to look as if they were leaning definitely elsewhere, with major entities as diverse as Tito's Yugoslavia and Nehru's India seeming to make independent, leftist turns. U.S. vigilance and promotion of "Free World" values wore themselves thin keeping the numbers and balances in line in Central and South America, Africa, and the Middle East. Even in the allied camp, France and Italy retained significant, legal Communist Party influence in their national politics well into the late cold war era. Meanwhile, disparate efforts at intervention in places as diverse as Greece and Turkey, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, the Ivory Coast and the Congo were endlessly pursued to prevent nations from slipping into the "wrong" camp. Today, it is nearly impossible to recapture the stunning effect on Americans a half century ago, almost exactly, of finding that communism was in Cuba, ninety miles offshore.
To such a pattern of relentless, palpable, external threat, what seemed an orchestrated, monolithic, grand strategy of communist world domination, there came easily to most Americans a concomitant logic of internal networkings, infiltrations, and subversions aimed at the heart of American domestic political culture. In retrospect, this may now seem historically quaint; at the time, it was hard for politically informed Americans to ignore, emotionally and psychologically at least, what seemed a set of domestic parallels to menacing international developments. Threads, tendrils, conspiratorial networks of a global plan for communist world domination were clearly identifiable as at work in the great world beyond; if America stood as the chief bulwark of such an insidious plan for democratic overthrow, devised by such an unrelentingly creative and dedicated enemy, surely some must have been planted with the intent of their growth within the institutions of U.S. democracy itself. A suddenly victorious nation arrived overnight at superpower status — itself so late arriving in the war out of a hubbub of ideological conflict, New Dealers, internationalists, conservative isolationists, homegrown fascists, pacifists, America Firsters, socialists, leftover 1930s communist intellectuals and fellow travelers — was ripe for a domestic Red Scare. And when it happened, it was not the Reds who came out from under the bed but rather an aggregation of some of the most unsavory demagogues and right-wing opportunists in the history of the Republic. Some, such as Congressman J. Parnell Thomas and Senator Joseph McCarthy, in due time got their nasty comeuppance; others, such as Richard Nixon, parlayed Red-baiting celebrity through a political ascendancy eventually taking him to the highest office in the land. Preying on old ideological antagonisms and unresolved isolationist/internationalist quarrels interrupted by the war, and drumming up a series of widely publicized scandals and crises, along with assorted official inquiries and contrived political events extending over roughly a decade from 1947 or 1948 onward, they engineered a completely irrational turn in American politics. Anticommunism and virulent fear-mongering eventuated in what frequently seemed bizarre American parodies of the communists' own staged political dramas, investigations, show trials, and purges.
Of such stuff was the Red Scare, as it was called, with events themselves frequently captured under the generic phrasing of "Anticommunist Witch Hunts." For many of those alive at the time, it may be hard to recall who came off as more creepy and sordid — the inquisitors, their victims, or the assorted prosecution and defense witnesses and talebearers. There were shining moments. Ring Lardner Jr., one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of leftist scriptwriters hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), surely got off the great, brave line of the era. Asked by HUAC head J. Parnell Thomas about Communist Party membership, he replied, "I could answer the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but I'd hate myself in the morning." But mostly, all around, one remembers it as just shabby, second-rate political drama waged often by small men for desperate purposes. Still, what must also be remembered is the cumulative effect at the time. As in a Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, or Norman Mailer novel, many of which responded directly to events and ideological conflicts of the period in question, it was precisely the spectacle of conspiracy scare and political circus, the generalized, omnipresent popular-culture drama of the absurd, however base and repellent, that somehow added up to a logic of paranoiac congruencies — somehow more real than any single version of any particular event. This was certainly true of the openings of the drama that included in 1947 an official U.S. government loyalty-oath campaign, eventuating in the dismissal of hundreds of employees from their posts, and concurrent hearings by HUAC on communist infiltration of the entertainment industry, resulting in the first "blacklistings" of public figures in the era, most notably the aforementioned Hollywood Ten. Also important in the same year was the passage of the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which, among its provisions, explicitly prohibited communist participation in U.S. labor unions. In 1948, growing out of HUAC investigations, came the Whittaker Chambers-Alger Hiss controversy, the result of testimony by a seamy, devious, unstable former Communist, implicating a high-level state department figure, a card-carrying member of the eastern establishment, with a record of important postwar involvement in international activities, including the formation of the United Nations. Begun as a defamation lawsuit by Hiss against Chambers, and featuring high-profile involvement by figures as diverse as the dignified Secretary of State Dean Acheson and an aggressive young anticommunist member of the House from California named Richard Nixon, it ran on for another interminable three years, until Hiss was finally convicted and imprisoned on a perjury charge. Further domestic reverberations took place in 1949, with its great shocks abroad. Soviet revelations of A-bomb technology, clearly acquired through espionage at the most intimate levels of scientific secrecy, led to the 1950 Klaus Fuchs spy scandal, expanding to implicate Morton Sobell, David Greenglass, and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. With immense consequences for future events in Asia, the "loss" of China led to purges of Far East experts in the State Department, involving everyone with any direct knowledge of the region with relation to language, politics, and culture. Amid such atmospherics, 1950 also brought the emergence into the Red-fighting pantheon of Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, who claimed during a speech in West Virginia to have in his personal possession a secret list of fifty-two Communists in the State Department. As an extension of HUAC inquiries into the movie industry, the same year saw publication of a widely circulated pamphlet entitled Red Channels, revealing the names of 151 figures from the arts and entertainment communities suspected of communist leanings. More or less simultaneously, a renowned military fighter against communism, General Douglas MacArthur, gained nonstop headlines for his independent plan, as supreme commander of U.N. forces in Korea, to expand the conflict into a larger war against the Chinese. Relieved of his duties by the president for insubordination, he made a triumphant return in 1951 to ticker-tape parades and a wildly applauded speech before Congress. In the same year, the Rosenbergs were convicted of spying and sentenced to death in the electric chair. More dismal developments defined an increasingly surreal political scene during 1952. McCarthy was denounced finally by Truman; but Dwight Eisenhower, soon to be his successor, running for the Republican presidential nomination, shamefully elected not to repudiate McCarthy's slanders of Eisenhower's own patron and mentor, George Marshall. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon, his Red-baiting running mate, accused of misusing campaign funds for personal gain, was forced to make the Checkers speech.
Excerpted from The Victory Album by Philip D. Beidler. Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: After the Good War,
2. A Credit to Their Race,
3. China Magic,
4. A Tale of Two Task Forces,
5. How the Holocaust Didn't Become Current Events,
6. The War of the Generals for the Presidency,
7. "Is This All?",
8. Name Your Poison,
9. Mastering the Curriculum,
10. The Fifty-fives,
11. The End of the World,
12. I Was a 1950s Teenage Media Junkie,
13. Remembering On the Beach,
14. America the Ecumenical,
15. It Wasn't All Elvis,
16. Let's Play Dien Bien Phu,
Conclusion: Good-bye to All That,