Welcome to America in the 1950’s! Newly manufactured suburban homes were keeping their nuclear family’s safe, large corporations were keeping them employed, and people everywhere were reminded that the purchase and ownership of goods was synonymous with the American Dream. Many saw democracy at work as they exercised their economic freedoms, indulged in home ownership, and fastidiously maintained traditional family values aligned with conservative gender roles. No longer consumed by a world war, and bolstered by technological advancements in health care, families became larger and more closely bound by the unifying force of religion, television, and the pursuit of entertainment. “American workers enjoyed high employment, low inflation, and rising incomes. Less than 5 percent of the workforce was unemployed at any one time.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 776) If prosperity and consumerism were the driving force of the 50’s, then “sameness” was certainly its main characteristic. “The United States seemed a homogeneous society whose people bought the same products, watched the same TV shows, worked for the same corporations and dreamed the same dreams.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p779)
The organized military man and popular president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, embodied many of the values that dominated the 1950’s. A dedicated husband to a fashion-forward wife, his methodical and organizational approach toward government mimicked big business managerial structures. His Modern Republicanism sought to maintain popular liberal programs, ensure corporate wealth, and uphold individual consumer culture. Perhaps his greatest success was continuing the “sameness” to which the country had grown accustomed. “’The public loves Ike,’ one journalist observed. ‘The less he does, the more they love him.’” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 787) Therein lies his secret to success, maintaining the status quo and promoting the public's ability to consume, seek pleasure, and perpetuate comfortable norms. “The Doctrine of the Eisenhower Administration is that you would return America back to its private enterprise roots.” (Eisenhower Republicanism)
But, his presidency wasn’t without conflict and failure, as the red scare of Communism still loomed on the horizon. Unlike his predecessor, Eisenhower sought a more aggressive stance to “roll back” Soviet power through “long-range bombers, missiles, and nuclear-powered submarines.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 789) He made extensive use of the CIA in covert operations across the globe designed to undermine and thwart Communist progress. “Despite its tough talk, the Eisenhower administration avoided direct confrontation with two major Communist powers, The People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 791) He failed to bring a victory in Korea but negotiated a famous stalemate instead. In Vietnam, he backed anti-Communist Ngo Dinh Diem who “established a corrupt, repressive government” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 792) ensuring a Vietnamese civil war (for which the US would later pay dearly). The policies of the “Eisenhower Doctrine” would help to “stabilize the Middle East and South East Asia temporarily, but he had also drawn the United States more deeply into these crisis-prone regions”. (Oakes et al., 2015, p 793)
Eisenhower’s popularity can be placed squarely on the success, happiness, and homogeny of the American people, who were looking for their government to maintain contented consumerism as opposed to offering radical political and social intervention. Riding on the success of the “New Deal”, the socio-economic boom that followed World War II, and what can be argued as the media-driven awakening of the American people, Eisenhower benefited from being president in an altogether idyllic time. Elvis was gyrating into the hearts of American teen girls everywhere, beatniks were snapping dark clad fingers in quiet protest, and “I Love Lucy” made everyone feel as if American had finally awoken from their nightmares to discover their dreams realized.
Was Eisenhower a great president? Probably not. Would his ideas and policies reinvent the country? No. But then again, that was the point. He didn’t need to.
A witty time travel trope and common paradox is the argument: time travel has yet to be invented because Hitler still lived.
The argument (while paradoxical and illogical) speaks volumes towards a global hatred for the mustache twirling nemesis of World War II. Despite the United Stated historically failing German refugees in 1939, the Holocaust remains a vivid scar on the international psyche. While Pearl Harbor is memorialized as the moment when foreign war touched native soil, Hitler’s genocide remains a tragic symbol of hatred and the dangers of vicious propaganda and national indoctrination. World War II reminds us what happens when intolerance turns to supremacy, when supremacy turns to justification, and when justification turns to violence. The crimes perpetrated by Hitler’s Germany are unfathomable and enduring. Despite the death camp at Auschwitz, Poland, and its capability for death, “2,000 people an hour could be killed with Zyklon-B gas.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 734) United States assistant secretary of war, John J. McCloy “dismissed it as a humanitarian matter of no concern to the army.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 734) While the Manhattan Project races to create the most devastating weapon known to man ahead of its enemies, the tag team bent on totalitarian domination, Japan, and Germany, wage thoroughly modern warfare against Allied forces on multiple fronts. Both Germany and Japan engage in wartime practices enough to outrage the American public, and yet Japan remained the foremost target upon the US entering the war, and was the victim of the Manhattan Project’s final solution.
