With the Salk Vaccine, why didn’t we experience widespread social distrust?
I was born in August 1954. Seven months before, children from Arsenal Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, received the first injections of the new polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. Mass inoculations followed with no widespread resistance.
Americans cheered the success rate (60-70 percent). Inoculations continued even when a sudden outbreak of some 200 cases occurred. The problem was a faulty batch of the vaccine. Production standards were improved and vaccinations continued unabated.
By August 1955 some 4 million shots had been given. Cases of polio in the U.S. dropped from 14,647 in 1955 to 5,894 in 1956, to virtually zero by 1959. Today, the World Health Organization says polio cases have been reduced by 99 percent worldwide.
Which brings us to Covid-19. Why our massive resistance to inoculation? What gives?
The answer’s not simple. The seeds were sown long ago, in America’s first pilgrims. They mostly came here to be left alone. Our seedbed of stubborn independence was stirred in the Second Great Awakening. It sprouted an evangelical form of Christianity suspicious of institutional authority and traditions.
These tender shoots took hold in the mid-1800s with the church planting movement. The leaders of the largest denomination felt that if believers have a Bible, the Holy Spirit, and a brain; then no authority—religious or otherwise—can influence their beliefs.
Our nation’s leading culture-shapers felt similarly, except that most were not Christians. No Bible or Holy Spirit. They did however agree that we have a brain, so they felt that no authority—including religious institutions—should influence their beliefs. Faith or no faith, Americans were, by and large suspicious, of authority and institutions.
Suspicion’s tender shoots took a beating in the first half of the 20th century. A Depression and two World Wars will do that, as our nation pulled together. We experienced social cohesion. It lasted a while after the war, including the year 1954 when the Salk vaccine was introduced. It’s why there was no widespread resistance.
Elvis Presley began recording in 1954. He was followed by a slew of artists, philosophers, painters, writers—all of them reinvigorating the withered shoots of distrust. Louis Menand tells the story in his new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. One example is Joan Didion who wrote Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). Didion depicts an America where “disorder was its own point.” Another is John Lennon: Don’t trust anyone over 30. Timothy Leary popularized a Boomer mantra: Question Authority.
We think of the 1960s as the classic Boomer decade, writes David Brooks, but the false summer of the 1990s was the high-water mark of the Boomer ethos. Walls were coming down. People were coming together. Faith in individualism meant society would flourish as individuals are liberated from the shackles of institutions and are true to themselves.
How’s that working out?
Not well. Affluent Boomers (and GenX) came through the 2008 housing crisis and widening wage disparities largely unscathed. Same with Covid-19 and the resulting economic crisis. Marginalized communities, however—black, white, Hispanic—have not. Nor have millennials. They tend to feel “the system is rigged.” They distrust our civic and state institutions. They distrust the institutions associated with Covid-19 vaccines.
This has been a long time coming. I recommend Brooks’ article. He notes how, in 1969, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a memo to his boss-to-be, President-elect Richard Nixon: “In one form or another all of the major domestic problems facing you derive from the erosion of the authority of the institutions of American society. This is a mysterious process of which the most that can be said is that once it starts it tends not to stop.”
Moynihan was right on many things. If he was right about the unstoppable erosion of trust, it explains our widespread resistance to vaccines. We’re killing ourselves.
 Godfrey Hodgson, A Great & Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims & the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2006).
 Roger Lundin, From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (Bowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005).
 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001).