Eric Sevareid and the National Crisis

Over the last few weeks, the History Department at the University of North Dakota is moving from its current home in the old medical school building to temporary offices around campus. This is a bit more of a process than one might expect in that a number of us have grown roots in our offices and have taken the move as a chance to get ride of books and papers that are no long immediately useful. Most us are making any surplus books available to students or colleagues by leaving stacks of books in the corridors. There are more than a few copies of North Dakota Quarterly in these piles.   

This week, I happened on the Autumn 1970 issue with featured Eric Sevareid on the strikingly modern cover. You can read the entire issue here.

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The issue includes the text from an address that he gave on UND’s campus that spring (April 17th to be precise) titled “The National Crisis.” Sevareid hailed from Velva, North Dakota, a small town roughly between Bismarck and Minot, before becoming one of the most recognizable figures in the American news media for most of the second half of the 20th century.

Sevareid’s speech is a general one and set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War abroad and the opening battles of the conflict that would ripen into the so-called “Culture War” at home. He understands the moment in US History as a crisis and speaks with the hardened moderation of man who reported on both “hot war” in Europe and the Cold War from Washington and various front lines the world over. He also was, as his speech demonstrates, a keen and thoughtful critic of contemporary culture.

He praised the idealism of youth as “sacred,” but also cautioned “automatic severance.” He decries the attacks on the news media, including the prescient threat to subpoena journalists,  while defending President Nixon’s efforts to balance between disorder and injustice. His attitudes toward race and prosperity and even the various popular moments of his day read naive and at times a bit condescending and even offensive.

His position comes out clearly in statements like this:

“I think the dawning lesson of so much of this is that the danger in it is not, in the first instance, that our freedom is in jeopardy, but our public order. If that really breaks down in a massive way then our freedom would be badly impaired and so would justice—even though so many of the new young leftists do not believe that. This is a lesson of history they don’t accept but which I feel obliged to accept. It is that many people faced with no other alternatives, will choose order—even tyranny if it comes to that—over anarchy, because anarchy in many ways is the worst tyranny of all.”

We can easily disagree with his juxtaposing of order and anarchy, but at the same time, his remarks read as genuine and perspective. They remain worth reading not only to show us how far we have come as a society, but also to remind us that our current sense of crisis is not new, but baked into the very fabric of 20th and 21st century culture.

Sevareid’s cool moderation is a historical artifact, but one that remains recognizable today as we attempt to negotiate our contemporary set of crisis. I would contend that Sevareid’s attitudes did more the hide the root causes of post-war American discontent than resolve them and, in that regard, his remarks some 51 years ago this month read as a cautionary tale. 


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