Historian Howard Zinn critically analyses the conception that World War II was really a "people's war" against fascism, as opposed to yet another inter-imperialist conflict with nothing to offer working people.
"We, the governments of Great Britain and the United States, in the name of India, Burma, Malaya,
Australia, British East Africa, British Guiana, Hong Kong, Siam, Singapore, Egypt, Palestine,
Canada, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, the
Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Virgin Islands, hereby declare most emphatically, that this is
not an imperialist war." Thus went a skit put on in the United States in the year 1939 by the
Two years later, Germany invaded Soviet Russia, and the American Communist party, which had
repeatedly described the war between the Axis Powers and the Allied Powers as an imperialist war,
now called it a "people's war" against Fascism. Indeed almost all Americans were now in
agreement-capitalists, Communists, Democrats, Republicans, poor, rich, and middle class-that this
was indeed a people's war.
By certain evidence, it was the most popular war the United States had ever fought. Never had a
greater proportion of the country participated in a war: 18 million served in the armed forces, 10
million overseas; 25 million workers gave of their pay envelope regularly for war bonds. But could
this be considered a manufactured support, since all the power of the nation-not only of the
government, but the press, the church, and even the chief radical organizations-was behind the calls
for all-out war? Was there an undercurrent of reluctance; were there unpublicized signs of
It was a war against an enemy of unspeakable evil. Hitler's Germany was extending totalitarianism,
racism, militarism, and overt aggressive warfare beyond what an already cynical world had
experienced. And yet, did the governments conducting this war-England, the United States, the
Soviet Union-represent something significantly different, so that their victory would be a blow to
imperialism, racism, totalitarianism, militarism, in the world?
Would the behavior of the United States during the war-in military action abroad, in treatment of
minorities at home-be in keeping with a "people's war"? Would the country's wartime policies
respect the rights of ordinary people everywhere to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And
would postwar America, in its policies at home and overseas, exemplify the values for which the
war was supposed to have been fought?
These questions deserve thought. At the time of World War II, the atmosphere was too dense with
war fervor to permit them to be aired.
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. It had opposed the
Haitian revolution for independence from France at the start of the nineteenth century. It had
instigated a war with Mexico and taken half of that country. It bad pretended to help Cuba win
freedom from Spain, and then planted itself in Cuba with a military base, investments, and rights of
intervention. It had seized Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and fought a brutal war to subjugate the
Filipinos. It had "opened" Japan to its trade with gunboats and threats. It had declared an Open
Door Policy in China as a means of assuring that the United States would have opportunities equal
to other imperial powers in exploiting China. It had sent troops to Peking with other nations, to
assert Western supremacy in China, and kept them there for over thirty years.
While demanding an Open Door in China, it had insisted (with the Monroe Doctrine and many
military interventions) on a Closed Door in Latin America-that is, closed to everyone but the
United States. It had engineered a revolution against Colombia and created the "independent" state
of Panama in order to build and control the Canal. It sent five thousand marines to Nicaragua in
1926 to counter a revolution, and kept a force there for seven years. It intervened in the Dominican
Republic for the fourth time in 1916 and kept troops there for eight years. It intervened for the
second time in Haiti in 1915 and kept troops there for nineteen years. Between 1900 and 1933, the
United States intervened in Cuba four times, in Nicaragua twice, in Panama six times, in Guatemala
once, in Honduras seven times. By 1924 the finances of half of the twenty Latin American states
were being directed to some extent by the United States. By 1935, over half of U.S. steel and cotton
exports were being sold in Latin America.
Just before World War I ended, in 1918, an American force of seven thousand landed at
Vladivostok as part of an Allied intervention in Russia, and remained until early 1920. Five
thousand more troops were landed at Archangel, another Russian port, also as part of an Allied
expeditionary force, and stayed for almost a year. The State Department told Congress: "All these
operations were to offset effects of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia."
In short, if the entrance of the United States into World War II was (as so many Americans
believed at the time, observing the Nazi invasions) to defend the principle of nonintervention in the
affairs of other countries, the nation's record cast doubt on its ability to uphold that principle.
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. Indeed, it had
joined England and France in appeasing Hitler throughout the thirties. Roosevelt and his Secretary
of State, Cordell Hull, were hesitant to criticize publicly Hitler's anti-Semitic policies; when a
resolution was introduced in the Senate in January 1934 asking the Senate and the President to
express "surprise and pain" at what the Germans were doing to the Jews, and to ask restoration of
Jewish rights, the State Department "caused this resolution to be buried in committee," according to
Arnold Offner (American Appeasement).
