The Cold War Meaning of “To Kill a Mockingbird” & “Go Set a Watchman” as Literary Trolling

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Allison Miller has posted an insightful essay over at the American Historical Association’s blog. The brouhaha over the release of Go Set a Watchman is a product of a pretty fundamental misreading of the underlying themes of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here’s an excerpt:

As beloved as it may be, To Kill a Mockingbird itself has never been free of controversy. There is no doubt a kind of mystique emanating from its evergreen status as a book that some local school boards seek to ban. According to the American Library Association, this has often been due to the book’s frank presentation of rape and incest, as well as its use of profanity. But the forces behind censorship haven’t always been conservative; some teachers and parents have objected to the book’s portrayal of the South’s black citizens as kind-hearted, simple, and passive, not to mention Lee’s historically accurate but seemingly casual use of derogatory language. Literary critics have said as much, too. To Kill a Mockingbird is about white people, it uplifts white people, it makes middle-class white people feel better about racism by projecting it onto “common” white southerners.

But these arguments suggest a superior way of analyzing To Kill a Mockingbird—as a primary source, not a “timeless” depiction of the South, coming of age, or the virtues of tolerance. As much as it is an allegory of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, it is also “about” the Cold War.

I love the new book title, Go Set a Watchman. It’s an allusion (and a pretty obscure one at that) to the Biblical book of Isaiah chapter 21. The prophet Isaiah is predicting the coming desolation of Babylon, the capitol of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Northern Kingdom of Israel based at Samaria had already fallen to the Assyrians and the Southern Kingdom at Jerusalem seemed sure to follow. Israel trembled at the seemingly unassailable power of Assyria. Isaiah says that God told him to “Go, set a watchman,” referencing Isaiah’s own prophetic understanding of coming events. And “the watchman” reports that he has seen messengers riding from a ruined Babylon saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the carved images of her gods he has shattered to the ground.” Babylon’s destruction was Israel’s salvation.

The first layer of significance for the title is a comment on the modern day equivalent of mighty Babylon, the Pax Americana. Who in the mid-twentieth century doubted that American power was nearly unassailable? And yet at America’s Babylonish core was a corruption, a system of racial inequality that threatened to undermine American might. America’s gods of consensus liberalism would be shattered to the ground. Of course, in that destruction is the seed of America’s salvation.

That’s a pretty hefty allusion, but I wonder if Harper Lee is also having a bit of a laugh with the title. Lee must’ve known that people would react viscerally to her pegging Atticus Finch as a racist. And yet isn’t she just tearing down an idol? She smoothed over Atticus’s racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, something which likely aided the success of the book because it allowed readers to tacitly deny the pervasiveness of southern racism. But now the seemingly unimpeachable character of Atticus Finch has been shown to be corrupt at its core. Yet this nuanced, morally ambiguous version of Atticus Finch is truer than the avatar of justice we erected.

If I’m reading that right, what an epic act of literary trolling! Props to Miss Lee!

Jade Helm, Operation Water Moccasin, and Conservative Conspiracy Theories

After the Pentagon planned a series of summer military exercises in the South, conservatives accused the federal government of enabling either a foreign invasion or some kind of military coup. The military futilely protested that the presence of foreign military observers was standard procedure and that all observers were from US allies. Several US congresspeople and state government officials called for the exercises to be cancelled.

While that may sound like a description of the conservative criticism of the Jade Helm 15 exercises planned for Texas this summer, it actually is a summary of a similar controversy in Georgia that riled conservatives more than fifty years ago. In 1963 the US military conducted “Operation Water Moccasin III,” a counter-insurgency exercise in the sleepy rural town of Claxton, Georgia. (Claxton’s town slogan: “The Fruitcake Capital of the World.”) One hundred and twenty-four foreign observers from allied nations attended, including Canada, France, and South Vietnam. The United States had been steadily expanding its involvement in the Vietnam conflict, so the exercise was timely.

Conservatives, however, feared that the exercises were really practice runs for a foreign invasion of the United States. Various versions of the conspiracy floated around, but US Congressman James Utt (R-CA) spread one of the most popular in a letter to his constituents. Utt imagined that Operation Water Moccasin was a rehearsal for a United Nations-sponsored takeover of the United States.

