Blue Skies, Pink Slips: The Cold War in Indiana

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Transcript for Blue Skies, Pink Slips

Newsreel: Let us face without panic the reality of our times. The fact that atom bombs may someday be dropped on our cities. And let us prepare for survival by understanding the weapon that threatens us.

[Bomb exploding]

Beckley: During the Cold War, Hoosiers dealt with the stress of living under the constant threat of impending nuclear war in a variety of ways. Some joined their local civilian defense board. Others planned and participated in extensive evacuation drills. Still others allowed their children to have their blood type tattooed on their body to facilitate blood transfusion. And still others simply looked for someone to blame. On this episode, we’ll be sharing two stories illustrating how different Indiana communities reacted to the fear and misunderstanding of the Cold War era in America.

[Duck and cover music playing]

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Near the end of, and directly after, World War II, American views of the Soviet Union began to shift dramatically. During the war, Americans pointed to similarities between themselves and one of their strongest allies. After the war, they drew comparisons between Soviet ideology and that of Nazi Germany. During the war, we were working collaboratively. After the war, the U.S. refused to share atomic research, leading to an arms race.

At the onset of the arms race, Americans retained a sense of security in the knowledge that the U.S. held an ace in the hole – the Atomic Bomb. It was thought that the Soviet Union was years away from developing atomic technology. But in September 1949, this illusion of security was shattered when President Truman announced to a stunned nation,

Voice actor reading quote from Truman:  I believe the American people, to the fullest extent consistent with national security, are entitled to be informed of all developments in the field of atomic energy. This is my reason for making public the following information. We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R.

Historic news audio: President Truman’s dramatic announcement that Russia has the atomic secret caused state departments all over the world to stir uneasily.

Beckley: With that revelation, and fearing the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki arriving on our shores, the United States Air Force decided to re-launch a program first established before the American entry into World War II. Then, it was known as the Aircraft Warning Service but for its Cold War operations, it was renamed the Ground Observer Corps, or GOC. The objective of the GOC was to work in conjunction with the existing radar system to guard the United States from a Soviet air attack.

[Sound of bomb dropping]

Beckley: Essentially, the GOC was a network of civilian volunteers strategically placed across the northern 2/3 of the country to identify incoming enemy aircraft in the event of an aerial attack Volunteers observed from rooftops or watch towers constructed in any location with an unobstructed view of the sky. And participants came from all backgrounds. There were monks and prisoners, school children and centenarians, oil executives and housewives – all doing their part to keep their neighbors and loved ones safe.

Historic Newsreel: Just as important as all of these is the vast army of civilian observers. People from all walks of life – thousands of them – watching, vigilant, 24 hours a day.

Beckley: From atop their towers, volunteers would scan the sky for suspicious air craft. When a potential threat was spotted, they telephoned a filter station, where volunteers worked alongside Air Force personnel to review each report. If the station confirmed that threat, the Air Defense Direction Center was immediately contacted and interceptor jets would be deployed to shoot down the enemy plane.

Newsreel fades in: …accordingly sending them up at the strategic moment to intercept the oncoming bombers.

Beckley: In early 1950, Indiana emerged as a leader in organizing their GOC. It was thought that the heavily industrialized northern region of the state made us particularly vulnerable as a target, an assumption which spurred government officials and citizens to act. Governor Henry Schricker led the organizational efforts and advised officers from nearby states in forming their own programs.

The need for such a system as the GOC was highlighted on March 16, 1950 when multiple B-26 Bombers conducted a mock air raid over Indiana. They went “completely undetected” by the states only warning facility, located at Fort Harrison in Indianapolis. The radar of the time was unable to detect low flying aircraft – and that is where the GOC would step in. In the wake of the mock attack, Civil Defense directors were named in 51 of Indiana’s 92 counties, Ground Observer Corps towers began to spring up across the northern 2/3 of the state, and filter centers were established in Terre Haute and South Bend.

Newsreel: In each of these, a skeleton crew remains on crew 24 hours a day.

Beckley: The exact number of GOC volunteers throughout the duration of the program is unknown but it can be estimated to have been in the thousands.

