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The Freedom Train

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Interviewer: What was the "Freedom Train," and how did it reflect the political and social concerns of the time?

Eric Foner: The "Freedom Train" was a sort of patriotic endeavor originally organized by the government and then later given over to a private foundation, the American Heritage Foundation It was launched in 1947 and it consisted of 133 famous documents of American history—the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, and things like that—and they traveled by train all over the country for about a year and a half and were visited by millions of people who wanted to see these documents. There were all sorts of public events associated with it, and the Freedom Train represented the popular belief in freedom and a popular identification, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, with the ideal of freedom. It also inadvertently revealed some of the tensions in the idea of freedom. When it got to the South, the question was, Would blacks and whites be able to board the Freedom Train together or would there be segregation viewing? The Truman Administration said, No, it has to be integrated. We will not distinguish between citizens getting on the Freedom Train. In fact, the Freedom Train cancelled its visits to Memphis and Birmingham in the South because the city fathers insisted that the viewing had to be segregated. But it went to many other cities in the South without protest and in an integrated fashion, so it illustrated the growing salience of the issue of race in American life after World War II. It also showed as it went along how the Cold War, which was just developing at this time, was reshaping ideas of freedom, because increasingly the government became suspicious of people who criticized the Freedom Train and began to think they were enemy agents or subversives, or something like that. It showed how this kind of fear of external subversion was beginning to make its appearance in America in the early days of the Cold War.

Cold War, pt 1: effects on American freedom

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Interviewer: Could you speak more broadly on how the Cold War affected the meanings of American freedom?

Eric Foner: Like other great moments in American history—World War I, World War II, the Civil War—the Cold War (which was not a fighting war, except in some places) did strongly affect freedom. The battle between American democracy and Soviet communism elevated certain elements of our society to central roles in the idea of freedom, particularly what came to be called "free enterprise" as opposed to Soviet communism. Free enterprise, capitalism, market economics became essential to the idea of freedom, which they hadn't been in the New Deal era. Also, the language of freedom reverberated throughout the society: "This is the free world; we are fighting the un-free world." The president gave medals of freedom to foreign leaders who were on our side. The problem was, freedom became almost a cliché. Most of those foreign leaders who got the medals of freedom were tyrants in their own countries—the Shah of Iran, President Marcos of the Philippines—but they were on our side in the Cold War and therefore somehow they were hailed as great defenders of freedom. So the Cold War elevated freedom to an even more central role than it had before, but it also made the United States the ally in many parts of the world with governments that suppressed the freedom of their own people, and that contradiction would eventually blow up in the 1960s.

Civil rights movement before Brown

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Interviewer: Could you characterize the development of the civil rights movement in the years before the Brown decision?

Eric Foner: The civil rights movement did not begin with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954, outlawing school segregation, although many people have dated it from there. World War II galvanized the growing discontent among African-Americans with their lot in American society. In the immediate aftermath of the war, there were serious movements for greater civil rights, particularly in the North (we should not forget the northern side of the civil rights movement). In cities like New York and Chicago in 1947, 1948, and 1949, there were massive demonstrations for better employment, education, and housing opportunities for African-Americans. The Cold War and McCarthy had put a bit of a damper on the civil rights activists. By the early fifties, criticism of American society in any way came to be seen as dangerous and subversive. But those years laid the groundwork for the upsurge of the civil rights movement, which would again really start with the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

Cold War, pt 2: McCarthyism

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Interviewer: As you say, at the end of World War II, "just as the United States celebrated freedom as the foundation of American life, the right to dissent came under attack." How did the Cold War spawn McCarthyism, and what was its overall impact?

Eric Foner: The Cold War was not a war between the Soviet Union and the United States, although there were many local wars around the world in which we had some role. Nonetheless, it was a time, as in other wars, of fear, anxiety, and, again, a governmental desire to mobilize people and to suppress difference of opinion. What we call the McCarthy Era began before Senator Joseph McCarthy went on a rampage starting in 1950. President Truman, in 1947, had instituted what they called the Internal Security Program, in which people who worked for the federal government were forced to prove themselves to be loyal. They were just told, you are charged with being disloyal—prove you're loyal. It's rather difficult to defend yourself against charges like that. But under McCarthy and his committee, which was investigating these things in the 1950s, many people were persecuted, a few jailed; many lost their livelihoods, a whole group of screenwriters in Hollywood were blacklisted, universities and colleges fired people who would not take loyalty oaths or who were accused of being disloyal.

There was a whole atmosphere of fear and lack of dissent. It's not that people were all persecuted; it's just that people began to be wary of expressing unorthodox opinions, opinions critical of the government, because so many were being persecuted for views which were deemed unorthodox or unpatriotic. The House of Representatives at that time had a committee called the House Committee on Un-American Activities, investigating what it called un-American—mostly people accused of being Communist, sympathetic to Communists, or in favor of things that Communists were also in favor of: civil rights, national health insurance, public housing, things like that. They never investigated the Ku Klux Klan, which some people might think was un-American. So there was this atmosphere of fear and repression, through to the late 1950s; then it began to wane.