Freedom in Post-World War II America


In his 1941 Annual Message to Congress (aka the State of the Union address), President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed, “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.”[1] Christened the Four Freedoms, they included the freedoms of speech and worship, and the freedoms from want and fear. The first two freedoms, their meanings self-evident, need not be defined; the latter two, however, are less explicit. Roosevelt, in the same address, described those latter two––the freedoms from want and fear, respectively––as follows: “the economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants . . . [and] the world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression . . .” The Four Freedoms, American leaders made abundantly clear, embodied that which set the U.S. apart from and above its enemies in Europe (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy) and the Far East (Imperial Japan), and its grudging communist ally the Soviet Union. They also “provided a crucial language of national unity . . . [for t]he message seemed to be that Americans were fighting to preserve freedoms enjoyed individually or within the family rather than in the larger public world.”[2] However, once World War II ended, the Four Freedoms were eventually subsumed into the larger framework of America’s blueprint for winning the Cold War against its ideological counterpart the Soviet Union. Freedom, at least in the initial stages of the Cold War, became less an empowerment of the individual and his/her civil liberties, and more a habit of unquestioned devotion to the American cause, and of cultural and political conformity in the face of encroaching communism. Unchecked material consumption, perhaps buoyed by the U.S.’s postwar economic prosperity, became a staple of the American way of life, so much so that Vice-President Richard Nixon, in 1959, described to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev “a conception of freedom centered on economic abundance and consumer choice . . .”[3]; indeed, one might argue that this consumer culture sweetened America’s otherwise unpalatable crackdown on homegrown communism. The U.S., in any case, soon underwent a backlash against this constraining statism, and Americans rediscovered their political autonomy, a development that culminated in the successive civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1950s and 60s.

As World War II came to a head in the spring of 1945, surely most ordinary Americans would not have looked askance at the Soviets, their comrades-in-arms against the vile Nazi regime. America’s leaders, however, did. The American diplomat George Kennan, in an acclaimed telegram to the State Department, maintained that the Soviet Union constituted an imminent threat to U.S. interests: “[W]e have here [in the Soviet Union] a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi [i.e. manner of getting along], that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted . . . if Soviet power is to be secure.”[4] Likewise, Walter Lippmann, a journalist, observed that America’s leaders had begun to regard the Soviet Union as an ideological enemy, and therefore were ill-equipped to intelligently structure their foreign policy. Lippmann added, “[E]ven if we assume, which the Department of State cannot, that the American people will back them with a drawing account of blank checks both in money and military power, still it [Kennan’s recommendation to contain the Soviets] is not a good prospect.”[5] Lippmann must not have expected, then, that America’s leaders could so deftly steer popular sentiment against the Soviets by inflating the communist threat. And yet, America’s so-called “military-industrial complex” (its power base) did exactly that, as the U.S. government successfully injected into the nation’s culture a toxic paranoia about the “red menace.” Various branches of the federal government, including the CIA and the Department of Defense, “emerged as unlikely patrons of the arts.”[6] Hollywood was made to produce unabashedly anticommunist movies (e.g., Walk East on Beacon [1952], whose promotional material takes the form of an FBI recruitment poster: “Our country is in danger! The FBI needs your help in its fight to guard our freedom . . .”[7]), and “[w]orks produced by artists who considered themselves thoroughly nonpolitical became weapons in the cultural Cold War.”[8] On the other hand, artistic works identified as pro-communist were condemned and blacklisted. Arthur Miller, famed playwright, had this to say about his own run-ins with America’s cultural police: “I drew some attention when I became involved with the Conference for Peace at the Waldorf in 1949. . . . I would be attacked in the press from time to time. But I had no job to lose, so it was quite a bit different than it was for a lot of other writers . . . They had blacklists of writers, and as it later turned out, practically every American writer was on it.”[9]

