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and Unjust War
Reprinted (with permission of the author) from the book
Declarations of Independence,
(...also found in The
Zinn Reader, and Howard
Zinn on War)
I enlisted in the Army Air Corps in World War II and was an eager bombardier,
determined to do everything I could to help defeat fascism. Yet, at
the end of the war, when I collected my little mementos--my photos,
logs of some of my missions--I wrote on the folder, without really thinking,
and surprising myself: "Never Again." In the years after the
war, I began to plumb the reasons for that spontaneous reaction, and
came to the conclusions which I describe in the following essay, published
as a chapter in my book Declarations of Independence (HarperCollins,
(in Postwar America, Bobbs Merrill, 1973), I had written an essay called
"The Best of Wars," in which I questioned--I was unaware of
anyone else asking the same question--the total acceptance of World
War II. After my own experience in that war, I had moved away from my
own rather orthodox view that there are just wars and unjust wars, to
a universal rejection of war as a solution to any human problem. Of
all the positions I have taken over the years on questions of history
and politics, this has undoubtedly aroused the most controversy. It
is obviously a difficult viewpoint to present persuasively. I try to
do that here, and leave it to the reader to judge whether I have succeeded.
There are some
people who do not question war. In 1972, the general who was head of
the U.S. Strategic Air Command told an interviewer, "I've been
asked often about my moral scruples if I had to send the planes out
with hydrogen bombs. My answer is always the same. I would be concerned
only with my professional responsibility."
It was a Machiavellian
reply. Machiavelli did not ask if making war was right or wrong. He
just wrote about the best way to wage it so as to conquer the enemy.
One of his books is called The Art of War.
That title might
make artists uneasy. Indeed, artists--poets, novelists, and playwrights
as well as musicians, painters, and actors--have shown a special aversion
to war. Perhaps because, as the playwright Arthur Miller once said,
"When the guns boom, the arts die." But that would make their
interest too self-centered; they have always been sensitive to the fate
of the larger society round them. They have questioned war, whether
in the fifth century before Christ, with the plays of Euripedes, or
in modern times, with the paintings of Goya and Picasso.
being realistic. Wars were going to be fought. The only question was
how to win them.
Some people have
believed that war is not just inevitable but desirable. It is adventure
and excitement, it brings out the best qualities in men--courage, comradeship,
and sacrifice. It gives respect and glory to a country. In 1897, Theodore
Roosevelt wrote to a friend, "In strict confidence...I should welcome
almost any war, for I think this country needs one."
In our time, fascist
regimes have glorified war as heroic and ennobling. Bombing Ethiopia
in 1935, Mussolini's son-in-law Count Ciano described the explosions
as an aesthetic thrill, as having the beauty of a flower unfolding.
In the 1980s, two
writers of a book on war see it as an effective instrument of national
policy and say that even nuclear war can, under certain circumstances,
be justified. They are contemptuous of "the pacifist passions:
self-indulgence and fear," and of "American statesmen, who
believe victory is an archaic concept." They say, "The bottom
line in war and hence in political warfare is who gets buried and who
gets to walk in the sun."
Most people are
not that enamored of war. They see it as bad, but also as a possible
means to something good. And so they distinguish between wars that are
just and those that are unjust. The religions of the West and Middle
East--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--approve of violence and war
under certain circumstances. The Catholic church has a specific doctrine
of "just" and "unjust" war, worked out in some detail.
Political philosophers today argue about which wars, or which actions
in wars, may be considered just or unjust.
Beyond both viewpoints--the
glorification of war and the weighing of good and bad wars--there is
a third: that war is too evil to ever be just. The monk Erasmus, writing
in the early sixteenth century, was repelled by war of any kind. One
of his pupils was killed in battle and he reacted with anguish:
Tell me, what
had you to do with Mars, the stupidest of all the poet's gods, you
who were consecrated to the Muses, nay to Christ? Your youth, your
beauty, your gentle nature, your honest mind--what had they to do
with the flourishing of trumpets, the bombards, the swords?
war: "There is nothing more wicked, more disastrous, more widely
destructive, more deeply tenacious, more loathsome." He said this
was repugnant to nature: "Whoever heard of a hundred thousand animals
rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?"
Erasmus saw war
as useful to governments, for it enabled them to enhance their power
over their subjects: "...once war has been declared, then all the
affairs of the State are at the mercy of the appetites of a few."
This absolute aversion
to war of any kind is outside the orthodoxy of modern thinking. In a
series of lectures at Oxford University in the 1970s, English scholar
Michael Howard talked disparagingly about Erasmus. He called him simplistic,
unsophisticated, and someone who did not see beyond the "surface
manifestations" of war. He said,
With all [Erasmus's]
genius he was not a profound political analyst, nor did he ever have
to exercise the responsibilities of power. Rather he was the first
in that long line of humanitarian thinkers for whom it was enough
to chronicle the horrors of war in order to condemn it.
Howard had praise
for Thomas More: "Very different was the approach of Erasmus's
friend, Thomas More; a man who had exercised political responsibility
and, perhaps in consequence, saw the problem in all its complexity."
More was a realist; Howard says,
He accepted, as
thinkers for the next two hundred years were to accept that European
society was organized in a system of states in which war was an inescapable
process for the settlement of differences in the absence of any higher
common jurisdiction. That being the case, it was a requirement of
humanity, of religion and of common sense alike that those wars should
be fought in such a manner as to cause as little damage as possible..
For better or worse war was an institution which could not be eliminated
from the international system. All that could be done about it was,
so far as possible, to codify its rationale and to civilize its means.
said: Don't question the ends of the prince, just tell him how best
to do what he wants to do, make the means more efficient. Thomas More
said: You can't do anything about the ends, but try to make the means
In the 400 years
following the era of Machiavelli and More, making war more humane became
the preoccupation of certain liberal "realists." Hugo Grotius,
writing a century after More, proposed laws to govern the waging of
war ( Concerning the Law of War and Peace). The beginning of the twentieth
century saw international conferences at The Hague in the Netherlands
and at Geneva in Switzerland which drew up agreements on how to wage
approaches however, had little effect on the reality of war. Rather
than becoming more controlled, war became more uncontrolled and more
deadly, using more horrible means and killing more noncombatants than
ever before in the history of mankind. We note the use of poison gas
in World War I, the bombardment of cities in World War II, the atomic
destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of that war, the
use of napalm in Vietnam, and the chemical warfare in the Iran-Iraq
war of the early 1980s.
observing the effects of attempts to "humanize" wars, became
more and more anguished. In 1932, he attended a conference of sixty
nations in Geneva and listened to the lengthy discussions of which weapons
were acceptable and which were not, which forms of killing were legitimate
and which were not.
