Most folks from my generation seem to agree that the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was an almost idyllic time to grow up in America. Polio had finally been conquered, jobs were relatively plentiful, inflation was low, kids who wanted to go to college could actually afford to get a degree without hocking their future before they even entered the workforce. In Easton and Redding, most of our moms were home to greet us when we returned from school, calming us down and plying us with fresh baked cookies if we had suffered a bad day. Our dads could usually attend our Saturday sporting events and almost no one had to work on Sundays. All- in-all, life in America wasn’t bad at all.
There was, however, that 800-pound gorilla in the room that we constantly worried might suddenly become agitated and then turn our perfect little world topsy-turvy. His name was Mister A-Bomb.
America had opened a Pandora’s Box in August of 1945 when it unleashed the first nuclear bomb in an effort to hasten the end of the Second World War. They had hoped that one bomb would convince the Japanese to surrender. Instead, it took two. The world can debate ad-infinitum whether that decision was justified and whether it was worth the cost in civilian lives. The awful truth is that someone was going to do it first, and wars and power plays would take on a new look after it occurred. Fear of annihilation would become a powerful weapon in and of itself.
As happy and content as America’s youth was feeling in the late 1950’s, the fear of nuclear extinction was always there, and it was real. Some wealthier families constructed bomb shelters in their back yards. Those buildings in our cities with large, well-fortified basements were clearly marked as “Fall Out Shelters.” Every school kid in America can remember the ridiculous “Duck and Cover” drills – like we would live another 30 seconds during an actual nuclear attack by hiding under our half-inch laminated plywood desks.
The Cold War began almost as soon as the Second World War came to a close. It was Democracy versus Communism. The so-called Free World led by the United States versus uneasy alliance between the Russians and the Chinese. Nuclear testing and weapons production were prolific on both sides.
The 1950’s began with shameless “Tail-gunner Joe” McCarthy making a speech in West Virginia, claiming that 205 communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department, creating a furor that catapulted the Wisconsin senator into the national headlines. Subsequently testifying before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, McCarthy proved unable to produce the name of a single “card-carrying communist” in any government agency. But his mission to pit American against American with his ludicrous claims of Americans from every walk of life colluding with the Russian and Chinese communist regimes continued unabated until the middle of the decade.
And everyone continued to build and stockpile more weapons.
The race for space was on in earnest by 1957. The Russians held the early lead with the first successful launching of a satellite and then the first successful manned orbit of the earth. It was a big deal. It really mattered. It was the talk in every office and at every cocktail party. Us versus them. The United States needed to do better, they needed to be the first to conquer space.
The U.S. and Russian competition even dominated the Olympics. The hell with the best athlete winning the competition. What really mattered was whether or not he or she was and American or a Russian.
By late 1961, the entire planet was being consumed and threatened by the competition between the world’s two largest super-powers, both with enough nuclear weapons to destroy virtually all of humanity.
Perhaps life in America wasn’t as ideal as most of us thought it was.
And then in late December of 1961, a very bright, very well thought of young woman from Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Connecticut penned an editorial for the school’s newspaper – ironically named “The Patriot.”
A Higher Loyalty
To be a patriotic American in the second half of the 20th century is to be a blindly stupid human being. It is to be an arrogant, selfish, self-centered person, full of potential hate. It is to be irrational, intolerant, unloving, and un-understanding. It is to be the self-righteous executioner of all life on earth.
Patriotism has a narrowing effect on people. It confines love to one specific area of land or to one specific set of ideals. It limits the people and type of people one may love and the philosophy one may live by. It allows an American to approve of free enterprise and capitalism but not of socialism and communism. It allows an American to love Americans but not Russians and not Communist Chinese. Patriotism is the love of one’s country to the exclusion of all others. There is no room in a patriotic American’s heart for love and concern for communists. The starving Chinese get no American grain.
And so, the narrowness of patriotism breeds selfishness and hatred and blindness. Love of nation becomes akin to love of self; it grows and grows, driving out all thought of others. The national ambitions of a patriotic nation, like the personal ambitions of a person filled with self-love, become more and more important and result in selfishness. It is the stated policy of the United States of America that it does not spend a penny on foreign aid unless the United States profits from it. And it is the stated policy of the United States of America that if the United States of America cannot have freedom, then no one can have anything, for the United States of America will blow up the earth.
Patriotism is the type of love that will permit no imperfection in the object loved. A patriotic person is wont to regard his nation as perfect. His way of life is God given truth. He is reluctant to believe that any other nation may be as great. He becomes blind to the fact that he and his nation may not always be right. A picture of perfection, however, is a bad image for anyone to have of his nation. It tends to produce confused, irrational thinking which makes him believe that, because his nation is perfect, it may do anything, and whatever it does, including the waging of war, is morally correct. Americans have become so blind that they actually believe that it is good and right that the United States bomb Russia to “protect” that perfect ultimate achievement of mankind, the American way of life.
In a patriotic person, the lack of love for the rest of mankind, which is the result of his patriotism, becomes active hatred at the slightest provocation. Threatening or aggressive acts arouse a patriotic peoples’ dormant hatred, and once aroused it grows stronger and stronger which in turn grows a greater patriotism which in turn creates greater hatred until finally this monster of hate and patriotism unleashes war and death and destruction upon the world. As Americans watch each new Russian act of aggression and are afraid, their hatred of this thing that threatens them grows and they remember the cliches which tell them what a good life they as Americans have and how much they stand to lose, and their patriotism grows and so their hatred grows and eventually this monster they’re raising will be full-grown and will turn around and devour them.
