American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (third episode) – BBC 4

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UFOs apparently merit more attention than the McCarthy witch hunts, and Ronald Reagan was only elected president because American radio stations were banned from playing songs in the top 40 (why??) and played music from the 1950s instead.  So, if they took to playing songs from my era, the late 1980s, who would be the next President of the United States?  Tom Hanks, maybe?  Jodie Foster?  Answers on a postcard, please!  And it doesn’t half annoy me when people insist on referring to the Soviet Union as “Russia”.  There were fifteen Soviet republics, OK – fifteen, not one.  Finally, just to prove that the BBC really does intend to wind people up with this programme, Martin Luther King was accused of being a male chauvinist pig.

Lucy Worsley can be great sometimes, but she was incredibly annoying in this.  The smirking.  The excessively bright red lipstick.  The failure to wear a seatbelt.  And just the general feeling that she was mocking everything.  Is there any need to be like that? Most of what she said was genuinely interesting, but I just found her manner extremely irritating.  I think she was enjoying doing something different, though – it felt as if the jolly hockey sticks head girl had been transformed into the school bully.

We were informed that everyone loves 1950s America, because of Happy Days.  I’d have said more because of Grease, which wasn’t mentioned until later on; but you get the idea.   There is an awful lot of nostalgia about the 1950s.  We then jumped back – there was a lot of jumping around in this programme – jumped back to 1945, and the idea that America won the war.  I have to say that I do find it very annoying when people say that America won the war.  Er, what about Britain, and the other nations of the Empire and the Commonwealth?  What about the Soviet Union?  Lucy didn’t mention Britain, presumably because it might have upset all the avocado-eating Britain-bashers whom the BBC loves to please, but she did suggest that Japan’s surrender had more to do with, or at least as much to do with, the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on her than with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It’s certainly something that Western histories of the Second World War pay very little attention to.

I’d got the impression that this was going to be about the Cold War, so I was expecting it to focus on all the myths peddled by both sides about the other.  I never “did” the Cold War anti-Soviert thing.  OK, I was a bit young for it anyway, only ten when Gorbachev came to power, but I was always too keen on Eastern European history to be negative about Eastern Europe.  I remember being rather upset when most of the other kids in my GCSE history group were astounded to find that Britain had fought on the same side as Russia in the First World War (not to mention on the same side as the Soviet Union in the Second World War).  Even those of us born in the mid-1970s were fed all that anti-“Russian” stuff.  But this programme wasn’t about that after all – only on America’s own ideas about America, the land of peace and prosperity and supremacy.

So we got lots of shots of housing estates built in the 1950s, and pictures of smiling moms and dads and kids.  All white.  We heard the story of a black family who moved into one of these housing estates, and not even in Mississippi or Alabama but in Pennsylvania, and received death threats.  The legal documents for a lot of these properties even included “racial covenants” – and that wasn’t made illegal until 1968.  None of that was surprising, but things like that never stop being shocking.  When Barack Obama was elected president, it felt as if those days might finally be over.  Now, things seem to be going backwards.

The programme then jumped backwards again – to 1950, when the National Security Council warned Harry S Truman (What is it with American presidents and their middle initials?  No-one goes around talking about Theresa M Mary or Angela D Merkel, do they?!) that there was a threat from the Soviet Union, and so America whacked up its defence spending.  It’s horrifying to think of how much money’s spent on defence, when it’s so urgently needed for other things, because we can’t get to a point where all countries are able to trust each other enough to reduce it.  And that never changes.  Again, it seems to be getting worse, with America pulling out of this nuclear arms treaty.

Testing atomic bombs.  This was all told in a very sarcastic tone.  And, OK, it was utterly bizarre.  Day trips were run from Las Vegas to viewing points for the main atomic testing site in Nevada.  People drank “atomic cocktails” and watched “atomic ballets”, and “Miss Atomic Bomb” contests were held.

Meanwhile, rates of cancer amongst those living downwind of the site soared – resulting in around 11,000 deaths.  The authorities knew of the danger, but felt that developing missiles to match those of the Soviet Union was more important than people’s health.  This was nothing we didn’t already know, but, as with racism, knowing something doesn’t mean that hearing it again isn’t shocking.   And the “Happy Days” of the 1950s were overshadowed by the fear of “the bomb”.

Then, from all this incredibly serious and distressing talk about cancer and fear, we were suddenly on to UFOs.  Roswell was 1947, not in the 1950s, but never mind.  Lucy went on at length about UFOs, and even interviewed a man who was clearly entirely convinced that the truth was out there and either didn’t realise or didn’t care that she was making fun of him.  Everything she was saying did make sense, though!   Yes, there does seem to be a conviction in America that, if aliens were going to land on Planet Earth, they would land in America.  Linking this to Manifest Destiny sounds like a complete piss-take, but it’s actually very hard to say that it isn’t true!