Einstein was a
shy, private person, but he did something extraordinary for him: he
called a press conference in Geneva. The international press turned
out in force to hear Einstein, already world famous for his theories
of relativity. Einstein told the assembled reporters, "One does
not make wars less likely by formulating rules of warfare....War cannot
be humanized. It can only be abolished." But the Geneva conference
went on, working out rules for "humane" warfare, rules that
were repeatedly ignored in the world war soon to come, a war of endless
In early 1990,
President George Bush, while approving new weapons systems for nuclear
warheads (of which the United States had about 30,000) and refusing
to join the Soviet Union in stopping nuclear testing, was willing to
agree to destroy chemical weapons, but only over a ten-year period.
Such are the absurdities of "humanizing" war.
and Just Wars: Athens
The argument that
there are just wars often rests on the social system of the nation engaging
in war. It is supposed that if a "liberal" state is at war
with a "totalitarian" state, then the war is justified. The
beneficent nature of a government is assumed to give rightness to the
wars it wages.
has been one of the most admired of all societies, praised for its democratic
institutions and its magnificent cultural achievements. It had enlightened
statesmen (Solon and Pericles), pioneer historians (Herodotus and Thucydides),
great philosophers (Plato and Aristotle), and an extraordinary quartet
of playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristphanes). When
it went to war in 431 BC against its rival power, the city-state of
Sparta, the war seemed to be between a democratic society and a military
The great qualities
of Athens were described early in that war by the Athenian leader Pericles
at a public celebration for the warriors, dead or alive. The bones of
the dead were placed in chests; there was an empty litter for the missing.
There was a procession, a burial, and then Pericles spoke. Thucydides
recorded Pericles' speech in his History of the Peloponnesian War:
Before I praise
the dead, I should like to point out by what principles of action
we rose to power, and under what institutions and through what manner
of life our empire became great. Our form of government does not enter
into rivalry with the institutions of others.... It is true that we
are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of
the many and not of the few.... The law secures equal justice to all
alike.... Neither is poverty a bar.... There is no exclusiveness in
our public life.... At home the style of our life is refined.... Because
of the greatness of our city the fruits of the whole earth flow in
upon us.... And although our opponents are fighting for their homes
and we on foreign soil, we seldom have any difficulty in overcoming
them.... I have dwelt upon the greatness of Athens because I want
to show you that we are contending for a higher prize than those who
enjoy none of these privileges.
presidents in time of war have pointed to the qualities of the American
system as evidence for the justness of the cause. Woodrow Wilson and
Franklin Roosevelt were liberals, which gave credence to their words
exalting the two world wars, just as the liberalism of Truman made going
into Korea more acceptable and the idealism of Kennedy's New Frontier
and Johnson's Great Society gave an early glow of righteousness to the
war in Vietnam.
But we should take
a closer look at the claim that liberalism at home carries over into
military actions abroad.
The tendency, especially
in time of war, is to exaggerate the difference between oneself and
the opponent, to assume the conflict is between total good and total
evil. It was true that Athens had certain features of political democracy.
Each of ten tribes selected 50 representatives, by lot, to make a governing
council of 500. Trial juries were large, from 100 to 1,000 people, with
no judge and no professional lawyers; the cases were handled by the
Yet, these democratic
institutions only applied to a minority of the population. A majority
of the people--125,000 out of 225,000--were slaves. Even among the free
people, only males were considered citizens with the right to participate
in the political process.
Of the slaves,
50,000 worked in industry (this is as if, in the United States in 1990,
50 million people worked in industry as slaves) and 10,000 worked in
the mines. H.D. Kitto, a leading scholar on Greek civilization and a
great admirer of Athens, wrote: "The treatment of the miners was
callous in the extreme, the only serious blot on the general humanity
of the Athenians.. Slaves were often worked until they died." (To
Kitto and others, slavery was only a "blot" on an otherwise
The jury system
in Athens was certainly preferable to summary executions by tyrants.
Nevertheless, it put Socrates to death for speaking his mind to young
Athens was more
democratic than Sparta, but this did not affect its addiction to warfare,
to expansion into other territories, to the ruthless conduct of war
against helpless peoples. In modern times we have seen the ease with
which parliamentary democracies and constitutional republics have been
among the most ferocious of imperialists. We recall the British and
French empires of the nineteenth century and the United States as a
world imperial power in this century.
long war with Sparta, Athens' democratic institutions and artistic achievements
continued. But the death toll was enormous. Pericles, on the eve of
war, refused to make concessions that might have prevented it. In the
second year of war, with the casualties mounting quickly, Pericles urged
his fellow citizens not to weaken: "You have a great polis, and
a great reputation; you must be worthy of them. Half the world is yours--the
sea. For you the alternative to empire is slavery."
of argument ("Ours is a great nation. It is worth dying for.")
has persisted and been admired down to the present. Kitto, commenting
on that speech by Pericles, again overcome by admiration, wrote,
When we reflect
that this plague was as awful as the Plague of London, and that the
Athenians had the additional horror of being cooped up inside their
fortifications by the enemy without, we must admire the greatness
of the man who could talk to his fellow citizens like this, and the
greatness of the people who could not only listen to such a speech
at such a time but actually be substantially persuaded by it.
They were enough
persuaded by it so that the war with Sparta lasted twenty-seven years.
Athens lost through plague and war (according to Kitto's own estimate)
perhaps one-fourth of its population.
it was for its free male citizens at home, Athens became more and more
cruel to its victims in war, not just to its enemy Sparta, but to every
one caught in the crossfire of the two antagonists. As the war went
on, Kitto himself says, "a certain irresponsibility grew."
Could the treatment
of the inhabitants of the island of Melos be best described as "a
certain irresponsibility"? Athens demanded that the Melians submit
to its rule. The Melians, however, argued (as reported by Thucydides),
"It may be to your interest to be our masters, but how can it be
ours to be your slaves?" The Melians would not submit. They fought
and were defeated. Thucydides wrote, "The Athenians thereupon put
to death all who were of military age, and made slaves of the women
and children." (It was shortly after this event that Euripides
wrote his great antiwar play, The Trojan Women).
