HOME The Decline of Civilization
What's Wrong with America? The Rugged Individual Patriot Creating a "Clean" Slate Heinlein's Plea

"Unless you were already adult in August 1945 it is almost impossible for me to convey emotionally to you how most people felt about the A-bomb, how many different ways they felt about it, how nearly totally ignorant 99.9% of our citizens were on the subject" (Expanded Universe, 145).

"We have every reason to expect a sudden rain of death from the sky sometime in the next few years, as a result of a happy combination of the science of atomics and the art of rocketry" (EU, 175).

The United States had secured its place among the most powerful of the world's countries by 1945. Average Americans enjoyed life in their prosperous consumer culture, saw unlimited potential in science and technology, and lived under the comforting illusion that their country had the resilience, the incincibility of a six-shooter-toting cowboy. Heinlein, with his combination of patriotism, cynicism and military and scientific experience, was uncomfortable with this complacent public attitude. Heinlein had witnessed firsthand how fast scientific developments could take place in any country, how unprepared American society was and the rampant indifference most Americans held to towards these dangers. Ignorance about the issues of the atomic age was understandable in the American people; they had, after all, "been hit by ideas utterly new and strange," but Heinlein perceived it as a grave threat to their survival (145). American understood the external threat of international warfare, but they were painfully unaware of their complacency, a spreading internal rot. Through the lens of science fiction, in short stories, essays and novels, Heinlein made apparent the weaknesses of contemporary society and offered his extrapolations and speculations on the outcome. Seen from the future, it seems that America was plowing straight into an apocalyptic war, or at very least a societal collapse.

What's wrong with America?

Heinlein's 1959 novel, Starship Troopers, offers one of the most scathing criticisms of America of the "XXth century." The narrator, a young soldier named Juan "Johnnie" Rico, remembers the arguments of his instructor in History and Moral Philosophy, a class required of all students before they graduate. In defense of the government of Johnnie's time, Mr. DuBois describes the state of society in the 20th century:
"'Law abiding people,' DuBois had told us, 'hardly dared to go into a public park at night. To do so was to risk wolf packs off children, armed with chains, knives, homemade guns, bludgeons…to be hurt at least, robbed most certainly, injured for life probably-or even killed. This went on for years, right up to the war between the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance and the Chinese Hegemony. Murder, drug addiction, larceny, assault, and vandalism were commonplace. Nor were parks the only places-these things happened also on the streets in broad daylight, on school grounds, even inside school buildings. But parks were so notoriously unsafe that honest people stayed clear of them after dark…They had many more police than we have. And more courts. All overworked." (Starship Troopers, 91).
DuBois goes on to blame this anarchy on the "pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense" of the time, where physical punishment was considered cruel, ineffective and damaging. Heinlein may not be advocating a return to corporal punishment, but he certainly laments what he perceives to be a growing softness about the American middle. DuBois describes the phenomenon that Heinlein observed when he was writing Starship Troopers: Old-fashioned discipline is gone-the simple frontier code of honor, "you're with us or you're dead"-has been replaced with sensitive psychology. In one sense, Starship Troopers is Heinlein's stirring warning that Americans may have abandoned an ideal for an idol - trading the rugged Western individual of American folklore for the East Coast psychiatrist, to the detriment of the nation.

The Rugged Individual Patriot: Squelched by "The Man"?

Another brutal reality evident in Starship Troopers is the value of the ardent patriot, the man willing to die for his country but also for his freedom. Heinlein had his doubts about universal democracy (see THE AFTERMATH), but believed strongly in the power of freedom. "It has been proved time and again," he writes in How to be a Survivor in the Atomic Age, "by the Fighting French, the recalcitrant Irish and the deathless Poles, yes and by our own Apache and Yaqui Indians, that you cannot conquer a free man; you can only kill him" (EU, 173). Patrick Henry's patriotic words, "Give me liberty or give me death" echo in the pages of Heinlein's stories. In his short story Free Men, America has been conquered by atomic force, with Americans pushed into ghettoes, every move controlled by the Invaders. Heinlein glorifies the scrappy resistance movement of "free Americans." The rebel leader, on his deathbed, reiterates Heinlein's feeling on freedom. "You can't enslave a free man. Only person that can do that to a man is himself …The most you can do is kill him" (EU, 236). Despite these noble assertions, Heinlein recognized that such radical patriotism had fallen out of favor with the comfortable middle class. The power of corporate and state bureaucracy was certainly killing free men, if only by degrees.