When Mussolini's Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the U.S. declared an embargo on munitions but
let American businesses send oil to Italy in huge quantities, which was essential to Italy's carrying
on the war. When a Fascist rebellion took place in Spain in 1936 against the elected socialist-liberal
government, the Roosevelt administration sponsored a neutrality act that had the effect of shutting
off help to the Spanish government while Hitler and Mussolini gave critical aid to Franco. Offner
... the United States went beyond even the legal requirements of its neutrality legislation. Had aid
been forthcoming from the United States and from England and France, considering that Hitler's
position on aid to France was not firm at least until November 1936, the Spanish Republicans could
well have triumphed. Instead, Germany gained every advantage from the Spanish civil war.
Was this simply poor judgment, an unfortunate error? Or was it the logical policy of a government
whose main interest was not stopping Fascism but advancing the imperial interests of the United
States? For those interests, in the thirties, an anti-Soviet policy seemed best. Later, when Japan and
Germany threatened U.S. world interests, a pro-Soviet, anti-Nazi policy became preferable.
Roosevelt was as much concerned to end the oppression of Jews as Lincoln was to end slavery
during the Civil War; their priority in policy (whatever their personal compassion for victims of
persecution) was not minority rights, but national power.
It was not Hitler's attacks on the Jews that brought the United States into World War II, any more
than the enslavement of 4 million blacks brought Civil War in 1861. Italy's attack on Ethiopia,
Hitler's invasion of Austria, his takeover of Czechoslovakia, his attack on Poland-none of those
events caused the United States to enter the war, although Roosevelt did begin to give important aid
to England. What brought the United States fully into the war was the Japanese attack on the
American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Surely it was not the humane
concern for Japan's bombing of civilians that led to Roosevelt's outraged call for war-Japan's attack
on China in 1937, her bombing of civilians at Nan king, had not provoked the United States to war.
It was the Japanese attack on a link in the American Pacific Empire that did it.
So long as Japan remained a well-behaved member of that imperial club of Great Powers who-in
keeping with the Open Door Policy- were sharing the exploitation of China, the United States did
not object. It had exchanged notes with Japan in 1917 saving "the Government of the United States
recognizes that Japan has special interests in China." In 1928, according to Akira Iriye (After
Imperialism,), American consuls in China supported the coming of Japanese troops. It was when
Japan threatened potential U.S. markets by its attempted takeover of China, but especially as it
moved toward the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia, that the United States became alarmed and
took those measures which led to the Japanese attack: a total embargo on scrap iron, a total
embargo on oil in the summer of 1941.
As Bruce Russet says (No Clear and Present Danger): "Throughout the 1930s the United States
government had done little to resist the Japanese advance on the Asian continent," But: "The
Southwest Pacific area was of undeniable economic importance to the United States-at the time
most of America's tin and rubber came from there, as did substantial quantities of other raw
Pearl Harbor was presented to the American public as a sudden, shocking, immoral act. Immoral it
was, like any bombing-but not really sudden or shocking to the American government. Russett
says: "Japan's strike against the American naval base climaxed a long series of mutually
antagonistic acts. In initiating economic sanctions against Japan the United States undertook
actions that were widely recognized in Washington as carrying grave risks of war."
Putting aside the wild accusations against Roosevelt (that he knew about Pearl Harbor and didn't
tell, or that he deliberately provoked the Pearl Harbor raid—these are without evidence), it does seem clear that he did as James Polk had done before him in the Mexican war and Lyndon Johnson after
him in the Vietnam war-he lied to the public for what he thought was a right cause. In September
and October 1941, he misstated the facts in two incidents involving German submarines and
American destroyers. A historian sympathetic to Roosevelt, Thomas A. Bailey, has written:
Franklin Roosevelt repeatedly deceived the American people during the period before Pearl
Harbor. ... He was like the physician who must tell the patient lies for the patient's own good ...
because the musses are notoriously shortsighted and generally cannot see danger until it is at their
throats. .. .
One of the judges in the Tokyo War Crimes Trial after World War II, Radhabinod Pal, dissented
from the general verdicts against Japanese officials and argued that the United States had clearly
provoked the war with Japan and expected Japan to act. Richard Minear (Victors' Justice) sums up
Pal's view of the embargoes on scrap iron and oil, that "these measures were a clear and potent
threat to Japan's very existence." The records show that a White House conference two weeks
before Pearl Harbor anticipated a war and discussed how it should be justified.
