Between 1945 to 1960, the number of television sets in the United States skyrocketed from an estimated ten thousand to sixty million. What was once a novelty became an integral part of everyday life for the average American. By 1960, almost ninety percent of American households had at least one television and the average person watched approximately five hours of programming each day. Television became the dominant medium for information and entertainment at the same time that Americans were engaged in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and experiencing major social and cultural transformations like the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism, the emergence of youth culture, and the environmental movement. In a time of change and uncertainty, television played an important role in shaping the political and cultural landscape.
The Craig B. Fisher papers, a recently processed addition to the Mass Media & Culture collection, documents what television was like during that pivotal era. Fisher graduated from the University of Maryland in 1954, and became an accomplished television writer, producer, and director. The collection pertains to a period of his career from 1956 to 1970 when he worked for CBS and NBC. It includes research materials, notes, outlines, proposals, scripts, budgets, press clippings, and other materials related to programs in which he was a creator or contributor. During his career, he produced television shows on a broad range of subjects, including politics, social issues, history, science, and art. This post will highlight five particularly interesting documents that are representative of the Cold War era.
- The Day Called X (CBS) Script, 1957
In December 1957, CBS aired The Day Called X, a program depicting how the people of Portland, Oregon coped with the imagined threat of enemy airplanes about to drop an H-bomb on their city. Fisher worked as Unit Manager for the production, often described as a dramatized documentary because it followed real people, not actors, as their daily lives are interrupted by air raid sirens and evacuation procedures. Portland is the stand-in for the “average American city” in its picturesque wholesomeness, and its population of hard-working church-goers are given only three hours to escape to safety after radar stations detect approaching bombers. Not wanting to start mass hysteria, the words “an attack is not taking place” were periodically flashed on the screen in case any television viewers mistakenly thought the United States was really under attack.
What was the point of the program? At times, the drama of nuclear annihilation is heightened with ominous background music and shots resembling a horror movie. The audience is urged to take the threat of nuclear war seriously and not be like the Portland mother who ignored a newspaper headline that read “World Shaken by Crisis” or the mechanic who disregarded sirens thinking it was only a drill. Perhaps even more importantly, however, the program showed the city’s government activating civil defense protocols and handling the crisis in a calm and competent manner that would be reassuring to any Americans watching. City officials coordinated evacuation procedures with the Red Cross, military liaisons, the Civil Air Patrol, the Weather Bureau, and the Police and Fire Departments, and people moved out of the city in an orderly “pattern well-learned by practice.” The host of the program congratulates the city for being well-prepared to handle the crisis, and notes that the city had voted to tax itself to pay for this form of protection. The program ends with the host saying to the audience, “The people of Portland, through working together, are ready if there really were a day called X. How about you?”
The script in our collection includes some interesting details not included in the aired program. For instance, in the opening scenes before the air raid sirens go off, the script called for a radio station to play Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” but the song never made it on air. You can watch The Day Called X in its entirety through the Internet Archive.
2. “Report on Russia: The Harriman Trip” (CBS) Transcript, July 1959
At a time when Americans thought nuclear war with the Soviet Union was a very real possibility, they were understandably eager to learn more about the country and its leader. In 1959, Craig Fisher was Assistant Producer for an interview with W. Averell Harriman, a former American Ambassador to the Soviet Union who visited the country for six weeks that summer and talked extensively with Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He was the last high level Westerner to talk with Khrushchev before an important round of East-West negotiations in Geneva. Although he had no official status during the trip, he reported to the State Department, Vice President Nixon, and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. CBS News correspondents asked Harriman questions about what he learned during his trip and his opinions on relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Harriman expresses his desire to see Khrushchev visit the United States for a summit with President Eisenhower so he could learn of the “strength of our democracy”–a suggestion that was enacted a few months later. He also gives his opinions on the difficulty of coming to an agreement about the fate of East and West Berlin and stated his belief that while the standard of living in the Soviet Union was “far below” that achieved by Americans, conditions had improved in the last few years. He finds it notable for instance (in a comment that is also revealing of gender relations of the 1950s), that Soviet women are now wearing lipstick and “beginning to get beauty conscious.” Harriman was optimistic about avoiding a war with the Soviets, but was afraid that “if we are not careful we’ll find the Communists’ bloc [has] become so strong that we will get into a position where a war may become inevitable.”
3. Troubled Teens (CBS), 1960
While it has become cliche to bemoan “teenagers these days,” during the 1950-60s the nation was convinced that there was a real crisis involving America’s youth. Troubled Teens, a CBS program Fisher worked on in 1960, documents these anxieties. As a result of the post-World War II baby boom, there were more young people than ever before, and the era’s economic prosperity meant that for the first time a majority of the nation’s youth were completing high school rather than dropping out to join the workforce. These newly minted “teenagers” (a word that did not come into being until the early 1940s), enjoyed an unprecedented degree of independence that frightened the adults in their lives. A nostalgic person might idealize those teenagers as enjoying the freedom of hot rods, bobby socks, and rock ’n’ roll, but their parents imagined epidemics of crime and teen pregnancy. In the introduction to Troubled Teens, the host states that many adults are “frightened” by teenagers and the majority believe that “something is wrong” with them. The program explores the challenges that teenagers faced from the perspective of the teens themselves, while also providing the commentary of the parents and high school guidance counselors that struggled to understand them.
4. Seventy Hours and Thirty Minutes (NBC), November 1963
Seventy Hours and Thirty Minutes is a minute-by-minute log of what the nation saw and heard on NBC in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. On November 22, 1963, starting at 1:53 pm EST, all available resources of NBC News were employed to covering the aftermath of the shooting in Dallas, including Fisher. The book recreates what it was like to be glued to the television as the events of the assassination and the capture of Lee Harvey Oswald unfolded in real time. Although it condenses what would otherwise fill over a thousand pages, the introduction to the 152 page book states that “no attempt was made to polish prose or to amend those errors of fact which inevitably occur in the early stages of reporting an event.” It includes, for instance, the hasty announcement from an NBC newsman that misidentified the killer of Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, as Jack Lobe rather than Jack Ruby.
5. Script for the Civil Rights Bill Special (NBC), July 1964
On July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was intended to ban discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. It called for ending segregation in education and public accommodations like hotels, restaurants, and theaters, and it also mandated equality in voting rights and employment opportunities. Although it did not end discrimination completely, and additional legislation would be needed to strengthen it, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was rightly celebrated as a major accomplishment of the civil rights movement. Fisher’s papers include a television special that was aired after the signing of the bill, which is one way to examine how the law was understood by society at the time. For instance, it is interesting to note that at the start of the program Bill Scherer praises the legislation for the ways it will improve life for “20 million Americans who happened to be colored,” while also noting that it will “have an equally far-reaching affect on the habits and attitudes of an even greater number of white Americans.” The act, he says, “will be argued and fought over for years to come.” The program goes through each part of the Civil Rights Act and explains its historical context and expected impact.
Tracee Haupt is a Special Collections and University Archives graduate assistant in Access Services, where she assists with digitization projects, outreach, and processing new collections. She will graduate from the University of Maryland with an MA in American History, an MLIS with a specialization in Archives and Digital Curation, and a certificate in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture.