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Victory at Sea Cold War Epic Peter C. Rollins I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. Kurt Vbnnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse Five A television series like Victory at Sea may seem trivial as "history" when compared with the scholarly fifteen-volume dreadnought by Admiral Morison (on which it was based), but this academic judgment may miss the most important point for a media age. Victory at Sea received practically every major television award for which it was eligible: it won the Freedom Foundation's George Washington Medal; it was awarded an "Emmy" from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences; it received "best documentary " awards from five major trade magazines; and it received a host of "outstanding achievement" awards. Its memorable, interpretive score, rendered by the NBC orchestra, became RCA's best-selling Gold Seal Album and is still available today on compact disc at major music outlets. The series has become a permanent part of America's popular culture. Furthermore, the series has had an enduring popularity since it was first broadcast in 1952. As of 2000, Victory at Sea had been shown in excess of fourteen times in New York, twelve times in Los Angeles, and nine times in Milwaukee. This record is impressive, since the series consists of twenty-six half-hour programs. In 1961 when a ninety-minute compilation of the series was shown on television, Bob Williams of the Philadelphia Bulletin proclaimed that, "Victory at Sea is television's most prodigious achievement, and this distinction has not been surrendered." An advertising pamphlet, with an 104 I Peter C. Rollins The USS North Carolina steams toward victory. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy. eye on the bottom line, underscored this eminence in terms of dollars and cents: "Victory at Sea has knocked The Untouchables off its perch as the hottest network show of the season."The research department of NBC (owner of the series) concludes, "'Victory at Sea is a powerful attraction for men, women, and younger people in urban, suburban, and rural areas—in short, of every segment of the country's population." During the 1995 celebrations of the Allied victory in WWII, the series was rebroadcast on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and made available for sale through PBS. Such an offer seemed calculated to attract older viewers during the annual fundraising drive. Later, advertised the entire series for sale at less than one hundred dollars. Unlike Admiral Morison's official history of naval operations during WWII, the series has never been retired to the mothball fleet.1 Any serious student of American culture in the twentieth century must wonder what makes Victory at Sea such an entertaining spectacle. Could it be that the series not only recorded the history of naval operations in World War II on film, but also supplied a convincing interpretation of the larger significance of the war? Admiral Morison's naval history may ultimately be the real history, but the reel messages of Victory at Sea continue to affect Victory at Sea | 105 attitudes held by millions ofAmericans toward the character and utility ofwar, the place of the military in our society, and America's international mission. Yet there are limitations to the image of war presented by Victory at Sea. The series certainly exhibited cinematic inventiveness and the many awards were deserved by the creators Henry Salomon (producer), M. Clay Adams (director), Richard Rodgers (musical themes), Robert Russell Bennett (musical score and direction), and Isaac Kleinerman (film editing). In 1953, when the U.S. Navy awarded Distinguished Service Medals to Henry Salomon, Richard Rodgers, and Robert W. Sarnoff, it was not because these men deserved to be rewarded for a successful publicity campaign. Such an interpretation of their efforts would be unimaginative and cynical. There is a more useful way to approach the limitations of this series: it can be examined as an historical document shaped by the currents of opinion in the era in which it was conceived and produced. Today, we see things differently because we are outside the dark penumbra that passed over the American landscape in the 1950s. What seemed so right then now strikes us as dangerously—even fatally —narrow. Yet while today's educators are trying to wipe the slate clean, a popular series like Victory at Sea continues to inscribe on the popular...


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