• What series of events and ideological conflicts prompted the Cold War?
• How did the Cold War reshape ideas of American freedom?
• What were the major initiatives of Truman's domestic policies?
• What effects did the anticommunism of the Cold War have on American politics and culture?
On September 16,1947, the 160th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, the Freedom Train opened to the public in Philadelphia. A traveling exhibition of 133 historical documents, the train, bedecked in red, white, and blue, soon embarked on a sixteen-month tour that took it to more than 300 American cities. Never before or since have so many cherished pieces of Americana— among them the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, and the Gettysburg Address—been assembled in one place. After leaving the train, visitors were encouraged to rededicate themselves to American values by taking the Freedom Pledge and adding their names to a Freedom Scroll.
The idea for the Freedom Train, perhaps the most elaborate peacetime patriotic campaign in American history, originated in 1946 with the Department of Justice. President Harry S. Truman endorsed it as a way of contrasting American freedom with “the destruction of liberty by the Hitler tyranny.” Since direct government funding raised fears of propaganda, however, the administration turned the project over to a nonprofit group, the American Heritage Foundation, headed by Winthrop W. Aldrich, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank.
By any measure, the Freedom Train was an enormous success. It attracted more than 3.5 million visitors, and millions more took part in the civic activities that accompanied its journey, including labor-management forums, educational programs, and patriotic parades. The powerful grassroots response to the train, wrote The New Republic, revealed a popular hunger for “tangible evidence of American freedom.” Behind the scenes, however, the Freedom Train demonstrated that the meaning of freedom remained as controversial as ever.
The liberal staff members at the National Archives who proposed the initial list of documents had included the Wagner Act of 1935, which guaranteed workers the right to form unions, as well as President Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech of 1941, with its promise to fight “freedom from want.” The more conservative American Heritage Foundation removed these documents. They also deleted from the original list the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which had established the principle of equal civil and political rights regardless of race after the Civil War, and FDR’s 1941 order establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which Congress had recently allowed to expire. In the end, nothing on the train referred to organized labor or any twentieth-century social legislation. The only documents relating to blacks were the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and a 1776 letter by South Carolina patriot Henry Laurens criticizing slavery.
Many black Americans initially voiced doubts regarding the exhibit. On the eve of the train’s unveiling, the poet Langston Hughes wondered whether there would be “Jim Crow on the Freedom Train.” “When it stops in Mississippi,” Hughes asked, “will it be made plain / Everybody’s got a right to board the Freedom Train?” In fact, with the Truman administration about to make civil rights a major priority, the train’s organizers announced that they would not permit segregated viewing.
An advertisement for the Freedom Train links this traveling display of historic documents with the heritage of the American Revolution.
In an unprecedented move, the American Heritage Foundation canceled visits to Memphis, Tennessee, and Birmingham, Alabama, when local authorities insisted on separating visitors by race. The Freedom Train visited forty-seven other southern cities without incident and was hailed in the black press for breaching, if only temporarily, the walls of segregation.
Even as the Freedom Train reflected a new sense of national unease about expressions of racial inequality, its journey also revealed the growing impact of the Cold War. Originally intended to contrast American freedom with Nazi tyranny, the train quickly became caught up in the emerging struggle with communism. In the spring of 1947, a few months before the train was dedicated, President Truman committed the United States to the worldwide containment of Soviet power and inaugurated a program to root out “disloyal” persons from government employment. Soon, Attorney General Tom C. Clark was praising the Freedom Train as a means of preventing “foreign ideologies” from infiltrating the United States and of “aiding the country in its internal war against subversive elements.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation began compiling reports on those who found the train objectionable. The Freedom Train revealed how the Cold War helped to reshape freedom’s meaning, identifying it ever more closely with anticommunism, “free enterprise,” and the defense of the social and economic status quo.
The United States emerged from World War II as by far the world’s greatest power. Although most of the army was quickly demobilized, the country boasted the world’s most powerful navy and air force. The United States accounted for half the world’s manufacturing capacity. It alone possessed the atomic bomb. As discussed in the previous chapter, the Roosevelt administration was determined to avoid a retreat to isolationism like the one that followed World War I. It believed that the United States could lead the rest of the world to a future of international cooperation, expanding democracy, and ever-increasing living standards. New institutions like the United Nations and World Bank had been created to promote these goals. American leaders also believed that the nation’s security depended on the security of Europe and Asia, and that American prosperity required global economic reconstruction.
The only power that in any way could rival the United States was the Soviet Union, whose armies now occupied most of eastern Europe, including the eastern part of Germany. Its crucial role in defeating Hitler and its claim that communism had wrested a vast backward nation into modernity gave the Soviet Union considerable prestige in Europe and among colonial peoples struggling for independence. Like the United States, the Soviets looked forward to a world order modeled on their own society and values. Having lost more than 20 million dead and suffered vast devastation dining the war, however, Stalin’s government was in no position to embark on new military adventures. “Unless they were completely out of their minds,” said American undersecretary of state Dean Acheson, the Russians were hardly likely to go to war with the far more powerful United States. But having done by far the largest amount of ground fighting in the defeat of Hitler, the Soviet government remained determined to establish a sphere of influence in eastern Europe, through which Germany had twice invaded Russia in the past thirty years.