Captain America was a New Deal Democrat

Steve Attewell wrote the following on the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog:

Steve Rogers doesn’t represent a genericized America but rather a very specific time and place – 1930’s New York City.

1.captainamericajoesimonobit1We know he was born July 4, 1920 (not kidding about the 4th of July) to a working-class family of Irish Catholic immigrants who lived in New York’s Lower East Side. This biographical detail has political meaning: given the era he was born in and his class and religious/ethnic background, there is no way in hell Steve Rogers didn’t grow up as a Democrat, and a New Deal Democrat at that, complete with a picture of FDR on the wall.

Steve Rogers grew up poor in the Great Depression, the son of a single mother who insisted he stayed in school despite the trend of the time.  His father died when he was a child; in some versions, his father is a brave WWI veteran, in others an alcoholic, either or both of which would be appropriate given what happened to WWI veterans in the Great Depression, and then [he was] orphaned in his late teens when his mother died of TB.

FDRcapshieldAnd he came of age in New York City at a time when the New Deal was in full swing, Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor, the American Labor Party was a major force in city politics, labor unions were on the move, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was organizing to fight fascism in Spain in the name of the Popular Front, and a militant anti-racist movement was growing that equated segregation at home with Nazism abroad that will eventually feed into the “Double V” campaign.

Then he became a fine arts student.  … …  And if a poor kid like Steve Rogers was going to college as a fine arts student, odds are very good that he was going to the City College of New York.  … …

2.captainamerica8nxjyo0qr1shdts2o3_500And this Steve Rogers, who’s been exposed to all of what New York City has to offer, becomes an explicit anti-fascist

In the fall of 1940, over a year before Pearl Harbor, he first volunteers to join the army to fight the Nazis specifically.  This isn’t an apolitical patriotism forged out of a sense that the U.S has been attacked; rather, Steve Rogers had come to believe that Nazism posed an existential threat to the America he believed in.  New Deal America.

The original Captain American comics are awash with this New Deal/anti-fascist spirit: in his March 1941 premiere issue published by Timely Comics prominently featuring the eponymous hero socking Hitler in the jaw, FDR comes up with the idea for Captain America as a solution to fascist fifth-columnists interfering with America’s war-readiness program.

captainamericasxdjqvIn a deliberate thumb in the eye to Hitler’s racial science, Steve Rogers is turned from a malnourished working-class intellectual into the very image of the Aryan Superman Hitler fetishized by a Jewish refugee scientist – alternately named Joseph Reinstein or Abraham Erskine – who is then gunned down by a Nazi agent.

Captain America takes up the shield presented to him by President Roosevelt, and then spends much of his early issues fighting sabotage and subversion on the home front.

The nature of this subversion is quite pointedly political in addition to a surprising amount of occult and weird science to leaven the mixture – it’s Nazi agents.

3.captainamerica253p09The Red Skull appears in issue #1 as the chief of Hitler’s sabotage program, despite the handicap of, you know, having a red skull instead of a face; in issue #5, Cap takes on the German-American Bund, and it’s the greedy bosses in issue #2 where Captain America acquires his more iconic round shield.

For example, Captain America fights a pair of corporate income tax evaders who for some reason are using Tibetan golems to cover up their crimes, but it’s not striking workers or Japanese-Americans … …

And of course, when he gets to Europe occasionally in drag, he promptly goes to working, punching out Hitler, Goering, Himmler, and any number of other Nazis, and blowing up an astonishing amount of tanks.

I never read Captain America comics, either in the 1940s when I was growing up, or later, and I lived in small-town Maryland, not New York City.  But I did see the movie, “Captain America: the First Avenger” and I thought it captured the spirit of the time very well.

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Steve Rogers Isn’t Just Any Hero by Steven Attewell for Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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