Mar 18 2012: Thirty-Seven Colour Photographs Of America from National Geographic Magazine (1948)

The final gallery culled from the pages of National Geographic in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War features America itself, turning the camera on its own idiosyncrasies and people. Interestingly, the modernity in images from food safety and product testing laboratories is placed in contrast to folksier views of 4-H club participants in New England canning preserves, husking corn and generating cash from farmyard pets, or a vineyard’s old timer tying back vines with a bristling moustache of the sort more usually seen in nostalgic Westerns on TV. In some ways, there are certain threads in this self-presentation that stand in contrast to America’s neo-liberal present: this is a nation seen in recovery from the Great Depression, and much of what is here embodies the values of both Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ and the small-town conservatism of the Eisenhower era. There’s an aura of plenty of the kind that had already begun to entrance The Independent Group in England, as it began to crystallise during the later 1940s and early 1950s, but without the conscious consumerism and modernist leanings that would grow in importance over the next twenty years.

Above all, perhaps, this is an America staking its claim to a history, to traditions and set of values that would help to sell its culture on the international stage, through the various Marshall Plans and other economic levers that were pulled in Europe and elsewhere to offset the potential spread of Communist and socialist ideas after 1945: ironically, of course, the preventative measures were themselves broadly social-democratic and collective in nature, and perhaps one of the key points made by economists of the time, notably JM Keynes and JK Galbraith, was that only by inoculating itself with measures like these could earlier forms of divisive and unstable free market capitalism be reformed into some degree of compatibility with decent standards of living for a majority of ordinary people. In this moment, just before the mass advent of television, these pictures sell us an America where individuals operate socially, pooling their time and efforts for a greater good: those boys studying surveying in Maryland are said to be motivated by a desire to help prevent the kinds of soil erosion that had earlier created the dustbowls of the Mid-West.

Perhaps the biggest error of judgement American and European populations have made since the mid-1970s – a misjudgement enforced with accelerating momentum after the fall of Communism in 1989 – is that it was Capitalism itself that proved the better, more resilient system than Communism. In truth, it seems far more likely that it was the reforms of Capitalism implemented after the Second World War that tempered its worst effects and rendered it functional, just as the reforms attempted to Communism in countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland during the 1960s briefly promised to render that system, too, more viable. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 ended that promising chapter, and probably marked the beginnings of the stagnation and decline that ended in 1989: that Capitalist countries have not learned that lesson, and began eroding the reforms of the 1940s from around 1970 onwards, has resulted in a similar sense of stagnation, prioritisation of ideology over pragmatism, repression of opposed systems and general decline in living standards and quality of life for growing numbers of people.

With inequality now at a high unseen since the crash of the 1920s that precipitated the depression and much that followed, and social instability growing globally in a way last seen in the 1930s, it seems worth looking again at what actually happened during those early years of the Cold War to reverse those trends. Some lessons, it seems, will struggle to be learned even when their effects are plainly visible in the very recent past, and their basics are simple in the extreme.

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