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146 4 The Free­ dom ­ Train’s Narrow-Gauge Ic­ o­ nog­ ra­ phy More im­ por­ tant to the world than the atom bomb, is this con­ cep­ tion of free­ dom for the in­ di­ vid­ ual. Harry S. Tru­ man, at ded­ i­ ca­ tion of the Free­ dom Train, quoted in H. Wal­ ton Cloke, “Tru­ man Asks U.S. to ‘Share Lib­ erty,’” New York Times, Sep­ tem­ ber 17, 1947 Its abid­ ing con­ se­ quence will be to clar­ ify the ­ people’s per­ cep­ tions of the gran­ deur of the ­ nation’s past, the ma­ jesty of its ­ present, and the glory of its fu­ ture . . .­ William J. Pe­ ter­ son, “Amer­ ica’s Free­ dom Train” This is the story of an un­ usual form of pub­ lic his­ tory, one in which the past was de­ livered on rail­ cars and also ­ through “all meth­ ods of mass per­ sua­ sion.”1 From Sep­ tem­ ber 1947 to Jan­ u­ ary 1949, a “Free­ dom Train” car­ ried 126 of Amer­ ica’s most vital his­ tor­ i­ cal doc­ u­ ments to 322 towns and cit­ ies in all 48 ­ states. More than a third of the pop­ u­ la­ tion par­ tic­ i­ pated in some part of the cam­ paign, which also in­ cluded pa­ tri­ otic and cel­ e­ bra­ tory “Re­ ded­ i­ ca­ tion Weeks” at every stop. In­ itially con­ ceived of by Jus­ tice De­ part­ ment per­ son­ nel and ­ endorsed by Pres­ i­ dent Harry Tru­ man, the newly ­ formed ­ American Her­ i­ tage Foun­ da­ tion (AHF)—an as­ so­ ci­ a­ tion of lead­ ing ad­ ver­ tis­ ing and busi­ ness The Freedom Train’s Narrow-Gauge Iconography E 147 per­ son­ nel spon­ sored by the ­ nation’s larg­ est cor­ po­ ra­ tions—or­ ga­ nized and pro­ moted the tour. In every com­ mu­ nity ­ touched by the “pop­ u­ lar move­ ment,” the busi­ ness and ad­ ver­ tis­ ing lead­ ers be­ hind the AHF or­ ga­ nized civic par­ tic­ i­ pa­ tion ­ around the cen­ tral theme of “free­ dom.” Along the way, other ­ groups from­ across the po­ lit­ i­ cal spec­ trum chal­ lenged the AHF’s def­i­ ni­ tion of free­ dom. In the ­ course of this ex­ tended con­ ver­ sa­ tion, post­ war ­ Americans elab­ orated a civil re­ li­ gion that was built on the foun­ da­ tion pro­ vided by the col­ lected doc­ u­ ments. The Free­ dom Train ­ traveled the coun­ try “bear­ ing a pre­ cious ­ freight of doc­ u­ ments, and speed­ ing ­ through the land like a mod­ ern Paul Re­ vere to ­ arouse the peo­ ple to a sense of dan­ ger while stir­ ring their pride in the glory of the na­ tional her­ i­ tage.”2 Com­ mu­ nism was the im­ me­ di­ ate dan­ ger, but as it rum­ bled along its 37,000-mile jour­ ney, ex­ tol­ ling “free­ dom” at every stop, this train­ looked to flat­ ten all ideol­ o­ gies and ­ squeeze ­ American his­ tory into the nar­ row­ est of ­ tracks. It de­ manded wor­ ship as the ­ diesel-fueled ark of a sa­ cred her­ i­ tage and­ branded as here­ tics any who re­ fused to join the new ­ church of “American­ ism.” At the same time, as a re­ sult of the need to build unity and con­ sen­ sus, this dogma under­ went re­ vi­ sion. The his­ toric ­ freight ­ toured the coun­ try at the mo­ ment when the ­ United ­ States be­ came a real pres­ ence in ­ nearly every cor­ ner of the globe and ­ ceased to exist as ­ merely a na­ tion in and of it­ self. With so many peo­ ple watch­ ing, both at home and ­ abroad, the Free­ dom Train rep­ re­ sented­ American her­ i­ tage very cau­ tiously, paint­ ing a ­ too-rosy pic­ ture but also in­ sist­ ing on the prac­ tice of the prin­ ci­ ples it ­ claimed were the fun­ da­ men­ tals of that her­ i­ tage, ­ namely lib­ erty and equal­ ity. De­ spite ­ organizers’ ef­ forts to con­ trol the mes­ sage, the term “free­ dom” car­ ried with it many dif­ fer­ ent mean­ ings, as did the doc­ u­ ments as­ sem­ bled to...


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