Sunday, February 16, 2014

Propaganda and Scaremongering In the 1950's

Propaganda and scaremongering. This is the sort of thing that school kids were exposed to regularly during the 1950's and into the first half of the 1960's.

I remember seeing the following movie while assembled with the rest of my elementary school in the cafetorium. I must have been in the second or third grade. It scared me... and it made me laugh because houses in Southern California didn't have basements in which to take shelter when the bomb warnings came...

I remember seeing the one below, too, whether in school or in a theater, I can't be sure now, but the vision of the destructive power of the Bomb -- even when we were being told we could survive it, ha ha -- was a constant back-of-the-brain nightmare, and for many of us, it was a literal nightmare.

This is a photo (from the Goggle) of my elementary school cafetorium taken recently.

It hasn't changed a bit since I was a student there 100 years ago (well, from 1954 to 1959), except it was painted Institutional Green in my day. Notice something? That high bank of windows? Well, there's another bank of high windows on the opposite side of the building. Of course there were dark green canvas curtains to pull over the windows to darken the room when we were shown propaganda and survival movies and film strips, but none of us thought they would do much to keep the flying glass from cutting us to ribbons when the Bombs fell. We did believe the sturdy concrete walls would survive a blast, however, so there was that. The cafetorium, btw, was our "shelter" at school, unless we didn't have time after an alert to get to the cafetorium. In that case, we were supposed to shelter in our classrooms.

This is a picture of one of those classrooms:

Picture taken in the kindergarten of my elementary school by Allan Grant (not used) for a Life Magazine article on a family moving from Connecticut to Southern California for the sake of jobs and future..

Note the high windows? Not surprisingly, the other side of the room had windows, too, but these weren't up high. Instead, they went from the height of the cabinet you see on the left up to the ceiling. Note, also, in this room there are no desks under which to duck and cover (it was actually a double room with a folding door in the middle which could make it into two rooms if need be). The portion of the room not shown in the photo did have tables and chairs, though.

Regular classrooms, unlike the kindergarten, had desks of the rounded modern style, but getting under them was... well, a joke as they weren't really designed for... erm... blast protection.

Your Child Deserves the Best (blast protection? Not so much)
We did regular duck and cover drills, nevertheless, and what they'd do is have us push the desks against the side of the room with the lower windows and have us crouch against the side of the room with the high windows, covering our little necks with our hands. Much like the scene of children crouching in the hallway of the apartment house in the first video above or as the children below are doing in the hallway of Elysium Heights School in Los Angeles.

Duck and Cover Drill, Elysian Heights School, Los Angeles, CA, c. 1962

Of course there were no interior hallways in newer public schools in California; fresh air and sunshine was the fashion, and so there were no hallways at all; each grade level had its own separate building with up to four classrooms in each (it depended on the number of students in that grade). On the entrance side, there was a broad roof overhang that was like a porch, on the other side there was another roof overhang, but no "porch". There was a covered but not enclosed concrete walkway that connected all the buildings, as seen in the overhead shot below taken recently for the Google:

I don't know what those little buildings are at the ends of classroom wings. They weren't there when I went to school. Probably punishment cells for the children who annoy or defy the teachers or who bring contraband and forbidden things in their backpacks. Training them up for their inevitable prison stint, don'tchaknow.

Scaremongering was primarily of the Instant Incineration -- "but you can survive it!! if you Duck and Cover!!!" -- kind. This went on all through the 1950's and well into the 1960's. In high school, for example, one of our Bomb drills involved quick-marching the entire student body to "the bowl" -- the football stadium in the far corner of the campus -- where we were directed to assemble on the running track next to one of the seating areas and do the Duck and Cover routine. I only remember doing this one time though, because afterwards it was obvious to everyone, most especially the students, that this was one of the most absurd and ridiculous exercises the school district had ever ordered us to engage in. It took far too long to assemble the student body in the first place, longer still to quick march us to the far end of the campus (it was a large school) and it was obvious as sin that once assembled in "the bowl" we may as well kiss our asses goodbye as there was no protection from The Bomb at all, though the theory was that because "the bowl" was partially sunken into the ground, we would escape the blast wave. The problem, it was eventually realized, was that the distance between the rims of "the bowl" were so great, there wouldn't actually be any protection and we may as well be fully exposed to the impending blast.

This high school was located near one of the air force bases that was part of the SAC, the Strategic Air Command, and everyone knew in their bones that it was a prime target for nuclear annihilation. The school was no more than two or three miles from the main entrance of the base, so we knew full well that if the Bombs ever came, we would be vaporized or crispy critters in an instant. That realization leads to a kind of soul-deep resignation and apathy that's hard to describe, but which is very real. The honest assessment that most of us had was that "there is nothing we can do" if the base was targeted with hydrogen bombs. It would be... over... in a twinkling, and God help anyone who somehow survived. We knew this. It was not a matter of question or debate. We would not survive a nuclear attack. We were too close to a primary target.

My elementary school in Southern California, however, was thought to be far enough away from any likely target (primarily the Aerojet plant in Azusa, about eight miles as the crow flies) that "many" would survive... somehow.

We were also fed a steady diet of anti-Communist propaganda, mostly literature that warned us about Communists lurking in our midst or movies that told us blood curdling stories of the Communist tide overruning everything good and proper. Much of was focused on how "wonderful!" everything was for children in America compared to the gray and sooty -- and shoeless, always shoeless -- existence poor Ivan in Soviet Russia had to endure.