A State Department memorandum on Japanese expansion, a year before Pearl Harbor, did not talk
of the independence of China or the principle of self-determination. It said:
. . . our general diplomatic and strategic position would be considerably weakened-by our loss of
Chinese, Indian and South Seas markets (and by our loss of much of the Japanese market for our
goods, as Japan would become more and more self-sufficient) as well as by insurmountable
restrictions upon our access to the rubber, tin, jute, and other vital materials of the Asian and
Once joined with England and Russia in the war (Germany and Italy declared war on the United
States right after Pearl Harbor), did the behavior of the United States show that her war aims were
humanitarian, or centered on power and profit? Was she fighting the war to end the control by some
nations over others or to make sure the controlling nations were friends of the United States? In
August 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland and released to the world
the Atlantic Charter, setting forth noble goals for the postwar world, saying their countries "seek no
aggrandizement, territorial or other," and that they respected "the right of all peoples to choose the
form of government under which they will live." The Charter was celebrated as declaring the right
of nations to self-determination.
Two weeks before the Atlantic Charter, however, the U.S. Acting Secretary of State, Sumner
Welles, had assured the French government that they could keep their empire intact after the end of
the war: "This Government, mindful of its traditional friendship for France, has deeply sympathized
with the desire of the French people to maintain their territories and to preserve them intact." The
Department of Defense history of Vietnam (The Pentagon Papers) itself pointed to what it called an
"ambivalent" policy toward Indochina, noting that "in the Atlantic Charter and other
pronouncements, the U.S. proclaimed support for national self-determination and independence"
but also "early in the war repeatedly expressed or implied to the French an intention to restore to
France its overseas empire after the war."
In late 1942, Roosevelt's personal representative assured French General Henri Giraud: "It is
thoroughly understood that French sovereignty will be re-established as soon as possible
throughout all the territory, metropolitan or colonial, over which flew the French flag in 1939."
(These pages, like the others in the Pentagon Papers, are marked "TOP SECRET-Sensitive.") By
1945 the "ambivalent" attitude was gone. In May, Truman assured the French he did not question
her "sovereignty over Indochina." That fall, the United States urged Nationalist China, put
temporarily in charge of the northern part of Indochina by the Potsdam Conference, to turn it over
to the French, despite the obvious desire of the Vietnamese for independence.
That was a favor for the French government. But what about the United States' own imperial
ambitions during the war? What about the "aggrandizement, territorial or other" that Roosevelt had
renounced in the Atlantic Charter?
In the headlines were the battles and troop movements: the invasion of North Africa in 1942, Italy
in 1943, the massive, dramatic cross-Channel invasion of German -occupied France in 1944, the
bitter battles as Germany was pushed back toward and over her frontiers, the increasing
bombardment by the British and American air forces. And, at the same time, the Russian victories
over the Nazi armies (the Russians, by the time of the cross-Channel invasion, had driven the
Germans out of Russia, and were engaging 80 percent of the German troops). In the Pacific, in
1943 and 1944, there was the island-by-island move of American forces toward Japan, finding
closer and closer bases for the thunderous bombardment of Japanese cities.
Quietly, behind the headlines in battles and bombings, American diplomats and businessmen
worked hard to make sure that when the war ended, American economic power would be second to
none in the world. United States business would penetrate areas that up to this time had been
dominated by England. The Open Door Policy of equal access would be extended from Asia to
Europe, meaning that the United States intended to push England aside and move in.
That is what happened to the Middle East and its oil. In August 1945 a State Department officer
said that "a review of the diplomatic history of the past 35 years will show that petroleum has
historically played a larger part in the external relations of the United States than any other
commodity." Saudi Arabia was the largest oil pool in the Middle East. The ARAMCO oil
corporation, through Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, got Roosevelt to agree to Lend Lease
aid to Saudi Arabia, which would involve the U.S. government there and create a shield for the
interests of ARAMCO. In 1944 Britain and the U.S. signed a pact on oil agreeing on "the principle
of equal opportunity," and Lloyd Gardner concludes (Economic Aspects of New Deal Diplomacy)
that "the Open Door Policy was triumphant throughout the Middle East."
Historian Gabriel Kolko, after a close study of American wartime policy (The Politics of War),
concludes that "the American economic war aim was to save capitalism at home and abroad." In
April 1944 a State Department official said: "As you know, we've got to plan on enormously
increased production in this country after the war, and the American domestic market can't absorb
all that production indefinitely. There won't be any question about our needing greatly increased
Anthony Sampson, in his study of the international oil business (The Seven Sisters), says:
By the end of the war the dominant influence in Saudi Arabia was unquestionably the United
States. King Ibn Sand was regarded no longer as a wild desert warrior, but as a key piece in the
power-game, to he wooed by the West. Roosevelt, on his way back from Yalta in February 1945,
entertained the King on the cruiser Quincy, together with his entourage of fifty, including two sons,
a prime minister, an astrologer and flocks of sheep for slaughter.