At first, volunteers were essentially on stand-by to be called to their posts in the event of an attack. But after Soviet backed North Korea invaded US supported South Korea on June 25, 1950, fear of Soviet aggression rose, prompting the United States Air Force to implement “Operation Skywatch.” Skywatch moved GOC operations from an as-needed bases to a 24 hour per day enterprise. These volunteers were doing more than just scanning the skies for enemy aircraft – in fact, the United States Air Force itself admitted that, at best, GOC activity and Air Force intercepts could destroy only 30% of enemy aircraft. So, why was the United States Government supporting a program that it knew would only work a third of the time? In large part, it was the promotion of American Values.

The volunteer-style of civil defense used by the Ground Observer Corps was seen as the antithesis of communist principles. In America, hundreds of thousands of civilians were volunteering to watch the skies for enemy aircraft, while the Soviet Union had to force their citizens into observation roles- or at least that’s how the US government framed the mandatory observation in the Soviet Union. American communities were coming together to build and man watchtowers and the very act of willingly working together towards a common goal was thought to be a deterrent to the Soviets.

Historic audio clip: I found out that a bunch of guys can do anything if they work together. That’s the way democracy works and that’s why democracy works.

Beckley: As the Korean War ended, this alternate utility of the GOC began to move from being a secondary motive to the primary – historian Nicole Poletika sums it up saying,

Voice actor reading from article: “Officials increasingly realized the program’s utility as a vehicle to impress upon citizens the objectives of the Cold War, the Soviet communist threat, and traditional American values of volunteerism and individualism.”

Beckley: As that quote eludes to, volunteers were encouraged to educate themselves and their fellow citizens about the “Soviet threat.” One United State Air Force officer overseeing the GOC argued for the continuation of the program even after advances in ground radar had made the GOC all but obsolete, saying:

Voice actor reading: “No other group is better equipped and positioned at the community level to take an active hand in the enlightening of all citizens on the dangers confronting this nation in the atomic age.”

Beckley: A last significant component of the importance of the Ground Observer Corps in the Cold War period is the simple fact that it was something for people to do to feel as though they were doing something – anything – to protect their homes and their families.

Newsreel: …that the preparation that we are making new will be the very thing that will prevent our being harmed at all and that, I say, is worth the time and energy of every man, woman, and child.

Beckley: Families like the Haans, of Cairo in Tippecanoe County, worked long days in the fields and yet still volunteered to man the tower throughout the night, almost as an act of defiance in the face of a seemingly overwhelming enemy. The simple act of sitting in a tower, scanning the night sky, knowing that other Hoosiers were doing the same, must have provided them with some sense of security during a time of widespread fear and anxiety.

In direct contrast to the democratic, collaborative effort of the Ground Observer Corps of Cold War America stood the aggressive and at times combative tactics employed by various levels of leadership throughout the Red Scare.

Historic audio: [gavel] Order please. This committee, under its mandate from the House of Representatives, has the responsibility of exposing and spotlighting subversive elements wherever they may exist.

Beckley: Often, when we think of McCarthysim and blacklisting, our minds leap to the Hollywood 10 and perhaps loyalty oaths. But another group widely targeted during this time were academics at universities across the nation. One early instance of this occurred in southern Indiana at Evansville College, now the University of Evansville.

Yale University graduate George Parker was brought onto the college staff in 1946 to teach religion and philosophy. When Parker arrived at the campus, he would have found a recently expanded student body made up largely of World War II veterans and a city dominated by conservative beliefs. As the Cold War heated up in the 2 years after his arrival, the students grew ever more anxious and ever less willing to trust alternative viewpoints. Parker, who espoused no specific political affiliation but generally supported “liberal” positions, may have felt out of place in the increasingly conservative landscape of Evansville College. If so, he wasn’t the only one. One student wrote to the editor of the school’s newspaper, saying:

Voice actor reading from letter: “There are two dangers inherent to a student body from such a present hysteria – the first and greatest lies in the overwhelming readiness of students to condemn as ‘Communistic’ any statement or practice which does not agree with their own thoughts; without regard to truth or facts, the average student will unfailingly dismiss such thoughts by applying the current most devastating censure – ‘Communistic.’”

Beckley: It was in this atmosphere that the presidential election of 1948 began revving up and the field included former vice-president Henry A. Wallace, running on the Progressive Party ticket.

Wallace audio: I announce that I will run as an independent candidate in 1948 for President of the United States.

Beckley: Wallace’s platform consisted of a string of progressive policies such as school desegregation, gender equality, a national health insurance program, and, most importantly to this story, he supported improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, something he believed would benefit both countries.

