In the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, millions of Americans were jobless, homeless, and hungry. In desperation, some people began to look at alternative forms of government: communism in Russia or fascism which had taken root in Germany and Italy. World War One veterans had been promised a “veterans bonus,” but it was not to be paid until 1945. A considerable number of veterans assembled in Washington, D.C. to demand immediate payment — money they desperately needed. They were driven out of Washington by Army troops commanded by General Douglas MacArthur.
Speaker of the House of Representatives John W. McCormack led the first House Un-American Activities Committee. That congressional committee investigated an alleged conspiracy to seize control of the national government. It was not a plot by poor people as one might imagine, but rather, a scheme by ultra-wealthy people who feared that the government would levy heavy taxes on their wealth. The allegations were not pursued by the Justice Department, but it didn’t matter. Publicity in the news media was sufficient to carry the day for democracy.
The power of our communications media to inform citizens is insurance for democracy. The right of citizens to shape and choose public policies and the right to elect or reject public servants to implement those policies constitute additional insurance for American democracy.
Proposed political ideas are often controversial. Some of those ideas are radical or seem to be. Radical ideas are not always bad. It was long believed that, since the sun came up in the east and set in the west, the sun surely revolved around the earth. Claims by scientists that the earth revolved around the sun were considered radical. Early claims that something called “germs” were the cause of disease was considered radical, but the invention of the microscope changed a radical notion to a proven fact. One of America’s military heroes, two-time Medal of Honor winner Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler once remarked: “There wouldn’t be a United States if it wasn’t for a bunch of radicals.” He was thinking of that group of radical American colonists who declared independence from the most powerful nation on earth.
America has held high ideals from the very beginning, but achieving those ideals has not been easy. Sometimes we get it wrong and have to change course. Prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages must have seemed right, but it wasn’t. Prohibition created a crime wave and had to be reversed. Allowing only men to vote was once accepted policy. No one would advocate that policy today
It falls to those of us who vote, who participate in the affairs of our country to distinguish between political notions that are truly radical and inappropriate — and those ideas whose time has come. As long as our insurance policy for democracy is in place, our government will ultimately function in our best interest regardless of how severely someone rocks the boat.
Jack Stevenson is now retired from military service. He served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA).