Saturday, August 26, 2006

Visions of the Future: Fear and Hope

America had been industrializing throughout the 20th century, and as waves of new immigrant workers joined those who had come to America for a better life on the land and in the cities in earlier generations, the future became the national faith. When Gene Roddenberry was growing up during the crisis of the Great Depression, that faith was fierce. "Then and now, you have to wonder what really held it all together," said a character in The American Clock, a play by Arthur Miller about the Depression, "and maybe it was simply the Future: the people were still not ready to give it up.”

By 1939, some Americans got to see what that future might look like, at the New York World’s Fair. Its theme was “The World of Tomorrow,” and it purported to portray the coming utopia of 1960. There was the gleaming white Trylon, the shimmering Glass Center, the Perisphere that contained the model city of the future: “Democricity,” with its white houses on pure paved streets, surrounded by trees and grass. At the General Motors "Futurama" chairs moved along a conveyor belt past screens showing what life would be like in this utopia: happy, healthy people driving air conditioned cars (that cost only $200), across vast distances on wide superhighways.

According to the guide’s recorded voice, many people would live in houses made of special materials, so if you didn't like how your house looked you could simply throw it away. They would live in small villages where they could grow their own food, and they would work in clean modern factories, or skyscrapers in the city, 1500 feet high. Fourteen-lane turnpikes would connect everything. Cars would speed along them safely, because the cars drove in separate lanes protected by high curbs, and automatic radio control would keep each car a safe distance from the ones behind and in front of it. Because of technology and efficiency, the voice said, most of America would be forest again. Everyone would be well educated, there would be little disease, and the average lifespan would be seventy-five years.

At the Westinghouse display, a woman called Mrs. Drudge washed dishes in her sink while Mrs. Modern used an electric dishwasher. Mrs. Modern got done first, and was always clean and smiling. At the RCA display, a couple of puppets named Kukla and Ollie demonstrated another new feature for the home, called television.

But if they yearned for such a utopia, Americans also harbored a fear of oblivion, as was illustrated in 1938, on Halloween. Radio was the major entertainment medium for the country as a whole, but also the major news medium. The young director the Mercury Theatre of the Air, Orson Welles, got the idea of combining them, and gave a copy of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds to writer Howard Koch, and told him to write the story in the form of news bulletins.

Those who tuned in the night of October 31 were told in the first minute of the broadcast that it would be a dramatization of the Wells’ story. Orson Welles intoned the introduction, using phrases from the novel, but also described the story as beginning on October 30, 1939—a year into the future—when “business was better. The war scare was over…”

Business wasn’t much better in the ninth year of the Depression, but it was the war scare of 1938 that probably inspired the panic that ensued when at least some listeners (how many is disputed) believed they were hearing an actual invasion in progress. By 1938, the duly elected leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, had declared himself War Minister, and marched his armies into Austria. German planes had committed the first bombing of a European city from the air, destroying the Spanish town of Guernica, an act rendered in black and white horror by Pablo Picasso. Japan had invaded and occupied areas of China.

Koch rewrote Wells’ war to take place in the United States, starting near Princeton, New Jersey, the new home of Albert Einstein. Listeners who tuned in late heard unfamiliar voices who nevertheless sounded like real radio news reporters talking about Martians in their invincible fighting machines as they advanced on major cities across America. There was enough of a reaction that newspapers such as the New York Times reported on the panic the next day.

It was this fear of oblivion that seemed proven first. The hope for utopia was soon dashed as war exploded across Europe during the run of the 1939 World’s Fair. When Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, some Americans refused to believe the radio news reports, having been fooled once already by phony Martians. President Roosevelt blamed Orson Welles.

But five years later, even after the Allies triumphed over the mortal threats of the Nazis and Imperial Japan, the atomic bomb quickly dropped a pall over many utopian hopes. By the time the real 1960 came around many of the utopian dreams of the 1939 Fair had ironically come true (though not always with wholly utopian results), but oblivion seemed closer than ever, and the more likely fate.

Then the Kennedy years changed the balance, tipping it towards the politics of hope, especially for Gene Roddenberry’s generation, apparently taking over the country, beginning with the White House. Kennedy was 43 when he became President; GR was 39 then. It was their time to transform the country and build the future, and like GR, many of the people around Kennedy, or who Kennedy inspired, had lots of ideas on what ought to be done, and how.

But just as importantly, Kennedy redefined the terms of utopia and oblivion, not as two possible fates, but as a choice. He stated it most succinctly at the beginning of his Inaugural Address: “The world is very different now,” he said. “For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”
They could choose utopia or they could choose oblivion. There would be considerable drama concerning these choices in the Kennedy years. In the Berlin crisis of 1961, and most especially in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the world came as close to nuclear oblivion as it ever knowingly had.

For a tense week in October, the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of nuclear war, with the world watching. World power politics became human beings confronting fatal choices and imagining consequences of actually employing the technology of mutual self-destruction. Oblivion was an emotion, a mistake, a decision away. When the Soviets agreed to withdraw their missiles from Cuba and the crisis ended, Kennedy committed himself to changing the terms of international politics.

The first step was a nuclear test ban treaty. But when negotiations with the Soviets stalled, Kennedy used his commencement address at American University in June 1963 to not only press for an agreement, but to move the world away from the risk of instant oblivion and towards a transformation. It was the kind of world statesmanship and advocacy for the future that was H.G. Wells’ repeated dream.

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