The United States, content to lick its wounds after World War I and a harrowing financial Depression, continued its isolationist leanings and enacted policies enforcing military neutrality despite the World War brewing overseas. Nazi Germany was continuing to devour European Nations, urging Germans to “defend themselves against the Untermenschen, subhumans, in their midst – Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals” (Oakes et al., 2015, p714) and the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan continued to pose a threat the British forces were opposing nearly singlehandedly. Despite sly “surplus” aid granted Britain by the US, they did not enter the war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, “181 planes had bombed and strafed airfields on Oahu, destroying or damaging more than 200 planes” and “96 ships of the US Pacific fleet” were attacked by bombers. (Oakes et al., 2015, p717) “Pearl Harbor was a kind of godsend, in a way, to Roosevelt. Because it was such a shock to Americans that it united them behind the war, and very quickly”. (Pearl Harbor Attack brings U.S. into the World Conflict) Germany, allied with Japan, declares war on the United States following the US declaration of involvement.
What followed was a bloody war fought on multiple fronts that propelled US technology, engineering, manufacturing, and employment at such speeds that can only be seen during wartime. While strategic victories (and the suicide of its genocidal leader) lead to a German surrender on May 8, 1945, Japan’s tenacious, vicious, and frightening determination continued in the face of a devastating onslaught. “Each side treated the other without mercy, killing prisoners, mutilating the dead, and fighting with ‘a brutish, primitive hatred.'” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 737) Determined the Japanese forces would not surrender, and “As Americans neared the Japanese home islands, defenders fought with suicidal ferocity” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 739) the US resorted to what can be considered the most devastating acts in the history of war. Harry S. Truman, newly minted commander in chief, having received word of success from the Manhattan Project, lets loose an atomic bomb on August 6th, the target, Hiroshima. Three days later on August 9th, Nagasaki would receive the same treatment. The horrendous weapon had its desired effect, and despite Japanese determination, they would surrender on August 14th. Having met its aim, total surrender, the atomic bomb and the Manhattan Project may be classified as a success. However, there are other considerations. Germany despite the genocidal humanitarian crimes failed to receive the “city busting” attentions of the United States. Refugees from the Holocaust were denied entrance to the US, Hitler was gathering “subhumans” in death camps for extermination and torture, and the German people were being indoctrinated on hate and the supremacy of the “Arian Race” long before US involvement. Collective history remembers Germany as an enemy worthy of villain status, and yet Japan suffered greatest at the hands of a weapon no man had ever known before. Was use of the atomic bomb effective? Yes. Was it justified, are its use and creation justified? Can we knowingly create a weapon of destruction so vast that it poses and planetary threat, and justify our actions with “They may have built it first.”? I do not know. Fear and brilliance made the bomb, and fear dropped it, but an entire planet mutually assuring its own destruction has paid the price since.
The settlement of the American West, is a glorified time in the nation’s history. Cowboys lived free and rough on the plains, there was gold glistening in the hills, and anyone could own land and fill their dinner table with the fruits of their labor. Sadly, this shining age of expansion and independence was neither as golden nor as free as film and literature remembers. Western expansion came at a great price, one that native peoples paid with their land, their lives, and their freedom.
While “robber barons”, consolidated trusts, and big business tycoons were establishing a stranglehold on wage workers on the eastern shores, the west was in the grips of a different kind of class and cultural struggle. Land rights, culture clashes, and prejudice lead to immense conflict between white and Native American populations. Put simply: Native Americans lived on lands that the white population was seeking to own, harvest, and profit from.
As a partial answer to the dilemma of Native American land rights and to end white-Indian conflict that had escalated to extreme levels, the government created a reservation policy. This policy granted Native American tribes distinct territories with the promise of government subsidies in exchange for remaining within its bounds. The reservation policy was far from perfect, suffering from corruption and “failed mostly because not all Indians agreed to stay within their designated territories, leading to armed confrontations and reprisals.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 500) Whether the government had a right to sequester these people in the first place is a question for another time. Defying policy, Native Americans continued to “escape” their territory and the United States military continued to respond with force, and “Starting in 1871, the government stopped treating the tribes as separate nations. They were subjected peoples, nothing more.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 500)
But what of genocide? Can the governments late nineteenth century policy toward Native Americans be considered a form of mass extermination?
