“They try to stir up trouble”: Racial Learning from Bubblegum Cards in the Early Cold War

Hello all! This post is a (slightly shortened, but still not short!) paper I presented this weekend at the American Studies Association conference here in Chicago. It was a good conference and I had productive feedback, so I hope you find the post interesting!

FTRM wrapper

In 1951, Gum Inc., also known as the Bowman Gum Company, released a set of bubblegum cards entitled Fight the Red Menace, The Children’s Crusade Against Communism, which was explicitly intended to be educational. In the Sydney Morning Herald, a representative for Bowman stated that, “we decided that children would be interested in an anti-Communist series and we think it is good for them. We tried to tell the children the difference between our way of life and the Communist way by putting out a series of 48 full colour picture cards.”[1] Perhaps it seems surprising that artifacts as disposable as children’s trading cards should be seen as educational, but ephemeral items for kids of the period were frequently linked to state projects, especially with respect to the big topics of the day: communism and nuclear power. Children were exposed to ideas about the American Way of Life, nuclear energy and weaponry, and the scourge of communism through items as diverse as tv shows, comic books, toys, and breakfast cereals. In an age where consumerism was increasingly tied to citizenship, these items brought children into a particular kind of citizenship, turning them into purchasers of both products and ideas. Owing to their popularity, their relative inexpensiveness, and the fact that they mandated repeat purchases, bubblegum cards were a particularly successful means of informing children about the pressing matters of the day.

In his discussion of an earlier Bowman set, Horrors of War, Nelson R. Murry writes “[H]ow, then, did students learn about those contemporary events? In place of the triumvirate of school, home, and church, a new trio of sources became paramount — popular photonews magazines, newsreels, and trading cards. … The least known, and possibly most compelling, however, were the trading cards.”[2] As Ronald W. Evans has argued, education in the early Cold War underwent a significant shift toward ideas about manpower related to the scientific and technical requirements of the emergent nuclear state. Education began to focus on technical competence and training in fields like physics to develop “more scientific and technical personnel and better trained citizens,”[3] along with a “new social studies movement … to transform students into ‘junior’ historians and ‘little league’ social scientists.”[4] This was accompanied by a backlash against so-called progressive education which was linked to communism, as evidenced by the publication of such “colorful titles as Progressive Education is REDucation (1956,) and Who Owns Your Child’s Mind? (1951.)”[5] Although Murry refers to a set of cards from the late 1930s, it is within this context that his assessment may usefully be applied to cards of the early 1950s.

Fight the Red Menace is direct descendant of Horrors of War. Both were produced by Gum Inc., both depict ongoing war, the Korean War and Sino-Japanese War, respectively, and both are gruesome. Moreover, both sets garnered significant backlash from educators and parents who felt they were too graphic and warlike. Most consumers of the cards were overwhelmingly young boys, primarily aged between eight and thirteen years old, so the pedagogical potential of these cards should not be dismissed, especially given their promotion of military activities to young boys.

These cards cards reflect state projects, promoting militarism and warning children of the dangers of communism and nuclear war, but they add gruesome imagery and lurid narrative to appeal to children. The power of narrative storytelling as a means of teaching has been widely reported, across a wide range of situations and learners.[6] That the cards make frequent use of deixis, using terms such as “we,”  “us,” “I,” and “you,” in such a way as to insert the boy reader into the augments this power. Almost every boy would understand who is referred to by “we” and “us” — that is, the United States, its government, its military, and its citizens, and by “them” and “they” — communists, and other nefarious agents. Deixis adds to the boy’s identification with a particular kind of “being;” he is to be one of “us,” a loyal, patriotic American, and to denounce “them,” the purported enemies of freedom.

The power of such terminology to produce identification should not be understated; in 1951, a set produced by Topps, entitled Freedom’s War, provoked a furious campaign by Veterans for Peace, who compared the set to Nazi propaganda. In a press release entitled “Our Children Shall Not Become ‘Hitler’s Children!,’” they argued that the cards “contain violent propaganda to teach our children to kill and to hate — especially the foreigners.” They remark that deictic terms add to this propaganda effect, concluding that should children be allowed to consume material promoting this purported hatred of “others” in foreign contexts, the “next step in the child’s mind is to think the same murderous thoughts about other people he sees right around him. Not people from Asia — but from Harlem. Not Koreans — but Negroes. Not just ‘Reds’ — but ‘Jews.’”[7]

race teaching copy
Excerpt from “Bubblegum Cards Glorify Killing: Veterans’ Group Protests Gory Korea War Sketches, The Compass, January 28, 1951

Although there are significant differences between Fight the Red Menace and Freedom’s War, both foster loathing and disdain for the purported enemy. In both cases the primary objects of ire are North Korean communists, followed by Chinese communists, but several of the depictions reflect or simply transpose tropes about the Japanese enemy during World War II. Therefore, for children, perhaps less equipped to understand nuance than adults, all Asians come to be conflated as one “kind,” and all are to be seen as, at best, inferior or, at worst, dehumanized and inherently threatening. The worst fear of Veterans for Peace was that these prejudices might be applied at home.

