COLD WAR STUDIES is proud to bring you in-depth articles on Cold War history, culture, and politics. This month we’re giving thanks with our White Paper titled A COLD WAR THANKSGIVING.
Maybe you’re one of the ones who wonder about “The Meaning of Thanksgiving.” If so, this White Paper is perfect for you. Our articles talk about the topic in the context of the Cold War. We have a Cold War take on “The Pilgrims” and even on Thanksgiving dinner. If you can’t imagine eating turkey without cranberry sauce, be sure to read all about “The Cranberry Scare of 1959.”
Overall, the Thanksgiving White Paper is just right for everyone who wants to give thanks, have fun, and learn a little bit of trivia at the same time.
THE MEANING OF THANKSGIVING
Ike and Mamie? Norman Rockwell? The Happy Days? What do you think of when you picture an old fashioned Thanksgiving? What kind of entertainment comes to mind?
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll probably be thinking of a movie or newsreel. Did you know that at the very beginning of the Cold War, in 1946, movies gobbled up 90% of Americans’ total spending on entertainment? Saturday afternoons were great. Double features were best. Weekly attendance figures approached 90 million at a time when the entire population of the country was only 140 million. Clearly, movies were a way of life. Not Netflix or Hulu, but real movies in real theaters!
Holidays were almost always highlighted. For example, if you were coming of age in the early 1950s, you might remember a movie musical starring Doris Day and Gordon MacRae titled By the Light of the Silvery Moon, featuring a scene in which the boy Wesley (Billy Gray) tries to save his pet turkey by stealing another turkey for his family’s Thanksgiving dinner. You can rent the full movie on YouTube.
A Day of Thanksgiving tells the story of the Johnsons, a Mid Western family that can’t afford to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. Even so, they are able to focus on the privileges they have by virtue of living in a country blessed by freedom of choice and abundance.
“Do you know,” Mr. Johnson asks his kids, “that there are some places in the world today where you have to get along without just about everything else” besides life itself?
“Mother,” he goes on to say, is thankful “for all the things our American system makes possible — like washing machines, hot water and a car — things free people working together can produce.”
An oblique reference to Communism. for sure, but not dogmatic or hysterical. This Thanksgiving — at least at the Johnson’s — is all about gratitude.
Today these films seem innocent, naive, even hokey. Certainly they were family oriented, patriotic, and reflective of the optimism and thankfulness gripping America at the end of World War II. But America’s positive mood would soon evaporate.
By the mid 1950s, the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Senator Joe McCarthy were permeating the American consciousness.
In October 1947, HUAC started a public investigation into Hollywood communism spurred on by a fear that Communist infiltrators of the motion picture industry would use films to spread Soviet propaganda. After all, Hollywood was home to one of the more active sections of the Communist Party USA.
Studio heads (like Walt Disney) and other film industry professionals cooperated with HUAC, furnishing names of suspected leftists in the film industry. Ronald Reagan, then head of the Screen Actors Guild, signed up to serve the FBI as a secret informer, code named Agent T-10. Ten current or former members of the Communist Party refused to cooperate with HUAC. Labeled the Hollywood Ten, they were eventually convicted of contempt of Congress.
HUAC’s investigation split the Hollywood community. Supporters of the Ten — including major stars like Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, Gene Kelly, and Frank Sinatra — formed the Committee for the First Amendment in protest.
In the end, the anti communists prevailed and the studios created a “blacklist” to prevent the Hollywood Ten and other communists from ever working in the industry again. The blacklist eventually swelled to over 300 names including Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, Orson Welles, Arthur Miller, and Dashiell Hammett. The blacklist had a chilling effect on Hollywood radicals.
HUAC’s actions were compounded by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ‘red baiting’ and accusations of treason. By the mid 1950s Americans were scared to death. Commie plots were cropping up everywhere and Americans were looking for “reds” under their beds, in their workplaces, and even on their playgrounds.
The science fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) perfectly captured the dark paranoia of the McCarthy era, with alien invaders secretly occupying human bodies and turning them into soulless “pod people.”
Are the pod people meant to represent Communists, secretly infiltrating American society with an alien ideology that robs the citizenry of free thought and individual liberty? Or are they meant to be McCarthyites, so desperate to prove that they are anti communist that they embrace a conformity that also robs them of free thought or individual liberty?
Either way, the movie captures the fearful mood of the 1950s Cold War era. Just think about the final reel:
“Look!” screams the hero, staring directly into the camera. “You fools! You’re in danger! Can’t you see? They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our lives . . . our children . . .they’re here already! You’re next!”
