Once upon a time, when we alone determined our fate

Filed under: Hazlehurst,Print |

History, as Henry Ford so memorably said, is bunk. Or, as the inscription carved above the entrance to the National Archives Building in Washington reads, “What’s past is prologue.”

Those were once very American ways of looking at the world. We were a country unbound by a tortured past, unafraid of the future, anxious for change and able to create our future. We alone determined our fate.

We made; we sold; we prospered.

Many of us still believe that America’s best days are yet to come, that we will again prevail as we did in the great Depression and in the Second World War.

The future may be unknowable, but you don’t need to take a trip to the National Archives to understand our past, or to understand how unlikely it is that we can recapture our past economic dominance.

All you need is the September 1949 issue of Fortune magazine.

It’s a big, handsome publication, 188 pages on 10-inch-by-13-inch glossy stock. It’s full of ads from America’s leading companies — Foote Bros. (“Better power transmission through better gears”), McNally- Pittsburg (“A helping hand to make coal a better fuel”), Combustion Engineering (“New power for America”), Lincoln Engineering (“Centralized lubrication systems for major industries”) and Wyandotte Chemicals (“Pharmaceutical purity at carload costs”). There are ads for railroads, for gin and whiskey, for steam turbines, and for automobiles.

The cover story is all about the shining (if somewhat sooty) gem of America’s industrial heartland: Detroit.

Here’s what the authors said about G.M.

“The coolest appraisal of General Motors that an honest reporter can make in the year 1949 is bound to bear an uncomfortable resemblance to a publicity release. … (G.M.) is able to bring men and materials together and let ‘er rip. … G.M. now fields a team that is notable for its agility and precision as well as its heft (and) high corporate efficiency.”

In 1949, Chevy, Ford and Plymouth were the three best-selling brands, collectively accounting for a million and a half sales. Seventeen other brands, including forgotten marques such as Willys, Kaiser, Frazer, and Crosley, also had robust sales. All were designed and built in America by American workers.

Of the approximately 200 advertisers in the magazine, only one touts a foreign-made product: Canadian whiskey.

Sixty-one years later, Fortune is still around, if visibly diminished (8-inch-by-10.5-inch). It’s no Vanity Fair, but, at 180 pages, only slightly smaller than it was 1949. It’s still focused on business and business leaders, but the advertisers have changed. They include Hyundai, Chanel, Canon, VW, Patek Philippe. Siemens, Ultimat (Polish-distilled Vodka), Samsung, Panasonic, Honda and Toyota. One financial service provider, SPDR Gold Shares, has a full-page ad touting “the advantages of investing in gold without the burden of storage and investment costs.”

The editorial tone is different. One piece, tiled “Alcoa and the great North Carolina power grab” begins with this telling sentence: “They used to make aluminum here.” It’s illustrated with pictures of an abandoned schoolhouse and a shuttered smelter. The story is about the hydroelectric dams that Alcoa built in the 1950s, and North Carolina’s attempt to seize control of the dams.

Michael Elliot’s column in the same issue asserts that America isn’t falling behind; the rest of the world is just catching up. And the magazine has an admiring profile of uber-bear Jim Chanos, who believes that the Chinese economy is on “a treadmill to hell.”

So what’s the difference between 1949 and 2010?

Here’s an e-mail note from a conservative local businessmen with wide experience in the world beyond Colorado Springs.

“In 1949 we had big families … no nation in history has prospered with a declining birthrate;

“In 1949 we had real jobs … producing real things … that paid benefits;

“In 1949 we had a sense of place … families lived locally around their employers;

“In 1949 companies paid pensions;

“In 1949 the U.S. was self sufficient in apparel, shoes, ship building, steel, electronics etc, etc.”

AT&T’s 1949 Fortune ad seems to embody the spirit of that vanished time.

“800,000 people own the Bell Telephone business. They have built the best and most widespread system of communications in the world for you to use at low cost … every time you use the telephone, the accumulated savings of these hundreds of thousands of people go to work for you.”

The ad was a call for regulatory relief phrased as a social contract. AT&T proposed a simple deal: We’ll build the world’s best communication system, and you let us make a reasonable return on our investment.

Fine by me.

John Hazlehurst can be reached at john.hazlehurst@csbj.com or at 719-227-5861. Watch him every Tuesday and Friday at 7:45 a.m. on Channel 3, Fox Morning News.