The Ella Leffland novel “Rumors of Peace” is on the surface a work discussing the development of young Suse Hansen during the Second World War. The events of the war and the people surrounding Suse factor into her metamorphosis from a naive child to a knowledgeable young child. This novel can be interpreted well below the surface plot of a child’s development. Several movements in Suse’s life and the course of the war help us examine key elements of modern political society in America. Three key ideas are prevalent throughout this book: the role of media in shaping public opinion, views of bureaucracy by the public, and the violations of civil rights caused by ignorance and fear by the American public. I will illustrate these underlying points with events and aspects covered in the novel.
The war in the eyes of the town of Mendoza truly broke out when the first announcements of the Pearl Harbor tragedy came across the radio and, later, the headlines of the town paper. These people were reliant totally on what they heard from the radio and read in the news and, therefore, the media was the middleman between the war and the reactions of the public in Mendoza in the United States. Fear and shock struck many as the announcement of the attack occurred, with such incidents as old Hackman running through the forest in military regalia, the first moment the war had truly reached Suse.
Radio media was the quickest and most effective manner to reach the people of Mendoza and was mainly the source of emergency news, such as alerting the public if there was potential for bombing or aerial attacks by the Japanese. This constant fear of attack, coupled with the fact that many knew little of the enemy, caused widespread panic and hysteria as well as paranoia. The radio would be the beacon of hope or despair for the people of Mendoza, on nearly all the time in case of attacks or news from the front. Families would draw close to the radio at night to listen to programs relating to the war.
The print media was probably more dubious as a means of local news of the war effort in Mendoza as well as news from town officials on how to help defend against the Japanese. Sheriff O’Toole asked the townspeople to be on the lookout for people who were strangers to the town or may be suspicious looking. Suse, impressionable and newly interested in the war effort, followed this request and noted any “suspicious” behavior she had seen. Suse went as far as writing a note to the sheriff stating that her former teacher Miss Bonder was not doing her best to protect the children during air raid drills and that junior high school herded the children into the hall during drills. Suse would follow the papers and articles in Life magazine in order to justify her hatred of the Japanese and her ever-growing interest in war. A picture of a dead Japanese soldier was the epitome of Suse’s anger, drawing out the somewhat depraved immigration of Suse into the fore.
The issue brought about by these events is the need for responsible reporting during times of crisis and distress. The radio media was perhaps guilt free in this respect, though the need for code names and constant bulletins were probably not necessary. The print media, however, was guilty of a type of early sensationalism that is commonplace today. Strewn across the Mendoza papers were headlines with exclamation points that were meant to rouse the spirit of the public. The news was not necessarily new every time it came out; several times, headlines stated that actions were continuing or nothing new had occurred since the day before. While this may seem like something small now, it is necessary that the media be responsible and non-partisan in its reports. We can see that during times of war, the public relies heavily on supposedly professional and non-judgmental to give us the facts, not charged patriotism. The media should be a service to the public that presents facts, not opinion and fanfare.
One modern example of over-reaction by the media is the announcement that Harry Truman lost his presidential election in 1948, well before the election was over and reliant on information from polls two weeks before the election. Headlines in the Chicago Tribune trumpeted Truman’s defeats, not relying on updated information or journalistic integrity. This problem pervades media today, just as recently as the 2000 presidential election when the major television networks jumped the gun in announcing Al Gore as the winner in several states, including Florida. A misguided media can be dangerous in leading astray the public from facts and harmful in allowing for a well-informed democracy.
During several occasions in “Rumors,” Suse expresses opinions on the bureaucracy that controls all aspects of the government. The first opinion, and a more common one at present, is a disdain for bureaucracy as disconnected from the emotions of the public. This view comes about because of the surrender discussion occurring at Lisbon between the Allies and Italy. Suse’s view of unconditional and total surrender was disappointed by the more professional, cordial manner in which the concession talks had occurred. Instead of a general waving a white flag in a deadly battlefield, these emissaries had sat at a large table in an elegant atmosphere and had more low-key discussions about conditions of surrender. Suse wonders in this same thought why war was waged if in the end all those lives were for not and the leaders could put aside such tragedy and talk as colleagues.
The opposing view that would occur later in the novel, with a vastly different Suse Hansen, was the view of hope for a strong world bureaucracy. This view was fueled by her attendance of the first United Nations meeting in San Francisco in 1945. Suse was not familiar with the world leaders that would attend the meeting as well as a broader view of what the war was about from her personal studies. At the conference, Suse wrote down several portions of the speeches given by the world leaders, one such quote being “We do not expect to change human nature. All we need to do is draw out the very best that is in it.” This one quote represents the view that Suse now held: that this United Nations was more than just a bunch of cool handed bureaucrats, but compassionate leaders who were searching for means to fulfill the “lofty phrases and great promises” made from the last war.
