Tag Archives: American Veterans Committee

and then there’s June 9th, when McCarthy met his match

Joseph McCarthy, that is. As I was helpfully reminded by the Times’ “On This Day” feature, June 9th 1954 was the day U.S. Army counsel Joseph Welch asked that fateful question of the chair of the Un-American Activities Committee: “Sir, have you no sense of decency?”

KemptonAll of which was wonderfully chronicled by Murray Kempton, one of my favorite World War II vets — who went on to cover the beginnings of the civil rights movement and was a signatory to the ad placed by the American Veterans Committee in December 1965, as the Vietnam War was revving up. I just wish he’d asked that question of LBJ.

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There sat down, once, a cold war on america’s heart

I didn’t know the video above existed, of my not-so-secret sensei JB.*, so excuse me while I catch my breath. I’ll wait, too. while you catch yours; here’s the heartrending poem he’s declaiming in that Irish-Woody-Allen accent. But that’s not the John Berryman poem I’m thinking about today.

I’ve never been a fan of Dream Song 23, below For the most part, Berryman at his best stayed away from explicit political references. But I’m staring at the Song now for clues, as I try in what I’m writing to evoke for 30 seconds an era I never lived through — wishing I’d never lost that great book The Dark Ages,  assigned by my beyond-brilliant Binghamton prof Sarah Elbert.

I also know that  I’m relying far too much on the Bayard Rustin phrase that David McReynolds taught me: Bayard spoke, he said,  about the era’s rigidity as “a large piece of sheet steel, 50 feet wide and 50 feet tall, and one inch thick – and if you  hit that with a  hammer at one corner, the entire sheet would reverberate.” (The Dark Ages referenced chronicles how under that steel, subversive elements like jazz and the Beats were gathering, though it makes almost no reference to any of my soldiers.)

jarrell_randallGrasping at cultural straws of all kind, I thought I’d try again. After all, Berryman was friends with WWII veteran Randall Jarrell (right) and in 1946 was teaching at Princeton, which like Yale had a front-row seat on the rest of my WWII story.

I know Berryman was spun by Hiroshima, and get the easy Joe Stalin bit, but what else is inside?   Please comment on what you see?  (You don’t have to be a Cold War baby to speculate.) I do think that the first verse, with its intimation of old-style TV static, comes closest to Rustin’s sheet of steel.

This is the lay of Ike.
Here’s to the glory of the Grewt White—awk—
who has been running—er—er—things in recent—ech—
in the United—If your screen is black,
ladies & gentlemen, we—I like—
at the Point he was already terrific—sick

to a second term, having done no wrong—
no right—no — right—having let the Army—bang—
defend itself from Joe, let venom’ Strauss
bile Oppenheimer out of use—use Robb,
who’ll later fend for Goldfine—Breaking no laws,
he lay in the White House—sob!!—

who never understood his own strategy—whee—
so Monty’s memoirs—nor any strategy,
wanting the ball bulled thro’ all parts of the line
at once—proving, by his refusal to take Berlin,
he misread even Clauswitz—wide empty grin
that never lost a vote (O Adlai mine).

Michael Erard of the Texas Observer had some thoughts about it last year – apparently Ike was about as articulate as Shrub, and he compares all the line-breaking to Ike’s speech.   I think Erard doesn’t recognize the purity of JB’s self-created syntax, though his comparison to the great “Mr. Bones” sections is probably apt. Still, what is the poem saying about that sheet of steel and who it silenced? Or should I be looking to the far-greater Dream Song 10 (Ike is 15) for my answer? However things hurt, men hurt worse.

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Superman vs. the VFW?

In the department of stuff you come across while looking for something else, I found this radio show (the link brings on streaming audio). Click, and you can listen to a “thousands of GI’s” protesting “racial discrimination in state hiring,” and a kind of unusual ally has their backs: Superman, who flies in to stop the state troopers ordered to fire on the vets. Not unusual, it turns out, for the Superman radio show of 1940-1951, whose stories never appeared in comics and which also featured Superman vs. The Clan of the Fiery Cross (also known as the KKK).

This is all old news to true geeks, and doubtless other better writers than I, like  Michael Chabon. But I stumbled across it while poking around for something almost no one remembers (sort of my specialty): the American Veterans Committee.

AVC was a short-lived World War II veterans’ organization whose slogan was “Citizens First, Veterans Second.” And that story about the veterans protest was grounded in the same reality that gave AVC nearly a million members at its start.

By mid-1946, when that story ran,  literally 12,000 active-duty soldiers were busy protesting at bases around the world, accusing the Truman administrationof dragging its feet in getting them home. One famously told Truman, “Give us our independence or go home to yours!”  AVC, founded by the fellow below (who is not, as he seems, Orson Welles), had on its board civil rights icon Medgar Evers and Howard Zinn, among others. Many were writers, like Benjamin Bradlee and E.J. Kahn, and doubtless others found their way to that Superman show. In September of ’46, the AVC issued a special commendation to the producers of the show for its quiet linking of veterans with “social tolerance.”

bolteun

Actually, the VFW had issued a similar award the month before, though it was for promoting “the American way” – code for crushing “commie” stuff like those  “tolerant” Superman shows, which shut down in 1951 in favor of the commie-busting TV version.  No place in the new Cold War for such thoughts — or for a veterans group that saw itself as composed of angelic troublemakers (e.g.  sleeping in L.A. streets as a housing protest).  By the time the 1954  Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency tamed Superman completely, the AVC had mostly collapsed under a not-unfamiliar perfect storm of personality clashes, sectarian-left noise (snooze) and McCarthyism. Leaving veterans of that war to choose between the American Legion and the VFW, as odious to them as to many OEF/OIF vets now.  Its founders basically did neither, choosing instead journalism, or film, or think tanks like the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace.

What happened next is still happening: some will be in the book. Stay tuned for some character sketches.

But I wonder if it would be too much of a cheat to lede my “necessary war” chapter with that fictional scene of “thousands of GIs.” (What do you think?)