I’m publishing a selection of letters written by my mother, a prolific letter writer who lived in the conservative town of Yakima, Washington all her life. In a 1977 letter she castigates Sen. Henry Jackson and Democrats in Congress for their lack of support for President Carter, and schools them on the history of the Panama Canal.
“Neither you nor the great media with its resources has bothered to challenge the propaganda of Ronald Reagan…”
“We strongly support President Carter in scolding the oil companies; it should have been done long ago.”
Back in 1980 gun control was a big issue. Politicians and celebrities were victims as well as less famous citizens. After John Lennon was shot I had to admit to my mother that I had bought a hand gun, the same type that killed John. She was distraught. What could I have been thinking? I was thinking as a radical socialist lesbian feminist I might have to defend myself. I learned how to shoot at local gun clubs. I put the gun in a drawer next to my bed, but began to worry that a visiting child might find it. What if someone accidentally got shot with my gun! I soon put the gun far away out of anyone’s reach. My thinking changed, but the scourge of gun violence did not. Except that Mom is writing here about handguns rather than now-popular semiautomatic weapons.
“We do have wild animals, but they are two-legged.”
I contend that bullets, bombs and mines are more to be deplored than garbage and stones (thrown by dissenters).
Paul Harvey pissed us off for half a century. During my childhood the right-wing commentator was on the radio twice a day on weekdays and at noon on Saturdays railing against welfare cheats and championing American individualism. A close friend of Sen Joe McCarthy, the Rev Billy Graham and J. Edgar Hoover, he supported Cold War campaigns against communists and opposed social programs as socialist. Advertisers loved Harvey as he could make any ad sound like news. Salon Magazine called him the “finest huckster ever to roam the airwaves.”
Millions of Americans who, like us, got their news and information from the radio, were subjected to his diatribes. Beginning in 1952, Harvey kept talking right up till his death at 90 in 2009. He always left us fuming.
My mother got so mad at his attack on war protesters that she engaged her superpower—she wrote a letter.
“What kind of people are we that we allow an immoral, useless war to continue when a child of six can point out that the emperor has no clothes?”
Sadly, the box of letters, saved in my brother’s barn, contained none of my mother’s letters from the turbulent 1960s. Most are from the 1970s. Flo writes here about being moved to tears in a state of depression and despair. She felt the burden of American foreign policy personally and would often call me, weeping for its victims. She anguished about her children and a whole generation of young people losing faith in democracy.
My mother wrote letters. For her, letters were a means of communication, an art form, a way to express herself, and throughout her life one of the few ways an ordinary woman could make her views known.
Born in 1913, Florence Wick was a reader from the age of four. Like all grade school students at that time, she studied the Palmer Method, and she developed strikingly beautiful handwriting. An album made by a family friend contains letters she wrote at age six.
Besides regular handwritten correspondence to friends and relatives, Flo wrote letters to Congressional representatives, media people and writers commenting on their stories, and hundreds of letters to the editor of our local paper in Yakima, Washington. She’d had lots of practice. Taking shorthand and composing and typing letters was her job as a secretary.
I had thought all of her letters were lost, but while going through files helping my brother Don move to Canada we discovered a box containing copies of some of her letters. The earliest is a letter to the editor condemning bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, written in 1949. The last, disparaging toxic pesticides, she wrote a couple of months before her death on August 9, 1983. Most of the letters are from the 1970s. They deal with government policy; environmentalism; and the rights of women, minorities, prisoners and seniors. Many letters eloquently protest the war in Vietnam and its casualties.
My mother changed the course of her own life through letters. She told me that when she applied to work for the Red Cross during World War II, a college degree was a basic requirement. She had only a high school education but she made her case in a letter and was accepted. I’ve often wished I had a copy of that letter. Flo served in the Red Cross as a “donut gal” in Italy, France and Germany during and after the war, earning a bronze star. Although only two of her letters from Europe survive, the letters she wrote to her mother (her father had died in 1938) were passed on to a local newspaper reporter who turned them into reports from the front lines. Along with photos and mementos, these newspaper clippings were pasted into a huge album my mother made upon her return from Europe. The war had changed her. She had lost her fiancé to a land mine in 1944 and when she returned home it seemed Americans’ concerns had focused more on the dearth of gasoline and nylon stockings than the deaths of millions. People didn’t want to talk about the war. Making the giant album served as an antidote to her depression.
