Spotting “The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek”; or, The Free Company We Didn’t Keep

My headphones have been buried so deeply in the sands of time that I have only recently begun to pay attention to the mission of Cindy Sheehan, to the anti-war movement she seems to have reinvigorated, and to the controversy she is stirring by insisting on talking to the US president at his ranch down in Texas. The American home front is showing signs of battle fatigue. Well, perhaps the phrase “home front,” so commonly used during World War II, is inappropriate these days, considering the lack of universal support the Iraq-centered war on terror has been receiving.

Expressions of frustration, confusion, and anger seem to become more forceful and frequent as, after years of fighting, both the end of the war and the ends of it remain uncertain. Is it illusory or perhaps even misguided to hope for a voice of reason to unite the masses, a voice not strident yet unequivocal, not irate but assertive, not jingoistic but inspirational? Radio once seemed to have given nations such a voice, but was often in danger of becoming the medium of fascism.

Unlike those who go indifferently about their business while being mute beneficiaries of democratic freedoms, few protesters would deny that American ideals are worth fighting for in words and actions; indeed, people like Sheehan, a mother who lost her son in combat, are fighting for the realization of such ideals by insisting on publicly voicing their concerns, concerns that by now are shared even by many of those responsible for the reelection of the US president in 2004.

The question on the minds of many Americans and their allies today is, of course, whether the war in Iraq has in any constructive way contribute to the defense of their freedoms or whether it might not have further endangered them either directly (through increasing acts of global terrorism) or indirectly (through anti-terrorist measures curtailing civil liberties).

It is a mistake to assume, however, that, in 1942, US citizens were any more united about going to war then they are now, or that they had a clearer understanding of the stakes and aims of such an enterprise. As I learned from Gerd Horten’s book Radio Goes to War, a government survey revealed that half of those questioned just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor were not even sure what the war was about. Many had been convinced to embrace an isolationist position. Media tycoon Randolph Hearst was one of the most influential figures to warn Americans that war was bad because it was not good for business. And radio was big business.

Back then, noted American playwrights, journalists, and novelists spoke up against isolationist—that is anti-war—propaganda, reminding citizens that inertia could mean surrender to fascism, that there are nearly as many wrong reasons for not going to war than they are for engaging in it. One such group of artists who set out to inspire the American public in the months prior to Pearl Harbor was the Free Company, a “group of leading writers, actors and radio workers who had “come together voluntarily to express their faith in American democracy.” They were “unpaid, unsponsored and uncontrolled. Just a group of Americans saying what they [thought] about [America] and about freedom.” And they chose a commerce-driven medium like radio to bring their point across.

As Burgess Meredith told the radio audience of Marc Connelly’s play “The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek”: “Our freedom [ . . . ] has this meaning . . . that here, in our land, the truth may be taught, always.” He urged Americans to “resist all attempt to suppress truth or to distort it. Let us consider again,” he continued,

the most powerful words ever spoken against the enemies of man—the lightning-charged words of Lincoln at Gettysburg. And let us renew, in this threatening hour, his high resolve that the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Could a group like the Free Company—which consisted of Pulitzer Prize winners including Maxwell Anderson, Archibald MacLeish, Stephen Vincent Benét, Marc Connelly, and Paul Green—unite for a series of radio (or television) broadcasts today to unite a largely disillusioned people divided by confusion and cynicism, a people more eager to expose the mole on Lincoln’s cheek than to conceal it? Would they deem a continuation of the present war unjustifiable or argue a withdrawal from Iraq to be a surrender to terrorism? And just how open would a skeptical public be to any effort to “resist all attempts to suppress truth or to distort it,” how willing to accept any attempts to achieve a consensus?

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