Monday, December 29, 2008

Gabriel over the White House

I just started to read Jonathan Alter's "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope". I've always considered myself pretty informed when it came to history, even though my knowledge of American history is not as deep as European. Yet, as i read this book, I am amazed to find out how many truly disturbing things went on during this period that I was completely unaware of.

I guess partially this has to do with the reality that most of what happens to us during the present gets compressed into just a few pages of history. All the news that is filling the front pages of the press right now, Obama, Blago, Gaza, has to compete for shelf space as time goes on...

Anyway, one of the mind blowing points the book makes is the fact that there was a real possibility of Roosevelt becoming a dictator. And what is even more disturbing about this is that many in this country, from the elites to the common folk, were readily and enthusiastically willing to abandon democracy as a failed experiment, and were urging FDR to assume dictatorial powers.

It is clear that FDR considered this course of action a real possibility. Much like Mussolini in Italy, there was thought of mobilizing the WWI veterans into an "Army of the People", of circumventing the checks and balances system of government established by our Founding Fathers. While many of the working class were agitating for a Communist path, and the elites were pushing for a Fascistic style dictatorship, it was clear that the notion of the Democratic Republic was viewed as a failure. As crazy as it sounds today, the term "dictator" did not have any pejorative connotations. On the contrary, Mussolini was considered a hero for straightening out Italy, and while Hitler was seen as a bit of a bombast, he was also admired for turning around the German economy.

The other striking feature of this time period is the massive propaganda efforts that were used to manipulate the public. "Gabriel over the White House" was essentially a propaganda piece that was designed to prepare the common man for a dictatorship. A decade later, another movie, "Mission to Moscow", was filmed as part of pro-Soviet propaganda during the war, when the Soviets were allied with the US and Great Britain. The movie was crafted by Joseph E Davies, Ambassador to the USSR with full support of FDR. The movie whitewashed the Great Purges, the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, as well as many of Stalin's other atrocities.

These days much is made of the evils of dictatorship. And this country prides itself on "freedom of the press". Yet, it is both ironic and disturbing, of how little is said in history books and in our national memory of these threats to what we today consider to be the defining character of our nation and lifestyle. Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.


Blogger Tobie said...

That is nuts. I'd love to say that something like that couldn't happen nowadays, but it's pretty scary how easily it could.

December 30, 2008 12:45 AM  
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