Fred Rogers was not a Navy Seal sniper with thirty confirmed kills during the Vietnam War. Nor was he a Marine who hid his death-dealing skills by presenting himself as a kind and gentle soul. Although it's easy to find these claims on the Internet, the real truth is that Rogers was a pacifist who fashioned Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as a platform for sharing his countercultural beliefs about nonviolence.
Rogers opposed the Vietnam War, and in the very first week his program went national in 1968, he broadcast a story about Lady Aberlin and Daniel Striped Tiger successfully resisting King Friday's plans to prepare the Neighborhood of Make-Believe for war. "Isn't peace wonderful?" Mister Rogers asks his viewers at the end of this inaugural series.
Rogers also opposed the nuclear arms race, and in 1983 he broadcast the most concerted antiwar effort of his career: an entire week of programs whose story line saw dissidents Lady Aberlin and Lady Elaine Fairchilde campaigning against King Friday's ill-informed plan to win an (imagined) arms race against neighboring Southwood.
Rogers even dissented from the wildly popular Persian Gulf War. In 1991 he commended Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania for introducing a bill designed to exempt from combat one parent of military couples or single parents who were their children's sole provider. Here's what he wrote to Heinz:
"Even though I believe that no parent or child should have to go to war, I strongly applaud your efforts to insure that at least one parent is available to young children, especially in such a threatening time. We must not perpetuate abuse from one generation to the next--and separation from a young child's security (their loved ones) is a gross form of abuse."
For Rogers, the Gulf War, like all wars, was about abuse, not liberation, and US politicians and generals, like all war-makers, were abusers, not liberators. As he put this in a letter to a friend at the time, "To raise a generation which is not abused (by war or any other means) should be our goal. As you can see so clearly the abused grow up to be the abusers--sometimes on a worldwide scale."
During the course of the war, Rogers also penned a Make-Believe story in which a "big thing" rolls into the Neighborhood, prompting a panicky King Friday to shout, "Call out the troops!" The crisis is resolved only when a friendly Robert Troll engages the big thing in conversation. In the Neighborhood, diplomacy always wins the day, even in times of invasion, like Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait.
Rogers also dissented from the War on Terror. As that war was well underway, he stood before Dartmouth graduates and told them,
"It's you I like, that deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive: Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed. ... So in all that you do, in all that you do, I wish you the strength and the grace to make those choices which will allow you and your neighbor to become the best of whoever you are."
The language was subtle, but the words were clear: Rogers was yet again subverting the nation's boisterous call to war.
Fred Rogers was no wild-eyed Abbie Hoffman; mystically levitating the Pentagon wasn't his thing. Nor, for that matter, was he a Martin Luther King, Jr.; demonstrating for peace in noisy streets wasn't his thing either.
But in the quiet of a studio, behind the staring eye of a camera, and sometimes in public settings, Rogers became a leading peace activist in his own right, intent on showing the beauty and power of peacemaking to children and adults surrounded by a society poised to kill.
Simply stated, Rogers was a pacifist because he believed God was one too.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that God never gives up on any of us, no matter what we say or do, and that God wants each of us to bear witness to that same type of unconditional, enduring, and nonviolent love for everyone in any and all situations.
Rogers never lived to see his faith-fueled dream fulfilled: A generation not abused by the horrors of war never arose out of the ashes.
Nor have we seen his dream fulfilled.
Millions of us who were shaped by his program have gone on to support US military action without thinking twice, and this holiday season will see many of us cheering for Americvan Sniper.
Who have we become?
Are we no longer neighbors?
Whatever the answer may be, I suspect that Rogers would still invite us back to the old Neighborhood, assure us that he still loves us just as we are, and then gently encourage us, as he so often did, to resist King Friday and all others who would dare to turn neighbors worthy of love into enemies deserving of death.
Just as he was, Fred Rogers was peace.