Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Modern Civil Rights Movement

In the late 1940s progress, albeit in fits and starts, began to occur in the movement toward full civil rights for African Americans in the United States. Beginning with Jackie Robinson, major league baseball began the process of integration, as did the military in the late 1940s. In the 1954 case known as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the United States Supreme Court decided that the doctrine of ‘‘separate but equal’’ facilities set forth in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case no longer held true. A year later, the Supreme Court ordered lower courts to use ‘‘all deliberate speed’’ in desegregating the public schools. In the Deep South, governors, state legislatures, and local school boards resisted, in some cases passing laws to try to thwart the ruling. In addition to the landmark Supreme Court ruling, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to sit in the back as a local ordinance required. Her subsequent arrest led to a boycott of downtown businesses by African Americans. It also gave the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., an opportunity to begin his crusade for civil rights long denied African Americans in the South. In September, 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower had to call out the Arkansas National Guard, as well as regular Army troops, to enforce desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, schools. In February, 1960, four African-American students began what became known as "sit-ins" when they sat down at a lunch counter for whites only in Greensboro, North Carolina. Sit-ins became a standard tactic in the civil rights movement, as was also true of the "Freedom Rides'' (busloads of whites and African Americans who came to the South to help support voter registration drives and other civil rights activities) which began in 1961, the year ‘‘Harrison Bergeron’’ was published. Also in 1960, the U. S. Congress passed another civil rights act that allowed federal authorities to ensure that states allowed African Americans the unfettered right to register to vote. Even though the civil rights movement does not specifically relate to ‘‘Harrison Bergeron,'' it stands in the background as being one of the compelling public issues of the time. Vonnegut's use of the issue of equality in the story ignores the racial context on the surface, but it clearly invokes the fears of many, mostly white citizens who feared the federal government would in some way propose schemes that would enforce equality of outcome. Many apparently felt that desegregating the public schools and other facilities amounted to the same kind of tyranny exposed in the story.

The Cold War and Communism

The kind of government authority seen in "Harrison Bergeron'' both mimics and satirizes the way Americans came to see the enemy—socialism/communism and, specifically, the Soviet Union (USSR)—during the Cold War, which was near its height of distrust and fear in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Schools in different states introduced courses such as Communism vs. Americanism during the 1950s to wage the propaganda war at home. The fear of nuclear war led thousands of Americans to build bomb shelters in their backyards. Following Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's promise to "bury" the United States in the late 1950s, significant fear of an authoritarian government taking over the so-called free world intensified in America. Communism as practiced in the USSR and in China meant a tyrannical rule without due process of law enforced by secret police and informers, similar to the way the United States is portrayed in the story. Making the fear more ominous...

(This entire section contains 1176 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

and close to home was Fidel Castro's successful rebellion in Cuba, ending in 1959. By the middle of 1960, Americans realized that Castro was building a socialist state allied with and supported by the USSR. An attempt by the Soviet Union to station missiles in Cuba led to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Trade sanctions against Cuba began in 1960 and continue in the late 1990s. The paranoid climate caused by the establishment of a communist government a mere ninety miles from the United States sent many citizens into panic. Vonnegut recognized that the way communism was practiced led to the failure of its basic promise of providing a workers' paradise of equality in a classless society.

Television and American Culture

One of the few scholarly mentions of "Harrison Bergeron’’ occurs in Robert Uphaus's essay, "Expected Meanings in Vonnegut's Dead-End Fiction." Uphaus identifies the basis of the catastrophe known as the United States government in 2081: television. He asserts, ‘‘The history of mankind, Vonnegut implies in the story, is a history of progressive desensitization partly spurred on by the advent of television.’’ Coincidentally, then newly appointed chair of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, delivered an attack on television five months before ‘‘Harrison Bergeron’’ was published. In the speech, Minow called television "a vast wasteland'' of destructive or meaningless programs. Minow claimed that instead of challenging people to think, television programming was making it easier for people to avoid serious thought. The story clearly uses television as a time filler, a method of preventing average people from thinking, similar to Minow's description. Hazel Bergeron best illustrates this point. Although of ‘‘perfectly average intelligence,’’ she has such a short attention span that she is prevented from remembering why she cries at ‘‘Something real sad [she saw] on television’’: the murder of her son, Harrison. While Vonnegut aims his satiric barbs at overreaching, authoritarian government, television equally bears the brunt of his attack for its role in the erosion of thought. Vonnegut suggests that television serves the same purpose for normal people that the mental handicap radios serve for those above normal in intelligence.

World War II

Vonnegut's skepticism of government power and of scientific solutions to problems comes from his experiences in World War II. Specifically, he was disillusioned by the lies told in the name of winning the war and by the mass destruction caused by application of scientific discoveries to weaponry. As a prisoner of war, Vonnegut survived the Allied bombing raids on Dresden, Germany, in February, 1945. There, over 135,000 people—mostly civilians—died from the bombing, more than the total killed by both atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, later that year. Vonnegut has recounted this story in various places, most notably his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade. In his 1991 autobiographical collage, Fates Worse Than Death, Vonnegut reprints a directory carried aboard British and American bombers in World War II showing ‘‘there wasn't much in the Dresden area worth bombing out of business according to our Intelligence experts.’’ The reason Vonnegut harps on this issue is that the Dresden raids were kept secret from the public for almost twenty years, and then were defended by the claim that Dresden contained targets of military importance. He notes that this act and the subsequent secrecy disillusioned him about his government. This realization that the government can and does lie to its citizens, for ill or for good, serves as the premise for distrust of government power in "Harrison Bergeron.''