If genocide can be described as the willful destruction (in whole or in part) of a cultural, religious, or racial group, then yes. Yes, the policy of the United States towards the Native Americans is tantamount to genocide. “They certainly want Indians as distinctive cultural members to disappear, but they want them to choose to do so willingly.” (Government Policies Undermine Indian Way of Life) Fearing the outright mass extermination of these tribes and nations would leave a dark mark on the face of the Republic, instead the government (and US military) sought to disassemble the Indian culture.
High demand for hides brought about the slaughter of whole buffalo herds. As sportsmen and profit hunters decimated the buffalo population, “The army saw a bonus in anything wiping out subsistence for Indians off the reservation.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 501) Reformers attempting to “civilize” Native Americans with Christian values “introduced government schools on reservations to teach the virtues of private property, individual achievement, and social mobility.” (Oakes et al., 2015, p 501)
Their food sources destroyed or severely limited, their culture forcibly infringed upon by Christian values, and their land stolen, the Indian people faced the elimination of their way of life. Genocide can take many forms and overt killing is only one. Remove a people’s religion, their land, their food, and undermine their cultural beliefs and you have killed a nation of people as quickly as if you had gunned them all down.
It is Going to Rain | Ofelia Zepeda
Someone said it is going to rain.
I think it is not so.
Because I have not yet felt the earth and the way it holds still
I think it is not so.
Because I have not yet felt the sky become heavy with moisture of
I think it is not so.
Because I have not yet felt the winds move with their coolness.
I think it is not so.
Because I have not yet inhaled the sweet, wet dirt the winds bring.
So, there is no truth that it will rain.
To which I respond:
Someone said I will understand this.
I think it is not so.
Because I have not yet felt the tingle of wisdom and joy understanding brings.
I think it is not so.
Because I have not yet felt my mind unwind, spin itself out, and find the unseen avenues this knowledge would bring.
I think it is not so.
Because I have yet to feel my fingers fly across the keyboard in response or challenge.
I think it is not so.
Because I have not yet taken the breath I’ve been holding, waiting for comprehension.
So, there is no truth that I will understand this.
"I was staring resolutely toward the park entrance, shaded my eyes, and shifted nervously on the hood of my old red Jeep, feeling suddenly embarrassed. It’s not the pretense and the need for fast, shiny things that leaves me suddenly ashamed of my mode of transport (the Jeep is a rugged beast, deserving of every outdoorsman) but its wastefulness and resource guzzling adds a new level of anxiety to my already heightened sense of anticipation and trepidation.
What should have had me fearfully scanning the horizon and suddenly questioning my life choices? A meeting of some import: a walk with none other than the grandfather of the stroll himself, Henry David Thoreau.
I choose my location carefully, a walk may not be about the destination alone, but having a trail to follow to this unknown end certainly helps. Topanga State Park, off of Topanga Canyon Road north of Pacific Coast Highway, has long been a choice destination of mine. Southern California has a unique backdrop of shrubbery, unexpected splashes of color, old trees, and ocean air. This particular park embodies them all. Looking around again at the dirt parking lot, and scanning the winding entrance once more I am still not certain exactly what I am waiting for. A car with a glowing bumper sticker that says “Here drives Thoreau” would be too much to ask for. So instead I wait. And breathe. And very nearly avoid hopping off my car and pacing around like a half mad cat.
Nearly 10 minutes go by and I’m suddenly jarred out of my frantic parking lot vigil by a noise directly behind me: part clearing of a throat, part bemused chuckle. I turn abruptly (most definitely denting my Jeep’s hood in the process) and am left staring open-mouthed at the source of the polite bemused sound: Thoreau himself. Of course the first thing I want to ask him was: how did you get here? He couldn’t have walked to the park (there’s no good way to traverse Topanga Canyon on foot without taking your life in your hands).
He looked at ease, unhurried, as if he had sprung from the very glade itself, born from that moment with a smile on his lips as if to say “I’ve always been here.” Older images portray him as a cross between Gandalf and Abraham Lincoln, so I was expecting an old man in a three piece suit and straw hat to meet me, walking stick in hand to politely talk about the weather and ask if I have a husband. I should have known better. Thoroughly modern, in some truly fantastic hiking boots, Thoreau proved once again to be king of wanderlust.