What strikes me about the letters is their universality and timelessness. I remember her phoning me to read me a letter she had written about war. In it she proposed that the government employ a department of peace instead of a department of war. “It’s great,” I said. “Send it!” “I did,” she said. “Twenty years ago.” Her letters illuminate conversations of her time, and they also instruct us now in the 21st century. I think they deserve to be read and I’ve scanned some of the most compelling to publish here.
1949: Re-read Emma Lazarus’ inscription
Attacks on immigrants are a common feature of American history. Flo was proud of her parents, immigrants from Sweden and Norway, and she wrote many letters with this theme.
Autumn equinox greetings. My pagan holiday posts usually focus on our garden and the natural world–kind of an antidote to politics. But of course everything is political, even nature, and I’m immersed in the political world too. Like my proud immigrant grandmother I take voting seriously, especially now as we watch our voting rights being trampled.
We work to influence the coming presidential election, calling and writing postcards reminding voters in swing states to vote. Of course, what we do in California is of little consequence nationally but I worry about the consequences on a state level. Polls show that Proposition 16, the measure that would resurrect affirmative action, is headed for failure. Opponents have obscured its real intent. The discussion has revolved around race preferences in state colleges, but no one thinks about women in the construction trades. Here’s the letter I just sent to our local newspaper supporting Prop 16.
I am a woman who made a great career as a construction and maintenance electrician. I would never have gotten a job in the previously all-male, all-white industry without affirmative action. I’ve devoted my life to helping other women achieve success in the construction trades. Why? Because these union jobs pay wages substantially above what women can make in traditional female careers, decreasing the number of women (and children) in poverty.
Women got a foot in the door but we are still being denied entry to these jobs because of entrenched sexism and racism, especially after affirmative action was made illegal in California by the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996.
Proposition 16 on the November 3 ballot will overturn the 1996 law. Right now only about three percent of construction workers are women. That’s not enough. Women still experience isolation and harassment on the job. Working conditions in construction will not truly improve until discrimination ends and the numbers of women increase.
A YES vote on Proposition 16 will make programs like targeted recruitment for women and minorities possible again, restoring a level playing field for all.
Molly Martin, retired electrician
Then there are other propositions on the state ballot I fear will fail, so I’m already getting prepared for election letdown, a familiar feeling for those of us who support peace, justice and human rights.
Please vote yes on Prop 15 to restore property taxes on large commercial property, and yes on Prop 21 to allow local communities to decide whether to enact rent control (which is now prohibited statewide). And vote no on Prop 22. Don’t let Uber & Lyft turn this into a gig world where all workers are “independent contractors” and get no benefits.
My latest favorite T-shirt shows two punks of indeterminate gender kissing. Its message is in Cyrillic script. I asked my friend Shelby, who had lived in Russia for a year, to translate, but she wasn’t able to make sense of it. Then recently I was wearing it when I encountered a Russian woman at a party celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. She gladly translated its message.
Shut up! Shut up! Punk out!
Now that I know its message is from the Pussy Riot era, I love the T-shirt even more. Wearing it on the anniversary of the 1917 revolution conjures thoughts of tangled Russian history.
I’ve been thinking about Russia a lot as I’ve been grieving the death of my friend Shelby Morgan. Shelby was a Russophile who loved Russian culture and the Russian people. She was deeply influenced by the poet Anna Ahkmatova.
I interviewed Shelby as she was dying of ovarian cancer. The story of her life is fascinating and I learned so much that I had not known. I was especially interested in how she became radicalized and why she joined the Communist Party.
Shelby Morgan was born in 1949. Her birth day, May 19, was the same birth day as Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X and Augusto Sandino. When she walked into Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco and saw a poster with the date and pictures of all of them, she knew she was destined to be a revolutionary.
Shelby was born and raised in Corning, a little Arkansas town on the Mississippi Delta. It was flat farming country, hot and muggy. Her father was a traveling fertilizer salesman.
