Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Crusade for Freedom

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 17, 2012.

“No movement could be more aptly named than the Crusade for Freedom,” reads the editorial in the Exeter News-Letter in the summer of 1951, “signifying a united effort of millions of Americans, aided by exiles and peoples who have fled from their homes in the Iron Curtain countries, to combat the tyranny and insidious practices of the Communist regimes behind the Curtain in these countries.” In the six years since the end of World War II, Americans watched in disbelief as our former ally, the Soviet Union, devoured much of Eastern Europe and cut off communications. Winston Churchill’s observation in his 1946 speech that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent” set the tone for post-war relations: the boundary barring basic rights had to be crossed.

It wasn’t just the social isolation of Eastern Europe that troubled the West, it was the suppression of ideas and progress that were dangerous. In a world that now had the ability to destroy itself quickly with nuclear weapons, diplomacy was vital and free speech essential. But how could this be achieved? 

After the war, thousands of displaced people in Europe found themselves living far from their homelands, unable to return after communist regimes had taken control. The U.S. government encouraged many of these people to aid in the move to bring democracy back to Eastern Europe through writing and broadcasting in their native languages. Radio Free Europe was created in 1949 by the National Committee for a Free Europe (hereafter NCFE) to broadcast news of world to the Soviet Block countries. For those areas that could not receive radio signals, or didn’t have access to a radio, pamphlets were airlifted by surplus weather balloons. Although the radio signals were frequently jammed, the mix of high and low technology made the system difficult for the Soviets to circumvent.

To pay for this endeavor, the NCFE received funding from the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. government and private donations through a citizen’s campaign called the “Crusade for Freedom”. Whipping up enthusiasm for the program was challenging when most post-war Americans were more concerned with getting their lives back to normal after several decades of economic and social upheaval. This new conflict of words and ideas was described as a ‘cold war’ to remind people of its dangers, and information was the primary means of fighting it. “Truth,” said C.D. Jackson, President of Radio Free Europe in a speech in Reno, Nevada in 1951, “is Communism’s deadliest enemy. If the United States can win the cold war against Communism in Europe, the world stands a good chance of avoiding a shooting war. America’s chief hope for winning the cold war must be pinned on such innovations as radio networks and balloons, which carry messages of truth behind the Iron Curtain.”

The Crusade for Freedom began a publicity campaign featuring a motorcade and demonstrations of the balloon-carrying leaflets. Citizens were encouraged to read the leaflets – often the pamphlet entitled “Winds of Freedom” and report where they were found and the place of origin. One, which was sent aloft in Reno was later recovered in Nebraska. 

In September of 1951 the Crusade of Freedom made a stop in Exeter. The campaign hoped to obtain 25 million American supporters, through signatures on ‘Liberty Rolls’ and raise three and a half million dollars in donations. In Exeter, a 10 person committee headed by John Munroe, announced local plans for the crusade. “Scrolls for signatures will be placed at convenient locations through town while coin boxes are to be in stores,” advised the Exeter News-Letter. The statewide motorcade arrived on September 20th and stopped in the town square. For anyone still skeptical about the leaflet drops, it “gave a demonstration of how balloons are released to carry messages to the enslaved people behind the Iron Curtain. Two types were demonstrated, one that rises to a height of about 30,000 feet and then explodes, scattering messages over the landscape, and another pillow type that goes to about 20,000 feet.”

The success of the crusade in Exeter was never reported. Likely it reflected the same rates as the rest of the country. During the 1951 campaign, the Crusade of Freedom never managed to reach its goal – but it did net nearly two million dollars, no small chunk of change. There was no mention of where the balloons launched in Exeter landed – given the prevailing winds, they most likely drifted out to sea over Hampton and Seabrook. 

Radio Free Europe, even after it was no longer supported by the CIA, proved to be a success. Broadcasting was a dangerous proposition for those involved – the Soviets were keen to shut down the system through jamming, intimidation and occasional bombing, but the programs continued to be broadcast until the fall of European Communism in 1991. 

Photo: The photo ran in the September 27, 1951 edition of the Exeter News-Letter with the caption: “Crusade for Freedom motorcade shown outside Exeter Town Hall last Thursday giving a demonstration of the two types of balloons used to carry messages behind the ‘Iron Curtain.’”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Exeter Rope Skippers

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, August 3, 2012.