Patriotism has outlived its usefulness. It was a good thing during the period of history when small areas of land were uniting to form large nations. Then in order to create a viable federal government and to eliminate internal fighting, it was necessary to replace loyalty to the community of state with a higher loyalty, loyalty to the nation. Today, in order to create a workable world government and thus eliminate fatal warfare against the peoples of the earth, it is necessary to replace loyalty to the nation with an even higher loyalty, loyalty to the world. We need to take the next step in the long process of unification which began when families organized themselves into communities and which probably won’t end until all the worlds of the universe regard themselves as one.
Shocking is likely too mild a word to use when describing the opening paragraph of that editorial. Principal Roy Briggs would later tell those attending a January 16th meeting of the Regional Board of Education that it was “the intent of the school to put out a paper that was controversial.” It’s doubtful that anyone in attendance that night would have questioned the school’s ability to have achieved that particular goal.
That editorial had first been discussed at a closed-door meeting of the board on January 2, 1962. Two more meetings soon followed with three of the student editors questioned on January the 9th. They told the board that their editorials “were their own thinking and did not reflect nor represent the opinion of the faculty advisors or others.” There wasn’t an adult in the room that believed that to be completely true.
By the end of the first week in January the editorial had been copied and viewed by members of the Charles L. Ruman Post 160 of the American Legion. On January 16th, Commander Joseph Silhavy represented the group at the first board meeting where members of the community were given the opportunity to speak. Silhavy strongly objected to the sentiments expressed in editorial and questioned both the board and Principal Briggs about the role of the faculty advisors in reviewing works by the students prior to allowing them to proceed with publication. It was obvious from some of the ensuing discussion that there were certain members of the Board of Education who were also unhappy that the editorial had made it into print in its then current form.
A public meeting was then scheduled to be held on Tuesday, January 23rd whereby all interested citizens could express their opinions prior to the Regional Board of Education determining what if any action would follow.
The January 17th edition of the Bridgeport Post led off with the headline: “Protest Raps School Editorial as Joel Barlow Girl Assails Patriotism.” It was then off to the races as the ensuing article laid the groundwork for a sensational buildup of critical remarks prior to the public meeting on the 23rd. It was in this article that the paper identified the “V.O.” initials at the end of the editorial as belonging to Virginia Olsen, and the faculty advisor as being Guier Scott Wright, Jr. At the conclusion of the article, the paper published the entire text of Ms. Olsen’s “A Higher Loyalty.”
On the 19th, the editor of the Bridgeport Post wrote a rather scathing editorial directed at both Virginia Olsen and the school administration for not providing her better guidance in her choice of words. It was entitled “No, Virginia, It Isn’t So”, no doubt a catchy way of comparing it to the “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” editorial that had run in 1897 in the New York Sun.
On the 21st, Catherine Ellison Merillat’s Over the Easton Dam was entirely devoted to covering this controversy. Merillat was in a precarious position as her husband, Francis, was a member of the Regional Board of Education, but in the end, she sided more with public sentiment than with the board that would have to decide how to handle the crisis. Like so many others in the two towns, she too openly questioned the influence of the school paper’s advisor.
Over the next few days, the letters poured into the editor of the Bridgeport Post. They published as many as five or six of them a day and almost none were complimentary of either Virginia or the administration of the school. Some of the writers sounded exactly as Virginia had described the blind patriots in her editorial – their country, right or wrong. No need to question American motives and ideals.
One woman suggested that instead of residents paying to bring an exchange student to Barlow, that perhaps they should send Virginia to a country behind the iron curtain so that she could learn an appreciation for her country. It was suggested that members of the Barlow faculty were communist sympathizers, intent on brainwashing students like others had already done with members of the clergy. There were shades of the lingering effects of McCarthyism in many of the written comments. There was no doubt that young Virginia Olsen had struck a nerve within the community and it appeared that at least some of her observations might have been valid.
Depending on which newspaper you read the following morning, the meeting on the 23rd drew between 500 and 700 Easton and Redding residents. It lasted over 4 hours and there was a total of 13 people who spoke at some length, most criticizing both Virginia and the Barlow faculty. Civic groups such as the Easton Republican Town Committee, the Exchange Club and the American Legion had representatives that laid the blame squarely on the Regional Board of Education and the faculty of the high school for failing to better oversee what had happened before such a vitriolic editorial could have made it into print.
In the end, Principal Roy Briggs defended Virginia and took full responsibility for the fiasco while promising to make certain that students were given better oversight in the future. To his credit, he declined to promise the community faculty censorship, instead quoting Voltaire: “I may disagree entirely with everything you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The Regional Board of Education gave the school’s administration its vote of confidence and the matter was “officially” considered closed. In the days before the Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1967, we may never know exactly what happened behind closed doors when talk between members of the board wasn’t being recorded in the official minutes, but we do know that first year art teacher and faculty advisor to the paper, Guier Scott Wright Jr.’s contract was not renewed, and he moved on in June. One of the student members of the paper the year he was in charge recently said to me of Virginia’s editorial: “I seem to remember that it sounded just like what Wright was preaching at us. Ginny was such a quiet timid girl and I think easily influenced by him… At our meetings he would talk to us about how we were looking at the world through rose colored glasses and our parents & teachers were leading us down the garden path. It often felt like a brainwashing attempt by him.”
The name of the student newspaper was officially changed for subsequent editions to The Opinion & The News.
Virginia Olsen earned early acceptance to the University of Michigan in November of 1961. She was a charter member of the National Honor Society at Joel Barlow. She was one of 3 semi-finalists from Barlow for the National Merit Scholarship. On March 10, 1962 she was accepted into the Honors Program at the College of Literature, Science, and Arts at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where she completed her undergraduate studies in just 3 years before earning her Masters Degree at Indiana University the following year.