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

While it sounds frankly bizarre today, in the early 1960s conservatives feared that the John F. Kennedy administration was planning to phase out the US military in favor of a global United Nations peacekeeping force. Also, throughout 1963 the Kennedy administration lobbied for Senate confirmation on a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that would restrict the number and kind of nuclear tests conducted by the US and the USSR. Thus in the summer of 1963 conservatives were on edge concerning the administration, the US military, and the United Nations. It was perfect fodder for conservative politicians, like Utt, with an eye on the 1964 elections.

Utt’s most inflammatory comments regarded the rumored inclusion of “bare-footed Africans” in the exercise. There was no evidence of such, but Utt cited the presence of African troops in Cuba undergoing training for guerrilla warfare as cause for concern. Utt was pandering to a radical conservative fringe. Notice that he lacked any hard information, but he nodded towards the concerns of paranoid anti-Communists. He suggested variously that the United Nations, the Soviets, or even the United States (!) might be responsible for the presence of African troops in Cuba. (As if the same Kennedy administration that had armed Cuban insurgents to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 was now sponsoring African troops in Cuba!) Without coming out and saying so, Utt validated conservative worries that these African troops were involved in Operation Water Moccasin. It’s really a piece of scaremongering art.

Utt also uttered some pretty obvious racial dog whistles. His thirteen-year-old Cuban-American correspondent described the Africans in Cuba as barefooted “savages” wearing “short skirts,” “big rings,” and “talk[ing] funny.” This “whole tribe” even “beat a woman.” Utt followed her description by suggesting that these troops would return to Africa to “murder, pillage, and rape.” It’s likely not an accident that violence against women figures so strongly in the letter; lynchings in America often began with accusations of sexual misconduct towards white women by black men. Utt evoked the idea that if these “savage” Africans abused women in Cuba and Africa, it could happen here too. Dog whistle indeed!

Now think about Utt’s words in the context of the civil rights struggle in Georgia in 1963. During the summer of 1963 civil rights activists in Savannah, Georgia–the closest major city to Claxton–held a series of demonstrations callings for the desegregation of restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters. Unlike the Birmingham demonstrations earlier that year, Savannah’s business and civic leaders adopted a conciliatory approach and the protests were relatively peaceful. Early in 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. gives an address in Savannah in which he calls it “the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon line.”

That racial progress alarmed die-hard segregationists, providing fertile ground for conspiracy theories linking Operation Water Moccasin to civil rights activism. Some saw Operation Water Moccasin as a plan for a foreign invasion to start an insurgency among discontented blacks in the South. Indeed, versions of this conspiracy resurfaced routinely throughout the rest of the decade. Here’s a map produced by a Christian Right-wing group showing a “Negro Communist State to be Carved Out of the South.” The flyer went on to claim that unless conservatives acted now, “10 Million White People [would] be Driven From Their Homes to Make Room for Black Communist Soviet”!

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

The current brouhaha over Jade Helm 15 follows the pattern of Operation Water Moccasin. Both sets of conspiracy theories began with relatively marginal groups on the conservative fringe. Both received wider attention when more mainstream politicians validated, or at least declined to invalidate, the theories. Both were, of course, hogwash. What’s especially interesting to me as a historian studying the New Right is that Jade Helm switches from the racial dog whistles of Operation Water Moccasin to nativist dog whistles. Fears of African men raping white women have been replaced by worries about Mexican immigrants as a fifth column or as a precursor to Chinese invasion.

All social movements have a paranoid fringe that generate extreme versions of wider concerns. Conservatives in 1963 worried about desegregation, but relatively few of them seriously thought that a United Nations-sponsored African invasion from Cuba was imminent. Likewise in 2015 conservatives worry about the effects of immigration from Central America, but I suspect that not many really buy into the Jade Helm conspiracy theories. Still, politicians are loathe to alienate even a small part of their base, especially when that segment is particularly motivated and loud. It’s easier to try and chart a middle path by pandering to the fringe without formally committing to the conspiracy. Bravery is only infrequently a virtue for politicians.

