Coronavirus lockdowns, social distancing, riots over the death of George Floyd, mass demonstrations over racial equality, LGBT+ rights … America in the summer of 2020 is a fractious and fractured society. The nightly news inspired MercatorNet reader William L. Stearman, whose life has been devoted to public service in the United States, to pen this reflection of how much his homeland has changed since he was born in 1922.
America before World War II was a totally different country from what it has since become.
In the first instance, family life was vastly different. It still hewed to a patriarchal tradition that had existed since early history: fathers were clearly the head of the family.
Mothers certainly had a say, but it was generally muted and differences were kept from the children. Mothers were nearly all stay-at-homes and would have been appalled at the thought of putting their children in daycare centers or in preschool because of having jobs outside the home. Both my mother and mother-in-law, each quite intelligent, thought that a woman who preferred to work outside the home had rocks in her head.
When grandparents could no longer care for themselves, they often moved in with their children. There were many such extended families. We long had my widowed grandmother staying with us. We children thought this was great. There were relatively few living facilities that catered to the old and retired.
There were few labor-saving devices in homes. Ordinary household chores were much more demanding, mostly done by hand. For example, washing clothes and other washable items was performed with a washtub and washboard and hung out on clothes lines to dry (weather permitting).
I never knew of anyone whose parents had been divorced. Divorce was for movie stars. I believe that one reason marriages were so solid was that many couples had already known each other well, as the proverbial boy/girl next door. I knew only one who had a single parent — because his father had been killed in an accident.
I should add here that all this was also true for black families, which resulted in a near absence of black crime, now so prevalent. When I first came to Washington DC in 1943, the poorest black neighborhoods were just about as safe, day or night, as the richest white neighborhoods. Now most black Washington DC neighborhoods have high crime rates, most probably the direct result of over 70 percent black families having only a single parent, nearly always the mother.
Same-sex marriage would have been regarded an absurd debasing of an ancient and universal institution. It should be noted here that I am convinced that most Americans never had sex until they were married, which accounts for so many early marriages. In the rare cases when young single women got pregnant, they would quietly go to special homes in another city. They would ultimately give up their babies for adoption and return home with a made-up story for non-family friends. Abortions were rare and risky.
I should add that the patriarchal family structure resulted, in my view, in what seems to have been relatively few homosexuals. Psychiatrists have told me homosexuals are often from families with a dominant mother and a weak or absent father. Very few such families then met this description.
In any case, homosexuals, with few exceptions, rarely “came out”, except in more tolerant San Francisco. Sad to say, some toughs were fond of beating up and robbing homosexuals and bragging about it, something they would never have done to straights. These poor victims got little help or sympathy from the police. Transgender was unheard of and would have been dismissed as obscene science fiction.
Returning to family life: we had just left the era when “children should be seen, but not heard,” but they were still expected to be obedient. Misbehavior could result in spanking. I was rarely spanked, but I always thought I deserved it when it happened.
Children’s play and pastimes rarely, if ever, included parents and were completely unsupervised. We were rarely indulged and were given few gifts, usually one or two for Christmas. I never had more than ten or so toys. And this was true of children at all income levels. (Today, children’s rooms look like branches of Toys-R-Us.)
We had simple pastimes. Tossing coins to a line. Mumblety-peg (flipping a knife so it would stick in the ground). Playing cowboys and Indians with cap guns. Baseball on vacant lots. On the whole, I can only remember that I and all the children that I knew led generally contented, uncomplicated and secure lives.
We mostly liked to read and to listen to our favorite radio shows like “Little Orphan Annie” and “Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy”. I also was very fond of the Sherlock Holmes series. These pastimes largely remained, even throughout the worst times during the Great Depression. Thismay due to the fact that most children I knew seemed not to have had an unemployed father.
I am convinced that we emerged from the public schools better educated than in most cases now. Since less than 10 percent ever went college, high school was as far as most went. I believe that students often left high schools better educated than many of today’s college graduates. I base this on having been an adjunct professor at one of our top universities, Georgetown, for 17 years. I noted what my highly select students had missed in high school, especially in geography history and English.
To begin with, in Kindergarten we only played, listened to our teacher reading, learned to socialize and little or nothing else. But after that we learned a great deal. We had to memorize a great many facts, with special emphasis on English.