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Looking back, it’s easy to see that American communists were not the danger. There was never going to be a United Soviet States of America. But by the late 1940s, the Soviet threat itself was very real. The fear of the Soviets, and especially the fear of Soviet nuclear bombs, shaped the American pysche. Is it so surprising, then, to find that the meaning of that most American of holidays — Thanksgiving — evolved to fit the changing circumstances?
The world of A Day of Thanksgiving 1951 saw Americans battling the communists in Korea, far away from the homeland. By the end of the decade, the Russians had conquered space with the launch of Sputnik, and the Cuban Revolution was bringing communism into our own backyard, the Western Hemisphere. Some Americans were exchanging the heartwarming saccharine sweetness of the post World War II years for full scare mode. And it wouldn’t be long before conservative and libertarian columnists traded our historical Thanksgiving of gratitude and friendship for a more ideological Thanksgiving, centered on the virtues of capitalism and free enterprise. But that’s another story.
THE PILGRIMS: A COLD WAR TAKE
I am a Cold War baby, born into a contentious and argumentative Irish-American family. Holidays and Sundays always found someone storming away from the dinner table. But there were certain things we didn’t fight about — like Santa Claus and the Pilgrims. I thought they were sacred. But I learned something today when I came across a multitude of articles arguing about the meaning of Thanksgiving. Santa Claus may still be sacred, but the Pilgrims certainly aren’t.
This may not mean much to you if you don’t live in the United States, but just bear with me. Every country has its heroes and its legends and, for most Americans, Pilgrims top the list. They’re the backbone of our country.
The story I heard when I was growing up goes something like this:
Settlers arrived in the New World on the Mayflower in 1620 to escape religious persecution. They established the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, but then went through some very hard times.
The native Americans helped them, and the colonists had a good harvest. In gratitude to God, they held the first Thanksgiving, sharing the fruits of their labor with Squanto and other Indian friends who had taught them how to hunt and farm in their new environment.
The Thanksgiving celebration became a yearly tradition soon shared with the other early colonies. As America grew and prospered, the annual holiday of thankfulness and gratitude was institutionalized, continuing until the present.
Is this the story you grew up believing? Maybe. Maybe not.
If you grew up in the second half of the Cold War you might have heard a different take. I only heard it recently. The new interpretation of Thanksgiving which has been around since at least the late 1960s goes something like this:
The early settlers at Plymouth experimented with a system of collective ownership of farmland which led to widespread famine. They eventually abandoned this system in favor of private ownership. Farmers became more productive, the harvest was bountiful, and Thanksgiving was their celebration. This makes the Pilgrims America’s first staunch anti-communists.
Well wait a minute! This narrative was first told through a Cold War lens, and first gained popularity at the height of the Cold War. The actual timeline tells a different story.
In actuality, the first Thanksgiving was held in 1621 two years before the Pilgrims shifted to private ownership. At the time of the first Thanksgiving, there was a system of collective ownership in the colony known as the “common course,” an agreement that all agriculture should be a collective, community undertaking.
The “common course” was abandoned in 1623, two years after the first Thanksgiving celebration. At that time, because of a corn shortage, the colonists “began to think how they might raise” more. It was decided, according to their governor, William Bradford, that “they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves.” Bradford “assigned to every family a parcel of land,” ending the communal cultivation of corn.
So what’s the real story?
I think the best way to find out would be to plow through a couple of books. The most definitive would be Governor William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, first published in full in 1856. The most popular version of this writing, though, was edited by the historian Samuel Eliot Morison in 1952. I haven’t read the governor’s journal, so I can’t expound on his story, but I do know that Morison’s version was published during a time period when Americans were becoming extremely suspicious of the Soviets and their economic system. So it’s fair to say that the work was edited through a Cold War lens. But don’t take my word for it.
Richard Pickering, a historian of early America and Deputy Director of Plimoth Plantation, a museum dedicated to keeping the Pilgrims’ story alive says:
The Challenges of the cold war and dealing with Russia are reflected in the text . . . .
William Hogeland, the author of Inventing American History agrees. He says:
Across the political spectrum, there’s a tendency to grab a hold of some historical incident and yoke it to a current agenda. It doesn’t always mean there’s no connection, but often things are presented as historical first, rather than as part of the agenda first.
Another book you might want to read is Making Haste From Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World (2010) by Nick Bunker. I haven’t read this book either. So I can’t really answer the questions: What is historical fact? What is political agenda?
