1954

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Then the Post added its thoughts on the white man’s burden: “During the past few years the Post has published a number of articles, expressing various viewpoints, on Negro problems. As a variant, we believe it is illuminating to take a look at the question occasionally through the eyes of a well-known leader of that race.”

It was, in fact, the NAACP that carried the Brown case to the Supreme Court, Northern black attorneys acting for their disenfranchised brothers and sisters in the Old South. The case and the decision were aimed at the segregated school systems in seventeen Southern and border states. But soon enough it would change the lives not only of the 16 million black Americans but also of the nearly 150 million whites in the United States in every classroom, every community, and every state. The trouble in Milford was among the tiniest of incidents, North and South, in the ongoing American attempt to remake the United States and to give new meaning to a history that contradicted itself from the day in 1619 when the first black slaves were brought from Africa to North America.

The Brown decision would change the lives not only of the 16 million black Americans but also of the 150 million white.

Life, it turned out, was not as simple as Life .

Not far north of the Polo Grounds, in the Bronx, where Willie Mays, the son of a black steel-mill worker in Westfield, Alabama, had hit .345 that year before starring in the World Series, New York State opened a toll road, the New York Thruway, which was to cross the state for 559 miles all the way to Buffalo on Lake Erie. That was something, all right, but in July President Eisenhower announced a road project that was practically revolutionary: a fifteenyear, $26-billion, 42,000-mile interstate highway system! That does not seem so extraordinary now, but it was an idea resisted for almost two hundred years. In 1831, on a bumpy and muddy road north from North Carolina to Norfolk, Virginia, Alexis de Tocqueville shared a stagecoach with a former congressman from South Carolina, Joel Roberts Poinsett. Tell me, said the young Frenchman, who was collecting notes for the book he would call Democracy in America , why are the roads so bad in the United States? “

 

It’s a great constitutional question whether Congress has the right to make anything but military roads,” Poinsett answered, and states and counties often had no incentive to maintain good roads to other states, other towns.

Not a great deal happened to change that until 1954. Even then the pitch was not that they were obviously essential to the growth of interstate commerce in the richest country in the world—nor I am sure did Ike share my seventeen-year-old’s romanticism about the 1955 Chevy. He probably did not understand, either, that the interstates would speed the creation of a new American landscape, a suburban country. The President the nation saw as a nice guy but not much of a politician, when exactly the opposite would have been closer to reality, did sell interstate transportation as a military necessity, by saying, “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” He called it the National Defense Highway Act, the idea being that the roads were necessary to move troops and tanks around if the Reds invaded Long Island or Long Beach.

That’s the way it was done in those days. The United States was not yet a welfare state—or, as we now say, there were few “middle-class entitlements"—and defense spending accounted for more than half of the $67.6 billion federal budget. I was in on it myself, getting National Defense Education loans for college. The Cold War was an intellectual construct, a window or prism through which we looked at the world—and that made Senator McCarthy’s absurd charges of treason seem almost rational. It was not just that the Russians were coming. So, it seemed, were the Chinese, the Indians, even the Guatemalans. HOW RED IS INDIA ? asked a headline in The Saturday Evening Post in April; “too Red” was the predictable answer. “A Guatemalan Revolution That Everybody Expected,” reported Life of an American-backed coup to overthrow the country’s elected president, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, who had made the big mistake of refusing to pay the United Fruit Company the fifteen million dollars the company wanted for 174,000 acres of banana plantations expropriated by his new government. Perhaps no one had told the Guatemalan that the New York lawyer who had negotiated the United Fruit leases was now Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.

The defense spending was based on the assumption that communism, whether in Moscow, Peking, or Guatemala City, was monolithic and determined to take over the world bit by bit. The theory was articulated by the columnist Joseph Alsop early in 1954 in the Washington Post : “You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last is that it will go over very quickly.” The last domino was the United States of America.