Roosevelt then wrote to Ibn Sand, promising the United States would not change its Palestine
policy without consulting the Arabs. In later years, the concern for oil would constantly compete
with political concern for the Jewish state in the Middle East, but at this point, oil seemed more
With British imperial power collapsing during World War IT, the United States was ready to move
in. Hull said early in the war:
Leadership toward a new system of international relationships in trade and other economic affairs
will devolve very largely upon the United States because of our great economic strength. We
should assume this leadership, and the responsibility that goes with it, primarily for reasons of pure
Before the war was over, the administration was planning the outlines of the new international
economic order, based on partnership between government and big business. Lloyd Gardner says of
Roosevelt's chief adviser, Harry Hopkins, who had organized the relief programs of the New Deal:
"No conservative outdid Ilopkins in championing foreign investment, and its protection."
The poet Archibald MacLeish, then an Assistant Secretary of State, spoke critically of what he saw
in the postwar world: "As things are now going, the peace we will make, the peace we seem to be
making, will be a peace of oil, a peace of gold, a peace of shipping, a peace, in brief . . . without
moral purpose or human interest . . ."
During the war, England and the United States set up the International Monetary Fund to regulate
international exchanges of currency; voting would be proportional to capital contributed, so
American dominance would be assured. The International Bank for Reconstruction and
Development was set up, supposedly to help reconstruct war-destroyed areas, but one of its first
objectives was, in its own words, "to promote foreign investment."
The economic aid countries would need after the war was already seen in political terms: Averell
Harriman, ambassador to Russia, said in early 1944: "Economic assistance is one of the most
effective weapons at our disposal to influence European political events in the direction we desire,..
The creation of the United Nations during the war was presented to the world as international
cooperation to prevent future wars. But the U.N. was dominated by the Western imperial countries-
the United States, England, and France-and a new imperial power, with military bases and powerful
influence in Eastern Europe-the Soviet Union. An important conservative Republican Senator,
Arthur Vandenburg, wrote in his diary about the United Nations Charter:
The striking thing about it is that it is so conservative from a nationalist standpoint. It is based
virtually on a four-power alliance. . . . This is anything but a wild-eyed internationalist dream of a
world State.... I am deeply impressed (and surprised) to find Hull so carefully guarding our
American veto in his scheme of things.
The plight of Jews in German-occupied Europe, which many people thought was at the heart of the
war against the Axis, was not a chief concern of Roosevelt. Henry Feingold's research (The Politics
of Rescue) shows that, while the Jews were being put in camps and the process of annihilation was
beginning that would end in the horrifying extermination of 6 million Jews and millions of non-
Jews, Roosevelt failed to take steps that might have saved thousands of lives. lie did not see it as a
high priority; he left it to the State Department, and in the State Department anti-Semitism and a
cold bureaucracy became obstacles to action.
Was the 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 onto 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. It
was, ironically, a black physician named Charles Drew who developed the blood bank system. He
was put in charge of the wartime donations, and then fired when he tried to end blood segregation.
Despite the urgent need for wartime labor, blacks were still being discriminated against for jobs. A
spokesman for a West Coast aviation plant said: "The Negro will be considered only as janitors and
in other similar capacities. . .. Regardless of their training as aircraft workers, we will not employ
them." Roosevelt never did anything to enforce the orders of the Eair Employment Practices
Commission he had set up.
The Fascist nations were notorious in their insistence that the woman's place was in the home. Yet,
the war against Fascism, although it utilized women in defense industries where they were
desperately needed, took no special steps to change the subordinate role of women. The War
Manpower Commission, despite the large numbers of women in war work, kept women off its
policymaking bodies. A report of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor, by its director,
Mary Anderson, said the War Manpower Commission had "doubts and uneasiness" about "what
was then regarded as a developing attitude of militancy or a crusading spirit on the part of women
In one of its policies, the United States came close to direct duplication of Fascism. This was in its
treatment of the Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. After the Pearl Harbor attack, anti-
Japanese hysteria spread in the government. One Congressman said: "I'm for catching every
Japanese in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps. ... Damn
them! Let's get rid of them!"