Social Sensitivity

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In his book Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s, Kurt Vonnegut reflected on a 1983 speech he gave at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City:

American TV, operating in the Free Market of Ideas ... was holding audiences with simulations of one of the two things most human beings, and especially young ones, can't help watching when given the opportunity: murder. TV, and of course movies, too, were and still are making us as callous about killing and death as Hitler's propaganda made the German people during the frenzied prelude to the death camps and World War II. ...What I should have said from the pulpit was that we weren't going to Hell. We were in Hell, thanks to technology which was telling us what to do, instead of the other way around. And it wasn't just TV.

With these words, Vonnegut is speaking on ideas he used in his story "Harrison Bergeron." In this story, television desensitized Hazel Bergeron, Harrison's mother, to the murder of her own son, which she witnesses while watching television. She does weep over what she sees, but is so numbed by watching television, that she cannot remember why she is crying.

In this story, Vonnegut shows readers that he was deeply affected by Newton Minow's famous 1961 speech about television programming, called "The Vast Wasteland." Minow specifically mentioned violence as a contributor to this wasteland. Near the end of the speech, talking about programming, Minow pleaded for imagination, not sterility; creativity, not imitation; experimentation, not conformity; excellence, not mediocrity. He added, "The power of instantaneous sight and sound is without precedent in mankind's history. This is an awesome power. It has limitless capabilities for good and for evil."

In "Harrison Bergeron", Vonnegut uses some of the ideas Minow discussed, particularly when he portrays television as a desensitizing, numbing, and definitely a thought-stifling—rather than thought provoking—medium. When Harrison goes to the television station instead of to the Legislature to start his revolution, Vonnegut illustrates that awesome power Minow describes in his speech. Vonnegut seems to say that Harrison's power to reach the people and make a new reality (declaring himself emperor) stems from controlling television. Clearly, the government, or at least the Handicapper General, also understands that power.

Joseph Alvarez points out in his overview of "Harrison Bergeron" that Vonnegut gives his reader "a futuristic United States of America in which minds have been so softened or desensitized by television and other forces (fear of enemies) that the people give up their individual rights and aspirations, presumably for the good of the whole society." This sacrifice of the individual for the good of society does not improve conditions for the above average or even the average citizens. The equality standard seems to have been set well below the 1961 average. "In the resulting power vacuum," Alvarez adds, "a ruthless central government created by legislation controls people's lives, which have become as meaningless as if they were machines or automatons.... What really is lost in such a process is beauty, grace, and wisdom."

It cannot be argued that in this satirical short story Vonnegut is speaking out against equality before the law and civil rights. Karen and Charles Wood make this clear in The Vonnegut Statement:

Lest readers think that Vonnegut endorses by satire a continuation of the status quo ante (or current conditions) in relation to equality, that is, legal and customary inequality, he has commented publicly that he learned social equality through his attendance at public schools of Indianapolis. Later in life, he endorsed legal equal opportunity on at least two different occasions.

During the Soviet Russian period of glasnost, or openness, Vonnegut referred favorably in essays and speeches (mentioned in Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons) to the current American glasnost experiment of trying to offer women and people of color the same social regard enjoyed by white men.

Alvarez feels that Vonnegut clearly decries the kind of competition related to social Darwinism. "Vonnegut has championed a free market of ideas and has fought censorship against his own books, and for writers in other countries whose works are suppressed by their governments." Vonnegut has done fairly well as a writer competing in the marketplace of ideas, in Alvarez's opinion: "even though he does not believe he has received fair critical treatment during his later years. In essence, he has complained that critics expect writers always to write their best; they cannot be allowed to write a bad or even mediocre book." It is to Vonnegut's credit that he did not let writing a bad or even mediocre book keep him from writing about the most important ideas that came to his mind.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1964: President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Title VII of the Act establishes The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, sex, national origin, and religion.

Late 1990s: Affirmative action programs, which set guidelines for preferred hiring of minority and women workers and students, come under fire. Businesses and universities are sued for reverse discrimination by whites passed over for various positions and promotions.

1950s: The CIA experiments with various forms of mind control, including testing LSD, a hallucinogen, as a truth serum on U.S. soldiers.

1993: Rumors surface that the FBI is considering using an acoustic mind control device during a standoff with cult leader David Koresh in Waco, Texas. The device, developed by a Russian scientist, is supposedly capable of placing thoughts in a person's mind without the person's knowledge of the source of the thoughts.

1960s: Young people unite in unprecedented numbers to protest the Vietnam War, racism, and sexual discrimination. Vonnegut's writings become very popular in this politically active era.

1990s: ‘‘Hate crime’’ legislation provides stiffer penalties for those convicted of harassment and other crimes directed at people based on their ethnicity, sexual orientation, and physical or mental disabilities. Critics say the laws criminalize thought rather than action, and that punishment varies according to the characteristics of the victim.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading