Superman Promoted the “American Way”
Wendy L. Wall is Assistant Professor of History at Queen’s University. Her book, Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus From the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement, traces the competing efforts of business groups, politicians, leftist intellectuals, interfaith proponents, civil rights activists, and many others over nearly three decades to shape public understandings of the “American Way.” In the excerpt below we learn how Superman promoted the “American Way.”
On April 16, 1946, millions of children across America sat down before dinner to listen to their favorite nightly radio drama, The Adventures of Superman. For more than six years, the “Man of Steel” had appeared regularly on stations affiliated with the Mutual Broadcasting System and battled mad Nazi scientists, sinister and disloyal Japanese Americans, and radioactive monsters. The story line that began that night, however, was different. Entitled “The Hate Mongers Association,” it pitted Clark Kent/ Superman and his sidekick Jimmy Olsen against a secretive group called the Guardians of America. The Guardians were trying to prevent an interfaith council in Metropolis from constructing a community clubhouse and gymnasium “for the use of all boys and girls in the neighborhood, regardless of race, creed or color.” They first set fire to the store of a druggist named David Hoffman, then badly beat a boy named Danny O’Neill who had seen them set the fire. “It isn’t just the Catholics, or the Jews, or the Protestants they’re after,” Kent told Jimmy. “Their game is to stir up hatred among all of us – to get the Catholic to hate the Jew and the Jew to hate the Protestant, and the Protestant to hate the Catholic. It’s a dirty, vicious circle, and like Hitler and his Nazi killers, they plan to step in and pick up the marbles while we’re busy hating one another and cutting each other’s throats. It’s an old trick but or some reason a lot of us still fall for it.” For the next five weeks, Superman battled no the Scarlet Widow, der Teufel (“the Devil”) or the Atom Man – but bigoted Americans.
“The Hate Mongers Association” marked a turning point for Superman. As a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune noted, after “years of pure blood, thunder and atomic energy,” the caped avenger had begun crusading for “tolerance.” In June 1946, Superman fought “The Clan of the Fiery Cross,” which was trying to run a Chinese family out of town. (Tipped off by a Klu Klux Klan infiltrator, the show’s writers worked real KKK rituals and passwords into the show.) In September, the Man of Steel helped pin a murder on a crooked political boss, who had been accused by veterans “representing the three faiths” of discriminating in job appointments…Clark Kent/ Superman was drawn into many of these crusades by his friend Jimmy Olsen, who was involved with a nonsectarian boys club appropriately named “Unity House.” By 1948, Kellogg Co., which sponsored the program, was including short talks on tolerance “before and after each episode by either the ‘Superman’ actor himself or by the announcer of the program.” When Superman made the leap to television in 1951, the shows producers highlighted his newfound mission in their introduction: Superman, the announcer intoned, was fighting “a never-ending battle for Truth, Justice and the American Way.”
Superman’s recruitment into the fight for the “American Way” – an American way built around notions of tolerance and teamwork – reflected a shift in strategy on the part of some in America’s business community. Parents, teachers, intergroup activists, and child welfare organizations had long lobbied the producers of comic strips and children’s radio shows to make their fare more socially conscious, generally with little success. In late 1945, however, William B. Lewis, radio director at the Kenyon & Eckhardt advertising agency, latched onto the idea as a way of showing that “the interests of the community and those of a commercial advertiser” were not incompatible. Kenyon & Eckhardt had the Kellogg Co, account, and Lewis set Superman director Robert Maxwell to work on the idea… In crafting the story line for “The Hate Mongers Association,” Maxwell consulted with experts ranging from Margaret Mead to officials at the National Conference of Christians and Jews (NCCJ). Meanwhile, Lewis sold the idea to Kellogg Co. executives.
Their bet paid off. Listener rating soared, reaching 4.5 million per week by March 1947 and making The Adventures of Superman the most popular children’s radio program… Enthusiastic letters poured in from parents and educators, and news organizations ranging from PM to Newsweek lauded the show. The American Newspaper Guild, the NCCJ, and the American Veterans’ Committee honored the series, as did the Calvin Newspaper Service, which provided news and syndicated columns to more than than a hundred black newspapers across the country. (Meanwhile, the anti-Semitic evangelist Gerald L. K. Smith denounced Superman as “a disgrace to America” and, in Georgia, the Grand Dragon of the KKK tried unsuccessfully to launch a boycott of Kellogg’s Pep cereal.) As a Kenyon & Eckhardt executive told the New Republic in early 1947, “This tolerance theme is good business.”
At one level, the revamping of The Adventures of Superman provides an early example of what is today called socially conscious advertising: Kellogg Co. sought to boost its image and sales by presenting itself as responsible and community minded. At a deeper level, however, the program’s makeover can be seen as part of a wide-ranging and multifaceted effort by an array of influential elites in the immediate postwar years to recapture the sense of national unity and teamwork that had pervaded public discourse in the U.S. during World War II. Those engaged in this endeavor included social scientists who worried about threats to social cohesion posed by the “group mind”; intergroup activists who hoped to extend their wartime antiprejudice campaigns; business, advertising, and public relations executives determined to derail the rising power of labor and to halt or roll back the policies of the New Deal; and officials of the Truman administration who sought to unify Americans behind their emerging cold war policies. The motives of these diverse elites differed sharply, as did their precise definition of the values around which Americans should unite. What they shared was a fear of social unrest or upheaval that prompted them to promote a consensual and harmonious vision of the nation.