The Silent Enemy

The United States battled polio long before it ever faced the Soviet hegemonic threat, but only during the Cold War did the U.S. achieve significant victories in the battle against the virus.

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The United States battled polio long before it ever faced the Soviet hegemonic threat, but only during the Cold War did the U.S. achieve significant victories in the battle against the virus.

A review by Fernando Ortiz Jr.

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Discussed in this essay:

Polio: An American Story. By David M. Oshinsky. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. 342. $20.45

The United States battled polio long before it ever faced the Soviet hegemonic threat, but only during the Cold War did the U.S. achieve significant victories in the battle against the virus. The struggle, as David M. Oshinsky beautifully explains in Polio: An American Story, contributed to middle-class insecurities over real and perceived communist, nuclear, and social threats throughout the era, and it made superstars out of squabbling scientists determined to find a safe vaccine. But the story he tells also serves as a prism through which to view other aspects of U.S. history: the old racial and ethnic fault lines scarring twentieth-century America, the evolution of nationwide fundraising efforts, the heartstring-tugging advertisements needed to inspire donations, and the political maneuvering vital to ensure any historic scientific victory would be seen as a victory only a Western democratic and capitalism system was capable of bestowing to a war-torn world. Oshinsky’s book intertwines each thread to create a vibrant tapestry of tragedy and triumph, groundbreaking science and fleeting fame, and flawed and brittle greatness.1

Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Jonas Salk are the two great mountains dominating the landscape Oshinsky paints for his readers. His narrative talents beautifully trace efforts predating the Cold War that marshaled the American people on a national scale to fight an illness from which no one, not even New York patricians, were safe. Roosevelt’s struggle and determination energized at-first modest efforts to help polio victims, like the Warm Springs rehabilitation center. He then inspired national efforts, like the multi-city celebration of his birthday to raise funds for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, one dime at a time, and like mothers marching through neighborhoods to collect donations. The March of Dimes demonstrated how to creatively organize a public grassroots fundraising movement. Advertisers conceived the poster child to promise what a thousand words could not. The “concept of philanthropy as consumerism” offered hope to Americans “investing” in their nation’s scientific talent, its ingenuity, and its predestined victory. They were funding their own protection.2

Politicians like Roosevelt pointed to the problem. Scientists like Jonas Salk worked on the solution. Oshinsky’s antiheroes are Salk, who focused on a killed-virus vaccine, and his arch-rival Albert Sabin, who worked on a live-virus vaccine. Oshinsky first celebrates their intellectual achievements and then darkens his portraits with their less-than-admirable qualities, like pettiness, selfishness, jealousy, and hypocrisy. Salk and Sabin are both diminished but also become fuller characters, and Oshinsky’s masterful management of this character development is one of the book’s great strengths. People build their lives with mistakes, aspirations, romantic decisions, and insecurities. Oshinsky argues that history is the result of that grinding process. By humanizing Salk, Sabin, and Roosevelt, the three most recognizable figures in the polio history, he makes their scientific and political achievements all the more extraordinary.

Salk’s emergence as the public face of the scientific effort to conquer polio, beginning with his face on the cover of Time magazine and interviews with leading journalist Edward R. Murrow, embodied the Cold War trend of Americans primed to accept expert advice and direction, and certainly expertise was desperately needed during such a health crisis. But Salk, Oshinsky explains, was more than an expert. He appeared to the public as the vanguard of America’s progress. He wasn’t the faceless, all-knowing narrator of films explaining how to get a date or how to endure a nuclear shockwave. Salk was seen, interviewed, trusted, and believed. He was a husband and a father willing to demonstrate his killed-virus vaccines on his own sons before he tried it on anyone else’s. He characterized the polio vaccine as “the people’s vaccine.”3

The massive 1954 vaccination trials signaled that the war on polio was progressing and demonstrated again how polio could marshal Americans on a national scale. Oshinsky notes that the trials shared front-page coverage with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, the Army-McCarthy hearings, and the Brown v. Board of Education court decision – each a key piece of the Cold War struggle with communism at home and abroad, each echoing the vague promises of American democracy. When the Francis Report declared that the Salk vaccine worked, “April 12 resembled another V-J Day.” Sadly, the 1955 Cutter incident shattered the euphoria over and public trust in the vaccine. Critics of the National Foundation’s private efforts to develop and distribute Salk’s vaccine felt vindicated, and they warned of the emergence of socialized medicine. But the Cutter incident’s consequences also included improved polio production, highlighted the effectiveness of the forerunner of today’s Centers for Disease Control, and moved more control over and responsibility for public health into federal hands.4

