The Freedom Train was a bold concept – a patriotic museum on the tracks aimed at unifying a fractured United States after World War Two. It offered needed moments of genuine patriotic respite in a post-war time of divisive challenges and solutions. Gerry and Janet Souter, authors of a book on the freedom train (Amazon US | Amazon UK), explain.
Ten years of the Great Depression plus four years of World War II had left Americans battered. Every facet of life seemed challenged; the United States had inherited world leadership by default.Sixyears of wartime production brought the country outof the Great Depression, but with the conflict ended, unions demanded higher wages and were at war with the government. In 1945-46, five million workers went out on strike.Manufacturershad barely crept back intocreatingconsumer products. Soldiers returned from the war zones to the protection of the GI Bill of Rights that promised education, cheap housing and a new start, but not a job. Adding to shifting labor force problems were boatloads of refugees streaming into the country from war-ravaged Europe. Many of these “Displaced Persons” were highly skilled and educated, affecting labor and housing issues at various levels. Black GIs sought recognition in the segregated South and fearful North.
It was time to re-ignite the republic’s exhausted engine, to re-establish the core that had sustained the nation through those past years of sacrifice. The American people needed the cavalry to arrive in the nick of time, the winning touchdown to score, and the long shot horse to win the race— something to cheer.
No one could have imagined that Adolf Hitler would provide a bold embrace of America’s freedoms, patriotism, civic responsibility and pride in her hard-won liberties.
Selling the Freedom Train Idea
One of the greatest selling jobs ever attempted began in1946. William Coblenz, an assistant director with the Public Information Division of the Department of Justice often spent his lunch hour at the National Archives. There he discovered an exhibit of captured German government and military documents, including an original copy of Hitler’s last will and testament to the German people. Staring at the Fuhrer’s signature on that yellowed document, the frightful power of those final wretched thoughts of a mad man made Coblenz wish more Americans could look on the face of tyranny and appreciate the freedoms they inherit as a birthright. The Archives also displayed America’s legacy of documents from the conception of the independent republic to iconic objects brought back from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific that would touch hearts and drive home our sacrifices for those freedoms. They were all there—and in the Library of Congress and private collections—all sealed behind glass. How could this treasure be brought to whole country?
Virtually every city and town had a railroad station. Understanding the government’s cash-strapped post-war situation, Coblenz proposed a passenger car be turned into a traveling museum featuring the contrast between Nazi Fascism and American Freedoms. It would be coupled to freight trains and dropped off at cities and towns in all the 48 states to be opened for the public’s inspection of copies of the actual documents. He called it the “Liberty Train” with a budget of $20,000 and presented his idea to his boss, Thomas C. Clark, the U.S. Attorney General. Clark loved the idea and understood the sad condition of the country’s coffers. “Might as well be two million,” as far as Congress was concerned. Realizing that opening the concept to private funding might sully the simple patriotic message, he still saw no other option and made a few calls.
The Liberty Train idea caught fire among movie and corporate moguls. Bank and Stock Market presidents signed on along with labor unions and entrepreneurs. In December 1946, they gathered for a meeting in Washington, D.C. Also included at this plan meeting was the Advertising Council, a conglomeration of advertising shops who furnished Allied propaganda and civilian wartime motivation during the war. They’d honed their patriotic idea-selling to a fine edge and joined the board of directors to the brand-new American Heritage Foundation, led by Ad Council president, Thomas Brophy. The Council created the patriotic infrastructure that drove the selection and presentation of the collected artifacts. Under Brophy’s leadership, all public utterances flowed from, and all private funds were collected by this foundation.
Creating the Train and Its Irreplaceable Cargo
With expert historians combing the National Archives, Library of Congress and private collections, the train grew from one orphan passenger car to a train of seven passenger cars hauled by their own locomotive. The selection of documents and iconic objects eventually booted out Hitler and the Nazis for a more positive All-American collection in passenger cars converted into rolling steel vaults forming one long aisle for visitors. The Pennsylvania and Santa Fe railroads furnished the coaches to be gutted and lined with custom bronze and Lucite cases containing the actual documents, notcopies. Heading the train was a brand-new ALCO diesel-electric locomotive, and, like the rest of the train, painted white with red and blue stripes and gold eagles.
The value of the new cargo aboard the “Freedom Train,” its final name, required extreme security. Thomas Clark penned the Secretary of the Navy for the loan of 27 United States Marines in dress blue uniforms. From more than 200 applicants, the result was a detail of combat Marines led by Lt. Colonel Robert L. Scott. Three deluxe passenger coaches were set aside for their traveling quarters plus three pullman porters. With the marines were housed curator experts, train managers, and a Navy medical officer.
Packaging the Freedom Message
To build a bigger tent for the national audience, the Advertising Council provided a pre-train arrival package to each of 300 cities and towns consisting of collateral material to produce a week of “rededication” to American values. To facilitate these “Rededication Weeks” the Advertising council would unlimber a campaign for each locality on radio, in newspapers, comic books and movies. Collateral printed material, posters, event suggestions and camera-ready boiler plate logos would spread the message. Advance planners were to visit each community’s designated planning group to help create the necessary buzz and enthusiasm.