Growing up a white girl in the South during the Civil Rights Movement colored Shelby’s political development. The forced integration of Little Rock Central High in 1957 when she was eight years old stunned her.
“I remember saying to my mom, ‘why would people act this way just because of skin color?’ Mom said, ‘It makes no sense.’ That was a very big deal to me.”
Because the Arkansas education system was so terrible, her parents sent her to a boarding school for white young ladies in Memphis, Tennessee in 11th grade (1966-67). Most of the students were from Mississippi and Alabama where schools had just been integrated, so their parents sent them there to get them out of the integrated public schools.
Shelby landed in San Francisco in the early 1970s. Her first job was at the Exploratorium where she worked with its founder, Frank Oppenheimer. The younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
“He would play the flute while I played piano. We had a sweet little friendship going on. He was an old man at that point, an old commie. His atonement for his brother Robert’s involvement with the atom bomb was to start the Exploratorium.”
She joined the Communist Party in 1978.
“I was totally anti-capitalist at this point and even with the disaster that the Left was in at that time, there was an international movement and it was just thrilling to me. I just felt this was where the good work was being done. And it was fun. Man, did I have fun. The people were just great.”
By that time, most of the older generation of commies had left the Party after learning of Stalin’s purges.
“The old commies, people who’d left the Party, said ‘what about Czechoslovakia?’ We knew about all the atrocities. And I, because of my gender training, said I’d leave the theoretical issues up to the leadership who were primarily male. I said I’m about doing the work on the ground. And I just turned my back to it. It was only years later I started thinking I have to hold myself accountable for this too.”
Communists and others around the world were encouraged by Mikhail Gorbachev’s promise of reforms after he was elected to leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985. When the era of perestroika and glasnost arrived, “we were hot for Gorbachev. I didn’t officially drop out of the Party till we moved to Russia in 1990.”
Shelby’s husband at the time, Dan, was accepted to do research in Russia. They took their four-year-old daughter, Sarah, with them to Russia in 1990. They came back one week before Gorbachev was overthrown in 1991.
“It was a very Interesting and difficult year. We were in Leningrad (now called Saint Petersburg, the cultural capital and the second largest city in Russia). This is hard to talk about because it was so difficult. Russians were really suffering at that point. For the first four months I was living the life of a Soviet woman, so while Dan was in the archives at the University of Leningrad, I would wait in line. There was no food to be had. You would go into a store and the shelves would be literally empty. I would stand in line for a soup bone and cabbage for two hours. We lived off cabbage soup. Fortunately Sarah got fed three days a week at school. After four months we got diplomatic coupons so we could shop. Even then I had to ride a bus across town for an hour to shop. Buses were so crowded. To get on you would have to push people. Sarah was sick all the time with earaches. The clinics and hospitals were filthy. They had no equipment, not even syringes. There was no hot water. I had to boil water to bathe and to wash clothes.
In 1991 the Soviet Union was in a severe economic crisis. The government was collapsing.
“We lived a block from Red Square in Leningrad. People were burning effigies of Gorbachev in the square. I remember standing in Red Square just sobbing. My dreams were dashed. Then Dan went to another city for a while to do research and left Sarah and me in Leningrad after we’d only been there a couple of months. My Russian was very poor. The Iraq war broke out. The American embassy called us together and told us we had to be really careful, lay low, watch your back. Sure enough one night someone threw a rock through Sarah’s bedroom window. I was just terrified.”
“I had a job teaching psychology (Transactional Analysis) at U of Leningrad. The Russians were hungry for input from the West. Psychology was dismal there. I also taught at a collective called Harmonia and did a Radical Therapy (RT) group.”
Her husband was researching a biography of the physiologist Ian Pavlov.
“When the summer came around, we moved out to the country to Pavlov’s daughter’s house in Komarovo on the Finnish-Soviet border. Stalin had built a village there for artists and intellectuals. It was where Pushkin had lived along with other famous artists and writers. I was really happy there. It was a sweet village with pine and birch trees and a beautiful lake. We used to pick berries. There were no cars. Most people caught a train between Leningrad and Komarovo. Everyone rode bikes there. On the way to the lake there was an old graveyard with old crosses and tombstones where the great female Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, was buried. My father died then just as the government was changing and I couldn’t get a plane back. This was just weeks before Gorbachev was overthrown. Everything was shut down. So I hung out at Akhmatovas’s grave to mourn my dad.”