But I have figured out that the political ‘right’ in the United States has its own version of Thanksgiving, a revisionist history that’s very different from the narrative that I learned as a kid in my very conservative community. Instead of thankfulness and family, this group’s focus is on the idea that Thanksgiving is a celebration of the pilgrims’ abandonment of socialism in favor of free enterprise.
Various conservative and libertarian personalities have weighed in on this topic, people like Henry Hazlitt in 1968, and, later, George F. Will and Rush Limbaugh. Their interpretations are summed up in the last paragraph of Richard J. Maybury’s piece in the blog Mises Daily called The Great Thanksgiving Hoax. Maybury argues:
. . . the real meaning of Thanksgiving, deleted from the official story, is: Socialism does not work; the one and only source of abundance is free markets, and we thank God we live in a country where we can have them.
What do you think? Were the Pilgrims socialists? Or were they capitalists? What do the Pilgrims mean to you?
My answer to these questions comes quite easily. I like to pretend like I’m in grade school again in Mt. Healthy, Ohio, at the height of the Cold War. I’m marching down the aisle of my school auditorium, my arms full of canned goods, belting out the hymn we always sang near Thanksgiving:
Come ye thankful people come —
raise the song of harvest home;
all is safely gathered in,
ere the winter storms begin.
God our maker doth provide
for our wants to be supplied;
come to God’s own temple, come,
raise the song of harvest home.
The text of this hymn was written in 1810, long before before the First Red Scare and the later Cold War. It was also written before the earliest publication of William Bradford’s journal. For now, it’s the interpretation that I favor. But I may think differently after this Thanksgiving when I finally have a chance to watch the PBS film by Ken Burns called The Pilgrims, a two-hour documentary that supposedly endeavors to tell the true story of the early colonists. Will the documentary settle the arguments or will it just be another piece of revisionist history? Watch it and decide.
KEN BURNS: THE PILGRIMS (A TRAILER)
THE CRANBERRY SCARE OF 1959
The Cranberry Crisis of 1959
Right before Thanksgiving in 1959 the United States was hit with a different kind of Red Scare. Primed for panic and paranoia by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red baiting taunts, Americans reacted anxiously when told that the cranberries they expected to serve with their Thanksgiving turkeys might be contaminated by a chemical weed killer known to cause cancer in animals.
What made things worse was the fact that the danger was so close to home, lurking in plain sight on supermarket shelves and in family kitchens! No red berry was safe.
Americans were told that every kind of cranberry product could be affected whether sauce or relish, spiced or sugared, chunky or jelled, room temperature or chilled, homemade or store bought.
The announcement was made by Arthur S. Flemming, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, at one of his regular weekly press conferences. He said:
The Food and Drug Administration [FDA] today urged that no further sales be made of cranberries and cranberry products produced in Washington and Oregon in 1958 and 1959 because of their possible contamination by a chemical weed killer, aminotriazole, which causes cancer in the thyroid of rats when it is contained in their diet, until the cranberry industry has submitted a workable plan to separate the contaminated berries from the uncontaminated.
Talk about a berry bomb.
For Cranberry Bog Owners, the date of Secretary Flemming’s announcement, November 9, 1959, became a “Red Monday,” dumping the industry’s biggest annual sales period into the trash heap and threatening to destroy the industry’s existence.
The cranberry industry was under attack at its busiest time of the year. At the Ocean Spray Cranberry Company in Plymouth County, Massachusetts. its president George C.P. Olsson said:
the Secretary’s announcement was ill-informed and ill-advised . . . his intentions are a cranberry witch-hunt.
A San Francisco Chronicle headline blared “A Nation Without Cranberry Sauce.”
The cranberry industry shouldn’t have been surprised, however. They had been warned.
Three years earlier the chemical in question had been approved by the Agricultural Department for the purpose of killing invasive plants that threatened to choke off the cranberry plants. This approval, though, was based on the condition that the chemical be used only after the harvesting of berries, before any fruit began to develop. Otherwise, it might find its way into the edible berries.
These instructions were strictly outlined by the government and widely and specifically disseminated in warning and educational newsletters and reports by Ocean Spray and other industry leaders to Bog Owners.
Ocean Spray had warned its collective of bog owners in a letter dated September 18, 1959. The letter stated that no berries that had been treated with the weed killer after that date would be accepted. It even required bog owners to agree to certify their berries, punishable as perjury if violated. However, when the FDA began testing cranberries for the traces of the weed killer a month later, they found it in berries shipped from Washington and Oregon.