Franklin D. Roosevelt did not share this frenzy, but he calmly signed Executive Order 9066, in
February 1942, giving the army the power, without warrants or indictments or hearings, to arrest
every Japanese-American on the West Coast-110,000 men, women, and children-to take them from
their homes, transport them to camps far into the interior, and keep them there under prison
conditions. Three-fourths of these were Nisei-children horn in the United States of Japanese parents
and therefore American citizens. The other fourth-the Issei, born in Japan-were barred by law from
becoming citizens. In 1944 the Supreme Court upheld the forced evacuation on the grounds of
military necessity. The Japanese remained in those camps for over three years.
Michi Weglyn was a young girl when her family experienced evacuation and detention. She tells
(Years of Infamy) of bungling in the evacuation, of misery, confusion, anger, but also of Japanese-American dignity and fighting back. There were strikes, petitions, mass meetings, refusal to sign loyalty oaths, riots against the camp authorities. The Japanese resisted to the end.
Not until after the war did the story of the Japanese-Americans begin to be known to the general
public. The month the war ended in Asia, September 1945, an article appeared in Harper's
Magazine by Yale Law Professor Eugene V. Rostow, calling the Japanese evacuation "our worst
wartime mistake." Was it a "mistake"-or was it an action to be expected from a nation with a long
history of racism and which was fighting a war, not to end racism, but to retain the fundamental
elements of the American system?
It was a war waged by a government whose chief beneficiary- despite volumes of reforms-was a
wealthy elite. The alliance between big business and the government went back to the very first
proposals of Alexander Hamilton to Congress after the Revolutionary War. By World War II that
partnership had developed and intensified. During the Depression, Roosevelt had once denounced
the "economic royalists," but he always had the support of certain important business leaders.
During the war, as Bruce Catton saw it from his post in the War Production Board: "The economic
royalists, denounced and derided . . . had a part to play now. ..."
Catton (The War Lords of Washington) described the process of industrial mobilization to carry on
the war, and how in this process wealth became more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer
large corporations. In 1940 the United States had begun sending large amounts of war supplies to
England and France. By 1941 three-fourths of the value of military contracts were handled by fifty-
six large corporations. A Senate report, "Economic Concentration and World War II," noted that
the government contracted for scientific research in industry during the war, and although two
thousand corporations were involved, of $1 billion spent, $400 million went to ten large
Management remained firmly in charge of decision making during the war, and although 12 million
workers were organized in the CIO and AFL, labor was in a subordinate position. Labor-
management committees were set up in five thousand factories, as a gesture toward industrial
democracy, but they acted mostly as disciplinary groups for absentee workers, and devices for
increasing production. Catton writes: "The big operators who made the working decisions had
decided that nothing very substantial was going to be changed."
Despite the overwhelming atmosphere of patriotism and total dedication to winning the war,
despite the no-strike pledges of the AFL and CIO, many of the nation's workers, frustrated by the
freezing of wages while business profits rocketed skyward, went on strike. During the war, there
were fourteen thousand strikes, involving 6,770,000 workers, more than in any comparable period
in American history. In 1944 alone, a million workers were on strike, in the mines, in the steel
mills, in the auto and transportation equipment industries.
When the war ended, the strikes continued in record numbers- 3 million on strike in the first half of
1946. According to Jeremy Brecher (Strike!), if not for the disciplinary hand of the unions there
might have been "a general confrontation between the workers of a great many industries, and the
government, supporting the employers."
In Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, according to an unpublished manuscript by Marc Miller
("The Irony of Victory: Lowell During World War II"), there were as many strikes in 1943 and
1944 as in 1937. It may have been a "people's war," but here was dissatisfaction at the fact that the
textile mill profits grew 600 percent from 1940 to 1946, while wage increases in cotton goods
industries went up 36 percent. How little the war changed the difficult condition of women workers
is shown by the fact that in Lowell, among women war workers with children, only 5 percent could
have their children taken care of by nursery schools; the others had to make their own
Beneath the noise of enthusiastic patriotism, there were many people who thought war was wrong,
even in the circumstances of Fascist aggression. Out of 10 million drafted for the armed forces
during World War II, only 43,000 refused to fight. But this was three times the proportion of C.O.'s
(conscientious objectors) in World War 1. Of these 43,000, about 6,000 went to prison, which was,
proportionately, four times the number of C.O.'s who went to prison during World War I. Of every
six men in federal prison, one was there as a C.O.
Many more than 43,000 refusers did not show up for the draft at all. The government lists about
350,000 cases of draft evasion, including technical violations as well as actual desertion, so it is
hard to tell the true number, but it may be that the number of men who either did not show up or
claimed C.O. status was in the hundreds of thousands-not a small number. And this in the face of
an American community almost unanimously for the war.
Among those soldiers who were not conscientious objectors, who seemed willing fighters, it is hard
to know how much resentment there was against authority, against having to fight in a war whose
aims were unclear, inside a military machine whose lack of democracy was very clear. No one
recorded the bitterness of enlisted men against the special privileges of officers in the army of a
country known as a democracy. To give just one instance: combat crews in the air force in the
European theater, going to the base movies between bombing missions, found two lines-an officers'
line (short), and an enlisted men's line (very long). There were two mess halls, even as they
prepared to go into combat: the enlisted men's food was different-worse-than the officers1.
The literature that followed World War II, James Jones's From Here to Eternity, Joseph Heller's
Catch-22, and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead captured this GI anger against the army "brass." In The Naked and the Dead, the soldiers talk in battle, and one of them says: "The only thing wrong with this Army is it never lost a war."
Toglio was shocked. "You think we ought to lose this one?"
Red found himself carried away. "What have I against the goddam Japs?
You think I care if they keep this fuggin jungle? What's it to me if Cummings gets another star?"
"General Cummings, he's a good man," Martinez said.
"There ain't a good officer in the world," Red stated.
There seemed to be widespread indifference, even hostility, on the part of the Negro community to
the war despite the attempts of Negro newspapers and Negro leaders to mobilize black sentiment.
Lawrence Wittner (Rebels Against War) quotes a black journalist: "The Negro . . . is angry,
resentful, and utterly apathetic about the war. 'Fight for what?' he is asking. 'This war doesn't mean
a thing to me. If we win I lose, so what?'" A black army officer, home on furlough, told friends in
Harlem he had been in hundreds of bull sessions with Negro soldiers and found no interest in the
A student at a Negro college told his teacher: "The Army jim-crows us. The Navy lets us serve only
as messmen. The Red Cross refuses our blood. Employers and labor unions shut us out. Lynchings
continue. We are disenfranchised, jim-crowed, spat upon. What more could Hitler do than that?"
NAACP leader Walter White repeated this to a black audience of several thousand people in the
Midwest, thinking they would disapprove, but instead, as he recalled: "16 my surprise and dismay
the audience burst into such applause that it took me some thirty or forty seconds to quiet it."
In January 1943, there appeared in a Negro newspaper this "Draftee's Prayer":
Dear Lord, today
I go to war:
To fight, to die,
Tell me what for?
Dear Lord, I'll fight,
I do not fear,
Germans or Japs;
My fears are here.
But there was no organized Negro opposition to the war. In fact, there was little organized
opposition from any source. The Communist party was enthusiastically in support. The Socialist
party was divided, unable to make a clear statement one way or the other.
A few small anarchist and pacifist groups refused to back the war. The Women's International
League for Peace and Freedom said: ".. . war between nations or classes or races cannot
permanently settle conflicts or heal the wounds that brought them into being." The Catholic Worker
wrote: "We are still pacifists... ."
The difficulty of merely calling for "peace" in a world of capitalism, Fascism, Communism-
dynamic ideologies, aggressive actions-troubled some pacifists. They began to speak of
"revolutionary nonviolence." A. J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation said in later years: "I
was not impressed with the sentimental, easygoing pacifism of the earlier part of the century.
People then felt that if they sat and talked pleasantly of peace and love, they would solve the
problems of the world." The world was in the midst of a revolution, Muste realized, and those
against violence must take revolutionary action, but without violence. A movement of
revolutionary pacifism would have to "make effective contacts with oppressed and minority groups
such as Negroes, share-croppers, industrial workers."
Only one organized socialist group opposed the war unequivocally. This was the Socialist Workers
Party. The Espionage Act of 1917 , still on the books, applied to wartime statements. But in 1940,
with the United States not yet at war, Congress passed the Smith Act. This took Espionage Act
prohibitions against talk or writing that would lead to refusal of duty in the armed forces and
applied them to peacetime. The Smith Act also made it a crime to advocate the overthrow of the
government by force and violence, or to join any group that advocated this, or to publish anything
with such ideas. In Minneapolis in 1943, eighteen members of the Socialist Workers party were
convicted for belonging to a party whose ideas, expressed in its Declaration of Principles, and in
the Communist Manifesto, were said to violate the Smith Act. They were sentenced to prison terms,
and the Supreme Court refused to review their case.