As her marriage dissolved and she mourned her father’s death, Shelby watched as anti-Gorbachev forces grew. In Leningrad she heard tanks rumbling by on the cobblestone street outside their window.
“We were supposed to come back in September but I started thinking about getting Sarah in kindergarten so we came back early or else we would have been there (on August 19, 1991) when Gorbachev was actually overthrown.”
“We knew it was going to happen just the way it did because there was no civil society to butt up against the government and the mafia. Because it was so heavily state run.”
In the States Shelby worked as a youth counselor, a union organizer, in electoral politics, in the anti-apartheid movement, in the non-profit world, sometimes the only white person on staff. Shelby’s anti-capitalist outlook influenced her work in the Radical Therapy Movement.
“The theory was you should work only with people in groups, not individuals because unhappiness in life was not based on mental illness. It was a result of alienation from meaningful work, from community, from your body, from meaningful relationships. It was a way to anti-pathologize people’s unhappiness, a total anti-medical model of psychology.
“The reason people have trouble doing that: we grow up under capitalism, which is based on the idea that some people have to win, some have to lose. It’s based on competition and we carry that into our relationships. So RT developed this set of skills to teach people to have cooperative rather than competitive relationships. Radical Therapy was really key to building a mediation movement.”
Finding a time to interview Shelby was not easy. Even as she was dying, she was organizing, working for single payer health care, marching in demonstrations against Trump and for equality and justice. She was a lifelong activist and she is dearly missed by a large community of friends and comrades.
Shelby Morgan died August 28, 2017
From Wikipedia I learned that the poet Anna Akhmatova remained in Russia during the revolution and until her death in 1966. For long periods she was in official disfavor, and many of her relatives and friends fell victim to Soviet political repression.
In February 1917, the revolution started in Petersburg (then named Petrograd); soldiers fired on marching protestors, and others mutinied. In a city without electricity or sewage service, with little water or food, they faced starvation and sickness. Ahkmatova’s friends died around her and others left in droves for safer havens in Europe and America. She had the option to leave, and considered it for a time, but chose to stay and was proud of her decision to remain. She wrote of her own temptation to leave:
A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly.
It said, “Come here,
Leave your deaf and sinful land,
Leave Russia forever,
I will wash the blood from your hands,
Root out the black shame from your heart,
[…] calmly and indifferently,
I covered my ears with my hands,
So that my sorrowing spirit
Would not be stained by those shameful words.
— When in suicidal anguish, trans. Jane Kenyon
Russia on My Mind
On the revolution’s centenary I’ve been thinking about Russia as I read articles by the prolific journalist Masha Gessen and The Unwomanly Face of War by Pulitzer Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich who chronicles stories of Soviet women soldiers in World War II. Then I picked up the Smithsonian magazine to read a compelling piece by Ian Frazier, Whatever Happened to the Russian Revolution. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-ever-happened-to-russian-revolution-180964768/. He condenses the history for us in between reminiscences of his travels to Russia in the last 24 years.
There are many lessons here. I hope we Americans can learn them soon enough to avoid contemporary political catastrophes.
On the plane, I sit next to an old guy, white hair, who is busily underlining the folded pages of USA Today as he reads. I finally have to ask him why. He tells me he reads, underlines and then gives the paper to his wife so she can read it and they can discuss at breakfast every morning. It’s his ritual, but he usually reads the Wall Street Journal. They had USA Today at the hotel where they were staying in Palo Alto. They had attended his grandson’s Stanford graduation. His wife is sitting across the aisle watching video.
We strike up a conversation. He wants to tell me about the Stanford Experience. I wonder to myself if it’s like the Jimi Hendrix Experience. But no. He paints a picture of privileged seclusion on a beautiful campus. The graduation ceremony was impressive. The mass spectacular.