What the experience
of Athens suggests is that a nation may be relatively liberal at home
and yet totally ruthless abroad. Indeed, it may more easily enlist its
population in cruelty to others by pointing to the advantages at home.
An entire nation is made into mercenaries, being paid with a bit of
democracy at home for participating in the destruction of life abroad.
Liberalism at home,
however, seems to become corrupted by war waged abroad. French philosopher
Jean Jacques Rousseau noted that conquering nations "make war at
least as much on their subjects as on their enemies." Tom Paine,
in America, saw war as the creature of governments, serving their own
interests, not the interests of justice for their citizens. "Man
is not the enemy of man but through the medium of a false system of
government." In our time, George Orwell has written that wars are
One certain effect
of war is to diminish freedom of expression. Patriotism becomes the
order of the day, and those who question the war are seen as traitors,
to be silenced and imprisoned.
Mark Twain, observing
the United States at the turn of the century, its wars in Cuba and the
Philippines, described in The Mysterious Stranger the process by which
wars that are at first seen as unnecessary by the mass of the people
become converted into "just" wars:
The loud little
handful will shout for war. The pulpit will warily and cautiously
protest at first.... The great mass of the nation will rub its sleepy
eyes, and will try to make out why there should be a war, and they
will say earnestly and indignantly: "It is unjust and dishonorable
and there is no need for war."
Then the few will
shout even louder.... Before long you will see a curious thing: anti-war
speakers will be stoned from the platform, and free speech will be
strangled by hordes of furious men who still agree with the speakers
but dare not admit it....
Next, the statesmen
will invent cheap lies...and each man will be glad of these lies and
will study them because they soothe his conscience; and thus he will
bye and bye convince himself that the war is just and he will thank
God for a better sleep he enjoys by his self-deception.
Mark Twain died in 1910. In 1917, the United States entered the slaughterhouse
of the European war, and the process of silencing dissent and converting
a butchery into a just war took place as he had predicted.
Wilson tried to rouse the nation, using the language of a crusade. It
was a war, he said, "to end all wars." but large numbers of
Americans were reluctant to join. A million men were needed, yet in
the first six weeks after the declaration of war only 73,000 volunteered.
It seemed that men would have to be compelled to fight by fear of prison,
so Congress enacted a draft law.
The Socialist Party
at the time was a formidable influence in the country. It had perhaps
100,000 members, and more than a thousand Socialists had been elected
to office in 340 towns and cities. Probably a million Americans read
Socialist newspapers. There were fifty-five weekly Socialist newspapers
in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas alone; over a hundred Socialists
were elected to office in Oklahoma. The Socialist party candidate for
president, Eugene Debs, got 900,000 votes in 1912 (Wilson won with 6
A year before the
United States entered the European war, Helen Keller, blind and deaf
and a committed Socialist, told an audience at Carnegie Hall:
war, for without you no battles can be fought! Strike against manufacturing
shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder! Strike against
preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings!
Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction! Be heroes
in an army of construction!
The day after Congress
declared war, the Socialist party met in an emergency convention and
called the declaration "a crime against the American people."
Antiwar meetings took place all over the country. In the local elections
of 1917, Socialists made great gains. Ten Socialists were elected to
the New York State legislature. In Chicago the Socialist party had won
3.6 percent of the vote in 1915 and it got 34.7 percent in 1917. But
with the advent of war, speaking against it became a crime; Debs and
hundreds of other Socialists were imprisoned.
When that war ended,
10 million men of various countries had died on the battlefields of
Europe, and millions more had been blinded, maimed, gassed, shell-shocked,
and driven mad. It was hard to find in that war any gain for the human
race to justify that suffering, that death.
Indeed, when the
war was studied years later, it was clear that no rational decision
based on any moral principle had led the nations into war. Rather, there
were imperial rivalries, greed for more territory, a lusting for national
prestige, and the stupidity of revenge. And at the last moment, there
was a reckless plunge by governments caught up in a series of threats
and counterthreats, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations, ultimatums
and counter-ultimatums, creating a momentum that mediocre leaders had
neither the courage nor the will to stop. As described by Barbara Tuchman
in her book The Guns of August:
War pressed against
every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments struggled and twisted
to fend it off. It was no use. Agents at frontiers were reporting
every cavalry patrol as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun.
General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding
the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour's
head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would
be ultimately responsible for their country's fare attempted to back
away, but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.
disillusion followed the end of the war, and this was reflected in the
literature of those years: Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, John
Dos Passo's U.S.A., and Ford Madox Ford's No More Parades. In Europe,
German war veteran Erich Maria Remarque wrote the bitter antiwar novel
All Quiet on the Western Front.
In 1935 French
playwright Jean Giradoux wrote La guerre de Troi n'aura pas lieu (The
Trojan War Will Not Take Place; the English translation was retitled
Tiger at the Gates). The war of the Greeks against Troy, more than a
thousand years before Christ, was provoked, according to legend, by
the kidnapping of the beautiful Helen by the Trojans. Giraudoux at one
point uses Hecuba, an old woman, and Demokos, a Trojan soldier, to show
how the ugliness of war is masked by attractive causes, as in this case,
the recapture of Helen.
Tell us before you go, Hecuba, what it is you think war looks like.
Like the bottom of a baboon. When the baboon is up in a tree, with
its hind end facing us, there is the face of war exactly; scarlet,
scaly glazed, framed in a clotted filthy wig.
So war has two faces: this you describe, and Helen's.
An Eager Bombardier
My own first impressions
of something called war had come at the age of ten, when I read with
excitement a series of books about "the boy allies"--A French
boy, an English boy, an American boy, and a Russian boy, who became
friends, united in the wonderful cause to defeat Germany in World War
I. It was an adventure, a romance, told in a group of stories about
comradeship and heroism. It was war cleansed of death and suffering.
If anything was
left of that romantic view of war, it was totally extinguished when,
at eighteen, I read a book by a Hollywood screenwriter named Dalton
Trumbo (jailed in the 1950s for refusing to talk to the House Committee
on Un-American Activities about his political affiliations). The book
was called Johnny Got His Gun. It is perhaps, the most powerful antiwar
novel ever written.
