The terror and suspense of anti-Communist adult programming was an integral part of children's TV throughout the 1950s. In the late weekday afternoons and on Saturday mornings, American young stern were treated to an array of H-bomb scares, mad Red scientists, plots to rule the world, and humble refugees seeking a better life in the Free World.
Perhaps the most memorable propagandistic image from this type of entertainment was that of Superman—arms akimbo, with the American flag flowing behind him, standing resolutely as an announcer energetically proclaimed that this flying man was a champion of "truth, justice, and the American way." The Adventures of Superman did not usually exploit espionage or similar Cold War themes. Thus, the opening scene is all the more striking as a generalized political posture, not directly related to the story lines in most Superman episodes.
More thoroughly Cold War in its orientation was Captain Midnight, later syndicated as Jet Jackson—Flying Commando. Drawn from a juvenile radio serial popular in the 1940s, this series spotlighted Captain Midnight as the commander of the Secret Squadron. This was a clandestine group dedicated to the establishment of justice around the world. It was also an organization with which boys and girls in the audience were encouraged to identify and even join. In the weekly process of rectifying injustice, Captain Midnight occasionally would make contact with a Secret Squadron member in a foreign country. Usually that member was a youngster.
Captain Midnight was a prepossessing hero. He flew a jet plane, conducted research in a mountaintop laboratory, and was a strong and handsome man. He was the perfect model for the United States at midcentury—an amalgam of technology, scientific investigation, and physical prowess. And he was a patriot deeply involved on the American side of the Cold War.
The captain was not averse to flying directly into international political issues. Well over half the 39 episodes in the series were intimately involved with enemy agents, national defense, military technology, and despots plotting to rule the world. In the episode entitled "Isle of Mystery," for example, Captain Midnight and his sidekick investigated the queen of the island of Luana, who had suddenly changed her mind about allowing the U.S. government to use her homeland as a test site for the atomic bomb. In "Trapped Behind Bars," he was placed in a state prison to thwart an unexpected uprising—a riot instigated by foreign agents trying to create unfavorable world publicity for the United States.
One of his most frustrating assignments occurred in "Operation Failure." Here Midnight jetted behind the Iron Curtain to rescue Zabor, leader of the people's underground in Balkavia. The mission was successful, but Zabor decided, while flying to freedom in the West, that he could do more for his people by staying in his own country. Midnight returned to Balkavian airspace and the selfless freedom fighter parachuted back to his true responsibility.
If children liked their national enemies vile, The Atom Squad in mid-1953 offered great satisfaction. This serialized weekday program presented the exploits of three government agents who thwarted plots by Communists and others. Until the Atom Squad broke up the scheme, the Russians had financed an American traitor who constructed an underground magnet to disrupt American shipping. The squad also foiled an ex-Nazi who tried to flood the United States by manipulating the weather. This heroic band of patriots even infiltrated the Kremlin to contact the only man who could stop the Russians from using a deadly secret weapon.
Less diabolical, but still stereotyped, were the Communist spies who populated the cartoon series Rocky and His Friends. From 1959 until 1961—and then in countless reruns—children were amused by the antics of Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, and the militaristic Fearless Leader. Complete with East European accents, these were bomb-throwing Red provocateurs who were endearingly hilarious. Nonetheless, within the animated sinister plots the message was clear: Russian men and women were evil, and they were out to destroy the American way of life. Only the lovable flying squirrel, Rocky, and his dimwitted pal, Bullwinkle the Moose, two all-American types, could save the day.
The most consistent expression of anti-Communist, militaristic values in children's programming occurred in adventure series set in outer space. These series flourished in the first half of the 1950s, as Table 6 demonstrates. While they were in vogue, the science fiction programs plunged American youngsters directly into the political and philosophical struggles of the Cold War.
|Table 6: Children's Science Fiction Programs, Early 1950s|
|Captain Video and His Video Rangers||1949-57|
|Tom Corbett, Space Cadet||1951-55|
|Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers||1953-54|
|Rocky Jones, Space Ranger||1954-55|
|Commando Cody—Sky Marshal of the Universe||1955|
Although affiliated with futuristic intergalactic organizations like the United Planets or the Solar Alliance, the stalwarts of these shows were little more than Americans operating at some time in the future. On Tom Corbett, Space Cadet the setting was the Commonwealth of Earth in 2350 Young Tom Corbett was a cadet at the Space Academy, U.S.A. Here he was training to join the Solar Guard, an interplanetary police force ensuring peace within the Solar Alliance of Earth, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter.
