Our nation is deeply wounded after the events of last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, when a white nationalist gathering erupted in violence, resulting in the death of activist Heather Heyer and two police officers. As these racists have become increasingly emboldened and visible, the vast majority of the country has been vocal in its rejection of white supremacists, “alt-rights,” and let’s call them what they are: Nazis. Since World War II, defeating Nazis has been an integral part of America’s history, something vets of that war could be justifiably proud of, as they bravely prevented fascism from overtaking the entire globe. In the 1940s, pop culture’s then-dominant mass medium, radio, told unambiguously anti-fascist stories that today’s pop culture creators should take a cue from.
World War II was the radio war. In the early decades of the 20th century, the unprecedented invention of radio captivated the entire country, invading American homes as no other medium before it. The collective consciousness of this first mass medium took off like a rocket almost from the moment of radio’s inception, and then actually picked up speed.
After radio shows debuted in the 1930s, in the midst of the Depression, social workers discovered that impoverished people would sooner give up their refrigerators before they’d give up their radios. Decades before the internet, the golden age of radio helped create the very first virtual community, a group so engaged and entertained that millions of listeners tuned in tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.
The community was already established, but became invaluable as the second world war kicked off. Many heard the horrifying news about Pearl Harbor on the radio before they saw the nightmare headline in the newspaper. The (then-giant) radio took up considerable real estate in most American living rooms; many families put a portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on top of the hearth, the better to listen to his fireside chats, as he brought the country closer together with his weekly address.
But even beyond official presidential statements and war reports, popular radio programs during this time period also featured anti-fascism efforts. Many of these radio creators were fiercely loyal veterans of WWI, like Fibber McGee And Molly star Jim Jordan. The popular program featured Jordan and his wife, Marian, as the titular characters, who lived in a small town named Wistful Vista and had visits from various friends and neighbors. But Jordan stressed the war effort in his comedy program, as when Fibber was preparing a speech for a rally: “Would you like to hit Hitler? Muss Mussolini?” When he’s told he won’t be making a speech, Fibber shrugs it off, agreeing to drive the truck, sweep the stage—anything to promote the war effort. In another episode, he’s convinced that the new neighbor across the street is a Nazi spy (which turns out to be true); in another, he purchases black-market meat, defying the war-effort ration coupon system, to the grave disapproval of his friends and neighbors. It would be like Modern Family making fun of a neighborhood “alt-right” rally in a plotline today.
Some shows were more straightforward about their politics. In an episode of Counterspy, a German sub sinks off the coast of a New England town, uniting the entire community to bring the enemy agent to justice. An episode called “Nazi Radio Station” chillingly brought a clipped German accent over the airwaves, sounding much like Hitler himself. The anti-fascist movement even worked its way into the many daytime soap operas of the era, as in Against The Storm, the only daytime drama to win a Peabody Award. Children’s programming wasn’t immune either: The Superman radio serial offered an arc called “Nazi Spy Ring,” and popular hero Captain Midnight defeated a Nazi sub base. Radio helped bring the Nazi threat into the very homes of the Americans who were listening to these programs, raising these considerable stakes even higher.
(Superman’s reach also extended to comics, of course: He and other superheroes took down Nazis specifically, including Wonder Woman’s considerable WWII efforts, and Captain America’s archenemy and Third Reich loyalist, Red Skull.)
One of the most fervent patriots on radio during this time was Arch Oboler, creator of the horror program Lights Out! He’s famous for scary shows like “Chicken Heart” (in which a giant chicken heart threatens to take over the world) and “The Dark” (in which a mysterious mist turns bodies inside out, taxing the considerable capabilities of the sound-effects department). Oboler was at first devoutly anti-war, most acutely depicted in his adaptation of Johnny Got Your Gun, as James Cagney plays a soldier in a hospital bed, and his battle injuries have cost him his limbs and face. All we hear is his internal monologue, as he somehow figures out how to communicate via Morse code. Oboler changed his mind, as many did, as the second world war continued, becoming passionately anti-fascist.
He eventually got his own program, Arch Oboler’s Plays, where he took a more literary slant. None of Oboler’s many productions brought the anti-fascist message home more than “Chicago, Germany,” which tells the story of what would have happened if the Nazis had won the war. Joan Blondell plays a woman who at first shrugs off the Nazi victory (“You’re alive, that’s all that matters”), but soon realizes that her indifference has cost her dearly. Anyone with any kind of non-Aryan ethnicity is taken away. Those left behind get put in Nazi work camps for days at a time, without food. Her sister turns to prostitution just to make any money at all. The fact that Oboler uses familiar Chicago streets like North Avenue and Clark Street as the Nazis make their “Achtung!” announcements makes the story even more chilling. The ending announcer proclaims: “This is a story that must never happen.”