Here was war in
its ultimate horror. A slab of flesh in an American uniform had been
found on the battlefield, still alive, with no legs, no arms, no face,
blind, deaf, unable to speak, but the heart still beating, the brain
still functioning, able to think about his past, ponder his present
condition, and wonder if he will ever be able to communicate with the
For him, the oratory
of the politicians who sent him off to war--the language of freedom,
democracy, and justice--is now seen as the ultimate hypocrisy. A mute,
thinking torso on a hospital bed, he finds a way to communicate with
a kindly nurse, and when a visiting delegation of military brass comes
by to pin a medal on his body, he taps out a message. He says: Take
me into the workplaces, into the schools, show me to the little children
and to the college students, let them see what war is like.
Take me wherever
there are parliaments and diets and congresses and chambers of statesmen.
I want to be there when they talk about honor and justice and making
the world safe for democracy and fourteen points and the self determination
of peoples.... Put my glass case upon the speaker's desk and every
time the gavel descends let me feel its vibration.... Then let them
speak of trade policies and embargoes and new colonies and old grudges.
Let them debate the menace of the yellow race and the white man's
burden and the course of empire and why should we take all this crap
off Germany or whoever the next Germany is.... Let them talk more
munitions and airplanes and battleships and tanks and gases and why
of course we've got to have them we can't get along without them how
in the world could we protect the peace if we didn't have them....
But before they
vote on them before they give the order for all the little guys to
start killing each other let the main guy rap his gavel on my case
and point down at me and say here gentlemen is the only issue before
this house and that is are you for this thing here or are you against
Johnny Got His
Gun had a shattering effect on me when I read it. It left me with a
bone-deep hatred of war.
Around the same
time I read a book by Walter Millis, The Road to War, which was an account
of how the United States had been led into World War I by a series of
lies and deceptions. Afterward I would learn more about those lies.
For instance, the sinking of the ship Lusitania by German submarines
was presented as a brutal, unprovoked act against a harmless passenger
vessel. It was later revealed that the Lusitania was loaded with munitions,
intended for use against Germany; the ship's manifest had been falsified
to hide that. This didn't lessen the ugliness of the sinking, but did
show something about the ways in which nations are lured into war.
accounted for some of my feeling about war. I agreed with the judgment
of the Roman biographer Plutarch, who said, "The poor go to war,
to fight and die for the delights, riches, and superfluities of others."
And yet, in early
1943, at the age of twenty-one, I enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force.
American troops were already in North Africa, Italy, and England; there
was fierce fighting on the Russian front and the United States and Britain
were preparing for the invasion of Western Europe. Bombing raids were
taking place daily on the continent, U.S. planes bombing during the
day, British planes bombing at night. I was so anxious to get overseas
and start dropping bombs that after my training ~n gunnery school and
bombing school I traded places with another man who was scheduled to
go overseas sooner than me.
I had learned to
hate war. But this war was different. It was not for profit or empire,
it was a people's war, a war against the unspeakable brutality of fascism.
I had been reading about Italian fascism in a book about Mussolini by
journalist George Seldes called Sawdust Caesar. I was inspired by his
account of the Socialist Matteotti, who stood up in the Italian Chamber
of Deputies to denounce the establishment of a dictatorship. The black-shirted
thugs of Mussolini's party picked up Matteotti outside his home one
morning and shot him to death. That was fascism.
deciding to restore the glory of the old Roman Empire, invaded the East
African country of Ethiopia, a pitifully poor country. Its people, armed
with spears and muskets, tried to fight off an Italian army equipped
with the most modern weapons and with an air force that, unopposed,
dropped bombs on the civilian populations of Ethiopian towns and villages.
The Ethiopians who resisted were slaughtered, and finally surrendered.
poet Langston Hughes wrote,
The little fox
The dogs of war have made their kill.
I was thirteen
when this happened and was only vaguely aware of headlines: "Italian
Planes Bomb Addis Ababa." But later I read about it and also about
German Nazism. John Gunther's Inside Europe introduced me to the rise
of Hitler, the SA, the SS, the attacks on the Jews, the shrill oratory
of the little man with the mustache, and the monster rallies of Germans
in sports stadia who shouted in unison: "Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!"
Opponents were beaten and murdered. I learned the phrase concentration
I came across a
book called The Brown Book of the Nazi Terror. It told in detail about
the burning of the German Reichstag shortly after Hitler came to power
and the arrest of Communists accused of setting the fire, clearly a
frame-up. It told also of the extraordinary courage of the defendants,
led by the remarkable Bulgarian Communist George Dimitrov, who rose
in the courtroom to point an accusing finger at Hermann Goering, Hitler's
lieutenant. Dimitrov tore the prosecution's case to shreds and denounced
the Nazi regime. The defendants were acquitted by the court. It was
an amazing moment, which would never be repeated under Hitler.
In 1936 Hitler
and Mussolini sent their troops and planes to support the Spanish Fascist
Franco, who had plunged his country into civil war to overthrow the
mildly socialist Spanish government. The Spanish Civil War became the
symbol all over the world of resistance to fascism, and young men--many
of them socialists, Communists and anarchists--volunteered from a dozen
countries, forming brigades (from the United States, the Abraham Lincoln
Brigade), going immediately into battle against the better-equipped
army of Franco. They fought heroically and died in great numbers. The
Then came the Hitler
onslaught in Europe--Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. France and
England entered the war, and, a year after the quick defeat of France,
three million German soldiers supported by tanks, artillery, and dive
bombers turned eastward to attack the Soviet Union ("Operation
Barbarossa") along a thousand-mile front.
Fascism had to
be resisted and defeated. I had no doubts. This was a just war.
I was stationed
at an airfield out in the countryside of East Anglia (between the towns
of Diss and Eye), that part of England that bulges eastward toward the
Continent. East Anglia was crowded with military airfields, from which
hundreds of bombers went out every day across the Channel.