On Rocky Jones, Space Ranger the setting was the twenty-first century but the function was equally militaristic and identifiable—to protect the solar system against interplanetary evil.
The contemporary political relevance of such programming was explicit in the oaths of allegiance associated with many shows. When a youngster became a Space Cadet on Space Patrol, he or she pledged, among other things, to "uphold and support the articles of government of the United Planets, and that I will defend the rights of free men against all enemies; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the principles of right, goodness, and justice." On Captain Video children who joined Captain Video's club, the Video Rangers, took an oath of loyalty in similarly political terms: "We, as Official Video Rangers, hereby promise to abide by the Ranger Code and to support forever the cause of Freedom, Truth, and Justice throughout the universe."
The most comprehensive pledge, however, was that taken by youngsters joining the Junior Rocket Rangers club established for Rod Brown and the Rocket Rangers. Although Brown operated on Omega Base, protecting Earth in the twenty-second century, his oath was a secularized Ten Commandments reflecting American politics in the early 1950s.
On my Honor as a Rocket Ranger, I pledge that:
I shall always chart my course according to the Constitution
of the United States of America.
I shall never cross orbits with the Rights and Beliefs of others.
I shall blast at full space-speed to protect the Weak and Innocent.
I shall stay out of collision orbit with the laws of my State and Community.
I shall cruise in parallel orbit with my Parents and Teachers.
I shall not roar my rockets unwisely, and shall be Courteous at all times.
I shall keep my gyros steady and reactors burning by being Industrious and Thrifty.
I shall keep my scanner tuned to Learning and remain coupled to my studies.
I shall keep my mind out of freefall by being mentally alert.
I shall blast the meteors from the paths of other people
by being Kind and Considerate.
Within the plots of these space series, youngsters were encountered to the moral legitimacy of battling against aggression and tyranny wherever they were encountered. Typically, on Commando Cody—Sky Marshal of the Universe, it was a battle, in August 1955, against the diabolical dictator who had found on Saturn a new element that enabled him to drop germ capsules onto Earth through the cosmic dust blanket. On Flash Gordon—whether it was the half-hour series syndicated in 1953, or the many episodes of the movie serials from the 1930s—the enemies were many, the most infamous being Ming the Merciless, an outer-space version of an Oriental despot complete with Fu Manchu beard. And on Buck Rogers—whether in old theatrical serials starring Buster Crabbe, or in the short-lived ABC series—it was protecting Earth in the twenty-fifth century, as Buck did in June 1950, from the threat of the "Slaves of the Master Mind."
For eight years Captain Video rescued innocent people from all galaxies and saved moons and planets from evil men with un-American names like Vazarion, Marcus Gayo, Mook the Moon Man, Heng Foo Seng, and Kul of Eos. Captain Video even bested diabolical women, as in May 1954, when he confronted the evil female ruler of Nemos, who sought to conquer the universe. There was no way the captain could lose, however, for he was introduced each time as the epitome of political virtue:
Captain Video! Master of Space! Hero of Science! Captain of the Video Rangers! Operating from his secret mountain headquarters on the planet Earth, Captain Video rallies men of goodwill and leads them against the forces of evil everywhere! As he rockets from planet to planet, let us follow the champion of Justice, Truth, and Freedom throughout the universe!
Such clashes between hero and tyrant were not meaningless excursions in entertainment. They were value-laden fairy tales delivered with impact. Most dramatically, they pitted the "American" do-gooder against the forces of destruction. These may have been formulaic confrontations, but for young viewers they offered symbolic meaning. They were stylized Cold War fantasies in which the champions of democracy triumphed over totalitarianism. Certainly not every show in these series treated dictatorial plots, but the theme of victory over despotism permeated the programs.