According to Flemming, nobody knew the degree to which the national crops were potentially contaminated. Also, nobody could instruct the public on how to buy “safe” cranberries. Consequently, food chains cancelled all orders of cranberries. Cans of cranberry jelly and jars of cranberry relish were returned to the warehouse, and hundreds of millions of cranberries were seized, quarantined, and destroyed.
Fleming instructed housewives thusly:
If unsure where the cranberries came from, to be on the safe side, she doesn’t buy.
The states also reacted:
Nevada declared it illegal for any supermarket grocery store and corner mom and pop shop within its borders to carry any cranberry products.
Random dragnets were conducted by a network of Ohio, New York, California, and Michigan health board food officials.
The Governor of Oregon immediately ordered that not even one can of cranberry jelly remain on the commissary shelves of all state prisons, fearful that incarcerated men might riot on Thanksgiving if served the poisonous relish.
Individuals and the hospitality industry also panicked:
An irate father in Chicago phoned his daughter’s school board president when he found out that the school had served a spoonful of the tainted stuff in each school lunch.
A hysterical woman in Mobile, Alabama, called an ambulance after washing cranberries to make her family’s chutney recipe.
A Boston beatnik poet scribbled cranberry notations on a coffee shop blackboard and got his picture in Life Magazine.
Iowa church ladies were warned from the pulpit to wear rubber gloves and face masks if they had to touch the berries.
Restaurants crossed “cranberry sauce” off their menus, and hotels assured the public that they would not serve the berries.
Politicians pontificated through word and action:
Republican Vice President Nixon ate four heaping helpings of cranberry sauce in front of newsmen while campaigning in Wisconsin.
Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy drank a tall glass of cranberry juice and then asked for a second one. Importantly — as I’m sure you remember — he was from Massachusetts — Land of the Cranberry.
Legislators jumped into the fray:
Dr. Boyd Shaffer, a member of American Cyanamid’s Test Team, was called to testify before Congress. He said:
“Why, it would be impossible to expose humans to aminotriazole in amounts that would be toxic, and besides there was no proof that it caused cancer in people.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Shaffer had credibility issues since Cyanamid was the chemical company that invented the weed killer. But he went on to describe the weed in detail. It was called “panic grass” he said.
Meanwhile, a one hit wonder Cranberry Blues made the pop music charts.
A One Hit Wonder
As the Cranberry Crisis lengthened, Ocean Spray asked the administration to declare s state of emergency in the five leading cranberry states: Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. And reporters began coming up with headlines connecting Cranberry, Communism, and Cancer as “red zones.”
On November 19, a plan was implemented for the immediate testing of fresh cranberries. But it was too late to save the season from a 20% decrease in cranberry sales.
Secretary Flemming finally made a concession, posing for a photo op with his wife passing him a tray of cranberry sauce.
As for the White House, the press office had assured reporters that the President and Mrs. Eisenhower would be eating some of the nationally “approved” cranberry sauce at the White House Thanksgiving dinner table.
Everyone believed it until a dinner guest emerged from the meal and let it slip that the First Lady had insisted that applesauce, not cranberry sauce, be served.
In the end, the US government offered subsidies for the unsold cranberries which were tested and found to have no pesticide residue. In fact, after the holidays the government announced that 99% of the nation’s cranberry crop had not at all been contaminated.
In an omen of things to come, the San Francisco Chronicle detailed in its article titled “A Nation Without Cranberry Sauce!:”
“One housewife whom we know says she dumped her prepared cranberry jellies into the garbage can, then sat down and smoked a cigarette in relief at having just been saved from cancer.”
EVERYONE LOVES A PARADE!
Everyone loves a parade, especially a holiday parade! That’s why nothing — not even the Cold War — could dampen the excitement surrounding New York City’s famous Thanksgiving Day Parade. Sponsored by Macy’s Department Store, it’s been a major New York City event for almost 100 years!
A Brief HistoryThe Macy’s Christmas Parade kicked off in 1924, covering a six mile route beginning at 145th Street and Convent Avenue in Harlem and ending at Macy’s Department Store on Herald Square — Broadway and 34th Street. According to one report, The New York Times wrote:
the majority of participants were employees of the stores. There were, however, many professional entertainers who kept the spectators amused as they passed by. Beautiful floats showed the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe, Little Miss Muffet, and Red Riding Hood. There were also bears, elephants, donkeys and bands, making the procession resemble a circus parade. (The animals came from the Central Park Zoo.)
