icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Two NRAs

Hubby and I like to watch old movies on TCM, and at the beginning of one from 1934, there was an emblem featuring the letters “NRA.” I recognized it in its context, and wondered how many other viewers would. Too many today probably would think that the National Rifle Association was active already back in the days of black-and-white movies -- but during the Great Depression of the 1930s, NRA stood for the National Recovery Act, or perhaps the agency that carried out the law’s purposes, National Recovery Administration. Its logo was a blue eagle stylized to reflect modern industrialism, and the eagle usually was accompanied by the NRA slogan, “We Do Our Part.”

It was part of the New Deal, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s huge reform of the economy to protect consumers and workers from the rapacious capitalism that caused Wall Street to crash, sending businesses into bankruptcy and causing widespread unemployment. Congress passed the National Recovery Act in 1933, soon after Democrats won control of the White House and Congress in the historic 1932 election. The law assured bargaining rights for unions, encouraged businesses to adopt fair prices and practices, and created mechanisms for business and labor to work together on old problems such as the length of the workday. Just so you know, a 56-hour work week was standard then.

Businesses who joined in this effort proudly displayed the NRA eagle – and that was why the symbol was at the beginning of this 1934 movie, as most of Hollywood supported Roosevelt. The era’s Supreme Court was much more conservative than the executive and legislative branches, however, and the court ruled the act unconstitutional in 1935. Other parts of the New Deal nonetheless achieved the goals intended by Congress, and although this particular letter of the law was gone, its spirit very much remained. And I’ve always loved the cooperative nature of the slogan, “We Do Our Part.”

By the way, you could do worse than watch old films on TCM. That’s Turner Classic Movies; it’s free (at least with our cable service) and uninterrupted by commercials other than their own. Movies made in the era from 1930 to 1960 show the evolution of cinematography, but don’t have today’s annoyingly loud special effects, and most of all, they develop characters and plots and usually raise ethical questions. Make some popcorn and settle in. And if you missed “I Remember Mama” on Mother’s Day, find it.


Thinking “NRA” made me think about “CIA.” It’s in the news now that the Senate must confirm or reject a new director, Gina Haspel. It makes me nervous when the Trump administration nominates anyone to anything, but that aside, there are some aspects to this discussion, especially about torture, that need expansion. The CIA, or Central Intelligence Agency, began after World War II as the refinement of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the nation’s first espionage agency. We used spies in earlier wars, but they had no formal employing agency, and their services ended when the war ended.

The OSS began during WWII, and it did important and dangerous work behind enemy lines, rescuing many people from fascists on both the Asian and European fronts. Its agents created complex disguises for themselves so that they could work behind the scenes to learn enemy plans. Some were women, and women certainly played a strong role in creating false identities. If they made mistakes, that could be fatal. The best illustration I know is the case of a woman who unknowingly sewed buttons incorrectly. An agent whose shirt buttons were in the English parallel style was pretending to be a Frenchman, whose buttons would have been done in a cross-stitch. Germans in occupied France executed him.

Most Americans did not know of the existence of the OSS, and as late as 1960, many thought America was too high-minded to engage in espionage. I still was in high school when CIA pilot Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union while taking pictures of their military installations. President Eisenhower pretended for a long time that this was purely an accident, that he was an innocent pilot who somehow got lost. When the truth finally was disclosed, I and many others of my generation lost a great deal of other faith in government.

Espionage offices exploded like popcorn in the 1950s and 1960s. When Hubby was in the semi-secret Army Security Agency in the late 1960s, a whole passel of military and so-called civilian organizations worked as spies – so many tens of thousands of people that, especially at Congressional budget time, it sometimes seemed that they spent more time in internal turf wars than in their alleged mission. Which may have been a good thing, as shown by the Central Intelligence Agency’s very unintelligent 1963 attack on Cuba. Better they should have stayed home. And better that Congress would have spent our tax money on things other than these out-of-control adventurers.

So this past – and much more -- surges back to me now that Gina Haskell is interrogated about waterboarding, as if she personally invented torture. I’m sorry, but we have used torture ever since we lost our innocence in the Cold War. We really were the good guys in WWII -- and won it without using torture -- but in its aftermath, we emulated the long practices of European monarchs and dictators. Without any true national discussion, we moved on from Eastern Europe to Asia, with Korea in the 1950s and Vietnam in the l960s and 1970s. Although we often called on our South Vietnamese allies to do the dirty work, we certainly knew about torture. And it was from our airplanes that prisoners of war were thrown to their deaths.

The pattern continued in the 1980s, as Oliver North (a mere lieutenant colonel, not even a full colonel, let alone a general) ran secret wars in Central America out of Reagan’s White House basement. Agents there and elsewhere used torture techniques such as attaching electric wires to genitals. Countless dollars were spent on covert activities in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and more; countless Latin American lives were lost so that Oliver North and his buddies could play their sadistic games. I could continue with the Middle East and Guantanamo and more dismaying candor, but I won’t. I just want you to understand that the new jargon excusing brutality as “enhanced interrogation” truly minimalizes what has gone on in our name. And still does.

So why is torture becoming a big question now? Partly because we are more ethical people, and we finally have the courage to question authority. We have elected more women and other sane senators, and agencies such as Amnesty International also have arisen to raise uncomfortable questions. But I suspect, too, that torture is getting new attention because the Senate is being asked to confirm the first woman as head of the CIA -- and for a woman to even know of these things, let alone order them, is a shock to traditionalists.

I’m glad I don’t have to vote. If I did, I’d probably conclude that Gina Haspel won’t be any worse than her male predecessors. She may be better, and her long experience with the agency means she knows where the bodies are buried. Literally, unfortunately.

Quick Oddity

Does anyone remember “Babbitt?” When I was in college, everyone – including the STEM guys – had to take humanities, and we all read Sinclair Lewis’ classic novel Babbitt (1922). We cool intellectual types used “Babbitt” as an insult: He was an empty-headed, parochial realtor with narrow materialistic goals, the chief of which was boosting his town and thereby his fortune. Very similar to The Current Occupant.
Sinclair Lewis, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, was born in a small town in Minnesota, so I was surprised when I realized that there actually was a historic Minnesota family named Babbitt. I had written of this family back in 1997, but never put the two together – and I still don’t know if Sinclair Lewis was aware of the real Babbitts. The probability is that he did not know. As an adult, he satirized the Heartland from the safety of New York City, where his brilliant wife regularly rescued him from alcoholism and debt. Look her up: Dorothy Thompson.

I wrote about the actual Babbitt family back in my 1997 book, Milestones. I remember finding this item in the wonderful archives of the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. I used present tense for that book of history and want to share it as I wrote it:

1860 – Eliza Winston, a Mississippi slave who has accompanied her owner to Minneapolis, sues for her freedom on the grounds that Minnesota is a free state. She is supported by abolitionists, and in contradiction of a US Supreme Court ruling and of the federal Fugitive Slave Law, a Minnesota court grants her emancipation.

Not everyone in the state is an abolitionist, however, and the house in which Winston hides is attacked. Journalist Jane Grey Swisshelm writes that a “howling mob” threatens the Babbitt family home from “midnight ‘til morning.” While Mr. Babbitt and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Messer, defend the house with pistol and club, Mrs. Babbitt escapes “through a back cellar” and runs for the sheriff – despite being seven months pregnant.

“Eliza Winston,” Swisshelm adds, goes by “underground railroad to Canada, because Minnesota…could not or would not defend the freedom of one declared free by the courts.”

It’s a measure of how times change – and how they stay the same.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author