The name of the American poet and short story writer Stephen Vincent Benét (1898-1943) should be known to all Public Diplomacy practitioners. When war came, he tirelessly applied his gifts to the American cause, so ardently that he died from overwork in 1943.
A giant in American letters in the late 1920s and the 1930s, Benet’s long narrative poem, John Brown’s Body, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1929, and he received the O. Henry Award for the best American short story three times — in 1932, 1936, and 1940. His stories and poems were published in all the leading magazines of the day, reached additional readers in Book of the Month Club editions, and were included in high school literature textbooks.
In the 1930s, Benét was increasingly preoccupied by the specter of fascism and totalitarianism. His premonitions can be traced in a series of poems — “Litany for Dictatorships,” “Ode to Austrian Socialists,” “Nightmare at Noon” – and dark stories that focused on the end of civilizations. (His most remembered story, “By the Waters of Babylon,” later inspired “Planet of the Apes” and other science fiction films.) When Churchill spoke, in 1940, of a “new dark age,” he was, like Benét, expressing the same fear for civilization.
After the war began in Europe, Benét gave himself over to what he called “propaganda work,” which continued until his death from exhaustion in 1943. Perhaps most influential were his radio scripts, most written under the auspices of the Council for Democracy. Gathered together, they were published in 1945 as We Stand United and Other Radio Scripts by Farrar and Rinehart.
Among literary forms, the radio script has largely passed into history, but in the 1930s and 1940s they were significant works. A good script could reach millions, and compelling radio voices could add emotion in a way the printed page could not.
We Stand United included one “declaration”; holiday programs for Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas; and six scripts in a “Dear Adolph” series. Another script, “They Burned the Books,” brought alive the violence being done to humane thought in Europe. “The Undefended Border” celebrated peace and solidarity between the United States and Canada stemming from the Rush-Bagot Treaty that disarmed the Great Lakes. “The Army” was a paean to the growth, power, and democratic character of the armed forces. Finally, the volume included “Toward the Century of Modern Man – Prayer” which was read by President Roosevelt on Flag Day, 1942.
The notes for each script included the date of broadcast and the names of those stars who read Benét’s words on the air. Among them were Raymond Massey, Melvyn Douglas, James Cagney, Helen Hayes, William Holden, Brian Donlevy, Otto Preminger, Charles Boyer, Peter Lorre, and Tyrone Power.
The scripts open windows on how Benet viewed the American past and the wartime present, and a reader can discern themes expressed in the American future. There’s an interesting mix of old values and New Deal thought. They include some progressive scorn for those who think their money and social standing should exempt them from shared sacrifice.
Seventy years later, careful readers will notice how the scripts reflected the times. They feature a diversity of ethnic and religious characters — a diversity celebrated in books and movies after the war – and Benet’s words surely helped mainstream acceptance of immigrants and their children as Americans while promoting a healthy interfaith conscience.
However, they reflect the times in giving scant visibility to African-Americans. When one asks about “my ancient wrong” – “What of my people, bowed in darkness still?” — Benét’s reply is too meliorist. While Benet also saluted the women working in the factories, ferrying aircraft, and serving in uniform, most of the women heard in the scripts are housewives and mothers.
To this reader, Benét really hit his stride in the “Dear Adolph” series of six programs broadcast in the summer of 1942. Each program was a “letter from” — a farmer, businessman, working man, housewife and mother, soldier, and foreign-born American. There are fine evocations of regions and climates. Benét’s ear for colloquial speech is evident. The scripts smoothly integrated facts and statistics on the war effort. The six “letters” expressed American resolve and might in six vernaculars.
In the introduction to the volume, Norman Rosten wrote that the scripts “tell us in another way what [Benét] has always told us: that as a nation we are strong, that our ancestors have given us a heritage as deep as the bone and we have fought for it and will fight again. Benét was never ashamed of his love for America, even in times when it was unfashionable to love one’s country. To the cynics and unbelievers America has been merely a symbol, either great or gaudy. To Benét it has been the bread and water, the soil and air of life, a land of promise always.”
When Americans think about division rather than unity, doubt the nation’s progress because of its many sins, and question whether the American role in the world is positive, the doctor recommends some fresh air. Reading Stephen Vincent Benét can be invigorating.
(This essay first appeared on the Public Diplomacy Council website on October 19, 2015. It includes some minor revisions.)
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.