All along the route, according to the Times, the parade “was welcomed by such crowds that a large force of policemen had its hands full maintaining the police lines.” Some 10,000 people watched Santa — who rode on a float designed to look like a sled being pulled by reindeer — be crowned King of the Kiddies, then enjoyed the unveiling of the store’s Christmas windows.
The parade was such a success that Macy’s decided to make it an annual event, renaming it the Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1927. That same year, the live animals were replaced by animal shaped balloons made by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. Felix the Cat was the first balloon animal to join the parade, but he was soon accompanied by a flying dragon, an elephant, and a toy soldier.
The parade continued to delight throughout the Great Depression, but was suspended from 1942 to 1944 when both helium and rubber were needed for the World War II defense effort. Macy’s deflated its rubber balloons — which weighed 650 pounds total—and donated them to the government.Returning to The Big Apple in 1945 with two million spectators looking on, the parade was as marvelous as ever. In 1946, though, as the Cold War was in its earliest stages, organizers changed course. Marchers were directed to follow a new route, starting at 77th Street and Central Park West and ending at 34th Street — half the parade’s previous path.
The Cold War Years
1946: The parade appears on local NYC TV channels for the first time.
1947: The parade is broadcast to a national audience on NBC, the same network that broadcasts it today. Footage from the 1946 parade is featured in the movie Miracle on 34th Street.
1952: A space man balloon is introduced.1957: An already drenched crowd, watching the parade in inclement weather, gets even wetter when Popeye the Sailor’s hat fills with water and dumps gallons onto nearby spectators. The balloon’s hat is remade to prevent a repeat occurrence, but the same thing happens five years later when rainwater collected in Donald Duck’s hat gives bystanders an impromptu cold shower.1958: A helium shortage prompts the US Government to ask Macy’s to go light on the use of the gas. The company collaborates with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and the rigging specialists Traynor & Hansen Corporation to come up with a creative solution. According to The New York Times, the balloons are filled with air and then dangled from “large, mobile construction derricks.” The Times also describes a test of the method:
A motorized derrick with a seventy-foot boom had a specially built wood-and-steel hanger attached to the end of the wire hoisting cable. The Toy Soldier, weighing more than 200 pounds deflated, was stretched full-length on a canvas carpet. Limp and sickly looking, it was not the robust figure children and adults are used to seeing. Lines from the body of the balloon were attached to the hanger while two vacuum cleaners, working in reverse, blew in air. An hour of blowing filled the figure out nicely and the boom hoisted it into the air.
1963: Thanksgiving is just six days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. After some debate, Macy’s decides to go ahead with the parade in hopes of raising the national spirit.1968: Snoopy makes his first appearance as the World War I Flying Ace, but without his red dog house. Since then there have been seven different Snoopy balloons, including an astronaut and an ice skater.In 1968 also, the Macy’s parade studio moves to its current home in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the former Tootsie Roll Candy Factory.
1969: Smokey the Bear enters the fray.
1971: The balloons are grounded due to high wind, the only year since the parade’s inception when winds are too strong for them to fly.1973: Like cereal? Is your favorite Crispy Critters? Then you’re happy to note the appearance of Linus the Lion.
1975: The Dino the Dinosaur Balloon is inducted into the Museum of Natural History as an honorary member.
1980s: Smaller “novelty” balloons are introduced, including the Macy’s Stars and the 30 foot high triple-scoop ice cream cone.1982: Olive Oyl, Popeye’s damsel-in-distress girlfriend, becomes the first female character represented in balloon form in the Thanksgiving Day Parade.1989: The Parade marches through its very first snowstorm.1990: Macy’s introduces a new spectacle and a new word — the falloon. A falloon is a cold-air balloon originating from a float in the parade. The first falloons bring to life characters from The Wizard of Oz and Paddington Bear.Today’s ParadeToday, as many are talking about a new Cold War, the Macy’s Day Parade is a massive production. It features over a dozen helium-filled balloons up to 40 feet tall and 28 feet wide — but they are required to fold down into a 12 foot by 8 foot box to make the journey through the Lincoln Tunnel from New Jersey to New York. The parade also includes almost 30 parade floats, 1,500 dancers and cheerleaders, more than 750 clowns, marching bands from around the country, and more than 8,000 participants.Worried about what’s going on with the parade this year? We are in a pandemic after all. But, according to news reports, the parade will happen as a TV only event with lots of performances and superstars. So there will still be something to look forward to. Happy viewing!!