A Catholic mass? At the graduation?
Well, yes, but there were masses for every religion.
I wonder to myself what the atheists did.
He wants to brag about his grandchildren who are serially graduating from colleges around the country, keeping him and his wife busy this season. They live in Florida on the west side. He was originally from Chicago.
I steer him away from grandchildren, who it seems are all whip smart, super athletes and excel at everything.
Stanford teaches critical thinking skills he says. We agree this is important.
What did you do before retiring?
I made a great career in the FBI, starting as an agent and working my way up. I worked all over, headed the FBI in South Carolina, worked in Washington DC for four years.
Ok, this is getting interesting, far better than grandchildren. He starts by condescending. Read, he says, pointing to the paper he is underlining.
I doubt USA Today will tell me about the FBI, I say.
He smiles. Well, you’re right about that.
Did you start under Hoover? What did you think of him?
He looks me over. His eyes are robin egg blue. You won’t agree with me. I never met him. I think he built a great organization.
What about all the people falsely accused during the McCarthy period whose lives were ruined?
No answer to that.
We start on immigration. He tells me he doesn’t think we should let Muslims in to the US. Their law is different from ours. They should stay in Muslim countries, but they all want to go to Germany. They want the free stuff. He starts to lecture about Shia, Sunni.
But don’t we have some responsibility for creating the refugee crisis? Have you seen the pictures of Syria? It’s a bombed out wasteland. Would you want to be sent back there? How is this different from our sending boatloads of Jews back to Germany to face Nazi extermination during WWII?
He says his wife is Jewish. FDR was an anti-Semite.
What about the Japanese incarceration?
In retrospect? Terrible. He doesn’t see the similarity.
He says he loves the Hispanics. They are Christian, they work hard, they come from a similar culture. They can assimilate. Muslims can’t.
What is your vision? Do you see this as a Christian nation? Is this a war for religious domination?
He wants to change to subject back to Stanford, but can’t remember a word. The problem with an old brain, he says, and I sympathize. He taps his wife’s shoulder to ask. She looks annoyed, pulls out an earbud and answers. We talk more about the Stanford Experience, but I can never get him to explain its essence.
Since retiring from the FBI he has worked as a legal ethicist in private business helping businesses to do the right thing.
Yeah, it hurts the bottom line if you’re getting sued all the time.
No it’s more than that. It’s about morals. He thinks Comey should have been fired immediately after Loretta Lynch had the private meeting with Bill Clinton on that plane. I don’t understand this, but get that he is not a Comey fan, that he thinks Comey was unethical.
Sometime later he is still underlining furiously. I wonder if this is a holdover from his FBI work. The headline on the print-out is “Trump’s Cheese in the Maze Strategy.” It comes from a right-wing site called Big League Politics which refers to the media as the Fake News Media.
You should read what I read, he says.
I ask how he thinks Trump is doing.
He wasn’t a Trump supporter in the beginning, but now he’s on board. Likes his style. Likes what he did with NATO. They have to pay their share. Thinks he sent North Korea a message.
He and his wife go to lectures, read about world affairs. They heard a lecture at the World Affairs Council where the speaker thought we ought to ally with Russia. They are another white country he said.
How does he reconcile this with our war in Syria?
The Kurds are doing the fighting. He likes the Kurds. But then there’s Turkey.
Do you think the Kurds should have their own homeland?
He starts to lecture about the history but doesn’t answer. Mentions Israel, Saudi Arabia.
Why are we selling arms to the Saudis? Those 9-11 guys were Saudi. Why are we so close to them? Are we sending them to war with Iran? Where do you see it leading? Will borders change? No answer to that.
What’s your vision? How do you see it ending? Do you think there’s any possible strategy other than war?
We move to history. He thinks we should have kept fighting in Vietnam. We could have won that war with two more weeks.
What was the point? To open a market for American goods? We’ve done that. Do you think it would have been worth the tens of thousand of lives lost?
Yes, if we’d won. Were you against the war?
Yes, I was a protester.
My wife was too. But she’s come over to my side.
I wish I could talk to his wife. Has she come over in the interest of domestic tranquility?
