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Are Our Liberties In Peril?
Facing a nearly invisible enemy, we all may be subjected to new kinds of government scrutiny. But past wars suggest the final result may be greater freedom.
November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
World War II offers a final example of how wartime mobilization can lead to a greater domestic liberty. In the two decades before Pearl Harbor, Americans continued to allow overt forms of bigotry. Throughout the 19105, the Ku Klux Klan found receptive audiences for its antiblack, anti-Jewish, and anti-Catholic agitation in many Northern and Western cities, while the nation’s most prominent industrialist, Henry Ford, financed the publication and dissemination of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion , an already hoary Russian hoax that purported to be a Jewish plot to take over the world.
Mobilization for World War II forced Americans to confront racism, bigotry, and the rougher edges of their culture.
The 1930s were little better—they saw the rise of the likes of the immensely popular anti-Semitic radio-show host Father Coughlin—but World War II helped make bigotry unfashionable. As early as 1938, the mounting struggle against European fascism inspired leading social scientists and biologists to openly renounce their professions’ recent faith in anthropological racism and eugenics, and popular culture followed once the war was on. By 194 2. the Office of War Information was working closely with Hollywood to produce motivational “platoon films,” featuring multiethnic casts of brave young soldiers—the Irishman from Boston, the Italian from New York, the Jew from Brooklyn, the Pole from Chicago. Occasionally, as in Bataan and Guadalcanal Diary (both from 1943), an African-American would appear, although the Army remained segregated throughout the war.
In Pride of the Marines , a wounded Jewish Marine named Lee Diamond articulates what had by now become the central American message: “One happy afternoon when God was feeling good, he sat down and thought up a beautiful country and named it the U.S.A…. Don’t tell me we can’t make it work…. Maybe some guys won’t hire me because my name is Diamond and not Jones. ‘Cause I celebrate Passover instead of Easter….We need a country to live in where no one gets booted around for any reason.”
By 1945 public displays of racism and bigotry were falling increasingly out of favor, in no small part because wartime mobilization forced Americans to confront the rougher edges of their culture. The Saturday Evening Post , which in 1933 had saluted Hitler’s staunch anticommunism, now labeled Theodore Bilbo, the Mississippi senator known for his racist views, America’s most dangerous bigot. Many municipal and state governments enacted antidiscrimination housing and employment codes in the 19405 and 19505, and Southern segregationists recast their beliefs as emanating from States’ Rights rather than white supremacy.
Faced with the need to forge national unity in a time of crisis, Franklin Roosevelt had repeatedly defined the war effort as a death struggle “between human freedom and human slavery.” His “Four Freedoms” campaign was the centerpiece of this effort. In 1943 The Saturday Evening Post published Norman Rockwell's renderings of the freedoms with accompanying essays by Stephen Vincent Benét, Booth Tarkington, Will Durant, and Carlos Bulosan. “Freedom of Speech” and “Freedom of Worship” may have inspired some Americans to think more seriously about the virtues of democracy. The historian Eric Foner has written that “their prominent place among the Four Freedoms accelerated the process by which the Bill of Rights, and especially the First Amendment, moved to the center of Americans’ definition of liberty.” “Freedom From Fear” and “Freedom From Want” worked in more subtle ways, giving voice to Roosevelt’s deep conviction that “there can be no real freedom for the common man without enlightened social policies.” In this way, they, too, helped advance expansive notions about liberty.
The point here is not that wars necessarily change society for the better. The best of them are violent, bloody, and destructive, and each of these examples ended with its expansion of liberty and freedom stopping short of complete equality.
But as in the 1770s, the 1860s, and the 1940s, today the exigencies of war—in whatever shape it ultimately assumes- afford Americans an opportunity in the form of a challenge. To keep the nation unified and to convince the world that its cause carries merit, the United States will have to articulate its purpose. As indeed the President began to do very soon after the attack, when, before a group of American Muslim leaders, he said, “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens…. And they need to be treated with respect…. Those who feel… they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America….” We will have to make very clear exactly why American democracy is superior to dictatorship and theocracy, and this in turn will force us to examine our most deeply cherished institutions and beliefs. In the past, this exercise, although brought on by painful and urgent circumstances, has ended by giving us a more honest application of our founding ideals.