Post 32 — At Risk of Repeating History, part 2: A history lesson on fear …
“The only thing we have to fear is—fear itself!”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1st Inaugural Address, 1933
Above: Cartoon by Herblock (Herbert Block)
Fear is not always a bad thing. Fear is like the idiot light on the dashboard that tells us something is wrong: danger is there—though it may not tell us what the danger is. Fear can serve as a motivator to remove or alleviate the danger. But when fear overwhelms us, as FDR said, it is the enemy.
Leaders and others of influence can do much to help remove fear or they can make it worse, either by intention or ignorance. Franklin Roosevelt understood fear and what it could do. So did Adolph Hitler. One used fear to gain his own ends. The other helped his nation face its fear and work on the problem.
Fear was the first crisis that Franklin Roosevelt faced on taking office in 1933. He understood fear because he had faced it when he was stricken with polio a decade before. FDR had seen the fear in the eyes of his countrymen and drew from his own deep well of resources to speak words of inspiration and hope to them. He knew that fear would hinder or cripple their best efforts to overcome the Great Depression; and though many of his economic actions were of dubious value in the long term, nevertheless they united a people into a community determined to fight and get back on its feet.
Roosevelt’s iconic line about fear is today so familiar it seems trivial, mere window dressing for the era. But there is nothing trivial about fear. Fear in the public square spreads. It infects every community and neighborhood and home. It embeds itself in the dark recesses of minds old and young—especially the young. Fear is the death of freedom, public and private, in more ways than we know.
A different type of fear pervaded the American public square in the early 50s. In what we blithely label the “McCarthy Era,” leaders allowed the fear to grow, and this for what they thought were good reasons. Their message seemed to be more of a warning: “Are you part of the problem? Be careful what you say—and what you think.”
The cartoon above shows members of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the car, with the caption: “It’s Okay — We’re Hunting Communists”
I was only two years old in 1950, so I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the Korean War, Joe McCarthy and his lists of Commies everywhere, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the un-American activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the black lists, or Red scare. I didn’t listen the day freedom found a voice in newsman Edward R. Murrow, who said of McCarthy: “…the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the … senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly.”*
Left: Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his list of “Commies” Right: Edward R. Murrow
Absorbing the fear doesn’t require awareness of events. It’s in the faces and tone of people all around.
Things I do remember seem humorous today—but they weren’t at the time. I heard that people lived “behind the Iron Curtain.” My vivid imagination made up for what I didn’t know … a curtain with rivets … people expecting Gestapo-like thugs wearing the red star. “Reds coming out of the woodwork” led to images of Commies living inside our walls, an odd take on the expression, “Even the walls have ears.”
Then there was the big yellow monster. It inhabited every community wherever I rode with my mom in the car. It resembled a gigantic round birdhouse with cone-shaped roof, perched high atop a pole. A.k.a., the civil defense warning siren—it stood alone and silent, ready to announce Armageddon. Every high-flying silver jet, I suspected, was a Russian bomber carrying its payload of atomic destruction.
Above: Various types of air raid sirens used in the Los Angeles area
There was a TV show we don’t talk about today: “I Led Three Lives: Citizen, Communist, Counterspy.” True stories, real fear. Herb Philbrick infiltrated a Communist cell group and reported its activities to his FBI contact. Each episode was screened by J. Edgar Hoover—which made it truly American, right?
Left: Actor Richard Carlson as citizen Herb Philbrick Right: George Reeves as Superman on TV. Part of the intro mentioned that he fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.”
The problem here, of course, was not the fear of death by atomic warfare or the existence of spies. Life is dangerous and death is sure. The problem—and the irony— was that so many well-intentioned people, good people who wanted to see our American freedoms protected from some very real evils, leaders and others of influence, were blind to the consequences of their actions. Their actions produced a message writ loud between the lines about who you associated with and what you said. Freedom of thought and conscience, of religious belief (or not) are so basic to free human existence that they are not mentioned explicitly in the Bill of Rights—but they are inherent in nearly every line. It was those very freedoms that were threatened during the “McCarthy Era.” We see that now. What we may not see is that we stand at risk of losing them even now—which will be the focus of the next post.
The 1960s carried its own set of fears—our nation seemed to be coming apart—but certain events signaled that the time had passed for keeping the lid on unpopular views, views considered out of the mainstream of “American” thought. People of my generation found that there was a new freedom to voice our consciences (and much else) in the public square and in our neighborhoods. (This freedom was not universal, as some, including followers of Dr. King, were to realize.)
Popular phrases like “Do your thing” were emblematic of this new freedom, and we insisted on speaking out about things that matter—things we felt were more representative of “truth, justice, and the American way” than censorship and monitoring of TV shows, wire-tapping, and inquisitions on loyalty.
Two events in the early sixties signaled an end to the reign of fear: One took place in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. We had come closer to nuclear obliteration than any time before or since. Both sides now realized just how the primitive and indirect means of communication had placed us and our futures at continuous risk of lethal misunderstanding and annihilation—and that must never be allowed to happen. The hotline between the White House and Kremlin installed the next year greatly lessened fears of nuclear accident. Conflict between the super powers was instead played out in surrogate locations, with “conventional” weapons, such as in Vietnam.
The second event was the eruption of the “Free Speech Movement” at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964. Young people, personified in the charismatic and articulate student leader Mario Savio, began to speak their mind. Their successes paved the way for the student protest movement of the 60s and the larger anti-Vietnam War movement.
The 1960s tore some gaping holes in the fabric of American society as it then was. One good outcome, however, was that people began to speak their minds without fear (or in spite of it), according to conscience. We learned again the lesson that, if we are really going to be a free people, we must be free to express our innermost thoughts and beliefs in the public square in a way that would encourage public debate and compromise in our diverse, pluralistic society. Compromise or not, we must be free.
* Another quote fro Ed Murrow: “No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices.” This and other thinking gems from the CBS newsman can be found on WikiQuote, here.