We agree to disagree. It’s been a polite conversation and we agree we could keep talking for days. I’ve been the one asking questions. He hasn’t seemed particularly interested in me. But he asks me why I’m going to DC. I tell him about the Great Labor Arts Exchange and that my chorus is doing a performance about Paul Robeson. Do you know who he was?
No. The name is familiar.
My wife Holly thinks I should always introduce Robeson as the Old Man River singer. People don’t know who he was. I describe him as a football player, then as a singer and actor, a black activist, a communist.
Ah, he was a commie is all he says.
The FBI and US government harassed him and ruined his life.
We talk about travel. He has been to far more places in the world than I. They have a bucket list and are planning a trip to Israel, Jordan and Egypt in the near future.
The topic turns to health care. Beware single payer he says. The Canadians have to wait in line.
But isn’t that better than no healthcare? Rich people always have the option of paying for faster doctor visits. I’m a big fan of single payer and will work to get it in California.
Do you like Bernie Sanders?
I hesitate, thinking about the rift in the Democratic Party. Well, I consider myself a socialist. Yes.
As the long flight ends and we stand up, the people in seats around us chime in. They could hear our conversation. One says it’s just like her family. I say did it feel like Thanksgiving and apologize. Another says she is passionate about single payer. We introduce ourselves. Her name is Toni Rizzo and she has had a radio show in Mendocino County where she’s talked about healthcare often. The look on her face is pained, knowing. She’s talked to other guys like this.
It’s important to be passionate says the man.
As we wait to deplane he tells me all about his workout schedule, how strong he is at 70. I thought he was older. He wants to know if we need help with luggage. Asserting his physical dominance. I think he wants to arm wrestle. The last defense. I demur.
Sing loud he says as he departs.
I am left chilled by this experience. Here is a guy who claims to be a critical thinker, who claims to care about ethics, but who supports Trump, who believes we must exile Muslims, who thinks we should have kept fighting till we won the war in Vietnam, who thinks there is no answer to world problems other than war. We had a civil, respectful conversation. I really wanted to understand his point of view and now that I do, I’m horrified.
The episode reminds me of a favorite lyric from the Indigo Girls song “Tether”
I kicked up the dirt, and I said to my neighbor We keep making it worse, we keep getting it wrong. He tucked in his shirt, he stood a little bit straighter He said we need a few less words, dear, we need a few more guns
When you hear the word antifascist, you might think of the people who try to reason with right-wing paramilitary brawlers in Berkeley. Or it might call to mind the black bloc, hooded with faces covered, on a rampage smashing windows. Probably you don’t think of the US government.
But there was a time when the villains of US foreign policy were fascists. It was after the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, in which the US refused to intervene, letting the fascists win with the help of Hitler, Mussolini and US oilmen (see Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild). It was before the CIA incorporated Nazi war criminals into its organization and focused our wrath on communists and the Soviet Union after WWII (see The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot).
In the aftermath of WWI, European writers sought to alert the world about the fascist threat and Americans—if they were paying attention—would have known about what was happening in Europe. My mother, Florence Wick, was paying attention. Trying to understand why she decided to join the American Red Cross (ARC) and serve in Europe during the war was what impelled me to study this period.
Watch on the Rhine
In the years before television, theater played an influential role in shaping the culture. Visiting New York City in 1941, my mother saw Watch on the Rhine, an antifascist play written by Lillian Hellman. The popular play won the New York Drama Critics prize that year and was still on Broadway when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. Made into a movie starring Bette Davis in 1943, Watch on the Rhine was representative of a genre of antifascist art popular in the US during the early years of WWII whose purpose was to persuade isolationist Americans to get involved in the European war. It certainly influenced my mother’s decision to join the Red Cross and go to war. I think it may have been one reason she chose to join the ARC, which promised a job in Europe, rather than other slots that opened for women, which may have kept her behind a desk back in the States.