Oshinsky argues that Salk and Albert Sabin both had Cold War-era political value. Their vaccines symbolized American ingenuity and optimism. The Eisenhower administration sensed Salk’s political value to Republicans angling to not only appear Rooseveltian in their support of the polio war but also to diminish Democratic association with the polio war’s victories. The Sabin vaccine, first administered to millions of Soviet children in 1959, had value to both the U.S. and the Soviets. Sabin found himself angling to ensure news of the successful vaccination program — which he feared could be seen as “typical Soviet propaganda” — was shared with the world. As Soviets asserted that their approach nearly wiped out polio, Americans worried about not just a missile gap, but also a vaccine gap. Americans wanted their Sabin vaccine too.5

Oshinsky subtly weaves ethnicity, class, and race into his polio story. Before the vaccine’s development, Americans blamed immigrants for bringing disease to America (Irish and cholera, Jews and TB) and viewed lower-class slums as cesspools of infection. And yet the poor and rich were struck equally. The wealthy blamed their immigrant servants for bringing infection into their sanitized homes. Polio defied the assumption that disease was found only in the slums. It also shattered the hope that leaving the slum life behind – ascending the class ladder — also meant leaving any risk of crippling disease behind. Scientists thought black Americans were less susceptible to polio, so they received less attention during outbreaks. During the 1954 trials, black Alabama children took their shots outside the white school, where they were banned from the restrooms. And by the mid-1950s, polio, once the scourge of suburban middle class, now ravaged the lower classes who could not afford the three-shot-plus-booster vaccination. Oshinsky also offers a detailed examination of women in this story, particularly killed-virus scientist Isabel Morgan. But there are too few of their stories, which leave the reader yearning for a better gender balance throughout the narrative. Surely, more could have been said about how mothers endured the anguish of crippled or dying children, how wives feared or embraced the sudden publicity burning onto their scientist husbands, or what motivated women to volunteer for fundraisers and vaccination efforts.6

Stylistically, Oshinsky’s decision to explore in narrative form the complex history of the polio struggle is a daring one. He manages a raucous crowd of fascinating and controversial characters with Dickensian elegance, moving them forward in compelling ways through scientific developments that would easily put most readers and historians to sleep, and punctuating his smooth writing style with moments of drama, foreboding, and the ragged endings every life experiences. His devotion to personal details sometimes goes too far, particularly with minor characters, but overall, his focus on the people guiding, experiencing, and enduring the polio struggle humanizes the entire era for readers who may never experience a similar epidemic.

His notes are a mixed bag of secondary and primary sources. Scientific histories and biographies complement letters, diaries, news reports, web links, official reports, and a few interviews, including Salk’s sons, journalist John Troan, and Salk’s embittered underling Julius Youngner. These are the doors Oshinsky leaves open for any curious readers yearning to learn more and for critics who challenge his approach to this history.

Oshinsky’s work is a lavish and intelligent introduction to America’s struggle with the polio virus. Academic readers may sniff over his narrative talents, scoff at his characterizations, and stomp over his less-than-intense analysis of the era’s social and economic themes, but to do so misses the point of his book. Oshinsky’s work is meant to invite readers unfamiliar with the story, to explain the otherwise-intimidating scientific detail, and to celebrate the men and women who achieved great things for mankind. Oshinsky’s overall message to his readers is hopeful and trusting. Americans can make the world a better place. They have done it before, he says, pointing at his book, and they will do it again and again and again.


1. David M. Oshinsky, Polio: An American Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
2. Oshinsky, Polio, 5, 40-55, 72. Warm Springs, a 2005 HBO movie, illustrated Roosevelt’s struggle with polio, his efforts to establish the Georgia facilities, and his cinematic journey from aristocratic politician to a man of the people ready to assume a role of national leadership.
3. Oshinsky, Polio, 205-211.
4. Oshinsky, Polio, 188-199, 203, 238.
5. Oshinsky, Polio, 215-216, 253, 266.
6. Oshinsky, Polio, 20-23, 65-67, 256.

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Designers target toddlers / Air power and Mahan / Chelsea Clinton / Biden the perfect VP / Fiery Sean Penn

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism.