A few voices continued to insist that the real war was inside each nation: Dwight Macdonald's
wartime magazine Politics presented, in early 1945, an article by the French worker-philosopher
Whether the mask is labeled Fascism, Democracy, or Dictatorship of the Proletariat, our great
adversary remains the Apparatus-the bureaucracy, the police, the military. Not the one facing us
across the frontier or the battle lines, which is not so much our enemy as our brothers' enemy, but
the one that calls itself our protector and makes us its slaves. No matter what the circumstances, the
worst betrayal will always be to subordinate ourselves to this Apparatus, and to trample underfoot,
in Its service, all human values in ourselves and in others.
Still, the vast bulk of the American population was mobilized, in the army, and in civilian life, to
fight the war, and the atmosphere of war enveloped more and more Americans. Public opinion
polls show large majorities of soldiers favoring the draft for the postwar period. Hatred against the
enemy, against the Japanese particularly, became widespread. Racism was clearly at work. Time
magazine, reporting the battle of Iwo Jima, said: "The ordinary unreasoning Jap is ignorant.
Perhaps he is human. Nothing .. . indicates it."
So, there was a mass base of support for what became the heaviest bombardment of civilians ever
undertaken in any war: the aerial attacks on German and Japanese cities. One might argue that this
popular support made it a "people's war." But if "people's war" means a war of people against
attack, a defensive war-if it means a war fought for humane reasons instead of for the privileges of
an elite, a war against the few, not the many-then the tactics of all-out aerial assault against the
populations of Germany and Japan destroy that notion.
Italy had bombed cities in the Ethiopian war; Italy and Germany had bombed civilians in the
Spanish Civil War; at the start of World War II German planes dropped bombs on Rotterdam in
Holland, Coventry in England, and elsewhere. Roosevelt had described these as "inhuman
barbarism that has profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity."
These German bombings were very small compared with the British and American bombings of
German cities. In January 1943 the Allies met at Casablanca and agreed on large-scale air attacks to
achieve "the destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system
and the undermining of the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for
armed resistance is fatally weakened." And so, the saturation bombing of German cities began-with
thousand -plane raids on Cologne, Essen, Frankfurt, Hamburg. The English flew at night with no
pretense of aiming at "military" targets; the Americans flew in the daytime and pretended precision,
but bombing from high altitudes made that impossible. The climax of this terror bombing was the
bombing of Dresden in early 1945, in which the tremendous heat generated by the bombs created a
vacuum into which fire leaped swiftly in a great firestorm through the city. More than 100,000 died
in Dresden. (Winston Churchill, in his wartime memoirs, confined himself to this account of the
incident: "We made a heavy raid in the latter month on Dresden, then a centre of communication of
Germany's Eastern Front")
The bombing of Japanese cities continued the strategy of saturation
bombing to destroy civilian morale; one nighttime fire-bombing of Tokyo took 80,000 lives. And
then, on August 6, 1945, came the lone American plane in the sky over Hiroshima, dropping the
first atomic bomb, leaving perhaps 100,000 Japanese dead, and tens of thousands more slowly
dying from radiation poisoning. Twelve U.S. navy fliers in the Hiroshima city jail were killed in the
bombing, a fact that the U.S. government has never officially acknowledged, according to historian
Martin Sherwin (A World Destroyed). Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on the
city of Nagasaki, with perhaps 50,000 killed.
The justification for these atrocities was that this
would end the war quickly, making unnecessary an invasion of Japan. Such an invasion would cost
a huge number of lives, the government said-a million, according to Secretary of State Byrnes; half
a million, Truman claimed was the figure given him by General George Marshall. (When the
papers of the Manhattan Project-the project to build the atom bomb- were released years later, they
showed that Marshall urged a warning to the Japanese about the bomb, so people could be removed
and only military targets hit.) These estimates of invasion losses were not realistic, and seem to
have been pulled out of the air to justify bombings which, as their effects became known, horrified
more and more people. Japan, by August 1945, was in desperate shape and ready to surrender. New
York Times military analyst Hanson Baldwin wrote, shortly after the war:
The enemy, in a military sense, was in a hopeless strategic position by the time the Potsdam
demand for unconditional surrender was made on July 26.
Such then, was the situation when we wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Need we have done it? No one can, of course, be positive, but the answer is almost certainly
The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, set up by the War Department in 1944 to study the
results of aerial attacks in the war, interviewed hundreds of Japanese civilian and military leaders
after Japan surrendered, and reported just after the war:
Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving
Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and
in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic
bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had
been planned or contemplated.
But could American leaders have known this in August 1945? The answer is, clearly, yes. The
Japanese code had been broken, and Japan's messages were being intercepted. It was known the
Japanese had instructed their ambassador in Moscow to work on peace negotiations with the Allies.