Heinlein reveals his perspective on the corruption of the free market in the U.S. in Life-Line, his first published story. Dr. Hugo Pinero develops a machine that can predict the date and even hour of a man's death. Naturally, this invention throws the big life insurance companies into a tizzy, and they haul Pinero into court, suing him for the damage to their industry. The judge throws the case out, reasoning that

"There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest" (EU, 21).
This idea of corporations placing the success of their business above the public welfare is nowhere more obvious than in Blowups Happen (the story that Heinlein claims finally paid off his mortgage). The power of the atomic bomb has been harnessed into the most productive power plant ever made, but the danger of a massive atomic explosion is always imminent, either by random chance or sabotage by any of the power plant engineers, who tend to crack under the heavy responsibility of their task. The superintendent of the plant confirms, with the help of two other leading scientists, that the explosion of the power plant is not only inevitable, but also of a magnitude that could destroy at least half of the planet. When he and his fellow scientists recommend that the power plant be put into orbit where it could still produce power for earth without the risk of explosion, the company that owns the plant balks, claiming that their faulty research indicates no such danger. The chairman is especially curt:
"'We try to conduct the affairs of the company with reasonable wisdom and in the public interest. But we have other responsibilities, too. There are hundreds of thousands of little stockholders who expect us to show a reasonable return on their investment, You must not expect us to jettison a billion-dollar corporation just because you've taken up astrology! Moon theory!' He sniffed" (EU, 75).
America had come so far from the pioneer town, where Ma and Pa ran their store with the highest kind of honest, entrepreneurial values and the sheriff could haul in anyone who intended to cheat the public, that corporate bureaucracy had become its own type of government. However, it was not merely the unscrupulous plans of corporate leaders that made Americans subservient to industry. When one scientist suggests simply shutting down the power plant, the superintendent objects that "you might as well cut out the heart of man," because most of the heavy industries, manufacturing and processing receive their power from the plant. "It would be worse than a war," the superintendent argues. "In a system like ours, one thing depends on another. If you cut off the heavy industries all at once, everything else stops, too" (EU, 61-2). Blowups Happen was meant to play on the public's anxiety that the very systems that improve their lives-the power plants, the manufacturing processes, even the layout of modern cities-could be the cause of mass destruction.

Heinlein does include a healthy critique of American politics and the state bureaucracy. In Free Men, Doc McCracken, one of the resistance fighters, reflects on the American government's outright foolishness in the face of the atomic threat:

Everybody knew that another war could happen, and everybody-everybody, I say, knew that if it came, it would start with the blasting of American cities. Every congressman, every senator knew that a war would destroy Washington and leave the country with no government, flopping around like a chicken with its head off. They knew-why didn't they do something! (EU, 215).
One answer that most Americans could give to McCracken's question would be the sheer confusion of the American bureaucracy, which was moving into its heyday after World War II. Heinlein was no fan of bureaucracy- in Magic, Inc. he parodies the underhanded dealings of Congress by setting them up to pass a bill written by a demon that would put the world's magic in a devilish monopoly-and he believed that the American public deserved better than politicians who were willing to ignore the great risk of atomic attack because of the stickiness of the international situation. Time and again in his stories it was the bureaucratic weakness of the American government that caused the collapse or destruction of the American superpower, and each time it was meant to serve as a warning. Heinlein hoped readers would see how they were complicit in their own potential destruction: if you're not slashing at red tape, you might well be strangled by it.

Creating a "Clean" Slate

Parody was one way Heinlein exposed the ills of American society, but as his frustration with public ambivalence grew, he turned to sarcasm. His stories indicate that he believed Americans to be beyond repentance, so he began to write about forms of retribution. If most of the American public was too comfortable, foolish or ignorant to renew their vows to American ideals, predict and prepare for doomsday, then perhaps mass destruction would wipe the slate clean. The only survivors of an atomic attack would be those who had carefully prepared, those who could survive with their wits and their pioneer spirit. If America lay in ruins, the survivors would be faced with the essentially American problems of survival and nation-building, much like the opening of a new American West.

