Please enjoy part one of a two-part guest blog from Dr. Catherine Bishop, who has been researching IULMIA’s collections remotely, by accessing digitized films from the New York Herald Tribune World Youth Forum, which aired on public television in the 1950s. The IU Libraries Moving Image Archive is thrilled to be able to provide these materials (over 56 titles!) at a time when access to archives is severely limited by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are currently efforts underway to digitize remaining items from this series, so that Dr. Bishop and future researchers may continue their work.
You can watch full episodes of The World We Want and other National Educational Television (NET) programs featuring The New York Herald Tribune Youth Forum HERE
Helen Hiett Waller
I had heard a lot about Helen Waller from delegates in interviews and in archives. An award-winning wartime correspondent, she was the face of the Forum until her tragic death in a climbing accident in 1961. She polarized people. Some delegates remembered her as kind and encouraging, others as a strong and forceful character, with a journalistic eye for a controversial story. Many said she was a good moderator of the debates, drawing out some people, always with an eye for where she wanted to take the discussion. Others thought she had favorites – she liked the articulate, smart, argumentative delegates, able to hold their own with interesting ideas in English. She could be condescending and dismissive. At the same time, some of the quieter delegates, whose English was not so proficient, also remembered her as motherly and undemanding, suggesting that she certainly regarded all of the delegates as distinct individuals. Whether she accurately discerned who could withstand her more aggressive style was less clear.
Even having heard all of this about Helen Waller, it was not until I saw her in action on film that I really understood what people had been telling me. I could see why some delegates from countries in which women had less of a public role might have been astounded by her outspokenness. She epitomized the modern American career woman.
Watching a film from February 1954 I had to remind myself that she had given birth to her third child barely a month earlier at the age of 40. She looks a little tired but otherwise cheerful and professional. She is not glamorous but smart. Her dark hair is neatly coiffed and under control. Five years later in 1959 she suddenly looks much more than five years older. She is almost frumpy, her hair not as dark, the lines on her forehead more pronounced. But she is still in charge, and her comments are as sharp and penetrating as ever.
The 1959 program featuring one girl from Japan and three boys from Iceland, Denmark and the UK revealed Helen Waller in full interrogative mode. She did not allow any of the delegates to get away with bland generalizations or lazy answers. They were invited to support their arguments with evidence. ‘Why do you say that?’, she would ask… Do you really mean that’… ‘But doesn’t that contradict what you just said?’. She was not unfriendly, all was accompanied with smiles and much laughter, but she was persistent. I wondered, as I watched, how easy I would have found this as a 16-18 year old, even as a native English speaker. For she gave no quarter, even to those delegates whose first language was not English. So the UK delegate had no problems (he would later become a diplomat and was clearly honing his skills here); neither did the Danish delegate, who admitted to speaking several languages. The Icelandic delegate was relatively quiet, but it was the Japanese girl who was seriously impressive. Her English was good, but not as good as the others. She defended her position (supporting arranged marriages!) against articulate and forceful critiques from the boys and probing questions from Helen Waller. The best moment, however, was when Helen asked what Americans had wanted to know from the Japanese delegate. They asked me ‘How do you like America’, she said, and, although she thought that was ‘not an easy question to answer in a few minutes’, she told them ‘I love it’. ‘But’, she added, ‘I think that Americans are too easily satisfied with my answer’. In Japan, she added, people would not be satisfied with such a ‘simple’ answer, neatly encapsulating the comparative sophistication of the US and Japan (and in a suitably subtle and sophisticated way!).
The Thrill of Recognition
The digitized films were particularly useful for my research in revealing Helen Waller in action, and for the serious business of analyzing teenagers’ opinions at the time and assessing how they were co-opted into the business of American soft-power.
The utter charm of these films, however, lies in the fact that I now know many of these delegates. Not only does this mean I have had the opportunity to send them copies of the films, and they have been delighted to revisit their earlier selves, but there is the thrill of recognition when I see the younger versions of the fully formed and very impressive adults I have met.
The teenager perfecting the art of persuasive argument which will prove useful in his career as a diplomat is instantly recognizable, as is the ebullient Dane. When an Afrikaans girl exclaims over her struggles with English her voice is exactly the same as I hear, 65 years on, brimming with vitality and fun.
The films can also be a useful corrective to the oral history interviews I have conducted. I interviewed an Australian who remembered the social time he had at the forum – he wasn’t especially politically aware, he said. The films tell a different story – of an articulate boy with strong opinions, with hints of the lawyer he would become. Oral histories rely on memory and on reflection, they are told with a self-consciousness of being recorded, and with the benefit of hindsight. The films are also performance, as constructed as the interviews, but in a different way. The delegates and the topics have been chosen to be provocative, Yugoslavian advocate of communism set against South Korean capitalist, Israeli and Arab delegates sat on the same panel. These young people are full of confidence and hope. They were the chosen ones, showing what they hope is the best of themselves, not yet fully fledged, just learning to spread their wings.
These films are a window into 1950s youth culture and international politics. They illustrate how much the world has changed as well as how much it has remained, at times depressingly, the same. Perhaps the world could do with more of that hope, vitality and enthusiasm today.
Dr Catherine Bishop is a historian and postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Workforce Futures at Macquarie University in Australia, writing a history of twentieth-century Australian businesswomen. She is the author of the award-winning Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney (NewSouth 2015) and of Women Mean Business: Colonial businesswomen in New Zealand (Otago University Press 2019). With Jennifer Aston she has co-edited Female Entrepreneurs in the Long Nineteenth Century: A Global Perspective (Palgrave 2020). She is working on a biography of Australian missionary Annie Lock and researching the history of the New York Herald Tribune World Youth Forum.
In case you missed it, make sure to read Part 1 of Dr. Catherine Bishop’s research on the Herald Tribune Youth Forum films in the Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive.
This has been fascinating, particularly your comments. What a lucky find! The participants must have been delighted to see their 1950 selves when you sent them these films.