1. Rich toddlers draw fashion designers’ eyes
By Anne D’Innocenzio | Associated Press | Aug. 12
“Some designer houses like Oscar de la Renta and Marni say they’re careful to keep the clothes appropriate for kids. But there are plenty of miniature versions of the adult looks that raise eyebrows because of their eye-catching prices and sophisticated styles.”

2. Answering kids’ sex questions
By Tracy Clark-Flory | Salon | Aug. 15
“The blog ‘Sex Questions From Seventh Graders’ went viral. Now we answer their adult-stumping queries”

3. Air Power Meets Alfred Thayer Mahan
By James R. Holmes | The Naval Diplomat :: The Diplomat | Aug. 15
“In wartime, wrote Mahan, navies should amass ‘overbearing power’ to sweep enemy fleets from the nautical common. Having done so, the victor could put those waters to whatever use he pleased. Pilots likewise think in terms of ridding the skies of opposing fleets.”

4. Waiting in the Wings
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“An Exclusive Interview with Chelsea Clinton”

5. Joe Biden: The ‘practically perfect’ vice president
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6. Panorama: The big picture from Mars
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7. Cesar Harada: A novel idea for cleaning up oil spills
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8. Sean Penn: a firebrand on and off screen
By Peter Beaumont | The Observer :: The Guardian | Feb. 18
“The actor and director has angered some with his comments on the British stance on the Falklands. But he has a long history of speaking out passionately when he perceives injustice”

9. Brothers in Arms
By Terry L. Jones | Disunion :: The New York Times | July 2
“The 10th Louisiana was the only regiment in its brigade that penetrated the federal position atop Malvern Hill, but the Tigers paid dearly for the honor. …”

10. Retreat from Dunkirk
Witness :: BBC News | June 2
“A British soldier tells us of one extraordinary day on the beaches of Dunkirk during World War II.”

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Grinding teeth / Anglicans in Catholic Church / Islamic life in France / Spanking kids

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism. Read past recommendations from this series here.

1. Bloomberg Kissed Lady Gaga and the World Didn’t End
By Connor Simpson | The Atlantic Wire | Jan. 1
“New Year’s Eve is usually celebrated with drinks, Chinese food, noise makers and confetti and sealed with a kiss at midnight, but some celebrate differently, like by kissing Lady Gaga, clashing with the cops, burning cars in Hollywood and stripping on CNN. Welcome to 2012.”

2. Some Anglicans apply to join the Catholic Church
By Michelle Boostein | The Washington Post | December 2011
“The Vatican [was] set to launch a structure … that will allow Anglican parishes in the United States — and their married priests — to join the Catholic Church in a small but symbolically potent effort to reunite Protestants and Catholics, who split almost 500 years ago.”

3. Emily Dickinson
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“She was a deeply sensitive woman who explored her own spirituality, in poignant, deeply personal poetry, revealing her keen insight into the human condition.”

4. Muslims of France: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Al Jazeera World | December 2011
“Many Muslims would die for France during the First and Second World Wars, but did France recognise their sacrifices? How a generation of Muslims abandoned their parents’ dreams of returning home and began building their lives in France. What challenges face the young Muslims who grew up in France and entered adulthood at a time of economic crisis?”

5. Metaperceptions: How Do You See Yourself?
By Carlin Fiora | Psychology Today | December 2011
“To navigate the social universe, you need to know what others think of you — although the clearest view depends on how you see yourself.”

6. Will We One Day Stop Evolving?
By Michio Kaku | Big Think | October 2011
“Can evolution go on forever, or will we one day stop evolving?”

7. Beware of presidential nostalgia
By Fareed Zakaria | Global Public Square :: CNN | December 2011
“[W]e cannot really tell the quality of a leader judged from the noise of the present. We need time and perspective.”

8. Pro/Con: Spanking
By Jessica Pauline Ogilvie | Los Angeles Times | December 2011
“Pro: Studies show that spanking, properly utilized, can lead to well-adjusted children. Con: Spanking is harmful and can hinder kids later in life.”

9. The Nightly Grind
By C. Claiborne Ray | Q&A :: The New York Times | June 2009
“Why do some people grind their teeth at night?”

10. Can an Airline Pilot Really ‘Make Up’ Time During a Flight?
By J. Bryan Lowder | Explainer :: Slate | November 2011
“Is it just a way of calming passengers?”

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Remembering Hitchens / Terrible presents / OWS collapsing / Word of 2011 / Iraq by the numbers

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1. Christopher Hitchens, Consummate Writer, Brilliant Friend
By Ian McEwan | The New York Times | Dec. 16
“His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned ‘with this hard gem-like flame.’ Right to the end.”

