“Courage is not the lack of fear. It is acting in spite of it. ” –Mark Twain
The surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor shook many American’s nerves to the core. Rumors the west coast had been bombed were widespread. Hysterical mobs roamed the night streets of San Francisco breaking car head lights and movie marquees afraid these lights would help guide Japanese bombers to another surprise attack– this time on the main land. Here is a passage from Studs Terkel’s The Good War (pgs. 25-26):
I was a senior at the University of San Francisco. I had room and board with a lady and her daughter. I flipped on the lights because it was pitch dark. Mrs. Kelleher screamed, “Dennis, turn the lights out! The Japs are comin’! The Japs are comin’!” She and her daughter were sitting on the couch, clutching one another in absolute abject terror. “The Golden Gate Bridge has been bombed!” I said, “Mrs. Kelleher, I just drove over there a few minutes ago. There’s nothing wrong with the bridge.” But they were so terror-stricken, I turned out the lights.
Their son Frank was in the ROTC at USF. He got a call: For God’s sake, get over here. We’re gonna make a stand at the university! They’d been listening to the radio all day and were convinced the Japanese were here. They had landed all over the coast and had taken the Presidio. They would repeat it on the radio, again and again. Total hysteria.
A different but equally damaging hysteria swept over the United States during the Red Scare. This time the enemy was living among us and the danger lurked in these traitor’s hearts and minds. The Commies had no distinguishing characteristics to help sort them from the real Americans. Everyone was suspect until proven otherwise. Senator Joseph McCarthy was at the forefront of the Red Scare. He held congressional hearings to weed out the Communist or Soviet sympathizers working in the Federal Government.
The practice became known as McCarthyism. The term became associated with emotionally charged public accusations of political disloyalty or subversion. These charges were usually backed with insufficient evidence and this flimsy evidence was often obtained using highly suspect investigatory methods. Many of these attacks were designed to suppress opposition and had little to do with an actual threat to the United States Government.
Edward R. Murrow had the courage to challenge McCarthy at the height of the scare. The movie Good Night, and Good Luck tells this gripping story. My favorite scene is right before Murrow goes on the air with his broadcast devoted to McCarthy. Murrow is visibly nervous. His forehead is beaded with sweat. His leg is shaking and he is smoking non-stop. Murrow knew what was at stake if he acted or if he chose not to.
Courage means taking risks after weighing the consequences and then choosing what is right. Taking risks without understanding or ignoring the consequences is at best reckless and in the worst of circumstances zealotry. What makes this country great is not fancy talk about democracy and the spread of freedom. Greatness occurs when we the people chose reason over fear and decide that everyone deserves a fair shake.