Our little airfield
housed the 490th Bomb Group. Its job was to make sure that every morning
twelve B17s--splendid-looking, low-winged, four-engined heavy bombers--each
with a crew of nine, wearing sheepskin jackets and fur-lined boots over
electrically heated suits and equipped with oxygen masks and throat
mikes--were ready to fly. We would take off around dawn and assemble
with other groups of twelve, and then these huge flotillas would make
their way east. Our bomb bay was full; our fifty-caliber machine guns
(four in the nose, one in the upper turret, one in the ball turret,
two in the waist, and one in the tail) were loaded and ready for attacking
I remember one
morning standing out on that airfield, arguing with another bombardier
over who was scheduled to fly that morning's mission. The target was
Regensburg, and Intelligence reported that it was heavily defended by
antiaircraft guns, but the two of us argued heatedly over who was going
to fly that mission. I wonder today, was his motive like mine--wanting
to fly another mission to bring closer the defeat of fascism. Or was
it because we had all been awakened at one AM in the cold dark of England
in March, loaded onto trucks, taken to hours of briefings and breakfast,
weighed down with equipment, and after going through all that, he did
not want to be deprived of another step toward his air medal, another
mission. Even though he might be killed.
Maybe that was
partly my motive too, I can't be sure. But for me, it was also a war
of high principle, and each bombing mission was a mission of high principle.
The moral issue could hardly be clearer. The enemy could not be more
obviously evil--openly espousing the superiority of the white Aryan,
fanatically violent and murderous toward other nations, herding its
own people into concentration camps, executing them if they dared dissent.
The Nazis were pathological killers. They had to be stopped, and there
seemed no other way but by force.
If there was such
a thing as a just war, this was it. Even Dalton Trumbo, who had written
Johnny Got His Gun, did not want his book to be reprinted, did
not want that overpowering antiwar message to reach the American public,
when a war had to be fought against fascism.
anyone wants to argue (as I am about to do) that there is no such thing
as a just war, then World War II is the supreme test.
I flew the last
bombing missions of the war, got my Air Medal and my battle stars. I
was quietly proud of my participation in the great war to defeat fascism.
But when I packed up my things at the end of the war and put my old
navigation logs and snapshots and other mementos in a folder, I marked
that folder, almost without thinking, "Never Again."
I'm still not sure
why I did that, because it was not until years later that I began consciously
to question the motives, the conduct, and the consequences of that crusade
against fascism. The point was not that my abhorrence of fascism was
in any way diminished. I still believed something had to be done to
stop fascism. But that clear certainty of moral rightness that propelled
me into the Air Force as an enthusiastic bombardier was now clouded
over by many thoughts.
Perhaps my conversations
with that gunner on the other crew, the one who loaned me The Yogi and
the Commisar, gave me the first flickers of doubt. He spoke of the war
as "an imperialist war," fought on both sides for national
power. Britain and the United States opposed fascism only because it
threatened their own control over resources and people. Yes, Hitler
was a maniacal dictator and invader of other countries. But what of
the British Empire and its long history of wars against native peoples
to subdue them for the profit and glory of the empire? And the Soviet
Union--was it not also a brutal dictatorship, concerned not with the
working classes of the world but with its own national power?
I was puzzled.
"Why," I asked my friend, "are you flying missions, risking
your life, in a war you don't believe in?" His answer astonished
me. "I'm here to speak to people like you."
I found out later
he was a member of the Socialist Workers party; they opposed the war
but believed that instead of evading military service they should enter
it and propagandize against the war every moment they could. I couldn't
understand this, but I was impressed by it. Two weeks after that conversation
with him, he was killed on a mission over Germany.
After the war,
my doubts grew. I was reading history. Had the United States fought
in World War II for the rights of nations to independence and self-determination?
What of its own history of expansion through war and conquest? It had
waged a hundred-year war against the native Americans, driving them
off their ancestral lands. The United States had instigated a war with
Mexico and taken almost half its land, had sent marines at least twenty
times into the countries of the Caribbean for power and profit, had
seized Hawaii, had fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos, and
had sent 5,000 marines into Nicaragua in 1926. Our nation could hardly
claim it believed in the right of self-determination unless it believed
in it selectively.
Indeed, the United
States had observed Fascist expansion without any strong reactions.
When Italy invaded Ethiopia, the United States, while declaring an embargo
on munitions, allowed American businesses to send oil to Italy, which
was crucial for carrying on the war against Ethiopia. An official of
the U.S. State Department, James E. Miller, reviewing a book on the
relations between the United States and Mussolini, acknowledged that
"American aid certainly reinforced the hold of fascism."
During the Spanish
Civil War, while the Fascist side was receiving arms from Hitler and
Mussolini, Roosevelt's administration sponsored a Neutrality Act that
shut off help to the Spanish government fighting Franco.
Neither the invasion
of Austria nor Czechoslovakia nor Poland brought the United States into
armed collision with fascism. We went to war only when our possession
Hawaii was attacked and when our navy was disabled by Japanese bombs.
There was no reason to think that it was Japan's bombing of civilians
at Pearl Harbor that caused us to declare war. Japan's attack on China
in 1937, her massacre of civilians at Nanking, and her bombardments
of helpless Chinese cities had not provoked the United States to war.
The sudden indignation
against Japan contained a good deal of hypocrisy. The United States,
along with Japan and the great European powers, had participated in
the exploitation of China. Our Open Door Policy of 1901 accepted that
ganging up of the great powers on China. The United States had exchanged
notes with Japan in 1917 saying, "the Government of the United
States recognizes that Japan has special interests in China," and
in 1928, American consuls in China supported the coming of Japanese
It was only 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 that led to the Japanese attack: a total embargo on scrap iron
and a total embargo on oil in the summer of 1941.
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.
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 Oceanic regions.
A War to Save
Did the United
States enter the war because of its indignation at Hitler's treatment
of the Jews? Hitler had been in power a year, and his campaign against
the Jews had already begun when, in January 1934, a resolution was introduced
into the Senate expressing "surprise and pain" at what the
Germans were doing and asking for a restoration of Jewish rights. The
State Department used its influence to get the resolution buried in
Even after we were
in the war against Germany (it should be noted that after Pearl Harbor
Germany declared war on the United States, not vice versa) and reports
began to arrive that Hitler was planning the annihilation of the Jews,
Roosevelt's administration failed to take steps that might have saved
thousands of lives.
of propaganda for Hitler's Germany, wrote in his diary on December 13,
1942: "At bottom, however, I believe both the English and the Americans
are happy we are exterminating the Jewish riffraff." Goebbels was
undoubtedly engaging in wishful thinking, but in fact, the English and
American governments had not shown by their actions that they were terribly
concerned about the Jews. As for Roosevelt, he shunted the problem to
the State Department, where it did not become a matter of high priority.