The government even conscripted big business in its struggle against communism. For example, General Electric, perhaps in a brazen attempt to dissuade Americans from finding solace in communism, declared that the U.S. “had achieved the Marxist goal of a classless society”[10]: “Our American brand of capitalism is distinctive and unusually successful because it is a ‘people’s capitalism’: all the people share in its responsibilities and benefits.”[11] The government sought to revise the long-established association of big business “with images of robber barons who manipulated politics, suppressed economic competition, and treated their workers unfairly. . . . [Rather, l]arge-scale production was not only necessary to fighting the Cold War, but it enhanced freedom by multiplying consumer goods.”[12] Its efforts were apparently a resounding success, for “[b]y the end of the 1950s, public-opinion surveys revealed that more than 80 percent of Americans believed that ‘our freedom depends on the free enterprise system.’”[13] Of course, that the consumer culture, of which Americans were so very fond, was contingent on the continued growth of the free enterprise system certainly helped to make the country more receptive to big business.

Such was America’s fear of communism––a fear best represented by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) reckless communist witch-hunts––that Americans were not disagreeable to the suspension of freedom of speech. In 1947, when ten Hollywood celebrities refused to testify before HUAC “about their political beliefs or to ‘name names’ (identify individual communists) on the grounds that the hearings violated the First Amendment . . . [, they were charged] with contempt of Congress, and . . . served jail terms of six months to a year,”[14] after which Americans turned a blind eye. When the Rosenbergs, “a working-class Jewish communist couple,” were sentenced to death in 1951 for “conspiracy to pass secrets concerning the atomic bomb to Soviet agents,” a verdict that “rested on highly secret documents that could not be revealed in court,” Americans didn’t blink.[15] Finally, in the early 1950s, a few prominent Americans began to speak out against what they believed were the unlawful character assassinations of honest Americans. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas wrote, “The Communist threat inside the country has been magnified and exalted far beyond its realities. . . . Suspicion has taken the place of goodwill. . . . Innocent acts [have] become telltale marks of disloyalty. . . . [Yet t]he mind of man must always be free. The strong society is one that sanctions and encourages freedom of thought and expression.”[16] As the years passed, Americans gradually came to realize that, by compromising the liberties conferred on them by the constitution, they’d needlessly stabbed themselves in the foot, so to speak. In the Port Huron Statement, published in 1962, the Students for a Democratic Society declared:

      When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world . . . Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people––these American values we found good . . . Many of us began maturing in complacency. . . . Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperity––but might it not better be called a glaze above deeply felt anxieties about their role in the new world? [17]

Having at long last registered the pall cast over their eyes, Americans, whether liberal or conservative, made a concerted effort to become more vigorous in their pursuit of freedom. This resulted in an explosion of grassroots political activity in the late 1950s and 60s.

While the U.S. was embroiled in its ideological struggle against the Soviet Union, African-Americans, newly discharged from the comparatively egalitarian army, grew increasingly resentful when reacquainted with the injustices of Jim Crow. The burgeoning African-American civil rights movement saw in the 1953 appointment of Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court an opportunity to tear down the legal scaffolding that institutionalized segregation. Thurgood Marshall, an attorney of the NAACP, supported, at great personal risk, the lawsuit of one Oliver Brown, whose “daughter, a third grader, was forced to walk across dangerous railroad tracks each morning rather than being allowed to attend a nearby school restricted to whites.”[18] This landmark Supreme Court case, known as Brown v. Board of Education, was hailed as a great victory for anti-segregationists, for the Court’s decision dictated that “[s]egregation in public education . . . violated the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”[19] Brown convinced the black community that segregation could not last much longer. In the spirit of Brown, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a black minister and civil rights activist, led a non-violent boycott of Montgomery, Alabama’s public transit system following the 1956 arrest of one Rosa Parks, whose only crime was to withhold her bus seat from a white man; the boycott marked a turning point in the civil rights movement, for its success demonstrated the potency of non-violent protest. As the years passed, the movement divided on the issue of whether or not to use violence, and eventually split into two factions. However, whatever their differences, the Dr. Kings and Malcolm Xs of the movement were united in their shared belief in black freedom. The significance of black freedom is no more apparent than in the Black Panther Party’s ten-part manifesto, which begins with a candid plea for liberty: “1. We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of our Black Community. We believe that black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.”[20]

