Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Good War?

I'm slowly reading the late Howard Zinn's epic A People's History of the United States. It's such clear thinking; an amazing book. A loss not to have him around any longer. I'm amazed in chapter after chapter at how clearly he identifies the established historical myths about American history and then harpoons them with a reordering of the facts and a change in perspective from that of the rulers to that of the people.

This couldn't be clearer in his description of World War Two. Even many who think of themselves as radicals and pacifists wind up giving that war some kind of pass. It was the defeat of fascism! It was done to save the Jews from genocide! The U.S. was attacked!

Here are some excerpts from the People's History that put that war in context:

"For the United States to step forward as a defender of helpless countries matched its image in American high school history textbooks, but not its record in world affairs.... What seemed clear at the time was that the United states was a democracy with certain liberties, while Germany was a dictatorship persecuting its Jewish minority, imprisoning dissidents, whatever their religion, while proclaiming the supremacy of the Nordic 'race.' However, blacks, looking at anti-Semitism in Germany might not see their own situation in the U.S. as much different. And the United States had done little about Hitler's policies of persecution.....It was not Hitler's attacks on the Jews that brought the United States into World War II, ant more than the enslavement of 4 million blacks brought Civil War in 1861...It was the Japanese attack on a link in the American Pacific Empire that did it....

"Was the war war being fought to establish that Hitler was wrong in his ideas of white Nordic supremacy over 'inferior' races? The United States armed forces were segregated by race. When troops were jammed on the Queen Mary in early 1945 to go to combat duty in the European theater, the blacks were stowed down in the depths of the ship near the engine room, as far as possible from the fresh air of the deck, in a bizarre reminder of the slave voyages of old. The Red Cross, with government approval, separated the blood donations of black and white....

"The war not only put the United States in a position to dominate much of the world; it created conditions for effective control at home. The unemployment, the economic distress, and the consequent turmoil that had marked the thirties, only partly relieved by New Deal measures, had been pacified, overcome by the greater turmoil of the war."

That's key sentences in something like ten pages. The whole thing is really required reading, especially today as we find ourselves repeating so much that happened in the 1930s, without, thus far, the class struggle.

(Photo of the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz at Oswiecim, Poland, taken by me in 1976)


  1. i have made this argument before, but i will say that i don't think it precludes our involvement. hitler was an evil individual. we have had plenty of evil individuals in our history, but hopefully never one that so openly commits genocide. hitler took genocide to a new level. and no matter why we got involved, or how unjust our own racial policies, surely you concede that WWII needed to be lost by hitler...?

  2. Of course the world is better off without Hitler... but I can't help believing that Hitler's horror is in some way perpetuated by the way in which that war was fought.

    I know you will find interesting a document I just found, read and posted upblog that touches on this issue exactly.