World War II ended in 1945, and the United States came out of it on the wrong trajectory. Instead of being hopeful, optimistic, and looking to the future, the country was cynical, anxious, and apprehensive. The typical movies of the late 40's would be film noir -- twisted allegories of betrayal and corruption, darker than dark and bleaker than bleak. Other films of the period would be more positive, but even those were nostalgic and backward-looking, focused on the Old West or on a vanishing era of small-town serenity rather than on the new postwar world that was coming into being.
This mood of the late 40's grew in part out of fears stirred up by the atomic bomb and the onset of the Cold War, and out of the dawning realization that the end of armed conflict had not made the world any safer or more peaceful. But the first signs of a loss of confidence had been present even before the war ended. For example, many of the science fiction stories published in 1945 were characterized by a disillusionment and narrowing of vision that had not been apparent a year earlier. It seems as though the war itself had left a blight on the national spirit that would not be easily thrown off..
Some degree of war-weariness after the long conflict was probably inevitable, but the intense cynicism of the late 40's went beyond emotional exhaustion and into almost inexplicable depths of spiritual disgust. We are so used to hearing World War II called the last good war that we have entirely forgotten the great moral toll it took on the nation. From the internment of Japanese-Americans to the fire-bombing of Dresden (which so haunted Kurt Vonnegut) to the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the war was marked by a level of casual brutality and a disregard for innocent lives that Americans found impossible to reconcile with their abiding belief in the purity of their own motives.
The returning soldiers were hailed as heroes -- and often deservedly so -- but their children and grandchildren will tell you that one after another of them had witnessed things of which they were never able to speak. The profound gulf between the nobility of their intentions and the crudity of their actions created a disjuncture that has only become more acute with the passing years. As America keeps striving obsessively to replicate its last great worldly success, it has grown ever more high-flown in its rhetoric, more ruthless in its methods, and yet weaker and more ineffectual in its results.
However, in the immediate wake of the war, that long-term moral debilitation was not yet apparent. All most people knew for sure was that they wanted things to go back to the way they once had been, and would gladly follow whoever promised to make that happen.
The 80th Congress, elected in November 1946, was one of the most reactionary ever. Its right-wing members took their seats with the explicit objective of undoing the New Deal. They were able to frustrate President Truman's hopes of extending greater protections to workers and the poor, and they managed to pass the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act and a tax cut for the wealthy over his veto, but this naked class warfare proved so unpopular that it led to Truman's unexpected re-election in 1948. After that, the core of the New Deal would remain untouchable for the next sixty years.
However, although Truman may have been prepared to do battle with Congress over social issues, he was far more ready to compromise with the right in other areas. In 1947, as the Soviet Union consolidated its control over Eastern Europe, he signed the National Security Act, which created the CIA and the National Security Council. Truman also gave free rein to the anti-communist witchhunts within the government which would climax in the McCarthy era of 1950-53. And with the fall of China to the Communists in 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, he would move to put the country on a permanent wartime footing.
This adoption of hard-line anti-communism as national policy may or may not have been objectively justified by international events. There are certainly plausible arguments to be made on either side of the debate. However, it had two extremely negative results on the domestic front. For the country as a whole, it made it possible to project the guilt aroused by the appalling slaughter of World War II outward into an external enemy. This allowed the United States to avoid indefinitely any kind of critical self-examination and to adopt an unquestioning attitude of "We're the good guys, so whatever we do has to be okay."
But for the reactionary businessmen who had actively supported the Nazis in the 1930's, militant anti-communism would serve an even more essential function. It provided an opportunity for them to paper over their past associations and present themselves as guardians of democracy, even as they continued forming alliances with fascists abroad and working to squash progressive legislation at home.
In the course of the 1950's, three main centers of anti-communist activity developed in the United States -- the national security state within the government, the military-industrial complex on the interface between government and business, and a variety of fanatically anti-communist organizations down at the grassroods. All three have served the extreme right as power bases, from which it has worked unceasingly to promote its radical agenda of unrestrained free market economics at home and militant interventionism in support of US business interests abroad.
Today, communist ideology has all but vanished from the world stage, and even moderate liberalism is increasingly under siege. The regressive elements in our society which have waited for sixty years to take control sense victory within their grasp. All the power seems to be in their hands, and the great institutions of the country -- the government, the military, the media -- are theirs to do with as they choose.
And yet there is one small thing they lack, and that is moral legitimacy. Their ascent to supreme power has never been based on anything positive. It is rooted solely in the deep spiritual void into which the country tumbled in 1945, and in our persistent refusal to deal with the painful truths laid out before us at that moment. The forces of reaction tell us that we are good when we aren't. They tell us that we have done no harm when we have. They tell us that global ass-kicking is a noble enterprise when it isn't. And to the extent that we believe them -- to the extent that we want to believe them -- we remain their slaves.
At this moment of extremity, there is only one way out of our moral dead end, and that is to pass through the void. The void remains ever with us. It is the shadow that hovers over us and the mirror that floats before us. It terrifies us so much that we turn away from it over and over. And yet the void is also our most faithful companion, in whose hands our national soul and sense of higher purpose were long ago placed for safe keeping. If we can gaze into the mirror of the void steadily and fearlessly and acknowledge what we find there, we may yet rediscover our real nature, the true sources of our strength, and our ability to move forward and grow in the world.
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