By Mary Lou Beatty
A half-century ago, America was enjoying a brief euphoria after five years of war. The nation’s GIs were in college in unprecedented numbers, supported by money from the government. Novels about the war were emerging, one of the first The Naked and the Dead by an ex-infantryman named Norman Mailer. Jackson Pollock was producing his Composition No. 1 and Andrew Wyeth was painting Christina’s World. On the consumer front, sales of homes had shot up. A California hamburger emporium named McDonald’s decided to franchise itself. And a million American homes had TVs, up from five thousand when the war had ended.
Across the Atlantic, the story was bleaker -- few jobs, little food, nowhere to live. Blizzards had destroyed Europe’s wheat crop in the winter of 1946. Cities and towns still lay in rubble. In Warsaw, rebuilding was under way, based on photographs taken before the war.
Into the devastation stepped a small group of American officials, among them Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenburg, and President Harry S Truman. They had a grand scheme: to brush aside borders and rescue all of Europe, friends and former enemies alike. The idea would come to be known as the Marshall Plan.
In this issue of Humanities, we revisit the period immediately after World War II. NEH Chairman William R. Ferris talks with historian Melvyn Leffler about the emerging Cold War. We leaf through the Marshall Papers, a project supported by NEH, and retrace the steps to push a European recovery plan through an opposition Republican Congress. We also hear from Lawrence L. Langer about a somber legacy of the war, the Holocaust, and the difficulties of conveying its lessons to new generations of students.
For some, the postwar difficulties of Europe were less than those of American society. A young writer named James Baldwin headed to Paris in 1948 with forty dollars and a half-finished novel “to vomit up a lot of bitterness,” as he put it. His story is one of many told in I’ll Make Me a World, an NEH-supported film series on the contributions made by African Americans in the twentieth century. It airs early next year. We take a closer look at one of the film’s compelling figures, artist Jacob Lawrence, whose work is being cataloged comprehensively for the first time.
And finally, we look at some people of the present day whose work has enriched our lives. They are the winners of this year’s National Medal for the Humanities. The list includes biographer Stephen Ambrose, who has written about Dwight D. Eisenhower and Meriwether Lewis; E.L. Doctorow, who offers an individualistic view of America in novels such as Billy Bathgate and Ragtime; Diana Eck, a professor of America’s changing religious landscape; Nancye Gaj, who turned a visit to a prison into a national literacy project; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a luminary in the field of African American studies; Vartan Gregorian, a professor of history who saved a great library and then went on to new heights; Ramón Eduardo Ruiz, who calls himself a “Mexicanist” and speaks eloquently for the unvoiced; Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whose monumental works include The Age of Jackson and The Age of Roosevelt; and Garry Wills, author of Nixon Agonistes and Lincoln’s Gettysburg.