Finally, nearly halfway into the programme, we got to McCarthyism.  I was expecting a whole load of spiel about this.  The Red Scare.  Reds Under The Bed.  Everything that it says about repression and victimisation in what’s supposed to be The Land of the Free, and how easily a politician can whip up fear.  But it barely got a mention.  UFOs were apparently more important.

On to Eisenhower and the “military-industrial complex” – arms companies whipping up fear of the communist threat, and pressuring the American government into upping its defence spending again.  The term doesn’t really get used any more – but I honestly hadn’t realised just how much America does still spend on defence.  According to Wikipedia, “In 2011, the United States spent more (in absolute numbers) on its military than the next thirteen nations combined”.  And, from what Lucy said, the Soviets never really had that many missiles … and what’s quite that much defence spending about now?  This episode was quite disjointed, going from bombs to UFOs to Red Scares to military-industrial complexes without any real thread running through it all, but the points were certainly all valid.

Well, I suppose the thread was meant to be myths and fibs, but it just didn’t flow very well.  From B52s to Camelot, and the idea that JFK was fit and healthy and had a perfect marriage.  Hmm.  And that he saved the world at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis – whereas, in fact, the deal was two-way, with the Americans agreeing to remove their missiles from Turkey at the same time as the Soviets agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba.

No-one ever mentions that, in the West.  Very true.  It would have been interesting to have heard the take on it in Warsaw Pact countries, though.  I know that the programme was meant to be about the USA’s image of itself, but it would have been good to have heard the alternative view.

Then another complete change of topic, from the Bay of Pigs to the 1963 March on Washington.  This bit was fascinating – not so much about what it said, as about the fact that it was said at all.  I’m not that keen on either Abraham Lincoln or John F Kennedy, and find the hero worship of both of them rather odd.  But it’s very unusual to hear anyone criticise Martin Luther King, especially in today’s political climate when people are so quick to label anyone a racist.  People are also increasingly quick to label anyone a sexist – and that’s what Lucy Worsley did with Martin Luther King.  No women spoke on that famous day in 1963.  Why didn’t Rosa Parks, for example, make a speech?  And, apparently, Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King were both invited to the White House, but Coretta was left outside whilst her husband went in for a boys’ only get together.

Fair point.  And a brave point, as well.  I think people are becoming nervous of saying what they think, because of the fear of being wrongly labelled as a racist or a sexist.   Or being accused of “cultural appropriation” – it appears that some people are up in arms over a Marks & Spencer vegan biryani wrap.  I felt quite uncomfortable hearing Lucy saying negative things about such an iconic and admired figure as Martin Luther King, and I was annoyed with myself for that.  She wasn’t taking away from everything he achieved and stood for in terms of civil rights for African-Americans.  She was just saying, quite truthfully, that women were not fairly represented within that movement.  But it was still surprising to hear outspoken criticism of someone whom no-one would usually say a word against.

1963 also saw the publication of The Feminine Mystique.  Finally, a section of the programme that followed on logically from the previous section … but, rather than an insight into the changing role of women in the 1960s, we were left with the impression that the entire female population of the USA spent the 1950s and 1960s taking Valium.

And finally, the radio stations.  I must admit that I never knew this, but, in 1967, AM and FM stations in the US were banned from playing “identical content to” the top 40, in an attempt to encourage musical diversity.  I can’t quite get my head round that!   What a weird idea.  So they played music from the 1950s, and everyone got obsessed with the 1950s, and even more so when Grease and Back To The Future came out. Back To The Future was 1985, by which time Ronald Reagan was into his second term of office, but never mind.  So everyone was really into 1950s nostalgia, and that’s why Ronald Reagan became president.  Well, OK, it wasn’t put exactly like that, but that was the general idea.

And I was expecting McCarthyism and the space race …

I think I actually prefer Lucy when she’s being the jolly hockey sticks head girl.   There was something about this series that smacked of … well, to go back to the subject of Grease, it was a bit like the “too cool for school” Pink Ladies and T-Birds making fun of the all-American kids like Patty Simcox and Tom Chisum for helping to organise the school dance and being on the school sports teams.  But, hey, didn’t you always really want to be one of the cool kids who swaggered around with their cool gang jacket slung over their shoulder?  And I’m just proving that, yep, I do 1950s America nostalgia as well!  It’s a powerful myth.  So many historical myths are.

12 thoughts on “American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley (third episode) – BBC 4

  1. mrsredboots

    I didn’t actually watch this one, not having found the others in the series terribly compelling, and with so much other excellent television on Thursday night. But I will just say that my generation DID grow up literally expecting the world would end in a nuclear holocaust any minute – I am not entirely sure any of us really expected we would still be here in the 21st century.

