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EDITORIAL REFLECTIONS

Julia Child’s experience with propaganda during war
lends insights into dynamics of politics today

Sometimes I felt Julia Child helped save my sanity in the early 1960s.  Our family moved to Pittsburgh where my husband, just out of graduate school, found a job.  The main branch of the Carnegie Library offered thousands of cookbooks of interest because I was learning to cook.

Then WQED, the local educational television station, became one of the first in the U.S. to show The French Chef, a new program produced in Boston, featuring Julia Child.  She gave us knowledge, techniques and confidence in our competence.

So on the centennial of her birth, August 15, I read two biographies—Dearie by Bob Spitz and A Covert Affair by Jennet Conant—and was reminded of another aspect of her life applicable to today’s political scene.

Julia called almost everyone “Dearie.” The book makes good use of Paul and Julia Child’s correspondence with family and friends.  The other book is about their service in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, where they met in the China-Burma-India theater of operations.  Both were in administrative positions and knew many people.  Conant also tells how investigations of the McCarthy era affected the Childs and their colleagues.

One job of the OSS was propaganda, which involved undermining the enemy’s morale and discrediting them in countries they occupied, while maintaining contacts with resistance forces and giving them support.  Methods included spreading false rumors, twisting information to fit situations and inflating reports of enemy losses in leaflets and broadcasts.

Reading the manual they were to use, two new arrivals concluded that “almost any form of thoroughly amoral activity was condoned to manipulate one’s foe.”

Today, it sounds like the organization of almost any political campaign, up to and including the presence of a war room.

When former Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee started investigations in the 1950s into Communist activities in the U.S., employees of the State Department and former employees of the OSS were favorite targets, searching for the answer to the question, “Who lost China to the Communists?”

People could be condemned because they had once attended a Communist meeting in college, because friends had attended such meetings, because they had read Das Kapital,  because they subscribed to a magazine someone had put on a black list, because they might be homosexual or know someone who was, because they contributed to an organization or charity that was on someone’s list of “Communist fronts,” or any of a number of other reasons. 

The FBI questioned subjects, including Paul Child, for hours, compiling thick dossiers with the testimonies of friends, relatives, employers and colleagues.

Through these experiences, and sometimes at some peril to themselves, the Childs remained loyal to their friends who were caught in this nightmare.

As I read and remembered I saw parallels in our current over-ideological politics.  Language is used as a weapon.  Political opponents are the enemy.  Statements are twisted to the point that people who were present to hear them don’t recognize them.  Conscientious public servants are condemned because of a difference of opinion in an area unrelated to the subject under discussion.

Why do we as citizens and voters put up with this?  Poll after poll shows that we loathe the negative approach.  Why does it continue?  Because it works.  We will be rid of it only when it no longer works.

One small, useful tool: the Capitol Switchboard telephone number 202-224-3121.  It can connect you to the office of any senator or representative. The future sanity of our political system may depend on our use of many such small tools.

Nancy Minard - contributing editor