On Sunday evenings, my local NPR station airs old radio programs. A few weeks ago it broadcast the episode of the show Command Performance that aired the day World War II ended. Command Performance was a variety show that went out to the troops around the world.
On V-J Day, Frank Sinatra appeared, along with Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Durante, Dinah Shore, Bette Davis, Lionel Barrymore, Cary Grant and many others. But the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility. The allies had, on that very day, completed one of the noblest military victories in the history of humanity. And yet there was no chest-beating. Nobody was erecting triumphal arches.
"All anybody can do is thank God it's over," Bing Crosby, the show's host, said. "Today our deep down feeling is one of humility," he added.
Burgess Meredith came out to read a passage from Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent. Pyle had been killed just a few months before, but he had written an article anticipating what a victory would mean:
"We won this war because our men are brave and because of many things - because of Russia, England and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature's material. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other peoples. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than we are proud."
This subdued sentiment seems to have been widespread during that season of triumph. On the day the Nazi regime fell, Hal Boyle of the Associated Press reported from the front lines, "The victory over Germany finds the average American soldier curiously unexcited. There is little exuberance, little enthusiasm and almost none of the whoop-it-up spirit with which hundreds of thousands of men looked forward to this event a year ago."
The Dallas Morning News editorialized, "President Truman calls upon us to treat the event as a solemn occasion. Its momentousness and its gravity are past human comprehension."
When you glimpse back on those days you see a people - even the rich and famous celebrities - who were overawed by the scope of the events around them. The war produced such monumental effects, and such rivers of blood, that the individual ego seemed petty in comparison. The problems of one or two little people, as the movie line had it, didn't amount to a hill of beans.
You also hear a cultural reaction. As the Times of London pointed out on the day of victory, fascism had stood for grandiosity, pomposity, boasting and zeal. The allied propaganda mills had also produced their fair share of polemical excess. By 1945, everybody was sick of that. There was a mass hunger for a public style that was understated, self-abnegating, modest and spare. Bing Crosby expressed it perfectly on Command Performance, as Gregory Peck, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall would come to express it in public life.
And there was something else. When you look from today back to 1945, you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.
But that humility came under attack in the ensuing decades. Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call "expressive individualism." Instead of being humble before God and history, moral salvation could be found through intimate contact with oneself and by exposing the beauty, the power and the divinity within.
Everything that starts out as a cultural revolution ends up as capitalist routine. Before long, self-exposure and self-love became ways to win shares in the competition for attention. Muhammad Ali would tell all cameras that he was the greatest of all time. Norman Mailer wrote a book called Advertisements for Myself.
Today, immodesty is as ubiquitous as advertising, and for the same reasons. To scoop up just a few examples of self-indulgent expression from the past few days, there is Joe Wilson using the House floor as his own private Crossfire; there is Kanye West grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards to give us his opinion that the wrong person won; there is Michael Jordan's egomaniacal and self-indulgent Hall of Fame speech. Baseball and football games are now so routinely interrupted by self-celebration that you don't even notice it anymore.
This isn't the death of civilization. It's just the culture in which we live. And from this vantage point, a display of mass modesty, like the kind represented on the V-J Day Command Performance, comes as something of a refreshing shock, a glimpse into another world. It's funny how the nation's mood was at its most humble when its actual achievements were at their most extraordinary.
©New York Times News Service