As might be expected, the civil rights movement provoked amongst America’s white population feelings of indifference or contempt. The Southern Manifesto, drafted in 1956, declared, “We regard the decision of the Supreme Court in the school cases [i.e., Brown v. Board of Education] as a clear abuse of judicial power. . . . It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort by the good people of both races.”[21] However, the civil rights movement also served to rouse white America from its post-World War II political dormancy, so much so that “[o]n August 28, 1963 . . . 250,000 black and white Americans converged on the nation’s capital for the March on Washington”[22] in an unprecedented and inspiring display of racial unity. When “a coalition of civil rights groups . . . launched [in the summer of 1964] a voter registration drive in Mississippi . . . [, h]undreds of white college students,”[23] including Len Edwards, Heather Booth, Pam Chude Allen, and Marshall Ganz, volunteered.[24] White America’s political reawakening during the civil rights movement thus made possible the massive white uprising known as the anti-Vietnam War movement, during and after which Americans cared like never before about the freedoms conferred on them.

In conclusion, the events of the post-World War II era––the anticommunist crusade and the civil rights movement––served to lull Americans into political complacency, then to reanimate them once it became apparent that the freedoms they’d fought so hard for were slowly eroding. For a time, economic prosperity, the consumer culture, and the urbanization of America (and the expansion of diversionary entertainments that inevitably followed) all distracted Americans from their government’s increasingly repressive actions, and had not the civil rights movement emerged when it did, the freedoms that our forefathers enjoyed might now have long ceased to exist. In any case, the political indifference––the indifference for such well established constitutional liberties as freedom of speech––that defined the public’s initial response to the Cold War was riddled with fissures as desegregation shook the very foundations of America’s political and social landscape, and was irrevocably shattered once President Lyndon Johnson audaciously invested the U.S.’s future in his “Great Society” agenda of expansive social reform, and controversially escalated the war in Vietnam. By 1968, against a backdrop of staggering change, a new generation of college-educated men and women––the baby-boomer generation––burst onto the scene, and, in what became known as the counterculture movement, effected a diversification of freedoms the likes of which the world has rarely seen.

Works Cited

[1] Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Annual Message to Congress.”

[2] Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, Seagull Third Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 837-8.

[3] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 916.

[4] George F. Kennan, “The Long Telegram.”

[5] Walter Lippmann, “The Cold War: A Study in US Foreign Policy.”

[6] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 892.

[7] “Promotional Material for Walk East on Beacon,” Copyright © 1952, renewed 1980 RD.DR Corporation. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

[8] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 893.

[9] Arthur Miller, “A Playwright Recalls the Red Scare.”

[10] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 928.

[11] General Electric, “People’s Capitalism: What Makes It Work for You?.”

[12] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 928.

[13] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 928.

[14] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 903.

[15] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 904.

[16] William O. Douglas, “The Black Silence of Fear.”

[17] Students for a Democratic Society, “The Port Huron Statement.”

[18] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 944.

[19] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 945.

[20] Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, “The Ten-Point Program.”

[21] “The Southern Manifesto.”

[22] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 960.

[23] Foner, Give Me Liberty!, 966.

[24] “Freedom on My Mind,” produced by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford, 110 minutes, California Newsreel, 1994, DVD.

Copyright © 2013 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.

About Elliot Silverberg

I am an essayist, freelance journalist, poet, and screenwriter; an avid reader with a fascination for historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction; a student of the Ancient Greek and Roman cultures; and a tennis enthusiast.

Posted on July 25, 2013, in Essays and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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