Textbook Wars

Curriculum controversies are a staple of state and local politics. The brouhaha in Kansas is merely the latest in a long line of fights. Creationism is at a constant low grade boil that occasionally overflows the pot. Sex education launched a near revolt in Kanawha County in the early 1970s. Go back still further and you’ll find actual riots over which version of the Bible–the Protestant KJV or the Catholic Douay-Rheims–would be required for use in schools. Since the founding of the first public schools, Americans may have spent more time arguing about textbooks and course content than any other single topic.

Here’s an archival image from a 1970s front in the textbook wars.

School Texts

Image Credit: Harold J. Ockenga Papers, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminaries Library

You’ve got “Un-Americanism,” the catch-all label for attempts at “debunking” or “falsifying American history.” (Replaced in subsequent decades by the dreaded “revisionist” conspiracy.) It is a letter from the American Association of Christian Schools, so “rebellious spirit” and “disrespect for church, religious, the Bible,” make appearances. It seems that approved textbooks should make America look good, the USSR look bad, encourage respect for authority, and promote middle-class respectability.

Some of the categories are just befuddling. What is a “confusion complex,” are there job postings for “confusion complex” designers, and do they create both commercial and residential complexes? I suspect that my blog, if it had existed at the time, would’ve fallen afoul of at least seven of the eleven offenses. Then again, it’d be rather an honor to be found guilty of “excessive free speech.” Dang it, now I’m a “smart-aleck” and guilty of “vulgarity” to boot.

I will only briefly note that curriculum conflicts are an avoidable problem. The more centralized control of a curriculum is, the more likely a school system is to have a fight over its choice of texts. In Kanawha County, for instance, the state board of education mandated that all local schools include sex ed curricula; a local pastor’s wife ran for the school board and rallied locals in opposition.

Today you see the same pattern with state boards setting curriculum in Texas and Kansas. If each school district was given authority to set its own curricula (and, among other things, test, hire, and fire its own staff), a significant amount of the problem would go away as schools more closely reflected the views of their constituent families.

And let’s be honest with ourselves. Do you really think that forcing a kid to buy a textbook promoting creationism or sex education in a class or two will really make that much of a difference in whether they have a positive life outcome? Oh, if only I’d read a few chapters about evolution, I wouldn’t have become a bank robber! That ascribes far too much deterministic power to formal education, I think.

Communists, They Are Everywhere, But Sunday School Will Save Us!

I was reviewing my archival research and came across this cover from Teach (“The Sunday School Idea Magazine”).

Sunday School Communism

The rhetorical question is more than a bit silly. But J. Edgar Hoover took a break from illegally wiretapping civil rights groups to contribute an article. Hoover served up his usual strong dose of civil religion; Christianity had value because it inspired “moral idealism” in America’s youth, protecting the US against Red subversion.

What’s interesting to me about documents like this is that they show the extent to which anti-Communist rhetoric pervaded the post-World War Two cultural and political consensus. Democrats and Republicans competed to see who could be most vociferous in their condemnations of Communism. Everywhere you looked you’d see anti-Communist material, from refrigerator advertisements to graphic novels. It was so pervasive that it became kind of meaningless, just a part of the rhetorical background. (Albeit a “meaninglessness” that could bite. Just ask anybody blacklisted at the time.)

I’m not sure there’s a perfect corollary today. Maybe think of it as the mid-twentieth century version of contemporary consumer environmentalism. You’d be hard pressed to find a major American corporation today that doesn’t give at least lip service to conservation. A few years ago, Poland Spring announced thinner plastic bottles to save the earth. The bank I used to work at changed it’s slogan to “Go Green!” and instituted a cap on our monthly printing. Even oil companies pay for lavish pro-environment ad campaigns. It’s generally just posturing. They dress up moves to help the bottom line as altruism.

The major difference between then and now is that while environmental conservation has reached peak cultural consensus, it hasn’t created the kind of political consensus that backed anti-Communism during the Second Red Square. We don’t have a House Un-Environmental Activities Committee subpoenaing testimony from polluters. Oh, wait. Still, the point stands, I think.