Friday, August 30, 2013

Henry Steele Commager on America during the Cold War

Randall Stephens

The November 24, 1954 episode of Longines Chronoscope featured Henry Steele Commager (video embedded here).  That was not unusual for
the news and views program, which regularly featured heads of state, intellectuals, novelists, and other notables.  But the subject of the discussion is particularly interesting all these years later.  Maybe that's especially poignant because Commager was one of America's foremost historians at that time. Here he weighs in on American identity, the pressures of conformity, the post-war economic boom, and freedom of expression.  

This was filmed in the wake of the Korean War, the hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll, and not long after the historic Brown vs. Topeka Supreme Court decision.  Red Scare paranoia remained strong. The coming month of December would see the US Senate reprimand Joseph McCarthy, by a vote of 67–22, for "conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute."

Here are some of the questions posed to Commager by hosts Larry LeSueur (CBS News correspondent) and August Heckscher (chief editorial writer for the New York Herald-Tribune):

LeSueur: So, professor Commager, we'd like to ask you: Do you think that this country when it was smaller and less powerful, but when we had less responsibilities, do you think we were happier then than we are now?

LeSueur: Professor Commager, do you feel that our freedoms such as speech are more circumscribed now than they have been in the past?

LeSueur: Surely professor Commager there's less conformity now than in the days of the Puritans?

Heckscher: Would you say that . . . we exaggerate our standard of living in comparison to the standard of living of foreign countries, for example?

LeSueur: Do you think our country is more or less unified in some areas, on foreign policy for example, now than it has been in the past during some of our crises?

How are historians reflecting on the pressing issues of our day?  What will the opinions of contemporary historians look like more than 50 years from now?

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