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  2. Chris Deeley

    Using a middle initial is still common practice in the USA – even though Truman’s ‘S’ didn’t stand for anything. Sloan Wilson’s best-seller “The Man in a Gray Flannel Suit’, published in 1955, sheds a different perspective on the USA in the 1950s (as does the 1956 film). There’s also a lot of nostalgia about 1963 – the year of my first visit – nicely portrayed in the film ‘Dirty Dancing’. I’m looking forward to seeing Felicity Jones on her first day at Harvard Law School in 1956 – those were the days!

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    • I love Dirty Dancing! That would have tied in nicely with this “destroying the myth” idea – “Baby”/Frances is full of idealistic ideas about changing the world, and then has to accept that she’s from a privileged background and hasn’t got a clue what life is like for people like Johnny and Penny, fellow-Americans who pretty much live hand to mouth.

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      • Chris Deeley

        You are so right! I was there that year so could witness a lot in person. ‘Dirty Dancing’ is so time-specific – as is the TV series ‘Mad Men’: March 1960 to November 1970. I was seated in the public gallery of Congress the very day the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was ratified and, for the first time ever, press photographers were allowed to record the event. It’s nice to be part of history!

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  3. Robert Genower

    Yours was the only critical response I found to Lucy Worsley’s “American Fibs” programme, which has just been repeated (August 2020) on BBC. I, too, found her presentation irritating; in fact, I found her thesis tendentious. It was a mixture of suggestive assertions and blatant omissions to prove her conceit about America’s “lies” — a word she cleverly highlighted by using the archaism “fibs” instead. To me, the history was all rather A-level standard.

    The “fibs” Worsley revealed, as if they were new revelations, are all well known. That the bombs dropped on two Japanese cities were to prevent the Soviet Union from getting involved was not conclusively proven. The Soviet “menace” was, in my view, not to be taken lightly, which is why there was some paranoia about Communist sympathisers in the McCarthy era.

    Let me say a few things about JFK. You weren’t around to witness the ability of the man to arouse optimism and public spirit in much of the American population. But was his image of a young, vigorous family man a “fib”? He was the youngest elected president in history. He did need medication for chronic back pain and Addison’s Disease. He did not know a day without pain, often intense, but he didn’t make a big deal of it because that was his temperament. What would be the point of people knowing his medical record? He put in a full day’s work and more. He did not become president to enrich himself — he gave every dollar of his salary to various charities, much to the annoyance of his wife.

    Worsley briefly mentioned Kennedy’s remarks about the terrible losses inflicted on the Soviet Union in WW2. She didn’t say that this was put to the American people in Kennedy’s “Peace Speech” in June 1963, in which he tried to portray the Soviet people as human beings, who had hopes for their children and, like Americans, wanted to breathe air free from radioactivity. Indeed, JFK instigated the first nuclear agreement in October 1963, which was about a reduction or cessation of testing atomic weapons in the atmosphere or the sea. Kennedy wanted to greatly reduce the number of atomic weapons held on both sides. He even said he would prefer his children to be “Red rather than dead”.

    The “Peace Speech” came a couple of days before Kennedy went on TV before the American public to appeal to them to accept the fact that the American “negro” had as much right to the benefits of American democracy as everyone else. In his speech, he reeled off a number of facts about the disadvantages and injustices black Americans had to suffer. Two months later in the White House he received a group of black leaders, including MLK, to congratulate them on the march that had taken place that day, and particularly to Dr King on his “I have a dream” speech.

    As for the Cuban Missile Crisis, Worsley glossed over Kennedy’s resisting the pressure from his military chiefs to invade or bomb Cuba. It is now known that, had America done either of those things, a full-scale nuclear war would have followed. Fidel Castro was furious with Soviet premier Khrushchev for accepting Kennedy’s “deal”. He wanted those Soviet nuclear weapons to be used. Nor did Worsley explain that the deal was not just a quid pro quo for American dismantling of Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Those missiles (which Kennedy had inherited) were obsolete anyway, and were scheduled for removal. The other aspect of the deal was that America agreed not to invade Cuba at any time — again, having suffered the debacle of the Bay of Pigs’ invasion, this was not on Kennedy’s agenda anyway.

    JFK: a flawed man, no doubt; a man who had had several close encounters with the Grim Reaper, and who therefore lived as though he had a short time left on earth. Nevertheless, he presented a model of self-control, intelligence, self-deprecating humour and public service that has not been matched by any president since. He inspired many Americans to serve their country selflessly through such organisations as the Peace Corps. As for Lucy Worsley, what would she know what it would be like to swim with a badly injured man on your back for five hours, as Kennedy did in the war, or to deal with a Soviet/Cuban threat on the doorstep, while the world held its breath? JFK used to keep a little poem in his wallet, written by an anonymous Spanish poet: “Bullfight critics row on row/Crowd the enormous plaza full/But the only one who knows/Is the man who fights the bull.”

    Thank you for your well-written and thought-provoking article.

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