Two Samples of "Fight the Red Menace" Bubble Gum Cards 

In some ways, we believed this. In others we didn't. I lived in a new and integrated neighborhood, one of the few in California at the time that was not de facto segregated by race. Our neighbors may have been mostly Anglo, but there were many Latin/Hispanic families as well and more than a few blacks and Asians in the mix. Children thought nothing of it, of course, but parents sometimes let the prejudices they'd grown up with run away with their judgement, and there was occasional racial tension if not outright conflict.

The story of how "wonderful" everything was in the United States was the story of how "wonderful" everything was for white people. There were no people of color in this story, and there wouldn't be for many years to come, in any story of America, the Brave and Beautiful. While I lived in an integrated neighborhood and went to an integrated elementary school -- and thought nothing of it at all, because it seemed perfectly natural to me -- I was made aware that things weren't so "wonderful" for some people,  people of color, my neighbors and some of my friends. No, they had to endure discrimination, taunts, and not infrequent threats of violence from white people. It was wrong, absolutely wrong but that's what they endured. I also learned that for the most part, people of color were poorer and lived poorer than I did -- and when I was a child, I had no illusions about being well off, because we didn't live as if we were. We lived very modestly. But the children I knew in black and Hispanic families lived far more modestly than I did. As did some of the Anglo households.

The strictures and struggles of Poor Ivan in Soviet Russia that we were propagandized to believe were mirrored in the strictures and struggles of poor people and people of color all around us. The idea that somehow Ivan had it worse and that we should all celebrate our good fortune failed to resonate very strongly. It was obvious that we weren't all living in Capitalist Paradise. Not even close to all of us.

So even when I was very young, the anti-Communist propaganda we were immersed in didn't really resonate. I didn't know what conditions really were in the Soviet Union -- I would later learn of course that is both worse for some and much better for most than we were told -- but I knew from looking out my own two eyes that social and economic conditions in the United States were essentially nothing at all like we were told and were expected to believe. Nothing. At. All.

For example, none of us lived in houses with picket fences in front, and only a few of us were blond and blue eyed. In many households, even in the 1950's, both parents had to work because the father didn't make enough at the plant to make ends meet. Some households had only one parent in any case, and so for them there never was a well-coifed mother at home all the time to take care of the children. There were several ad hoc child-care providers -- that is to say, a woman down the street who would look after children whose parents were working -- but there was no organized day care of any kind.

Where we lived, by and large, people didn't have new cars, couldn't afford all the new appliances coming on the market, had few or no luxury items at home (many didn't even have televisions until the late '50s), didn't go on vacations to "the lake" and kids didn't go to camp in the summer,  some couldn't afford to belong to the Scouts or Campfire organizations -- and even if they could afford to belong, they might not be admitted because of some "defect" in their home-life or characters (such as being black or Hispanic for example.)

This was the reality we lived with. The anti-Communist propaganda campaigns seemed surreal under the circumstances, not so much because we disbelieved the myths about Communist Russia (we really didn't know one way or the other) but because it was so starkly obvious that the myths about America The Wonderful were... false.

Although I'm sure some of my neighbors were either Communists or Communit-sympathizers, as they were termed in the propaganda, they didn't seem to me to be any different than anyone else.

But one day, we found out my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Brossard, was targeted for alleged "subversive activities." He was a really good teacher -- which was apparently part of his problem, you see. The kids all liked him, and most parents thought he was great. But apparently someone reported him, for what I'm not entirely sure because there was nothing even vaguely "Communist" in his teaching. That didn't matter. He was a "suspect." And once "suspected," you might as well be dead. He was out of class on many days, and we had stupid and mean substitutes who we ignored or ridiculed to their faces. When he came back to class, he was... chastened, subdued. I began to think he didn't want to teach any more.

We never knew the details of the "investigation" into his "subversive activities," but whatever had happened had clearly hurt him deeply, and I don't doubt it had scared him witless. I moved out of that area in the middle of fifth grade, and I don't remember hearing about him after I moved (I may have and have forgotten). Just the idea that the anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950's and '60s had come so close, though, was definitely disturbing.

It was one of many examples of the times, of the arbitrary imposition of authority, authority we were conditioned to accept, and yet when it happened to someone like Mr. Brossard, we knew it was wrong. Simply wrong.

The arbitrary imposition of authority would light the fire of the Civil Rights Movement and the Free Speech Movement and many other rebellions and movements through the rest of the century.

And now there's little doubt in many people's minds that the arbitrary imposition of authority as well as the general collapse of institutional integrity and the resurgence of propaganda and scaremongering is leading inevitably to another era of revolt and rebellion, the vanguard of which we've already seen in the Arab Spring and the subsequent global Occupy movement.

Speaking of which, while doing some research on Mario Savio, I came across this long and detailed article by Seth Rosenfeld published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. It covers a lot of the same ground as his later book "Subversives" does, but it seems to do so more succinctly. I haven't finished reading the article -- it is quite long -- but from what I've read so far, I can recommend it highly for the insights it provided into Mario's sense of justice and doing what is right. The more I learn about him the higher my respect and regard for him. He was always a reluctant Movement celebrity, to be sure, and when he returned to relative obscurity, not that long after becoming such a huge figure in the student rebellion at UC Berkeley, what he gave to the rebels and the world may have been forgotten or overlooked -- as more radical and clownish figures like Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman emerged, along with not a few more threatening figures. Mario was at the beginning of my rebellion -- I was 16 when the Free Speech Movement got under way at Berkeley -- and so he remains, for me, the central and original figure in the '60s revolt.

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