Hugh Farnham, the hero of Farnham's Freehold, is just such an American cowboy. Hugh prepares himself for an inevitable atomic attack by building a bomb shelter in his basement, stocking it with the most practical of rations, tools and books (including the Boy Scout handbook, one of Heinlein's favorites). As a result, when the US is hit by a Russian atom bomb, Farnham and his family survive. "I've worried for years about our country," Hugh remarks. "It seems to me that we have been breeding slaves - and I believe in freedom. This war may have turned the tide. This may be the first war in history which kills the stupid rather than the bright and able - where it makes any distinction" (Farnham's Freehold, 39). The Farnhams, then, serve as Heinlein's example of the "bright and able," because they had the foresight and initiative to prepare themselves for the inevitable warming of the Cold War. Indeed, Hugh's wife Grace serves as an example of the dangers of American prosperity. Hugh reminisces about his wife's resoluteness and resourcefulness in the face of near-poverty when they were first married. But as Hugh's fortunes improved, Grace gave in to alcoholism, materialism and neuroses. "She isn't built to stand prosperity," Hugh laments. "Grace has always stood up to adversity magnificently" (Farnham's Freehold 95). When the Farnham's are forced to carve out a new life for themselves in the wilderness, Grace is weak, uselessly stubborn and virtually goes to pieces. Her character is almost certainly emblematic of the silly weakness and internal ruin Heinlein critiqued in the American public.

This view of America, populated by men and women poisoned by prosperity as Grace was, prompted Heinlein to write several essays directly addressing the American public. The articles were "intended to shed light on the post-Hiroshima age," he wrote. "I have never worked harder on any writing, researched the background more thoroughly, tried harder to make the (grim and horrid) message entertaining and readable…I tried (and failed) to beat the drum for world peace" (EU, 145). These articles are filled with Heinlein's characteristic tongue-in-cheek witticisms, but none is so blatantly sarcastic as Pie From the Sky. "There are so many, many thing in this so-termed civilization of ours which would be mightily improved by a once over lightly of the Hiroshima treatment. There is that dame upstairs, for instance, the one with the square bowling ball. Never again would she take it out for practice right over your bed at three in the morning. Isn't that some consolation?" (EU, 175).

"In fact , all the impact of world-wide troubles will fade away. Divorces, murders, and troubles in China will no longer smite from headline and radio. Your only worries will be your own worries…No more damn fools who honk right behind your car while the lights are changing. I'll buy this one at a black market price right now" (EU, 176).
Heinlein had every reason to be sarcastic-all other approaches seemed to fall on deaf ears, and even as years went by without the predicted apocalypse, he never felt that the danger ebb or the public's awareness heighten. But he continued his jeremiad, showing Americans the problems of their society from the perspective of the future. Doc McCracken from Free Men put this exasperation neatly into words: "we used to be the greatest country in the world-now look at us!" (EU, 216).

Heinlein's Plea

There were nine pieces total among Heinlein's "World-Saving" essays, each with its own type of appeal to Americans. The essays pulled for a tentative solution - a world government capable of harnessing, protecting and containing atomic firepower, the only solution that Heinlein could fathom would prevent an offensive stalemate. At the end of Pie From the Sky, he chides his readers, "if you are so soft that you like innerspring mattresses and clean water and regular meals…telegraph your congressman to get off the dime and get on with the difficult business of forming an honest-to-goodness world union" (EU, 180). In a piece called The Last Days of the United States, he warns against the "false serenity" that politicians and businessmen hope to instill in Americans. Instead, he points readers to their public library, telling them to research the realities of the atomic bomb to understand just how plausible the recreation of the ultimate weapon is. Individually, he beseeches his readers to learn the basics of survival, whether it be from the Boy Scout manual or other readily available sources. Playing shamelessly on their patriotism, How to be a Survivor in the Atomic Age asks Americans, "How's your pioneer blood these days?" (EU, 163). Preparing to live safely in the new world order may seem difficult, "but if your ancestors still move in your bones, you will know that it is worthwhile …'The cowards never started and the weaklings died on the way.' That was the spirit that crossed the plains, and such was the spirit of every emigrant who left Europe. There is good blood in your veins, compadre!" (EU, 169).

As Heinlein expounded upon the failings of modern Americans to live up to the American ideal, and his perception of the external threat grew, Heinlein came to a conclusion about the post-Hiroshima world in The Last Days of the United States that he operated under for many years:

There are only three real alternatives open to us: One, to form a truly sovereign super-state to police the globe; two, to prepare realistically for World War III in which case dispersion, real and thorough dispersion, is utterly necessary, or, third, to sit here, fat, dumb and happy, wallowing in our luxuries, until the next Hitler annihilates us! (EU. 159).
Depite all his warnings, when Heinlein published his own anthology, Expanded Universe, in 1980, he made the assertion that his stories were "more timely today, thirty years later…the danger is enormously greater" (EU, 267). So, as Hiroshima became fodder for the History Channel, Heinlein saw Americans falling farther from their traditional values of patriotism, preparedness and rugged individualism, and their weakened resolve left them even more vulnerable to an atomic apocalypse.
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