Polite introductions were made (where I attempted to not fall over myself and forget my own name) and we began our trek into his Wild.
Immediately regretting my choice to hike, talk, and think, I begin with the questions he had so kindly “walked here” to answer. Thoreau seemed to require little preamble and pretense, and was content enough to stroll easily, resolute under the weight of my rapid fire questions.
“I have to ask,” I began, “you’ve seen this country grow up. You once had great hopes for us and the heights we might reach as a nation. Are you disappointed?”
Without pause he answered: “Society and nations themselves have always been flawed. Our country is no different. Have we reached the heights I hoped for, and created a new enlightened age among men? Maybe not. But it’s the individual that holds the measure of a nation. And I think we’ve had the pleasure of fostering some truly splendid individuals. But I will say this: you all work too much.”
I laughed in surprised agreement. “You won’t hear an argument from me.” I respond. “Your works have often been seen to support a simple, authentic life apart from society. Walking, wandering, meandering as you advocated, is a necessary component to living a full, happy life. Do you still look around and marvel at how we survive without continuous injections of The Wild to maintain our humanity? Is the art of the wander lost, or even possible in our modern socio-economic landscape?”
He paused, and looked around pointedly and smiled. “Well, I certainly still wander. But I understand that I’m privileged to do so. I find it interesting that resources are dwindling on all fronts, don’t you? As nature begins to shrink acres per minute, so too does the commodity of time in equal measure. The more we consume, the less time we have to enjoy it. I have watched humanity starve earth of its resources, devour the wild places, and turn around, ever hungry, consuming the precious resource of leisure itself. How can we make everyone understand the importance of preserving the wild places of the world, when we don’t even conserve the wild within ourselves?”
I pause, midstride (and ashamedly out of breath) to ponder for a moment. Are we failing to conserve the wild within ourselves? Has somehow this lack of internal wonder and wildness given way to an environmentally indifferent attitude? Ever the modern supporter, I counter however: “Given the technological advancements we’ve seen, the scientific wonder, and the ever growing and evolving population, do you still think that “All good things are wild and free”. Have we finally proven once and for all that civilization has had one to many champions?
Thoreau is, of course, unfazed. “Science and wonder go hand in hand. Philosophy and art. The magic of modern technology. All stem from an inborn need to create. It’s true that we have transitioned into a time when creation has leapt from the canvas and page, to the screen and algorithm. The world is not as large as it once was, not as vast….or as green.” He adds, casting a lamenting look at the dull browns and muted greens surrounding us. “But it is still full of The Wild. Every man or woman that dare step outside the boundaries and create, has done so at the behest of The Wild. Look at the empire we have built on the graves of the wood and with her bones. Imagine what could have been made beneath her arms and under her protection.”
“The earth is reaching a dangerous tipping point. Every time you turn around another creature is becoming extinct, another acre of precious wilderness is being sacrificed to progress, and we are rapidly approaching a moment in human history where the world we love so well might not sustain us.” Thoreau nodded is sad agreement, awaiting the question surely to come. “Conservation, preservation, and environmental awareness is heightened. Most of us live in cities, apart from nature, breathing deeply the pollution of man. Is returning to the Wild and wandering, our best option? Can we truly turn our back on the city and attempt to live a simple life within nature and hope for the much needed change?”
His brow creases in the first lines of consternation and thought I had seen thus far. In his long time watching the world unfold, he must have given great thought to righting the course we have set on as a country, and as a race. His answer surprised me: “I say we still walk. We still wander. We still find that part within ourselves and hold tight. But the time has come for us to act as well.”
Perhaps he saw the surprise on my face, because he chuckled good-naturedly and continued. “I walked west into the future and found it. I found a future that no longer fears the wild, but it no longer fears the city either. We’ve grown immune to the noise and the cries. I longed for an escape, and found one. I looked into the heart of society, weighed it, and found it wanting. My fear is not only that we abandoned our woods and wilderness, but that we are not lamenting the loss.”
We had since begun our return trip back to my red monstrosity, and were nearing the end of our journey. I wanted to ask him so many questions: what books are on your nightstand? Do you approve of our government and its heavy handed approach? And most importantly: what should I do from here? Where should I go? Is there hope? How can I be sure that the Wild within and without never dies? Do I really have the freedoms I think I do?
Instead, Jeep in sight, I stopped mid-stride and faced him fully for the first time since our knightly crusade of the saunter began, and demanded: “Did you really walk here?"