I watched the movie, intrigued by the genre, and several others with similar messages. Some are just naked propaganda with unbelievable characters and dialog. Others, like Hellman’s, seek to educate Americans about the crisis in Europe, about class and about anti-Semitism. Hellman, who had briefly joined the Communist Party, wrote the play in 1940 following the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939. Her call for a united international alliance against Hitler contradicted the Communist position at the time. She was labeled a “premature antifascist” by the Communist Party, ironically later a moniker used by the FBI during the McCarthy purges to target communists. Her lover, Dashiell Hammett, who had also joined the Communist Party, wrote the screenplay.
His introduction reads: In the first week of April 1940 there were few men in the world who could have believed that, in less than three months, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and France would fall to the German invaders. But there were some men, ordinary men, not prophets, who knew this mighty tragedy was on the way. They had fought it from the beginning, and they understood it. We are most deeply in their debt. This is the story of one of these men.
The man is Kurt Muller, a German who has devoted his life to the antifascist movement. We learn that he and many of his comrades fought in international brigades along with the Spanish Republicans to defend Spain’s democratically elected government against Francisco Franco’s fascists. They and others have constructed an underground antifascist organization in Europe. Watch on the Rhine shows us that fascists come in many shades; that Americans, naive about world politics, haven’t moved so far from slavery; that Bette Davis (bless her heart) excelled at overacting. The part played by Davis, Muller’s American wife, was expanded for the movie to make use of her star power at the box office.
The play is set in the Washington DC mansion of the wife’s family, whose dead patriarch had been a respected US Supreme Court justice. The family matriarch, Mama Fanny, runs it like a plantation, overseeing black servants with strict control. When Joseph, the male servant, is summoned, he answers “Yasum.”
But Joseph gets some good lines. When Mama Fanny orders, “That silver has lasted 200 years. Now clean that silver,” Joseph says, “Not the way you take care of it Miss Fanny. I see you at the table and I say to myself, ‘There’s Miss Fanny doing it to that knife again.’ ”
Hellman uses the three Muller children, sophisticated, language rich and worldly, to teach Americans about the outside world. “Grandma has not seen much of the world,” says the oldest, Joshua. “She does not understand that a great many work most hard to get something to eat.”
We learn that the antifascist movement is nonviolent. The youngest kid, Bodo, says, “We must not be angry. Anger is protest and should only be used for the good of one’s fellow man.”
I was so impressed with this movie, I watched it twice, taking notes the second time. It’s both a critique of American culture and an attempt to school Americans about developments in Europe. Hellman did deep research for her script, and I thank her for helping me to understand this historical period and the forces that shaped it. Like most films from this era, it’s not available on Netflix, but I was able to check it out from the San Francisco Public Library.
The Moon Is Down
During Hitler’s rise, Nazis were winning the propaganda war. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, was and still is much admired. Alarmed artists approached the US government with proposals for antifascist plays, movies and books, among them the famous writer John Steinbeck. The result of his effort, the novella, The Moon is Down, was published in March 1942. The next month it played on Broadway and a year later premiered as a movie. Its purpose was to motivate the resistance movements in occupied countries. The sinister title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
I accidentally discovered the thin book in a friend’s library and read it with great interest. Perhaps there are many books like this one, which describes life in a town that has been invaded, but I have never encountered another.
There is bloodshed. Orders are followed. People resist, are arrested and executed. People flee. Some people collaborate. Others form an underground to communicate with those on the outside. At the end of the book, the war is still going. But the invaders have been surrounded and we are very aware that the invaders have become the harassed. In a way, the occupiers have become the occupied.
Steinbeck acknowledges the humanity of the enemy. We learn as much about the motivations and humanness of the invaders as the invaded. For that reason the book was criticized mercilessly in the US and Steinbeck’s patriotism questioned. But Europeans loved it. It was translated into many languages and became the most popular piece of Allied propaganda in WWII. This year the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California is celebrating the book’s 75th anniversary.
Five Came Back
Things weren’t looking good for the Allies as the US joined the war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Germany and Japan were conquering Europe and the Pacific. The US had only just started to gear up its factories to make war materiel and Europe feared we wouldn’t get it there in time to stop the Nazi advance. It was during this time that the US antifascist propaganda machine went into high gear.