These two very different viewpoints can be seen today in the public view of bureaucracy. The tendency toward fearing the bureaucracy and its supposed lack of concern for those on the “front line” is typically held by conservatives, who wanted limited government. These ideas can even be seen among the founding fathers, who in the end produced a constitution that attempted to scale back government and give more power to the states. This fear was well founded at the time the Articles of Confederation were established because of the unfair manner in which monarchies ruled their periphery territories. However, Suse’s belief that the surrender process, and more generally bureaucracy, should be one that reflected the heat of battle is somewhat misguided and naive. While it may seem that these discussions were callous and disconnected from the actual war, it should be noted that these discussions would soon have become raucous and chaotic if all the parties involved invoking the patriotism of their respective nations. Decorum and professionalism are the necessary tools of the diplomat in order to end war, though to the public it may seem that the war was of little use.
The other view, one of hope for stronger government, is one typically held by those on the liberal end of the political spectrum. Stronger government, in the liberal point of view, provides better service and security for the nation and still allows for the flourishing of individual liberties. This view can be seen by the early Federalists, who mostly felt that a strong executive and national government would protect the public from itself, as was not the case in the previously mentioned Articles. Alexander Hamilton epitomizes this view in Federalist No. 70, calling for a more “energized” president. Suse’s attendance and focus on the United Nations meeting in San Francisco can be seen as the metamorphosis that Suse goes through in this novel. By this historic point, Suse has become a self-admitted socialist, a far cry from the hatred filled youngster at the beginning of the war. Her feelings of hope for the work of the United Nations represents the hope of many who feel that stronger government action needs to be taken, especially as a counter measure to human error.
One issue that was not addressed significantly in this book but could be seen as a major issue at that point in history as well as the present is the issue of civil rights violations during the war. More specifically, the internment of Japanese Americans can be seen as suspect at best considering many of these citizens had lived in the West for nearly a century. Despite this fact, President Roosevelt created the internment camps to protect national security and relax the fears of sabotage by the public. Not until after the war were the errors on these ways, among other civil rights violations, corrected in any way. Mr. Nagai, the town florist in Mendoza, was a victim of such discrimination despite his presence in the town for many years. Such discrimination and clear violations of rights continued practically until the 1970s and in many ways continue to this day outside of the law.
Suse’s reaction to the release of some of the interned Japanese shows the ignorant feelings of the American public at the time. Why were the Germans and Italians let go so easily? Obviously, it relates to the immediacy of the attack on Pearl Harbor and upon physical differences between the Europeans and the Japanese. Had the Japanese Americans looked as the Europeans, very few people would have been able to discriminate against them unless they knew the family history of each citizen. This is also the reason why African Americans and Native Americans, among other non-Europeans, can be so easily discriminated against. The world has never been and arguably will never be color blind, especially not in America where there has been such a notorious distinction in history for discrimination. This pessimistic feeling by some brings up debates on affirmative action, education policy, and many related issues that will remain at the fore in American politics for many years ahead because resolution is a very difficult proposition.
The issues of media’s role in public opinion, civil rights, and views on bureaucracy are very much alive in our modern American society. Media has become widespread and typically panders to the wants, not necessarily the needs, of its viewers. Instead of providing information, the media is typically content to give brief amounts of information that is typically geared toward consumerism and the materialistic wants of the public. The view of bureaucracy that exists today is one that leans toward the need to decentralize the national government, but also the view is hypocritical. People want more services and better services but they don’t want to pay taxes or put much effort into the political process. This is a shame and probably will continue to occur for years to come until a major difficulty or issue comes to the public that cannot be resolved by quick fixes or by letting the next generate handle these problems. Lastly, the issue of civil rights is most definitely a part of our American society. Affirmative action policies present the political battleground between correcting the wrongs of the past and maintaining our aggressive individualism for the future. These three things can be seen by outsiders as somewhat simple to solve but the best and the worst thing about America is that everyone can have their voice heard in one way or another. These voices tend to clash, not compromise, and present further problems down the road. In the end, the greatness of America relies on our ability to look at the greater good of the nation, and not of ourselves. We have to develop from naive followers into keen politically active leaders, much like Suse in “Rumors of Peace.”