If the Olympic Games were held in Exeter, we’d be hard put to field a team in any of the many events. We’ve had some amazing athletes over the years, but no real standout teams. However, from 1947 to 1983 we did have an exhibition team that set Exeter apart from everyone else – the Exeter Rope Skippers, headed by the Exeter AREA Junior High physical education teacher, Gordon Hathaway.

In 1960 New Hampshire Profiles featured and article about Hathaway written by Robert Richmond. Hathaway was so convinced that his team was the best that, “his teams are so good that they never compete. No other school in the country has yet produced a team to challenge them, so their public appearances are strictly solo affairs.”

Hathaway himself wasn’t from Exeter. Born in Vermont and raised near Quincy, Massachusetts, he was a tough kid from a tough family. He boxed his way through Boston University, where he studied physical education. It was while in training that he first began skipping rope. Although long used by boxers and wrestlers to improve cardiovascular endurance, rope skipping was mostly known to the public as something done by school girls. Usually accompanied with taunting rhymes (‘girls go to college to get more knowledge, boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider’) rope skipping for anyone outside of the playground was a hard sell.

When World War II arrived, Gordon Hathaway joined the Navy and discovered that they didn’t need boxers. But they did need physical training and didn’t have a lot of room on-board a ship for athletics. He told New England Profiles, “the only exercise on shipboard was walking to chow, and coffee in between. I think I was the only chief Petty Officer in the Navy without a paunch, tanks to that skip-rope.” Richmond, said that Hathaway, “later served as a navy physical training instructor in the Pacific; the climate was too hot to include a skip-rope in the schedule, but Hathaway spent his off-duty hours entertaining the troops with his rope-skipping skill. He skipped on the gun-turrets of a battleship off Guadalcanal, in the jungle clearing, and on a transport plane heading home for his discharge.”

His discipline and dedication to the art of rope-skipping traveled with him after the war when he was hired in Exeter as the phys-ed teacher at the Junior High. Overcoming the girlie reputation was his first goal in the Exeter schools. By 1948 he had caught the eye of the Boston papers. The Exeter News-Letter reprinted some of the comments lauding Hathaway as “not only the best rope skipper on the continent but probably the best in the world.” He began to run training camps and recruit boys to the sport. His most ambitious project was a 16mm instructional film called, “Rope Skipping,” which highlighted the development of the Exeter program.

Hathaway’s skippers performed all over the state for hospitals and civic organizations. Richmond, who watched the show, said of the skippers, “they can skip while standing up, kneeling, sitting, and lying prone; while turning handstands, riding a unicycle and bouncing a pogo-stick; and on roller-skates and teeter-boards. Some of their show routines are startling. Everybody’s favorite is the double-decker skip, where one student rides another’s shoulder and swings a long rope while his partner skips.” The triple-decker, which the students mastered, was eventually removed from the show because the rope continually hit ceilings.

The tricks and speed brought attention to the sport, which was Hathaway’s real goal. In his opinion (and by all accounts, he had strong opinions) rope-skipping was the finest fitness sport, “It’s the perfect exerciser for sedentary men,” he told Richmond, “requires no space or professional equipment. As a matter of fact, even the rope isn’t necessary. You get the exercise from jumping up and down, but people are apt to suspect your sanity unless you have a rope attached to your hands.” His favored skipping rope was simple sash cord, the kind used in window sills. Each piece was carefully measured to match the skipper’s height and skill level.

Hathaway was featured on the TV program, “You Asked For It” in 1952 and his skippers made over 500 appearances in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. After 37 years of teaching in Exeter, Hathaway retired in 1983. “I had gym class and everyone was terrified at the thought of going through class with Mr. Hathaway. The respect demanded was unrivaled in all my school years,” recalled John Walor in Exeter AREA Junior High School – History and Memories. He was strict, but his skippers acquired self-confidence, discipline and enthusiasm for the sport. Improving Exeter’s fitness and increasing awareness for rope skipping was always Hathaway’s goal. Richmond’s article ends with, “’ And then,’ he says with a faraway look in his eye, ‘the sport may reach Olympic status.’” If that ever happens, it might open the door for Exeter hosting the Olympic games.