In another eerie Oboler episode, “Execution,” the same mysterious French woman is hung by the Nazis over and over again, unable to be killed. She symbolizes all of the allies, unstoppable when they stand en masse. In his “Miss American,” no less a star than Katharine Hepburn plays a bored socialite who is sailing back to America after a trip abroad. She becomes deeply moved when she encounters a group of refugee children on deck, anxiously awaiting the first glance of the country that they believe will save them.
Some of these programs were decidedly more lighthearted: The greatest entertainers of the day offered songs and skits on programs like Stage Door Canteen and Command Performance, which were transmitted overseas to American troops. Bob Hope was famous for traveling and visiting servicemen and women, but he was not alone, as Jack Benny, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby performed right alongside him.
This period of mass communication, while patriotic, was not perfect, especially from the minority viewpoint. While some programs depicted the life of American immigrants, mirroring so many of radio’s listeners, shows like Life With Luigi depicted a stereotypical Italian transplant (who wouldn’t be above exclaiming a “Mamma mia!”). The Goldbergs, a long-running soap opera depicting the many generations of a Jewish family, fared much better. Eddie Anderson, Jack Benny’s famous Rochester, was one of the first black characters on radio actually played by a black person. The main black characters of the popular Amos ’N’ Andy program, on the other hand, were infamously depicted by white men. The Great Gildersleeve’s maid, Beulah, was as well until she got her own show and was portrayed by Ethel Waters. Gifted comediennes like Lucille Ball and Eve Arden nabbed their own shows in the late ’40s, and then successfully transitioned to television, but the career-oriented non-housewife/non-Gal Friday adult female over the airwaves was rare—except for Arden’s Our Miss Brooks, an unmarried schoolteacher.
As television took over, things didn’t improve much, even though Amos ’N’ Andy finally got their own (short-lived) show with an all-black cast. But let’s not forget that Kerry Washington’s and Viola Davis’ Emmy nominations were the first for a black woman in the lead drama category in decades, and Davis’ 2015 win was the first ever for a black woman in that category. Diverse shows like Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat, Dear White People, Insecure, and Atlanta are still the exceptions on today’s TV landscape, not the rule. Even this fall TV season, CBS was called out for not having any female-led dramas, and accused of not paying its Asian actors as much as its white ones on Hawaii Five-O.
As terrifying as the World War II time period must have been, there was something beautiful in the unified effort of the country coming together against a clear and obvious enemy. It’s not like stories on the radio could stop racists in their tracks, but at least the people telling the stories knew what side of history was the right one. Nazis were bad, fascists had to be stopped, etc. Radio listeners cheered as their heroes like Jack Benny and Fibber McGee made fun of Adolf Hitler. What if today’s programs offered the same possibilities? Clearly, Saturday Night Live’s skewering of Donald Trump has led to a revitalized resurgence for the show. Black-ish had an important Black Lives Matter episode, as did the now-departed Carmichael Show, and Scandal at least attempted one after the protests in Ferguson. Aziz Ansari’s Master Of None impressively portrayed the current immigrant experience in the episode devoted to “Parents.” The Latino-centric revamp of One Day At A Time on Netflix works because it offers a little-seen viewpoint of the Cuban immigrant experience, as well as the PTSD of its single-mom veteran main character; issues like these don’t detract from the show, but add to it. But the upcoming fall TV season contains three military dramas whose soldiers seem more bent on fighting the Trump-driven perception of American “weakness” than prejudiced viewpoints and threats to democracy.
The events in Charlottesville disgust us because it signals how emboldened the white supremacists have become of late, marching with their messages of hate in the daytime, unhooded. Marginalized people have long experienced the racism that never went away in this country, and for privileged people who’ve never received (or even saw) the hatred, events like Charlottesville create a stark reckoning. The Nazis are not a thing of the past, or from a different country, but are here among us, now.
Moving historical messages since the weekend have involved people who lived through World War II, who did not go through all of that to see more Nazis come to prominence in the 21st century. We have even more of a social network tied together now. Today’s content creators could learn a lot about unification from the radio networks of World War II. Yes, there have been strides in TV and movies featuring people of color and of different sexual orientations and nationalities. There needs to be more, much more. (Hear that, CBS?)
The fall 2017 TV season is about to kick off; as scribes flock back to their crowded writers’ rooms, there is no shortage of topical or cultural subjects they could tackle to add more weight to any type of show. Sure, there’s a thin line between entertainment and propaganda. But there’s a thick black line between good and evil, right and wrong. There are not “many sides” to this issue. There is one, very clear side. 1940s America got that. 2017 America seems confoundingly conflicted, the fascists emboldened by a president who has been far too reticent to call out these anti-American sentiments for what they really are. Even if 1 percent of the American people are on the Nazi side, that’s still too fucking many.
Mass media can have a profound effect on what the populace believes and is interested in. If there was ever a time for it to attempt to steer the public discourse in the proper direction, now is the time. To paraphrase a popular song of the day, we defeated these assholes before. We can do it again.