'America's Lost Innocence' Is Hardly a New Refrain

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I got a strangely reassuring letter from my grandfather. He recalled how the tragic assassination of President McKinley had caused many citizens to mourn America's "lost innocence," as well as the murdered president.

The wisdom of my grandfather's historical perspective seems particularly relevant now, after events like the bombing at Atlanta's Olympic Park. The national news media has asserted pessimistically that America is "losing whatever may be left of its old immunity" (as Times Magazines' Lance Morrow put it).

Yet a quick glance at American history shows that not only have shocking acts of political violence marred our festive public events before, but that we have always overcome the deep anxiety such cowardly acts aroused.

World's Fairs were the greatest showcase for peaceful international competition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The most popular World's Fair held in America was the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Twenty-eight million people came to Chicago to see Little Egypt do her belly dance on the Midway, or take a ride on the 260-foot ferris wheel. The fair would be remembered as the place where the escalator, the monorail, the motion-picture projector, and the automobile were first introduced to the American public. But it was also the first major public event in America to be disrupted by an act of political violence.

A mayor assassinated

Chicago's immensely popular mayor, Carter Harrison, gave a rousing speech to an international delegation of mayors the day before the fair closed. Much of the audience and press were convinced he would become the next president.

At his home that evening, as he was preparing a speech for closing-day ceremonies at the fair, Harrison was interrupted by a frustrated office-seeker named Patrick Eugene Prendergast, who forced his way into the house and shot the mayor three times in the chest before fleeing. Harrison died a few minutes later, and the assassin turned himself in shortly afterward. Instead of a joyful celebration, the closing day at the fair turned into a somber memorial service for the slain mayor.

The next great World's Fair in America was held in Buffalo in 1901. Like Atlanta, the city had won a competition for the event against many larger and wealthier rivals. The Pan-American Exposition was acclaimed for its beautiful Art Nouveau fairgrounds and its dazzling display of changing colored lights on all the major exhibit halls. Sadly, it would be remembered for a tragic event that changed the course of American history.

President William McKinley attended the Buffalo fair on Sept. 5, basking in the admiration of huge crowds. The next day, he held a public reception at the Hall of Music, where thousands of visitors lined up to shake his hand. Among the throng was a young anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, who hid a derringer behind a bandaged hand.

When he finally stepped in front of the president, the boyishly handsome young man pressed his gun against McKinley's breast and fired twice. The assassin was immediately arrested, and the wounded president, after rallying briefly, died on Sep. 14, thus elevating Vice President Teddy Roosevelt to the White House.

A bomb at New York's fair

The New York World's Fair of 1939-40 displayed an optimistic view of "The World of Tomorrow" to visitors, even as the real world was descending into global war.

The first use of commercial television, industrial robots, and all-electronic kitchens were among the wonders at this fair, but the political tensions outside its gates soon dampened the festivities. In the summer of 1940, a bomb blast severely damaged the British Pavilion late one night - the work of Nazi saboteurs, many said. Though no one was injured in the explosion, fear of further attacks prompted the temporary closure of the surrounding area.

The FBI never solved the case, but during its investigation, director J. Edgar Hoover made a speech at the fairgrounds urging citizens to "Remember always that the spy, and the saboteur, or destroyer ... hides behind a hundred fronts."

After these disturbing criminal acts, the press questioned whether any major public event in America would ever be safe again. Yet in dozens of subsequent World's Fairs, Olympics, and music festivals in America, millions of people came together peacefully "...to have fun, and nothing but fun," as the host of the 1969 Woodstock Festival observed.

So, as we listen to today's pundits lament the end of America's "era of innocence," we would do well to remember the lessons of history and find inspiration in the faith and self-confidence of our ancestors.

*Mark A. Wilson is a real estate agent and historian in Berkeley, Calif.

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