Unfortunately, much education today seems to have fallen under the baleful influence of progressive educator John Dewey, who disdained memorization – a noun which was always modified by the adjective “rote”.
I especially treasure all the poetry I learned, some of which I can still recite. Sad to say, today’s so-called poetry even lacks the iambic pentameter of blank verse and, in any case, unrhymed poetry must be difficult to memorize. Once at a reception, I cornered one of the leading modern poets of the 20th Century, Stephen Spender, and I asked him, “Sir Stephen, why does most modern poetry have neither rhyme nor rhythm?” He replied, “Because it’s easier that way.” As one of the leading intellectuals of our time, Jacques Barzun, put it, “Today, much that is offered as poetry is not only prose cut up irregularly, but bad prose…”
Life was hard on the unemployed and those who lost all their savings when their bank failed. Many of them did in the Depression. Eventually this was corrected by the passage of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act under Roosevelt, after having been proposed by Hoover. (We still benefit from this FDIA.) Roosevelt also introduced Social Security from which we now very much benefit.
Also, many lost their farms when they couldn’t pay the mortgage and other debts. Prices for farm produce were depressed, leading some dairies to dump milk even though people were going hungry. I found it especially dispiriting to see men wearing ties and three-piece suits going from door to door begging for food. In those hard times there was still a spirit of camaraderie where people helped those less fortunate.
On the other hand, FDR’s hostility toward business did much to prolong high unemployment and nurtured the Great Depression until it ended with the advent of production for World War II, which largely eliminated unemployment. Roosevelt and his staff simply did not understand that it took successful businesses to create jobs.
I experienced FDR’s anti-business measures at first hand. My father, Lloyd Stearman, who essentially founded and initially headed Lockheed Aircraft Corporation (now Lockheed Martin), was constantly doing battle with all the business-hostile New Deal regulations and restrictions, especially those of the National Recovery Administration (the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 1935).
Roosevelt’s New Deal sought to create employment through programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which encompassed a number of things from building roads to teaching fencing (of which I availed myself). Despite this and other programs, unemployment remained high from 25 percent in the first years going somewhat down and fluctuating. But in 1939, it was still 19 percent. Some time later, it was finally war production, not government programs, that solved the unemployment problem.
I believe we then had fairly healthy meals. There were relatively few who were overweight and the only truly obese people I ever saw were in circus sideshows. It has been speculated that fast foods account for the widespread obesity we now have. Of course, these foods did not exist then.
As noted above, mothers stayed at home. Even women without children, however, had very limited possibilities for work outside the home: primarily teaching, nursing, sales or secretarial work. They rarely were in any administrative positions, or in professions like medicine and law, not to speak of engineering and the sciences. (It is interesting that in Vienna, Austria, that great bastion of male chauvinism, women were admitted to its famed medical school many decades before any US medical school would do the same.)
I cannot deny that we also had serious social problems which were constantly being swept under the carpet. Our black fellow citizens were greatly discriminated against, de jure in the South and de facto in the North. It was commonly said that in the North no one cared how high a black person went as long as they didn’t get too close. In the South whites did not care how close blacks were as long they didn’t get too high.
Also, there was widespread anti-Semitism. For example, there were hotels with “gentiles only” signs by the entrance. This may be why many Americans were not overly concerned by the Nazis coming into power in Germany. My father, whose best friend was Jewish, was shocked when Hitler gained leadership of Germany in 1934. He said it meant another war in Europe. No one else was saying this.
Then there were the disgraceful lynchings in many states, mostly in the South with black victims, but also in other states, some with white victims. I recall that there was an especially dreadful lynching of two kidnappers in San Jose, California, in 1933 which was broadcast as a live event by a radio station.
In some places, the highly racist Ku Klux Klan had considerable political influence. In I925, some fifty thousand Klansmen in their robes and high pointed hats marched down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House.
Should anyone ever ask me if I would like to return to these “good old days,” I would answer, “No way”.
I have one simple reason: “antibiotics”. This word is a symbol of modern medicine. In my youth people died from ailments that would not today be considered as not all that serious. Doctors did, however, make house calls — always carrying a black case with various medicines and instruments. I don’t recall ever being vaccinated.
No, the “good old days” were not always that good. But we mustn’t be persuaded by radical activists that they were all bad, either. What will historians say about the summer of 2020 in 50 years’ time?