By Jeff Fox
Some of the more dark and tense moments in the middle of the 20th century – as well as some of the lighter moments reflected in pop culture – get a deeper look in a new exhibit at the Truman Library in Independence.
Plus, there are spy gadgets.
“It’s sinister but fun,” says Truman Library Curator Clay Bauske.
The exhibit, “Spies, Lies and Paranoia: Americans in Fear,” opens today and runs through Oct. 26. The exhibit was developed in house at the Truman Library over the last year and a half, and items have been borrowed from such places as the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
Bauske points out that we tend to look back on the late 1940s and the ’50s as relatively calm.
“But in fact it was a scary time period,” he said.
• As the peace that followed World War II quickly turned into the Cold War, Eastern Europe fell firmly in line with the Soviet Union. America’s atomic secrets were stolen and fell into the hands of the Soviets, who exploded their first atomic weapon in 1949, abruptly ending America’s brief reign as the world’s only nuclear power. The 1948-49 Berlin airlift, led by the U.S. in response to the Soviet blockade of West Berlin, was part of a tense standoff that, it was feared, could lead to war.
• China fell to the communists in 1949, and a year later American troops were fighting to keep South Korea from falling as well. At places around the world, communism was on the march.
• At home, revelations of spying rattled the country, and many wondered how far it went. Plus, Sen. Joseph McCarthy made wild accusations about spying that helped fan an atmosphere of hysteria.
• In 1957, the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth – raising the idea that they could drop atomic bombs from the heavens.
“Nobody was safe,” Bauske said.
Then there was Roswell. The exhibit covers the period from the end of World War II to about 1960 – basically the Truman and Eisenhower presidencies – which includes the 1947 crash of an unidentified flying object outside Roswell, N.M.
What was that about? That’s a long debate, but it did help spread “the fear that there might be aliens out there bent on invading the Earth, or visiting the Earth,” Bauske said.
A lot of that came out in movies – many with aliens as surrogates for the Soviets or communism generally – so the exhibit includes clips from “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and “The Thing.”
The exhibit includes a good deal of audio-visual material – comedians Groucho Marx and Bob Hope doing civil defense ads, for instance – and is designed to be highly interactive for visitors.
Among the items on display:
• A necktie camera and harness used by the Soviet KGB and an ash tray designed to hold a spy camera, used by the East German secret police. Both are on loan from the International Spy Museum.
• Four film canisters that communist-turned-anti-communist Whittaker Chambers used to conceal the “pumpkin papers” that were evidence with which he accused State Department official Alger Hiss of espionage.
• Video clips of anti-communist films as well as Soviet and Eastern European anti-American propaganda posters. One poster calls on workers to give it their all. “Every percent in excess of the plan is a strike on the warmongers!” it says.
• A Russian Fialka M125-3MN cipher machine, used to encode messages.
“It’s going to be a very busy exhibit, but I think people will enjoy it,” Bauske said.
In addition to the exhibit, a couple of upcoming events tie in with spy theme.
One is a visit by the son of Francis Gary Powers, the American pilot whose U2 spy plane was shot down by the Soviet Union in 1960 – a deep embarrassment to the Eisenhower administration, which had denied any U.S. spy planes flew over the USSR. The Soviets held Powers for almost two years.
Francis Gary Powers Jr., founder of the Cold War Museum, will be at the Truman Library on Thursday. There’s a reception at 6 p.m., and the program is at 6:30. Among other things, Powers has a small piece of the plane his father flew.
Also, biographer Douglas C. Waller will discuss “Wild Bill” Donovan, who during World War II directed the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of today’s CIA. That Truman Forum event is from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. March 26 at Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, 4801 Main St.
The Truman Library is at 500 West U.S. 24, across from McCoy Park. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors 65 and older, $3 for children 5 to 15, and free for those 5 and younger. Admission includes the “Spies, Lies and Paranoia” exhibit as well as the two permanent exhibits: “Truman: The Presidential Years” and “Harry S. Truman: His Life and Times.”