In Growing Up Jim Crow, Jennifer Ritterhouse argues that children under Jim Crow “learned” race through “racial etiquette.” She defines etiquette as “the unwritten rules that governed day-to-day interactions across race lines not only as a form of social control but also as a script for the performative creation of culture and of “race” itself.”[8] The political and social context of Jim Crow necessitated children learning to conduct themselves in a regime under which racial groups were segregated but had to live together in close proximity. I argue that many of the children reading these cards may not have come across nonwhite people so frequently in their daily lives. As these cards were produced, schools continued to be segregated, and white flight meant that those living in suburbs were confined to homogeneously white neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the cards, which straddle the domestic sphere of play and the public sphere of  commercial enterprise, refer to racial norms and codes that teach children how those of other races should be viewed.

In Fight the Red Menace, only one card depicts nonwhite people who are not hostile. In this card, entitled Negro GIs Hold Line, a platoon of African American soldiers is said to have saved a military position from attack by North Korean “Reds.” However, the card does little to mitigate the racial attitudes embedded in the set. Whereas white people in the cards are drawn carefully, with recognizable features and, in the case of military generals, benevolent, purposeful expressions, Asians and other nonwhite communists have less clearly defined features, and faces that are contorted into expressions of rage or fear. This applies to the “Negro GIs” as well, whose faces are not drawn as clearly as those of their fellow American soldiers.

Fig 17 FTRM 16 Negro GIs Hold Line
“Negro GIs Hold Line,” Fight the Red Menace, Bowman Gum, 1951  (image from slide in my possession, public domain)

However, while these images are problematic in their own right, the accompanying text compounds the racialization of “others” and effectively undermines any opportunity for children to question the message. Textual and pictorial cues support the hypothesis that the imagined audience for the cards was white boys; for instance in evocations of an idyllic suburbia, especially in card 2, which tells children that when “North Korean Reds attacked South Korea,” the “United Nations pitched in to help the South Koreans, like your dad would help the folks next door if some bad men were beating them up.” This card implies that the boys to whom it speaks live in “neighborly” areas, populated by “good” men, with “bad” men being interlopers. Moreover, the text’s location within military culture, and its title “MacArthur Heads UN Forces,” suggests that “dad” may well be a GI, returned to his family, who is committed to combatting the actions of “bad men” wherever he should find them.

In the postwar period, urban communities came to be associated with nonwhite communities, and were frequently seen in a negative light. The well-known proponent of containment, George Kennan, saw them as desolate, corrupting places where “the morals of the people seem to reproduce the filth and revulsion of their surroundings.”[9] This view of urban communities is not one conducive to neighborly behavior. By contrast, the burgeoning suburbs, built to accommodate returning GIs who were encouraged by the GI Bill to purchase their own homes, were seen as thriving communities of people who hewed closely to “American values.” Suburb dwellers, in the public imaginary, were ideal citizens; consumers who contributed to the economy and progress, in a location in which everybody took part in community activities, and were, in short, “neighborly.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, these views were distorted, with suburbs also being seen as hotbeds of anxiety, social pressure, and loneliness, as exemplified in Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, in which the pressures to participate in community activities, be on good terms with one’s neighbors, and live up to the suburban dream, lead to tragic consequences.

how we want to live
Model Home, American Standard Heating and Plumbing, 1947 (from http://www.vintageadbrowser.com)

The distinct lack of nonwhite Americans in the cards reflects the white homogeneity of the suburbs. In Little White Houses, Dianne Harris notes that the GI Bill allocated a mere two per cent of its real estate to nonwhite families.[10] At this time, schools were still segregated, Brown vs Board was several years away, and the children to whom these cards were aimed may well have been living in areas that lacked many brown or black faces. However, in the text on the reverse of the cards, children are reminded that the United States is just that: united. There are frequent references to the autocratic rule of the Soviet Union, complemented by claims, such as on card 3, that under that regime, people are “herded into concentration camps … [and] forced to do slave labor under conditions of great cruelty.”  This claim squarely locates any form of slavery or oppression outside the United States, and erases the very recent internment of Japanese-American citizens in concentration camps.

