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Journalist Walter Winchell broadcasts over the coast-to-coast air waves for Mutual Broadcasting System on Oct. 4, 1955.
The Fox News of his day, columnist and radio commentator Walter Winchell sowed fear about the safety of the polio vaccine before it was even tested.
Associated Press

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Americans were scared of polio vaccine too

Eager to contrast today’s anti-vax hysteria with universal joy at the polio vaccine in the ‘50s? It wasn’t that simple.

My father once said that people were kinder when he was a boy.

I couldn’t let that slow pitch by without swinging.

“This era of kindness of which you speak,” I replied. “Is it the Great Depression or World War II? Because I just don’t see it.”

He had no answer. Nostalgic types never do, those who romanticize the past, being ignorant of the bulk of it. They mistake what they personally experienced, or think they experienced, for what everyone else went through. It’s not the same.

I wish I could cure them of this bad habit. Because believing the past was better makes our awful present seem even worse. Not only are there shootings on the expressways, but back in the day we’d sleep in the park in summer and fear no man. Pretty to think so.

So I take a certain satisfaction in recalling the horrors of the past. When people talk of an unprecedented fracture in our nation that is more divided than ever, I’ll mutter, “Well, there was the Civil War. That was worse.”

Or this vaccine business. One reader commented Monday: “We are unfortunately, dealing with outright morons in our society at this moment, something that didn’t happen in the 1950s, when I remember lining up for the polio vaccine, which everyone & I do mean everyone hailed as a flat out miracle.”

Not quite everyone. Reading that, the machine-gun staccato of Walter Winchell’s voice barked into mind.

“Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea,” the nation’s most popular columnist said on April 4, 1954, to his nationwide radio and TV audience of some 50 million. “Attention everyone! In a few moments, I will report on a new polio vaccine claimed to be a cure. It may be a killer.”

The vaccine hadn’t even been tested yet. Authorities, Winchell claimed, wrongly, were stockpiling “little white coffins” to handle the vaccine’s victims. That week, 150,000 children were yanked out of the vaccine trials.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, showing a bit of partisan pride — Dr. Jonas Salk developed his vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh — fired back, noting Winchell was “distinguished for a long career of washroom gossip, self-glorification and journalistic vendettas of the basest sort.”

Sound familiar?

Dr. Jonas Salk, Pittsburgh scientist who discovered the Polio vaccine, administers an injection to an unidentified boy at Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pa., Feb. 23, 1954.
Dr. Jonas Salk, Pittsburgh scientist who discovered the Polio vaccine, administers an injection to a boy at Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh in February 1954.
Associated Press

“What was even more distressing was that many of the medical profession took advice from Winchell rather than scientific sources,” said Dr. Robert F. Korn, a member of the national evaluation team — the trials were run privately. The government wouldn’t help because that would be socialized medicine.

Ring a bell?

People are people, unfortunately. Just as we minimize the key role that ignorance and fear play in forming public attitudes today, we forget how Americans faced the past with all the cowardice and confusion on rampant display today.

I just happened to pick up A.J. Liebling’s “The Road Back to Paris.” He is in France for the nine months of inertia and magical thinking between the time the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, and when they came for France nine months later.

Liebling flees home one step ahead of the Nazis, and wanders New York in blinking shock at how blithely unaware everybody is about what’s happening in Europe. First, he recounts how tired the Republicans are with elections if all they do is give power to the likes of Franklin Roosevelt.

“They began to despair of democracy and to get vocal about it,” he wrote. “What good was a system under which the majority of people voted to protect their own interests? It was damn selfish of working people to vote that way. ‘As a matter of fact this country was never meant to be a democracy anyway’ they would say.”

Sound familiar?

It got so Liebling could barely hold conversations with anybody.

“I did hate to drop in on a perfectly good reporter or physician and find myself howling and banging the table because he thought that there was no choice between Churchill and Hitler and demanded who were we to object to the slaughter of a couple of million Jews in Poland when there were resort hotels right here that wouldn’t take Jewish guests?”

Ring a bell?

So fear-mongering and non-science, shrugging off America’s cherished institutions and being utterly unable to make moral distinctions is nothing new. Cold comfort, perhaps.

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