As an example of
this failure to treat the situation as an emergency, Raul Hilberg, a
leading scholar of the Holocaust, points to an event that took place
in 1942. Early in August of that year, with 1,500,000 Jews already dead,
the Jewish leader Stephen Wise was informed indirectly through a German
industrialist that there was a plan in Hitler's headquarters for the
extermination of all Jews; Wise brought the information to Under Secretary
of State Sumner Welles. Welles asked him not to release the story until
it was investigated for confirmation. Three months were spent checking
the report. During that time a million Jews were killed in Europe.
It is doubtful
that all those Jews could have been saved. But thousands could have
been rescued. All the entrenched governments and organizations were
The British were
slow and cautious. In March 1943, in the presence of Franklin D. Roosevelt,
Secretary of State Hull pressed British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden
on plans to rescue the 60,000 Jews in Bulgaria threatened with death.
According to a memo by Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins who was at that
meeting, Eden worried that Polish and German Jews might then also ask
to be rescued. "Hitler might well take us up on any such offer
and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in
the world to handle them." When there was a possibility of bombing
the railroad lines leading into the murder chambers of Auschwitz, to
stop further transportation of Jews there, the opportunity was ignored.
It should be noted
that the Jewish organizations themselves behaved shamefully. In 1984,
the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust reviewed the historical
record. It found that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee,
a relief agency set up during World War II by the various Jewish groups,
"was dominated by the wealthier and more 'American' elements of
U.S. Jewry.... Thus, its policy was to do nothing in wartime that the
U.S. government would not officially continence."
Raul Hilberg points
out that the Hungarian Jews might have been saved by a bargain: the
Allies would not make air raids on Hungary if the Jews would be kept
in the cities and not sent away. But "the Jews could not think
in terms of interfering with the war effort, and the Allies on their
part could not conceive of such a promise.... The Allied bombers roared
over Hungary at will, killing Hungarians and Jews alike."
As I read this
I recalled that one of the bombing raids I had done was on a town in
Not only did waging
war against Hitler fail to save the Jews, it may be that the war itself
brought on the Final Solution of genocide. This is not to remove the
responsibility from Hitler and the Nazis, but there is much evidence
that Germany's anti-Semitic actions, cruel as they were, would not have
turned to mass murder were it not for the psychic distortions of war,
acting on already distorted minds. Hitler's early aim was forced emigration,
not extermination, but the frenzy of it created an atmosphere in which
the policy turned to genocide. This is the view of Princeton historian
Arno Mayer, in his book Why Did the Heavens Not Darken, and it is supported
by the chronology--that not until Germany was at war was the Final Solution
Hilberg, in his
classic work on the Holocaust, says, "From 1938 to 1940, Hitler
made extraordinary and unusual attempts to bring about a vast emigration
scheme.... The Jews were not killed before the emigration policy was
literally exhausted." The Nazis found that the Western powers were
not anxious to cooperate in emigration and that no one wanted the Jews.
A War for Self-Determination?
We should examine
another claim, that World War II was fought for the right of nations
to determine their own destiny. This was declared with great fanfare
by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt when they met off the coast
of Newfoundland in August 1941 and announced the Atlantic Charter, saying
their countries, looking to the postwar world, respected "the right
of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will
live." This was a direct appeal to the dependent countries of the
world, especially the colonies of Britain, France, Holland, and Belgium,
that their rights of self-determination would be upheld after the war.
The support of the nonwhite colonial world was seen as crucial to the
defeat of fascism.
However, two weeks
before the Atlantic Charter, with the longtime French colony of Indochina
very much in mind, acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles had given
quiet assurances to the French: "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." And in late 1942, Roosevelt's personal representative
told French General Henri Giraud, "It is thoroughly understood
that French sovereignty will be reestablished as soon as possible throughout
all the territory; metropolitan or colonial, over which flew the French
flag in 1939." (These assurances of the United States are especially
interesting in view of the claims of the United States during the Vietnam
War, that the United States was fighting for the right of the Vietnamese
to rule themselves.)
If neither saving
the Jews nor guaranteeing the principle of self-determination was the
war aim of the United States (and there is no evidence that either was
the aim of Britain or the Soviet Union), then what were the principal
motives? Overthrowing the governments of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo
was certainly one of them. But was this desired on humanitarian grounds
or because these regimes threatened the positions of the Allies in the
The rhetoric of
morality--the language of freedom and democracy--had some substance
to it, in that it represented the war aims of many ordinary citizens.
However, it was not the citizenry but the governments who decided how
the war was fought and who had the power to shape the world afterward.
Behind the halo
of righteousness that surrounded the war against fascism, the usual
motives of governments, repeatedly shown in history, were operating:
the aggrandizement of the nation, more profit for its wealthy elite,
and more power to its political leaders.
One of the most
distinguished of British historians, A.J.P. Taylor, commented on World
War II that "the British and American governments wanted no change
in Europe except that Hitler should disappear." At the end of the
war, novelist George Orwell, always conscious of class, wrote, "I
see the railings [which enclosed the parks and had been torn up so the
metal could be used in war production] are returning in one London park
after another, so the lawful denizens of the squares can make use of
their keys again, and the children of the poor can be kept out."
World War II was
an opportunity for United States business to penetrate areas that up
to that time had been dominated by England. Secretary of State Hull
said early in the war,
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
Henry Luce, who
owned three of the most influential magazines in the United States --Life,
Time, and Fortune--and had powerful connections in Washington, wrote
a famous editorial for Life in 1941 called "The American Century."
This was the time, he said, "to accept wholeheartedly our duty
and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world
and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence,
for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit."
The British, weakened
by war, clearly could not maintain their old empire. In 1944 England
and the United States signed a pact on oil agreeing on "the principle
of equal opportunity." This meant the United States was muscling
in on England's traditional domination of Middle East oil. A study of
the international oil business by the English writer Anthony Sampson
By the end of
the war the dominant influence in Saudi Arabia was unquestionably
the United States. King Ibn Saud was regarded no longer as a wild
desert warrior, but as a key piece in the power-game, to be 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.
There was a critic
inside the American government, not a politician but poet Archibald
MacLeish, who briefly served as assistant secretary of state. He worried
about 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."