Other cards reiterate the idea of the Soviet Union as a force for the oppression of freedom, and foreclose opportunities to challenge the idealized view of the United States as wholly progressive and democratic. Card 7, Trouble on the Docks, notes that “the Reds get people to work against their own countries in the interest of world communism.” This informs boys that any people they may encounter who challenge the narrative of American democracy may have been subverted by communists and coerced into expressing such views. Card 9, Police State, reads that in communist nations, “one must accept, without protest, the ideas of the men in power … we must never let the Reds turn our free America into that kind of fearful place.” That this argument is proposed in a period during which anti-communist agitation in the United States bordered on hysteria, with those whose political views differed from the ideal of American freedom blacklisted, forced out of work, or hounded to trial (and even execution) for their purported espionage activities, makes the card especially pernicious. Children are told that such things could never happen in the United States, even as they are happening. Such a claim points to the idea that any oppression of communists in the United States must be for reasons other than mere ideological control, and are in fact normal judicial processes, thus painting the targets of such investigations as criminals rather than dissenters.

FTRM 11 Fleeing the Reds
“Fleeing the Reds, Fight the Red Menace, Bowman Gum, 1951 (image from slide in my possession, public domain)

The theme is extended on card 11, Fleeing the Reds, which states that “in America a man may choose his work and his friends. He enjoys freedom of speech and worship. He may come and go as he likes. Americans will never exchange their freedom for slavery.” The continued existence of Jim Crow at the time these cards were produced means that in fact, in recent times, many Americans had been forced to fight for freedom from slavery. Moreover, many of those people continued to suffer under a violent regime of segregation, which punished them not only for attempting to assert their right to freedom, but in many cases, for merely existing in certain spaces. The card entirely erases the history of slavery in the United States.

Card 16, Negro GIs Hold Line, is the apotheosis of this erasure of American reality, and the culmination of the foreclosure of challenges to this fiction. The card states that communists “try to divide us in America by reminding us of how we may happen to differ. They will learn that … we are all one in our love and defense of God’s freedom.” In making these claims, children are taught that counter arguments to the unified narrative, or evidence of racial oppression in the United States, are anomalous, fictional, and “planted” by enemies to sow dissent and fear. They are led to ignore any such claims, glossing over very real segregation. Black and other nonwhite children collecting these cards may have had lived experiences that ran entirely counter to this portrayal of the United States, but those experiences go unacknowledged. In addition, such children are unable to contradict the idealization with evidence from their own lives, because to do so would label them as dissenters, communists, enemies, and their accounts would be dismissed as propaganda. In proposing this argument, card 16 builds on fictitious claims about the United States, while also undermining the views and humanity of those whose lives do not fit the fiction. The placement of the argument on Negro GIs Hold Line also implicitly links this potential dissent with black people, reifying views in wider society that African Americans who agitated for civil rights were communists.

Ritterhouse’s work on racial etiquette is again useful here; she refers to the concept of “forgotten alternatives,” first proposed in “historian C. Vann Woodward’s 1955 classic, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.[11] In this thesis, forgotten alternatives are those potential alternate outcomes that are precluded by racial learning. They represent the potential futures that may have arisen had children not been inculcated as they were. She notes that, while for black children, forgotten alternatives were often meaningless, because they “never forgot their own innate humanity,”[12] they can be a useful framework for considering how white children’s attitudes were shaped in such a way as to place them on a narrow path, foreclosing alternative futures. Fight the Red Menace cards can be seen in a similar way; they teach white children a very specific and idealized narrative of American history, the American future, and the role of the United States as a global superpower. However, as each of these is iterated and reiterated in the cards, the opportunity for children to develop an alternative point of view, or a critique of the narrative, is shut down. The “rules” of how children are to understand racialized others, and their own position in the world, are drummed into them repeatedly: (white) America is dominant, “others” are to be feared, slavery should be associated with “them,” and any notion of division within the United States is mere propaganda. That these racial ideas appear to have persisted in the modern United States, suggests that the cards taught children well.

[1] “An Ideological Aspect Of Bubble-gum,” Sydney Morning Herald (NSW), May 18, 1951, 2.

[2] Nelson R. Murry, “An Alternative Medium of Education: ‘The Horrors of War’ Picture Cards,” The Social Studies 88:3 (1997): 101.

[3] Ronald W. Evans, The Tragedy of American School Reform: How Curriculum Politics and Entrenched Dilemmas have Diverted Us from Democracy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 2011. 11.

[4] Evans, The Tragedy of American School Reform, 15.

[5] Cited in Evans, The Tragedy of American School Reform, 10.

[6] Examples include Susan E. Butcher, “Narrative as a Teaching Strategy,” The Journal of Correctional Education 57:3 (2006). and Russel Hirst, “Stories from the Secret City: Ray Smith’s Art of Narrative as Rhetoric,” Technical Communication 64:1 (2017).

[7] Veterans for Peace, “Our Children Shall Not Become ‘Hilter’s Children’,” news release, January 28, 1951.

[8] Jennifer. Ritterhouse, Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina) 2006. 4.

[9] Guy Oakes, The Imaginary War: Civil Defense and American Cold War Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 1994. Kindle Location 385.

[10] Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2013. Kindle Location 711.

[11] Ritterhouse, Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race, 7.

[12] Ritterhouse, Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race, 11.

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