From 1942 to 1945, Frank Capra directed a series of seven antifascist propaganda films, narrated by the actor Walter Huston. The series, called Why We Fight, was produced by the War Department to make the case for US involvement in WWII. These films can now be accessed online. I also saw Five Came Back, a three-part Netflix series about five American film directors, including Capra, who produced propaganda for the US government during the war. The others were John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens.
Making movies of the war changed the filmmakers as well as audiences. We learn that they were haunted by what they saw. Wyler was shocked by racism against black soldiers and refused to make a film meant to recruit blacks. Stevens, at Dachau, realized he should be there to film evidence of crimes against humanity, not propaganda. Ford turned to drink after witnessing the bloodbath on D-Day. Huston took on PTSD only to have his film suppressed by the government. Racism was present in these films. While Germans were depicted as humans, Japanese were often seen as subhuman caricatures. The government worried, rightly, that violence against Japanese Americans would result. Then, in 1942, it incarcerated them until the end of the war.
Women in WWII: 13 short films featuring America’s Secret Weapon
Most of these are US military propaganda films whose purpose was to convince women to join the WACS or other service, and also to persuade men that women could do the work. Some were written by Eleanor Roosevelt and narrated by famous actors like Katherine Hepburn. The American Red Cross, in which my mother served, wasn’t mentioned, but there was a picture of an ARC club in North Africa.
I wish the government had made films like this for women in the trades. In one scene a couple of men are talking on their front porch about how one’s sister wants to join the WACS and they think she’s crazy. It’s a man’s war, they say. Then the film counters their sexism and shows competent women doing all sorts of jobs. However, these films also endeavored to persuade women that they were taking men’s jobs and they needed to go back home after the war and relinquish their war jobs to returning soldiers. It was made clear that the jobs belonged to men.
I don’t know if my mother saw any of these films, but it was this sort of government propaganda that propelled her and her generation into World War II. When the enemy was fascism, she was “as patriotic as they come,” according to her sister. Only after the war did she begin to question the government-constructed enemies of the state.
Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust
Released in 2004, this film makes the case that the story of the Holocaust has been told to the world by films made in Hollywood, starting with Warner Bros. Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, then MGM’s The Mortal Storm in 1940. Neither of these films used the word Jew. The Jewish studio heads wanted to stay in the closet and just be known as Americans. Also, the movie industry made a lot of money from selling its films to Germany during the early years of Hitler’s takeover. Some historians now view studio directors as Nazi collaborators.
Finally in 1940 Charlie Chaplin used the word Jew in The Great Dictator, which he made with his own money. Imagining that an antifascist film can also be hysterically funny might be difficult until you see The Great Dictator. Chaplin slays as Adenoid Hynkel, a thinly disguised Hitler. Jack Oakie’s spoof of Mussolini inspires hilarity. I confess I had never seen the film. Now, having watched it, I understand why Chaplin is praised as a comic genius. In the globe scene, Chaplin/Hynkel performs a ballet dance with a balloon earth, achieving perfect domination. Chaplin impersonates Hitler to great comic effect. He watched Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will to learn Hitler’s speech patterns and body movements. Chaplin later said that if he had known the extent of Nazi atrocities, he wouldn’t have made the film.
My mother told us kids stories about her time in Europe during the war, but she never talked about the Holocaust and we were not taught about this historical period in school. So I didn’t learn until 1970 that she had been present at the liberation of Dachau. What finally got her talking was an American TV mini-series, QB VII, about a British court case involving concentration camp crimes. It exemplifies how American media jogged the memories and imaginations of war survivors even 25 years after the war.
Night Will Fall
In 1945 a team of British filmmakers overseen by Alfred Hitchcock went to Germany to document the Nazi death camps. Their documentary, German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, was suppressed and then lost for seven decades. Night Will Fall, a 2014 documentary directed by Andre Singer, chronicles the making of the 1945 film and includes original footage. These images are hard to watch, but I think we need to see them, to witness the consequences of fascism.
The death camp films were suppressed partly because they were thought too graphic for British and American tastes. And American tastes had changed almost as fast as superstate enemies revolved in Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. The Germans, our most recent deadly enemy, had become our friends. The Soviet Union, our recent ally, and communism, was now our mortal enemy.