His willingness to work with the Soviet Union earned the ire of conservatives and moderates across the country but he remained popular in liberal circles – 15 percent of poll respondents approved of his platform just after he announced his candidacy. Not too bad for a 3rd party candidate. One of those who approved of his message was Professor Parker who soon took on the post of chairman of the Vanderburgh County Citizens for Wallace organization.

Evansville College President Lincoln Hale was unenthused. He later stated that:

Voice actor reading quote: “within a week I called Mr. Parker in for a conference. I made it quite clear to him that further participation in such an official political capacity would prove embarrassing to me and would be certain to seriously harm Evansville College.”

Beckley: Hale was acting in what he thought was the best interest of the college. In order for the school to thrive, it needed the support of the community. And having a staff member acting in an official capacity for a figure that was so unpopular in conservative circles didn’t bode well for community support. Parker, on the other hand, knew that he was well within his rights to continue in the position. And the position was only temporary – Parker was planning to leave during the summer to work on his doctorate, and he told Hale as much.

Parker wasn’t breaking any rules. In fact, it was his right to be politically active in his free time, regardless of who he was supporting. Therefore, Parker had no plans to set aside his political activism and no rules or regulations barred him from such activities. In fact, as chairman of the Vanderburgh County Citizens for Wallace, Parker coordinated a campaign event in Evansville, scheduled for April 6, where Henry Wallace himself would deliver a speech promoting the conversion of wartime industry to peacetime uses.

As the day of Wallace’s appearance neared, tensions mounted. Local newspapers, businesses, and veterans organizations voiced their displeasure about the event. Two hours before the event was to begin, protesters began gathering for a parade to the coliseum in which the politician would appear. By the time Wallace supporters began arriving, they were met with a crowd of over 2000 protesters, many of whom were shouting accusations of communist affiliation.

The leader of the protest, Arthur Robinson, intoned,

Voice actor: “That group in Memorial Coliseum tonight and their candidate, Henry Wallace, are enemies to the American way of life.”

Beckley: As the meeting started, the crowd outside the building grew more and more restless. Windows were shattered. Doors were pounded in. And before Wallace even arrived at the venue, the protestors pushed their way into the coliseum lobby, forcing attendees of the event to barricade the doors with metal chairs. Several Wallace supporters entered the lobby in an attempt to calm the crowd, but soon returned after being struck by the protestors. After some time, local police arrived and were able to clear the protestors from the lobby and Wallace was finally able to make his speech without much further disturbance.

Wallace audio: We can turn towards darkness, destruction and death. Or towards light, peace, and abundance.

Beckley: Four days later, Evansville College announced the dismissal of George Parker. In the aftermath, students protested on the basis of free speech. Later, there was a report by the American Association of University Professors stating that Parker had not violated any guidelines. Despite this, Parker would never work at Evansville College again, making him among the first of a long list of Americans striped of their livelihoods due to accusations of un-American-ness.

Americans – and Hoosiers – reacted to the perceived threat of war in thousands of ways. We continue to feel the echoes of this tenuous time in American history. We can look to the past and see Americans who met peril with volunteerism. Others met the same peril with fear that overrode their democratic principles. Today, we are faced once again with mounting tensions between the United States and Russia. We’re confronting a similar question: how do we preserve democratic ideals and liberties while fighting infiltration. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the not-so-distant past.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History, a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. Today’s episode was based largely on two articles. For the Ground Observer Corps portion, I relied on Nicole Poletika’s graduate thesis “Wake Up! Sign Up! Look Up!’ Organizing and Redefining Civil Defense through the Ground Observer Corps.” And for the second segment I turned to Oakland City University’s Dr. Randy Mills’ article “The Real Violence at Evansville,” The Firing of Professor George F. Parker.” Both articles are linked in the show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Excerpts read by Justin Clark, courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration. Visit blog.histori.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” to see all of the sources for this episode. Find us on twitter and Facebook as Indiana Historical Bureau. And please take a moment to like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.

Show Notes for Blue Skies, Pink Slips.

Articles

Poletika, Nicole, “Wake Up! Sign up! Look up!:” Organizing and Redefining Civil Defense Through the Ground Observer Corps, 1949-1959, Indiana University Graduate Thesis, 2013.

Mills, Randy, “The Real Violence at Evansville”: The Firing of Professor George F. Parker, Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 99, Issue 2.