‘Winning Minds and Hearts: Constructing National Identity in US History’, HOTCUS Postgraduate Conference, Northumbria University, 9 September 2016.
Following our review series of the HOTCUS Postgraduate Conference, the panelists were given the opportunity to respond to the reviews; discussing questions posed, expanding on specific areas of interest, and addressing issues raised. The responses which follow—from Simon Buck (Northumbria University), Mark Eastwood (University of Nottingham), and Lauren Mottle (University of Leeds) serve to continue the conversation beyond the day itself.
‘Crossing Boundaries: Challenging American Norms During the 1950s and 1960s’
Simon Buck’s response to Natasha Neary’s Review
In Natasha Neary’s review of my paper on Pete Seeger, old age, and Rainbow Quest, she kindly put forward some stimulating questions. With regard to the gendered ageism in Rainbow Quest—in which older male performers discussed their past careers, while older female performers discussed their grandchildren—there is always a risk for historians to over-estimate the value of cultural sources as indicators of broader societal values. While Rainbow Quest demonstrates Seeger and his producers’ own gendered understanding of old age and ‘life review’, it is not indicative of the media as a whole, or the folk music scene. Neary’s suggestion to investigate other media examples of older women is a useful direction for historical comparison. Were elderly female chat show guests, for example, more regularly questioned on their (grand)motherhood than their careers? Similarly, older actresses have recently criticised the film and television industries for their typecasting into familial ‘grandmother’ roles. Is this perhaps an indication of the continuance of gendered tropes within mediatised visions of old age?
Neary also questioned the popularity of and audience reactions to Rainbow Quest, both when the show was briefly rebroadcast in the late 1960s and within the relatively small folk music world. The show was likely rerun as a protest after Seeger’s rendition of ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’ was censored from CBS’s Smothers Brothers Show in 1967, for its unflattering allusions to President Johnson and the ongoing war in Vietnam. It is not known exactly why Rainbow Quest did not garner much attention then, or secure a third series. Yet it is my speculation that once the public outrage over censorship had passed, the show’s short-wave network decided to drop its brief act of solidary with Seeger in favour of the more popular multilingual content it specialised in.
With television’s early history, sources concerning audience reactions are scarce, and a broader picture of any show’s popularity is hard to sketch definitively. The show received little print press, but critics on the whole valued the show’s educational value, and even the charm of Seeger’s awkward presenting style. A fascinating recollection, however, from folk-fan Ellen Sander—who remembered watching the show’s reruns in 1968 with none other than the young Crosby, Stills and Nash—at least hints at the rerun’s influence on young folkies:
‘It was a rerun of an old Pete Seeger program featuring the then deceased Mississippi John Hurt and [Crosby, Stills and Nash] were watching intently, rocking softly to the late old man’s music. The program ended and they each tried to pick out Hurt’s peculiar style.’
Rainbow Quest’s vision of the elderly Hurt from beyond the grave, picking his guitar from his rocking chair, evidently inspired a hugely popular folk group whose members, now in their own old age, may too need to be sitting in rocking chairs to be able to perform night after night!
‘Endangered America: Processing the Threat of Annihilation’
Mark Eastwood’s Response to Jennifer O’Reilly’s Review
Jennifer O’Reilly’s review prompts some excellent and thought provoking questions on the relationship between the two papers. In particular, the two coalesce around Monteith’s idea of ‘threat narratives’ and the dualism between who is under threat and who poses a threat. Certainly, as O’Reilly posits, while the Kennedy Administration made the case for the resumption of nuclear testing, they exploited that threat binary by focusing discourse on the issue of fallout. The Administration sought to differentiate their own tests, which they claimed would produce minimal fallout, from those of the irresponsible and morally corrupt Soviets who freely polluted the atmosphere without concern. In the instance of resumed testing, the threat narrative was built on the traditional Cold War binary of ‘us-against-them.’
However, as discussed in the question and answer session following the papers, the agreement of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in mid-1963 complicated that traditional threat narrative. The very arguments the Kennedy Administration advanced in support of resumed testing—centred on the traditional Cold War threat narrative of the Soviet menace—were now being used against them in opposition to the Treaty. Opponents of the Treaty argued that the duplicitous Soviets would continue to test in secret, increasing their nuclear lead over the United States. To overcome such arguments, the Kennedy Administration changed their discursive approach, commencing in earnest with Kennedy’s American University speech in June 1963, to one which focused less on the Soviet menace and more on the environmental threat posed by continued testing. The threat narrative was deliberately changed; environmental hazard from fallout now dominated, whilst the aggressive and irresponsible Soviet imagery became replaced by that of a friendly, back-slapping bear.
Focusing discourse on the environmental threat of testing and the diminished threat of the now affable Soviet Union resulted in public support for the Treaty increasing from 50% in July 1963 to 81% by September. The successful reworking of the arguments advanced in support of the resumption of nuclear testing demonstrate that the concept of threat within threat narratives is fluid and can be exploited and renegotiated dependent on the need. In turn, this adds credence to Monteith’s claim that threat narratives are central to the formation of American identity, forcing Americans to take ideological positions in opposition to the espoused threat. It is this shifting understanding of threat and identity which successfully allowed the Kennedy Administration to garner public support for both resumed nuclear testing in 1962 and the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963.
‘Patriot or protester?: Changing Ideas of Americanism during the Vietnam Era’
Lauren Mottle’s Response to Sophie Roberts’ Review.
Sophie Roberts begins with the insightful and highly relevant statement that patriotism remains central to conceptions of Americanism. Today, we see a resurgence of questions about discrimination, dissent, and civil liberties left unanswered by the tumultuous 1960s. The Vietnam War presents a unique and distinctive historical moment from which to consider ideas about patriotism and dissent. Roberts wisely points out that these presentations emphasised that patriotism is more than loyalty to individuals or institutions, but allegiance to something higher. I would move beyond her contention that it is about loyalty to the state, instead suggesting that it is about loyalty to American ideals. American national identity is closely intertwined with ideas about patriotism. Unlike many other nations—who can draw on a long shared history of traditions, cultural norms, religion or familial heritage—Americans are instead united by a shared set of national ideals embodied in the Constitution. In other words, simply being within the boundaries of the United States does not necessarily make one American. Instead, Americanness is arguably something you must learn, and most importantly, something you must display. By participating in the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school or through the overtly patriotic traditions in advance of sporting events, Americans do, and arguably must, perform their patriotism. A rejection of these rituals often results in questions about one’s loyalty, one’s patriotism and even one’s Americanness, as seen recently with Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel for the national anthem. Thus, challenges to traditional understandings of patriotism face significant barriers.
Yet the Vietnam era demonstrated that there are other, competing definitions of patriotism. By drawing on a long tradition of American freedoms, dissenters in this period instead emphasised their loyalty to these higher ideals. The GI activists I study consistently recall images of patriotic American fighters in the Revolutionary war to justify their dissent. As one GI argued, ‘In the spirit of those founding fathers, those radical subversive revolutionaries [who challenged the tyrannical, oppressive British] I vow my allegiance to oppose, abolish and destroy all which is oppressive to the people of my country’. Indeed, as the papers in this panel pointed out, those seeking to redefine patriotism drew on the American ideals of equality, freedom of the press and freedom of speech to frame their dissent. Thus, as Roberts suggests, the changing understandings of Americanism during the Vietnam era hold great importance in understanding the past and the present. In particular, it reveals the ways in which this period was unique, but simultaneously distinctly American.
 Poll quoted in Andrew Rojecki, Silencing the Opposition: Antinuclear Movements & the Media in the Cold War (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999) p.100.