On This Day in 1939: Pearl S. Buck Gets Into the “Patriot” Act

I had intended to spend much of today al fresco, our long-neglected garden being in serious need of attention. Dragging the old lawnmower out of hibernal retirement a while ago, I had managed to knock over a can of paint and, the spilled contents being blue, very nearly ended up looking like a Smurf in the process. No sooner had we unleashed the noisy monstrosity, engulfed in a cloud of smoke, than one of its wheels broke off, which immediately put a stop to my horticultural endeavors. It is to the latter mishap on this Not-So-Good Friday and the fact that I am all thumbs (none of which green) that you owe the questionable pleasure of this entry in the broadcastellan journal.

An afternoon’s dilly-dallying among the daffodils may be just as escapist an act as tuning in an old radio program. In either case, however, it is difficult to get very far away from the news of the day, headlines so maddening and haunting that there is little relief even in irreverence, in mocking those among our political leaders who turn a blind eye to the signs of the times or who succeed in nothing more than in making enemies and alienating their allies.

Are we to believe, are we to accept that a nuclear attack from Iran is to be expected and that a pre-emptive raid is therefore necessary? Is it impossible to win a war—on terror, no less—without waging one? Is it possible to win (in) any violent conflict? On this day, 14 April, in 1939, Nobel Prize winning author Pearl S. Buck (pictured above) appeared on the Campbell Playhouse to address this very question.

Orson Welles, the official producer of this weekly radio series featuring adaptations of stories, plays, and motion pictures, had chosen Buck’s latest novel, The Patriot, as the “best new book for April” and presented a dramatization of the narrative starring Anna May Wong. Shaking hands with Welles and Wong during the curtain call, Buck was invited to comment on the “situation in the east,” the Chinese-American war that may have seemed even more remote, incomprehensible, or irrelevant to Americans than the crises in Europe. Welles inquired whether it was possible to sympathize with China and Japan alike in this conflict. To this, Buck responded:

When one has had experience of many wars, one comes to see that the pattern is always the same. No matter who is the aggressor and who is attacked, both are victim and both lose in the end.

To be sure, such a remark would not have been welcomed some two and a half years later, when the US felt compelled to enter the Second World War after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Yet patriotism might find expression other than jingoist speech and the complexities of war called for responses other than simple slogans. Realizing the significance of radio as a means of connecting (with) the world and addressing far-reaching political and humanitarian crises, Buck decided to become a radio dramatist herself.

As Erik Barnouw relates in his Media Marathon, Buck enrolled incognito in his class (Radio Writing U2) at Columbia University to prepare for a proposed series of plays titled America Speaks to China. During the Second World War, she went on to write a number of propaganda plays about Asian-Americans and the relationship between East and West.

Today, perhaps, more people are beginning to discern the pattern Buck pointed out. And, once again, the definition, the concept of the patriot is changing: the action hero, the go-getter of few words now seems infinitely less desirable and rare than the thinker who not only knows how to use each word effectively but can be trusted to keep it.

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