December 13, 2011

“Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.”


THE ORIGINAL INSPIRATION FOR THE SIXTIES SLOGAN:

“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”
       Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)
       American poet and writer
       A line from Sandburg’s epic prose poem The People, Yes (1936)
       In the 1960s, several variations of an anti-war slogan began appearing on posters, in print and in songs. The version that became most common (as shown by the comparatively huge number of Google hits it gets) is “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.” Other variations include “Suppose they gave a war and no one came” and “What if they gave a war and nobody came.” It’s not certain who coined the most familiar version, but this much is clear: all of the various iterations of the saying are ultimately descended from a line in Carl Sandburg’s book-length ode to America and it’s citizens, The People, Yes, first published in 1936.
       In the poem, the line is said by a little girl who sees a group of soldiers marching in a parade. It’s from a part of the poem in which Sandburg seems to foresee the potential devastation of a second and possibly a third world war:
       “The first world war came and its cost was laid on the people.
       The second world war — the third — what will be the cost.
       And will it repay the people for what they pay?...
       The little girl saw her first troop parade and asked, 
       ‘What are those?’
       ‘Soldiers.’
       ‘What are soldiers?’
       ‘They are for war. They fight and each tries to kill as many of the other side as he can.’
       The girl held still and studied. 
       ‘Do you know ... I know something?’
       ‘Yes, what is it you know?’
       ‘Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.’


THE EVOLUTION OF THE SIXTIES SLOGAN:

“Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.” 
       Possibly coined by
James R. Newman 
       American mathematician, writer and editor of
Scientific American magazine 
       In the 1960s, several updated versions of Carl Sandburg’s line became popular. They were often used in the context of opposition to the Vietnam War. The most common version, “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came,” was used as a slogan on posters that were sold in Hippie shops in the late Sixties (like the blacklight poster shown at left). It was also used as the title of
a comedy movie in 1970, giving it even broader recognition. Some posts on the Internet claim the now familiar words were first written by Bertolt Brecht in the 1930s. However, they give no source and I couldn’t find one, so I deem that claim doubtful. (As Abraham Lincoln said, “The problem with Internet quotations is that many are not genuine.”) 
       In contrast, the origin of the variation “Suppose They Gave a War and No One Came” is well documented. It was used as
the title of a widely-read article written by the American poet and author Charlotte E. Keyes (1914-1980). The article, about her growing admiration for the anti-war activism of her son Gene, was published in the October 1966 issue of McCall’s magazine. Charlotte’s other son happens to be the quote and phrase maven Ralph Keyes. He noted in his excellent book The Quote Verifier (2006) that his mother saw the phrase “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came” in a 1961 letter to the editor in The Washington Post, written by James R. Newman. Newman was referencing, but apparently misremembering, Sandburg’s line. Charlotte cut out and kept the letter for future reference and later adapted the title of her article from it. Newman may or may not have coined “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.” That paraphrase of Sandburg may already have been floating around at the time. However, I found no use of those words dated earlier than Newman’s 1961 letter in any newspaper archive or anywhere else online. So, he may deserve credit for creating the Sixties slogan (though perhaps inadvertently.) 
       Another variation, “What If They Gave a War and No One Came,” surfaced in 1968 as the title of a song by the now forgotten "Symphonopop" composer and musician
Jonna Gault. And, in 1972, poet Allen Ginsberg echoed her version in his 1972 poem “Graffiti,” which included the lines “What if someone gave a war & Nobody came? / Life would ring the bells of Ecstasy and Forever be Itself again.”


THE DONALD DEBATE VARIATION:

“What if they gave a debate and nobody came?”
       Brad Knickerbocker
       Staff writer and editor for the Christian Science Monitor 
       His humorous question
in an article about the Republican “debate” hosted by Donald Trump, which all but two Republican presidential candidates declined to participate in. (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were the only candidates who agreed to appear.)


THE VIAGRA VARIATION:

“What if You Took Viagra and Nobody Came?” 
       Double entendre title of
an article in the Jan.-Feb. 1999 issue of Mother Jones magazine
       The tongue-in-cheek article discussed some non-drug alternatives to Viagra, such as an artificial nylon-polypropylene penis, penile implant surgery — or a Corvette.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Comments? Corrections? Post them on the Famous Quotations Facebook page.

Related reading, listening and viewing…

Copyrights, Disclaimers & Privacy Policy


Creative Commons License
Copyright © 2009-2014 by Subtropic Productions LLC

The Quote/Counterquote blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. Any duplicative or remixed use of the original text written for this blog and any exact duplications the specific sets of quotations collected for the posts shown here must include an attribution to QuoteCounterquote.com and, if online, a link to http://www.quotecounterquote.com/

To the best of our knowledge, the non-original content posted here is used in a way that is allowed under the fair use doctrine. If you own the copyright to something we've posted and think we may have violated fair use standards, please let me know.

Subtropic Productions LLC and QuoteCounterquote.com are committed to protecting your privacy. We will not sell your email address, etc. For more details, read this blog's full Privacy Policy.