A War Against
If the war was
truly a war of moral purpose, against the Nazi idea of superior and
inferior races, then we might have seen action by the U.S. government
to eliminate racial segregation. Such segregation had been declared
lawful by the Supreme Court in 1896 and existed in both South and North,
accepted by both state and national governments.
The armed forces
were segregated by race. When I was in basic training at Jefferson Barracks,
Missouri, in 1943, it did not occur to me, so typical an American white
was I, that there were no black men in training with us. But it was
a huge base, and one day, taking a long walk to the other end of it,
I was suddenly aware that all the GIs around me were black. There was
a squad of blacks taking a ten-minute break from hiking in the sun,
lying on a small grassy incline, and singing a hymn that surprised me
at the moment, but that I realized later was quite appropriate to their
situation: "Ain't Gonna Study War No More."
My air crew sailed
to England on the Queen Mary. That elegant passenger liner had
been converted into a troop ship. There were 16,000 men aboard, and
4,000 of them were black. The whites had quarters on deck and just below
deck. The blacks were housed separately, deep in the hold of the ship,
around the engine room, in the darkest, dirtiest sections. Meals were
taken in four shifts (except for the officers, who ate in prewar Queen
Mary style in a chandeliered ballroom--the war was not being fought
to disturb class privilege), and the blacks had to wait until three
shifts of whites had finished eating.
On the home front,
racial discrimination in employment continued, and it was not until
A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters,
a union of black workers, threatened to organize a march on Washington
during the war and embarrass the Roosevelt administration before the
world that the president signed an order setting up a Fair Employment
Practices Commission. But its orders were not enforced and job discrimination
continued. 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
There was no organized
black opposition to the war, but there were many signs of bitterness
at the hypocrisy of a war against fascism that did nothing about American
racism. One black journalist wrote: "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 student at a
black 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?" That
student's statement was repeated by Walter White, a leader of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to an audience
of several thousand black people in the Midwest, expecting that they
would disapprove. Instead, as he recalled, "To 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 a "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
In one little-known
incident of World War II, two transport ships being loaded with ammunition
by U.S. sailors at the Port Chicago naval base in California suddenly
blew up on the night of July 17, 1944. It was an enormous explosion,
and its glare could be seen in San Francisco, thirty-five miles away.
More than 300 sailors were killed, two-thirds of them black, because
blacks were given the hard jobs of ammunition loaders. "It was
the worst home front disaster of World War II," historian Robert
Allen writes in his book The Port Chicago Mutiny.
Three weeks later
328 of the survivors were asked to load ammunition again; 258 of them
refused, citing unsafe conditions. They were immediately jailed. Fifty
of them were then court-martialed on a charge of mutiny, and received
sentences ranging from eight to fifteen years imprisonment. It took
a massive campaign by the NAACP and its counsel, Thurgood Marshall,
to get the sentences reduced.
To the Japanese
who lived on the West Coast of the United States, it quickly became
clear that the war against Hitler was not accompanied by a spirit of
racial equality. After the attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor, anger rose
against all people of Japanese ancestry. 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 now!"
Roosevelt, persuaded by racists in the military that the Japanese on
the West Coast constituted a threat to the security of the country,
signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. This empowered the army,
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, to transport them to camps far in the interior, and to
keep them there under prison conditions.
the Japanese so removed from their homes were Nisei--children born 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 United States Supreme Court upheld the
forced evacuation on the grounds of military necessity.
in the 1980s by legal historian Peter Irons showed that the army falsified
material in its brief to the Supreme Court. When Congress in 1983 was
considering financial compensation to the Japanese who had been removed
from their homes and lost their possessions during the war, John J.
McCloy wrote an article in The New York Times opposing such compensation,
defending the action as necessary. As Peter Irons discovered in his
research, it was McCloy, then assistant secretary of war, who had ordered
the deletion of a critical footnote in the Justice Department brief
to the Supreme Court, a footnote that cast great doubt on the army's
assertions that the Japanese living on the West Coast were a threat
to American security.
Michi Weglyn was
a young girl when her family experienced evacuation and detention. She
tells in her book Years of Infamy of bungling in the evacuation; of
misery, confusion, and anger; but also of Japanese-American dignity
and of fighting back. There were strikes, petitions, mass meetings,
refusals to sign loyalty oaths, and riots against the camp authorities.
Only a few Americans
protested publicly. The press often helped to feed racism. Reporting
the bloody battle of Iwo Jima in the Pacific, Time magazine said, "The
ordinary unreasoning Jap is ignorant. Perhaps he is human. Nothing indicates
In the 1970s, Peter
Ota, then fifty-seven, was interviewed by Studs Terkel. His parents
had come from Japan in 1904, and became respected members of the Los
Angeles community. Ota was born in the United States. He remembered
what had happened in the war:
On the evening
of December 7, 1941, my father was at a wedding. He was dressed in
a tuxedo. When the reception was over, the FBI agents were waiting.
They rounded up at least a dozen wedding guests and took'em to county
For a few days
we didn't know what happened. We heard nothing. When we found out,
my mother, my sister and myself went to jail.. When my father walked
through the door my mother was so humiliated.... She cried. He was
in prisoner's clothing, with a denim jacket and a number on the back.
The shame and humiliation just broke her down.... Right after that
day she got very ill and contracted tuberculosis. She had to be sent
to a sanitarium.... She was there till she died....
My father was
transferred to Missoula, Montana. We got letters from him--censored,
of course.... It was just my sister and myself I was fifteen, she
was twelve.... School in camp was a joke.... One of our basic subjects
was American history. They talked about freedom all the time. (Laughs.)
In England there
was similar hysteria. People with German-sounding names were picked
up and interned. In the panic, a number of Jewish refugees who had German
names were arrested and thrown into the same camps. There were thousands
of Italians who were living in England, and when Italy entered World
War II in June of 1940, Winston Churchill gave the order: "Collar
the lot." Italians were picked up and interned, the windows of
Italian shops and restaurants were smashed by patriotic mobs. A British
ship carrying Italian internees to Canada was sunk by a German submarine
and everyone drowned.
A War for Democracy?