Extracting further commitment from Freedom Train visitors, a “Good Citizen” booklet was passed out listing the “Rights and Duties of an American” and the “Nine Promises of a Good Citizen.” (vowing to vote, pay taxes, serve on a jury, etc.) At the conclusion of a visit, a “Freedom Pledge” headed a scroll to be signed by the visitor. This Freedom Pledge was also recited in schools, churches, civic meetings and patriotic events during Rededication Weeks.
Following a nationally broadcast celebrity and champagne send-off from Philadelphia, the Advertising Council’s publicity campaign had already produced an advance notice to the nation that this train would be on its way. The Twin Falls (Idaho) Times News, which was not even on the list of Freedom Train stops—but close enough for a half day auto trip to visit the train at Boise further northwest—was still impressed. Its editorial for August 26, 1947 read:
“it must be admitted that Americans have developed the technique of the publicity build-up to a remarkable degree…The purpose of all this is to make every one of us conscious of the responsibilities as well as the privileges which are ours as Inheritors of the legacy of American freedom. This country's high tradition of democracy has been seriously challenged in the past six years, and is still challenged today. Every failure to live up to that tradition provides a little more ammunition for those who would discount or destroy it. There is a real need for most of us to try more actively and consciously to be good citizens and alert guardians of our heritage.
And on the train went, giving an average head-count of 9,000 Americans a day the opportunity to see:Abraham Lincoln’s reading copy of the Gettysburg Address, the Bill of Rights, Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers, the Emancipation Proclamation, the NATO Charter, the flag flown from the summit of Mount Suribachi by the marines on Iwo Jima during World War II, the German Surrender document, Victory War bonds sold to Americans to help finance the war…130 priceless pieces of our freedom heritage.
Ahead of the train and after it passed, the air waves were filled with patriotic programing. New York promised listeners,
“Two hours of star-studded programs saluting the Freedom Train are scheduled on WNEW tonight from 9 to 11 p.m.
“The station has cancelled all regular programs in order to present this special feature which will include ‘The Lonesome Train’ by Norman Corwin, ‘Patrick Henry and the Frigate's Keel’ with Clifton Fadiman, Orson Welles performing readings from ‘The American Condition,’ Bing Crosby as narrator and singer in ‘The Man Without a Country,’ and ‘Ballad for Americans’ sung by Paul Robeson and chorus. Arthur Godfrey will take a CBS microphone aboard the Freedom Train at Grand Central Station on Wednesday at 5:45 p m. to give listeners a word picture of the unique train which is carrying historic documents to all parts of the country.” 1
On the Rails through the Nation
While the Freedom Train inspired Americans’ pride in their country, there were still undercurrents of resentment against those who didn’t quite fit the mold As one Arkansas newspaper editorial noted, regarding the influx of European refugees:
“In these troublesome times…it may sound a bit brutal to those who have not given sufficient thought to the subject.We consider the time ripe to stop thinking with our hearts and start thinking with our heads on the matter of admitting 400,000 displaced foreigners to the United States.” 2
However, as one Baptist minister in Syracuse, New York remarked, “We must get rid of the idea that displaced persons are the scum of the earth. They are industrious, skilled workers, and religious people." 3
In the Deep South, racism was still rampant. The American Heritage Foundation established a rule: “Any city that plans to segregate visitors to the Freedom Train will be bypassed.”Birmingham and Memphis both refused to desegregate their lines of visitors and both, despite pleadings, were bypassed by the Freedom Train.
Whatever the Freedom Train’s reception, the experience of passing down the hushed aisle was, as one newspaper reporter noted, “one has the feeling he is in church.” 4
Journey’s End—Freedom’s Rededication Takes Root
From September, 1947 to January, 1949, the Freedom Train crisscrossed the entire United States to finally end its odyssey in time for Harry S. Truman’s presidential inauguration in Washington D.C. He had sent the train off in Philadelphia and was there at the end. He had won re-election aboard his own train, traveling across the country gathering in grass-roots voters to the trackside cry of “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” Another inspired train shared the rails—the “Friendship Train”—brought tons of donated food to war ravaged Europe and received boxcars of gifts from the Europeans called, the “Merci (Thank you) Train.”
The Freedom Train was a bold concept, aimed at unifying a fractured United States. Despite the ballyhoo and hoopla pushing its conservative consumerism message, it offered needed moments of genuine patriotic respite in a post-war time of divisive challenges and solutions.
One of the Freedom Train’s traveling staff members summed up their experiences that spanned the journey.
“After a while you get up in the morning and start feeling for your Uncle Sam beard. When you see what this country and these documents mean to people—how they stand out there all day to see the things that make the nation great—you get a lump in your throat.”5
The Freedom Train was a rock star and a creature of a jumbled post-war world, striving to bring a measure of unity and order out of chaos to Americans lining the tracks, waiting for the shout,
“Here she comes!”
1. Bridgeport (Connecticut) Telegram of September 22, 1947
2. Camden (Arkansas) News September 13, 1947
3. Syracuse Herald Journal, January 11, 1948)
4. Gilbert Bailey, "Why They Throng to the Freedom Train," New York Times Magazine, January 25, 1948.
5. Ibid., Bailey