Japanese leaders had begun talking of surrender a year before this, and the Emperor himself had
begun to suggest, in June 1945, that alternatives to fighting to the end be considered. On July 13,
Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo wired his ambassador in Moscow: "Unconditional surrender is the
only obstacle to peace.. .." Martin Sherwin, after an exhaustive study of the relevant historical
documents, concludes: "Having broken the Japanese code before the war, American Intelligence
was able to-and did-relay this message to the President, but it had no effect whatever on efforts to
bring the war to a conclusion."
If only the Americans had not insisted on unconditional surrender-
that is, if they were willing to accept one condition to the surrender, that the Emperor, a holy figure
to the Japanese, remain in place-the Japanese would have agreed to stop the war.
Why did the United States not take that small step to save both American and Japanese lives? Was
it because too much money and effort had been invested in the atomic bomb not to drop it? General
Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, described Truman as a man on a toboggan, the
momentum too great to stop it. Or was it, as British scientist P. M. S. Blackett suggested (Fear,
War, and the Bomb), that the United States was anxious to drop the bomb before the Russians
entered the war against Japan?
The Russians had secretly agreed (they were officially not at war with Japan) they would come into
the war ninety days after the end of the European war. That turned out to be May 8, and so, on
August 8, the Russians were due to declare war on Japan, But by then the big bomb had been
dropped, and the next day a second one would be dropped on Nagasaki; the Japanese would
surrender to the United States, not the Russians, and the United States would be the occupier of
postwar Japan. In other words, Blackett says, the dropping of the bomb was "the first major
operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia.. .." Blackett is supported by American historian
Gar Alperovitz (Atomic Diplomacy), who notes a diary entry for July 28, 1945, by Secretary of the
Navy James Forrestal, describing Secretary of State James F. Byrnes as "most anxious to get the
Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in."
Truman had said, "The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a
military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the
killing of civilians." It was a preposterous statement. Those 100,000 killed in Hiroshima were
almost all civilians. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey said in its official report: "Hiroshima and
Nagasaki were chosen as targets because of their concentration of activities and population."
The dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki seems to have been scheduled in advance, and no
one has ever been able to explain why it was dropped. Was it because this was a plutonium bomb
whereas the Hiroshima bomb was a uranium bomb? Were the dead and irradiated of Nagasaki
victims of a scientific experiment? Martin Shenvin says that among the Nagasaki dead were
probably American prisoners of war. He notes a message of July 31 from Headquarters, U.S. Army
Strategic Air Forces, Guam, to the War Department:
Reports prisoner of war sources, not verified by photos, give location of Allied prisoner of war
camp one mile north of center of city of Nagasaki. Does this influence the choice of this target for
initial Centerboard operation? Request immediate reply.
The reply: "Targets previously assigned for Centerboard remain unchanged."
True, the war then ended quickly. Italy had been defeated a year earlier. Germany had recently
surrendered, crushed primarily by the armies of the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front, aided by the
Allied armies on the West. Now Japan surrendered. The Fascist powers were destroyed.
But what about fascism-as idea, as reality? Were its essential elements-militarism, racism,
imperialism-now gone? Or were they absorbed into the already poisoned bones of the victors? A. J.
Muste, the revolutionary pacifist, had predicted in 1941: "The problem after a war is with the
victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?"
The victors were the Soviet Union
and the United States (also England, France and Nationalist China, but
they were weak). Both these countries now went to work—without
swastikas, goose-stepping, or officially declared racism, but under
the cover of "socialism" on one side, and
"democracy" on the other, to carve out their own empires of influence.
They proceeded to share and contest with one another the domination of
the world, to build military machines far greater than the Fascist
countries had built, to control the destinies of more countries than
Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan had been able to do. They also acted to
control their own populations, each country with its own
techniques-crude in the Soviet
Union, sophisticated in the United States—to make their rule secure.
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. The war brought
higher prices for farmers, higher wages, enough prosperity for enough
of the population to assure against the rebellions that so threatened the
thirties. As Lawrence Wittner writes, "The war rejuvenated American
capitalism." The biggest gains were in corporate profits, which rose
from $6.4 billion in 1940 to $10.8 billion in 1944. But enough went
to workers and farmers to make them feel the system was doing well for
It was an old lesson learned by governments: that war solves problems
of control. Charles E. Wilson, the president of General Electric
Corporation, was so happy about the wartime situation that he
suggested a continuing alliance between business and the military for
"a permanent war economy."
That is what happened. When, right after the war, the American
public, war-weary, seemed to favor demobilization and disarmament, the
Truman administration (Roosevelt had died in April 1945) worked to
create an atmosphere of crisis and cold war.