This year, the nation of Austria celebrates the 60th anniversary of its liberation from Nazi occupation. With the Allied victory in May 1945, the German “Anschluss” that had dragooned Austrians into Hitler’s socialist Third Reich in 1938 passed into history as a testament to evil.
Austrians are marking a lesser anniversary this year as well, but one that has deep personal significance for me. Forty years ago, one of the most popular movies of all time was released: “The Sound of Music,” directed by Robert Wise.
The movie quickly became the box office king of 1965. An American movie aimed primarily at an American audience, it loosely told the story of the von Trapps of Austria and how the family escaped Hitler’s grasp. The beauty of the Alpine mountains and the village of Salzburg spurred a pilgrimage of American tourists to Austria that continues to this day. Todd S. Purdum of the New York Times refers to the film as “the last picture show of its kind, a triumph of craftsmanship. ...”
In the summer of 1965, my mother announced one day that she was taking me to a theater in Pittsburgh, 40 miles from our home, to see a film called “The Sound of Music.” I knew nothing of it other than that a lot of singing was involved, and to my mind, that was a good enough reason to stay home. I went reluctantly — and was enthralled. The music and the scenery were memorable, but it was the plot and message that changed my life.
I came from a nonpolitical, working-class family. My father quietly voted Republican, and my mother didn’t vote at all, but had Democratic leanings. When Dad wanted to take my sister and me on a week’s winter vacation to Florida in 1963 and our public school principal objected, Dad let him know in exceptionally colorful terms that we were his kids, not the government’s, and we were headed south. Perhaps that incident planted a seed of anti-authoritarianism in me that sprouted in a darkened theater two years later.
“The Sound of Music” was an awakening. This wasn’t a school telling me that I couldn’t take a vacation. This was a foreign regime absorbing a peaceful, neighboring country and a father facing orders to abandon his family to serve in the military of that very regime he hated.
Something sparked inside me, and it has stayed lit ever since. I wanted to know more about the history of that period, and I began reading everything I could get my hands on, including William L. Shirer’s classic “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” Stories of people yearning for freedom and going to great lengths to secure it captivated me. Socialism, communism, fascism and all the collectivist "isms" became anathema. They reduced to A pushing B around because A thinks he’s got a good idea.
Then came the "Prague Spring" of early 1968. It wasn’t Austria, but it was right next door. The news of the stirrings of liberty in communist Czechoslovakia dominated the newspapers and television. I cheered as the Czechs boldly rattled their Soviet cage. When Moscow crushed Czech liberties with troops and tanks, I was outraged, and I rode a bus to a demonstration in Pittsburgh protesting the Soviet invasion.
This turned my reading to the modern freedom movement — most notably F. A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom,” Henry Grady Weaver’s “The Mainspring of Human Progress,” Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson” and The Freeman, the monthly journal of the Foundation for Economic Education. I recognized that if I wanted to be an effective anticommunist, I had to know something about philosophy and economics.
So I pursued an economics degree at a place that teaches the values of liberty: Grove City College, in Pennsylvania. From there, I went on to be a teacher myself, first at Northwood University and then as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Liberty has been a common theme of my political thought through all those years.
If my mother had not insisted on making the trek to Pittsburgh to see “The Sound of Music,” maybe I would have become a promoter of freedom by some other route. But in hindsight, I have my doubts.
Some say “The Sound of Music” was corny, but for me it was an epiphany. It’s my favorite film, and it always will be.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.