Friday, December 09, 2005

Must See Website

If you have the slightest interest in American history, particularly the World War II era, you absolutely must look at The March Toward World War II: The March of Time as Documentary and Propaganda.

I am especially excited to see a breakdown of the February 1941 (before Pearl Harbor) "Americans All" episode (they reused the title in July 1944--the first and only time the March of Time reused a title). The point of the filmstrip is apparent in this captured frame:

Why would Americans need to be reminded of the contributions of immigrants? The website summarizes the film:

As war approaches, there are already manifestations of war hysteria against immigrants, the narrator says (15). "Most fears are proved groundless," he explains, but there are a few who try to undermine the United States. [The scene cuts to communist rallyers carrying large posters of Stalin and Lenin, 16.] American communists "have shouted loudly against any aid to Britain." Japanese spies use loyal Japanese as cover, and some who work in the West Coast fishing fleets are suspected of being Japanese navy men (17). Of Italian-Americans, "not 200,000 have fascist leanings." He goes on to note the biggest Italian daily is impressed by fascist Italy (18). There are Nazi organizations in 35 U.S. cities, and they appeal to German-Americans on the basis of Hitler's doctrine: "once a German, always a German (19)." Nazi newspapers are anti-Semitic, opposed to democracy, and opposed to American aid to Britain, the narrator explains (20). However, the Voice of Time pointedly states, most German-Americans reject Nazi doctrine and "are steadfast in their loyalty to the American ideal (21)." As proof that most immigrants are acceptable, the narrator points to crowded Americanization classes, where immigrants see in the United States the last stronghold of democracy. "Those who built the country, have always come forward to preserve it," he announces (22).
The designer of the website adds "But the offered image includes only white males." That is true, but it misses the point. "Americans All" is an excellent indication as to just how deeply ethnic and religious intolerance ran in America at the time. The fact that they dusted off the title and reused it in 1944 shows that the situation did not seem to get much better even by the end of the war. Indeed, polls indicated that for example, anti-Semitism was at a very high point in 1945-1946. Think about what that means: not only were people on the homefront anti-Semitic, they were comfortable enough in their anti-Semitism to tell a pollster about it.

The creators of the March of Time were aware of this potentially disastrous intolerance in the country and they made "Americans All" (twice) to combat it. They were not alone. There are countless other examples of programs to promote tolerance among America's ethnic and religious groups before and during the war.

Yet within a few years of the war's end, intolerance among white ethnic and religious groups had subsided to almost unnoticable levels. For example, the Anti-Defamation League noted in 1951 that polls indicated that among the respondents, sixty-seven percent “could find no threat at all to America among minority groups, whereas in 1946 only 25 per cent was free of such prejudice.” (Note that these results came at the height of the supposedly rampant hysteria of the McCarthy era.) Relations improved so much among groups that we all now call white that the divisions between white and black became all the more stark.

How did all this happen? How did we go from a country in the early 1940s that was so concerned with ethnic and religious divides that the March of Time would dedicate two filmstrips to improving the situation to a country that by the 1950s basically ignored ethnic and religious differences among white people and turned its attention to racial divides?

I have an idea, and it's on its way to a publisher right now. I hope to share it with you in the not too distant future.

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