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13th of November 2018

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The Attack On Democracy In The 1930s And Today

As fascism spread globally in the 1930s, the U.S. responded with a series of radio programs informing the public about American democracy. Jill Lepore, author of These Truths, talks to Steve Inskeep.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Historian Jill Lepore has been thinking a lot about the 1930s.

JILL LEPORE: People all over the West are watching democracies fall and fall and fall. And there's this tremendous despair that the great experiment in the liberal state has failed.

MARTIN: Here's our co-host Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Jill Lepore explored that time while writing her book "These Truths: A History Of The United States." And she discovered a story that is fitting to hear on the radio because in the 1930s - the time of the Depression, of Hitler, of Mussolini, of Stalin - some people used the radio to defend the ideas of the United States.

LEPORE: Americans who are concerned about the failure of democracy in other states began to think that one reason democracies failed was that people didn't understand what ingredients were necessary for them to thrive.

INSKEEP: American artists and writers set out to make sure Americans understood and celebrated their experiment in self-government. They produced radio plays, many of them funded by the government's Federal Theatre Project, which put unemployed artists and writers to work in the Depression. Listen to this play, "The Epic of America." And it's clear why Jill Lepore finds it relevant now.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PLAY, "THE EPIC OF AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) "The Epic of America," Chapter 12, "The Age Of The Dinosaur."

LEPORE: It's weirdly kind of textbook-y (ph). It goes through all the presidential administrations. A lot of the scenes open up in a classroom. And then they kind of move into a reenactment.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PLAY, "THE EPIC OF AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The attorney general is here, Mr. President.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Good - send him in.

LEPORE: But then there are these little dramatizations that are trying to remind people that women had to fight to get the right to vote. It's pretty new by 1937. Women only are guaranteed the right to vote in 1920 and that that's something to celebrate. And that actually distinguishes the United States from other countries - and that that's a piece of the promise of America.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PLAY, "THE EPIC OF AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I don't understand it, dear.

LEPORE: So there's this one little conversation about women getting the right to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PLAY, "THE EPIC OF AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Don't bother your head about it, dear. It's just politics.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I know. But if we women are going to have to vote someday, we ought to begin finding out about politics.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) And there are other episodes in the series where people are finding out why there's anti-monopoly protection in the United States and how that came about. There's all kinds of details in there.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO PLAY, "THE EPIC OF AMERICA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) 1904 - the entire business of the United States was controlled by no more than one dozen men.

LEPORE: It was a series of little history lessons. They're fairly ideologically freighted. You may know the story of the Federal Theatre Project - was later investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

INSKEEP: Oh, suspected of communist influence, basically.

LEPORE: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

LEPORE: And in 1939, it had its funding cut but not before it actually offered a lot of history lessons to a lot of people in the spirit of defending the ordinary person, ordinary American, and the way that our Democratic institutions are meant to represent the interests of ordinary people. And if they're representing the interests only of the rich, then something has gone wrong, and it needs to be fixed by voters.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMERICANS ALL, IMMIGRANTS ALL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing, unintelligible).

INSKEEP: Let's listen to a little bit of another of these documentaries. And this one is called "Americans All, Immigrants All."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AMERICANS ALL, IMMIGRANTS ALL")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: "Americans All, Immigrants All" - the record of an unparalleled event in the history of mankind in which millions of men and women from every country on the face of the Earth, by their own choice and selection, became Americans. And by so doing, made the United States of America.

INSKEEP: Subtle is not the word that comes to mind.

LEPORE: (Laughter) Oh, come on. It's a little stirring.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) It's stirring. It's stirring.

LEPORE: I don't know why I...

INSKEEP: No. It's totally stirring. Of course, it is but not subtle.

LEPORE: Yeah.

INSKEEP: What's going on there?

LEPORE: So this is a series that was broadcast on CBS Radio over 28 weeks. It was really popular - more or less each week profiled a different immigrant group. Actually, I find it kind of heartbreaking - I'll be honest with you - to listen to now because we just don't have that celebration of immigration as a positive good in our culture. I mean, even people who believe that to be the case are not spending their days making that speech. They're spending their days defending dwindling rights. They're not, you know, hoisting a big standard and saluting it and saying immigration is great, and it built this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: What is this other documentary here called "We Hold These Truths" from 1941?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is a program about the making of a promise and the keeping of a promise.

LEPORE: It was the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. The idea was to do a radio drama to celebrate it. And it just happened that it was scheduled to be broadcast live on December 15, 1941...

INSKEEP: Wow.

LEPORE: ...Which, of course, is just days after Pearl Harbor.

INSKEEP: We're going to hear the unmistakable voice of one of the actors in this play, Jimmy Stewart.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS")

JIMMY STEWART: A promise is a promise. Has America been kept? Has it worked, and is it working for the people and by the people? Is it going anywhere from here? Are the rights the right rights? Are they rolling? Do they function? Do they click? Well, who knows the answer better than the people?

LEPORE: What I love about this "We Hold These Truths" - you know, it is a kind of jingoistic celebration of America and that's what it's meant to be. But it - the show was ultimately a celebration of dissent, that the protection against fascism is dissent. And I don't know. I guess I just listen to that - you know, I'm the person that weeps at "It's A Wonderful Life" at Christmas time. So I'm a bad...

INSKEEP: Oh, not only person but go right on. Go on. Go ahead.

LEPORE: ...Maybe a bad critic. But I - where in our culture is that speech being made?

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask if you want the same thing to be done now.

LEPORE: Not the same thing - you know, there are so many things that were wrong with the United States in the 1930s that are not part of the storytelling - the just ravaging epidemic of lynching in the Jim Crow South. We don't see anything that would allow us to anticipate Japanese internment, imprisonment in World War II, which is just literally months after this broadcast. But on the other hand, democracy does need to be defended. And storytelling and rhetorical sophistication has always been crucial.

And you think about - I was really struck this summer, which was the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 14th Amendment. It guarantees equal protection and due process of the laws to all people regardless of race. It's the basis for the end of Jim Crow with Brown v. Board, Roe v. Wade, most cases that people want to argue for equal protection under the law. Like, NPR could have done this whole cool series on the 14th Amendment. Like, there are so many interesting cases that descend from the 14th Amendment. It remains so controversial. Like, we've spent so much airtime - I say we in the thought of Steve (unintelligible) as a listener.

INSKEEP: You mean, me, actually - is what you're saying.

LEPORE: I mean, yeah.

INSKEEP: But go right on.

LEPORE: But all we're saying - like, the Brent (ph) Kavanaugh nomination and the hearings there...

INSKEEP: Sure.

LEPORE: ...Or, like, the - you know, the stuff about the Confederate monuments. I mean, the 14th Amendment was opposed by the former Confederacy. And it has been a hard fight to realize the promise of the 14th Amendment. It remains a very hard fight. And maybe the day-to-day fights are not the urgent ones.

INSKEEP: Jill Lepore came across the radio dramas we've been hearing while researching a new history of the United States called "These Truths." Thanks very much.

LEPORE: Thanks so much, Steve.

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