2. I Gave My Kids a Terrible Present
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3. Polemicist Who Slashed All, Freely, Dies at 62
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5. Occupy Wall Street’s center shows some cracks
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6. Q&A: Fixing to Defrag a Disk
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9. Sarah Kay: How many lives can you live?
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10. Edward and Mrs Simpson
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TUNES

Tonight I’m spending some time with the blues, specifically with the Texas Blues Café. Check out the line-up and then listen here.

1. Paul Thorn — Turnip Greens and Long Way from Tupelo
2. Dave Herrero — Bark
3. Tommy Crain and the Cross Town All Stars — Why I Sing the Blues
4. The Geoff Everett Band — Young Love Blues
5. John Mayall — Jacksboro Highway
6. The Shawn Fussell Band — Tulia Texas
7. Bo Cox — Gone
8. Stevie Ray Vaughan — The Sky Is Crying
9. Carolyn Wonderland — Trouble In The City
10. Moosters — Executioner
11. George Thorogood — I Didn’t Know
12. Anna Popovic — Wrong Woman
13. Chris Rea — Houston Angel

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

Brains of abused kids … Are you pregnant? … TX lege maps blocked … More water clues on Mars … Helpful rats.

Most of these great items come from my Twitter feed or Facebook news feed. Follow me on Twitter and on Facebook for more fascinating videos, articles, essays and criticism. Read past recommendations from this series here.

1. Abused children’s brains work like soldiers’ do
By Andy Coghlan | New Scientist | Dec. 6
“When they saw angry faces, the maltreated children showed extra activity in the amygdala and the anterior insula, known to be involved in threat detection and anticipation of pain. Combat soldiers show similar heightened activity.”

2. Supreme Court blocks Texas’ electoral maps
By Sara Ines Calderon | La Politica :: NewTaco | Dec. 9
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3. The Supreme Court order staying new Texas legislative maps
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Read the court order here.

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5. Opportunity Rover Finds Gypsum, ‘Slam-Dunk’ Evidence That Water Flowed On Red Planet
By Timothy Stenovec | The Huffington Post | Dec. 8
“This isn’t the first mineral evidence that water may have flowed on Mars, but … this gypsum deposit may indicate a less-acidic water supportive of microbial life.”

6. Q&A: The Lifespan of a Flash Drive
By J.D. Biersdorfer | Gadgetwise :: The New York Times | July 19
“Q: Several years ago when I bought a flash drive, the clerk said it would retain info for five years. Is this true as a general rule for flash drives? Do they wear out?”

7. ‘Scary’ Volcano Erupts in Ecuador
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“During the past few days, Tungurahua has been unleashing booming explosions, hurling columns of ash some 9,800 to 16,000 feet above its peak, and issuing flows of lava.”

8. How Can You Be Pregnant (For Months) And Not Know It?
By Jena Pincott | The Huffington Post | Dec. 8
“Among pregnant women, 1 in 450 doesn’t know her status until week 20 or later (more than halfway through the pregnancy), and 1 in 2,500 is oblivious until she actually goes into labor.”

9. Rats’ bad rap: Study shows them nice, not naughty
By Seth Borenstein | Associated Press | Dec. 8
“Rats don’t always act like, well, rats. New experiments show rats demonstrating compassion and helping other rodents. It’s a trait some scientists thought was reserved only for humans and higher primates.”

10. 2012 race emerges as novel campaign
By Edward-Isaac Dovere | Politico | Dec. 9
“In a culture where politics has become a springboard to celebrity, the integration of the book tours into the presidential campaign is a natural progression. …”

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TUNES

Tonight I’m spending some time with the blues, specifically with the Texas Blues Café. Check out the line-up and then listen here.

1. Los Lonely Boys — Road House Blues
2. Los Lonely Boys — She’ll Be My Everything for Christmas
3. Van Wilks — Cold Slide of Cool
4. Scotty Meyer Band — A Piece of My Mind
5. Michelle Malone — Soul Chicken
6. Mojo Saints — Gnawin’ Bone
7. Barry McCabe — Kissin’ In Your Sleep
8. Paul Thorn — Viagra
9. Demian Bell — Dynamite
10. Chris Juergensen — Love Dog
11. Marc Broussard — On Santa’s Way Home
12. Blackfoot — Sunshine Again
13. Dr. Wu — Storm Watch Warning