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Monday
Jun102019

Book Review: Selling Americans on America: Journey into a Troubled Nation

Selling Americans on America: Journey into a Troubled Nation. Gerry and Janet Souter. Sartoris Literary Group, July 4, 2019, Hardcover, Trade Paperback, and E-book, 290 pages. 

Reviewed by Charles Kuner.

In Selling Americans on America: Journey into a Troubled Nation, Gerry and Janet Souter have collaborated on an interesting and entertaining account of the first American Freedom Train that traversed the country from 1947-1949. The book also speaks to our current situations both at home and abroad. It's a stark reminder of past lessons not learned or remembered.

The first Freedom Train was proposed in April 1946 by Attorney General Tom C. Clark, who believed that Americans had begun taking the principles of liberty for granted in the post-war years. The proposal was adopted—by a coalition which became known as the War Advertising Council—and implemented as a campaign to sell “America to Americans.” The primary purpose of the train was to heal the wounds of war and racism and remind us of American values and what America could be. 

Assorted events were planned to accompany the train, along with messages in radio programs, comic books, and films. In each city where the train stopped, they organized a “Rededication Week” for public celebrations of the United States. In February of 1947, the American Heritage Foundation was formed and named Thomas D’Arcy Brophy as its president.

Key documents were supplied to the Freedom Train by the National Archives. The focus was on crafting a shared ideology for Americans. As a result of the important role played by the War Advertising Council, the train exhibits defined American freedoms in terms of consumerism, American unity, and patriotism, and boasted of superior commodity production, whereas before the focus might have been cars, soap, and toothpaste.

An Alco PA diesel-electric locomotive pulled the train, which carried the original versions of the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Truman Doctrine, and the Bill of Rights on its tour of more than 300 cities in all 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii did not gain statehood until 1959).

Top marines were chosen to attend the train and its famous documents. The train even had an official song written by Irving Berlin and performed by the likes of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.

Licenses were given to some vendors to sell Freedom Train gear such as books and postcards. Also, the white press favored the train with mostly positive coverage. In the view of the Advertising Council, the Freedom Train succeeded, especially through the local rallies and all the important media messages which accompanied it. 

Philosopher George Santayana stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The idea resonates throughout most of this book, is a primer for the reader as to what needs to be done to put “our current house in order,” and speaks volumes if we only listen and absorb what had to be done after the end of World War II.  

Another objective of the first Freedom Train was to remind us of the importance of supporting our European allies while, at home, making efforts to dissolve racism. Currently, we are alienating and insulting our European allies while praising and supporting the positions of world dictators. Domestically, support and encouragement are being given to white nationalists and their organizations instead of creating alliances and relationships that would help make America a better place in the world. These are just some examples of the thought-provoking ideas implied in the Souter’s book. 

Another strong point of the book is the authors’ amazing amount of research. There is a balance and symmetry which helps move along the story. Five main parts make up the format of the book, and each part has a number of chapters. There is also a foreword, an introduction, an Appendix listing the Freedom Train documents, and an appendix listing all the Freedom Train stops from 1947-1949, and a bibliography. Furthermore, there is comprehensive coverage of all the states visited by the train. All the chapters cover regional geography, economics, politics, social dynamics, personal stories, history, media of that time, music, and lists of one sort or another. Everything is documented.

Most importantly, you don't have to be a historian to enjoy this book. There's very little jargon, and each section nicely flows into the next section. For those of us who live in Illinois, chapters 9 and 16 deal with the Freedom Train's visits to Bloomington and Chicago, respectively. 

The last point to be made is the role of minorities and women in the telling of this story. In the past, American history was often written from a white male point of view. Minorities and women were excluded from the history or placed in demeaning and stereotypical roles, as if they didn't exist as human beings. The Souters did not write that type of history. 

The 1940s Freedom Train display was integrated. Black and white viewers were allowed to mingle freely. When officials in Birmingham, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee, refused to let integrated groups see the exhibits at the same time, the Freedom Train skipped the planned visits, causing considerable controversy. In September of 1947, President Harry Truman announced a policy of desegregation for the train, which was scheduled to start its tour only two weeks later.

The Souters also mention Langston Hughes, “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race”, who wrote the poem “Freedom Train,” focusing on segregated America. The opening lines are: 

            Down South in Dixie the only trains I see’s

            Got a Jim Crow coaches set aside for me.

            I hope there ain’t no Jim Crow on the Freedom Train,

            No back-door entrance to the Freedom Train,

            No sign FOR COLORED on the Freedom Train,

            No WHITE FOLKS ONLY on the Freedom Train…

For decades, there was a dynamic, hard-working Japanese American population living on the West Coast, extending from Oregon to California. When the Freedom Train arrived on the West Coast with its patriotic documents and speeches, it revived painful memories from that segment of the population. Despite embracing American values and the importance of citizenship, 120,000 resident Issei (First-generation) and Nisei (Second-generation) Japanese were mistreated. “Herded onto trains with only what they could carry, these American citizens were sent to distant inland camps encircled with barbed wire and guarded by American soldiers."

This was happening while the volunteer Nisei 100th/44nd Regimental Combat Team was formed and “became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare.” 

There's also the story of 22-year-old PFC Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American. He, along with five other men, set up the United States flag atop Mount Suribachi on the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima. The flag raising was made immortal by Joe Rosenthal's photograph and the sculpted Marine Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. After the war, Hayes suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which was never treated. The tragic result, in 1955, was his death from alcoholic poisoning. 

Other stories are told, such as the Southwest states being dependent on imported labor in 1947-1948. There were temporary workers from Mexico known as “Braceros,” which means “manual laborers.” Throughout the book, women leaders are mentioned as well in their support of this singular historical event of the first Freedom Train. 

Selling Americans on America is a very contemporary book, as it raises issues and concerns that are still being debated in an ever increasingly divided America. We are divided by political, social-cultural, and religious differences: the 99 percent against the 1 percent, climate deniers against climate changers, immigration issues, and the continuing problems of racism. Readers have a blueprint in this book as to what had to be done in postwar America to unite the country. Accordingly, the cover of the book visually displays an American flag split down the middle and, at the bottom, the Freedom Train representing unity over disunity.

The book deserves to be read by anyone who is interested in the historical evolution of our country since World War II and who desires to be an informed and active participant in making America live up to its founding ideals and values. To understand what's happening currently in America and why, the reader needs a context or perspective, which this book provides sufficiently and competently. 

The Souters tell the complete story, good and bad, of the role of minorities and women in the bringing together of the Freedom Train. It's not a history told by and for whites. Everything accomplished, won, and conquered were not by males or whites only. To quote the lyrics of a song that was featured in the Freedom Train:

            “The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street

            The grocer and the butcher, and the people that I meet

            The children in the playground, the faces that I see

            All races and religions, that’s America to me…”

 

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