It was supposed
to be a war for freedom. But in the United States, when Trotskyists
and members of the Socialist Workers Party spoke out in criticism of
the war, eighteen of them were prosecuted in 1943 in Minneapolis. The
Smith Act, passed in 1940, extended the anti-freespeech provisions of
the World War I Espionage Act to peacetime. It prohibited joining any
group or publishing any material that advocated revolution or that might
lead to refusal of military service. The Trotskyists were sentenced
to prison terms, and the Supreme Court refused to review their case.
Fortunes were made
during the war, and wealth was concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
By 1941 three-fourths of the value of military contracts were handled
by fifty-six large corporations. Pressure was put on the labor unions
to pledge they would not strike. But they saw their wages frozen, and
profits of corporations rising, and so strikes went on. There were 14,000
strikes during the war, involving over 6 million workers, more than
in any comparable period in American history.
An insight into
what great profits were made during the war came years later, when the
mulitmillionaire John McCone was nominated by President John F. Kennedy
to head the CIA. The Senate Armed Services Committee, considering the
nomination, was informed that in World War II, McCone and associates
in a shipbuilding company had made $44 million on an investment of $100,000.
Reacting indignantly to criticism of McCone, one of his supporters on
the Senate committee asked him:
Now, it is still legal in America, if not to make a profit, at least
to try to make a profit, is it not?
That is my understanding.
Bruce Catton, a
writer and historian working in Washington during the war, commented
bitingly on the retention of wealth and power in the same hands, despite
a war that seemed to promise a new world of social reform. He wrote:
We were committed
to a defeat of the Axis but to nothing else.... It was solemnly decided
that the war effort must not be used to bring about social or economic
reform and to him that hath shall be given....
And through it
all...the people were not trusted with the facts or relied on to display
that intelligence, sanity, and innate decency of spirit, upon which
democracy...finally rests. In a very real sense, our government spent
the war years looking desperately for some safe middle ground between
Hitler and Abraham Lincoln.
It becomes difficult
to sustain the claim that a war is just when both sides commit atrocities,
unless one wants to argue that their atrocities are worse than ours.
True, nothing done by the Allied Powers in World War II matches in utter
viciousness the deliberate gassing, shooting, and burning of six million
Jews and four million others by the Nazis. The deaths caused by the
Allies were less, but still so massive as to throw doubt on the justice
of a war that includes such acts.
Early in the war,
various world leaders condemned the indiscriminate bombing of city populations.
Italy had bombed civilians in Ethiopia; Japan, in China; Germany and
Italy, in the Spanish Civil War. Germany had dropped bombs on Rotterdam
in Holland, on Coventry in England and other places. Roosevelt described
these bombings as "inhuman barbarism that has profoundly shocked
the conscience of humanity."
But very soon,
the United States and Britain were doing the same thing and on a far
larger scale. When the Allied leaders met at Casablanca in January 1943,
they agreed on massive 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."
Churchill and his advisers had decided that bombing working-class districts
of German cities would accomplish just that, "the undermining of
the morale of the German people."
bombing of the German cities began. There were raids of a thousand planes
on Cologne, Essen, Frankfurt, and Hamburg.
The British flew
at night and did "area bombing" with no pretense of aiming
at specific military targets.
The Americans flew
in the daytime, pretending to precision, but bombing from high altitudes
made that impossible. When I was doing my practice bombing in Deming,
New Mexico, before going overseas, our egos were built up by having
us fly at 4,000 feet and drop a bomb within twenty feet of the target.
But at 11,000 feet, we were more likely to be 200 feet away. And when
we flew combat missions, we did it from 30,000 feet, and might miss
by a quarter of a mile. Hardly "precision bombing."
There was huge
self-deception. We had been angered when the Germans bombed cities and
killed several hundred or a thousand people. But now the British and
Americans were killing tens of thousands in a single air strike. Michael
Sherry, in his study of aerial bombing, notes that "so few in the
air force asked questions." Sherry says there was no dear thinking
about the effects of the bombing. Some generals objected, but were overruled
by civilians. The technology crowded out moral considerations. Once
the planes existed, targets had to be found.
It was terror bombing,
and the German city of Dresden was the extreme example. (The city and
the event are immortalized in fiction by Kurt Vonnegut's comic, bitter
novel, Slaughterhouse Five.) It was February, 1945, the Red Army was
eighty miles to the east and it was clear that Germany was on the way
to defeat. In one day and one night of bombing, by American and British
planes, the tremendous heat generated by the bombs created a vacuum,
and an enormous firestorm swept the city, which was full of refugees
at the time, increasing the population to a million. More than 100,000
The British pilot
of a Lancaster bomber recalled, "There was a sea of fire covering
in my estimation some forty square miles. We were so aghast at the awesome
blaze that although alone over the city, we flew around in a stand-off
position for many minutes before turning for home, quite subdued by
our imagination of the horror that must be below."
One incident remembered
by survivors is that on the afternoon of February 14, 1945, American
fighter planes machine-gunned clusters of refugees on the banks of the
Elbe. A German woman told of this years later: "We ran along the
Elbe stepping over the bodies."
who seemed to have no moral qualms about his policy of indiscriminate
bombing, described the annihilation of Dresden in his wartime memoirs
with a simple statement: "We made a heavy raid in the latter month
on Dresden, then a centre of communication of Germany's Eastern Front."
At one point in
the war Churchill ordered thousands of anthrax bombs from a plant that
was secretly producing them in the United States. His chief science
adviser, Lord Cherwell, had informed him in February 1944: "Any
animal breathing in minute quantities of these N (anthrax) spores is
extremely likely to die suddenly but peacefully within the week. There
is no known cure and no effective prophylaxis. There is little doubt
that it is equally lethal to human beings." He told Churchill that
a half dozen bombers could carry enough four-pound anthrax bombs to
kill everyone within a square mile. However, production delays got in
the way of this plan.
The actor Richard
Burton once wrote an article for The New York Times about his experience
playing the role of Winston Churchill in a television drama:
In the course
of preparing myself...I realized afresh that I hate Churchill and
all of his kind. I hate them virulently. They have stalked down the
corridors of endless power all through history.... What man of sanity
would say on hearing of the atrocities committed by the Japanese against
British and Anzac prisoners of war, "We shall wipe them out,
everyone of them, men, women, and children. There shall not be a Japanese
left on the face of the earth"? Such simple-minded cravings for
revenge leave me with a horrified but reluctant awe for such single-minded
and merciless ferocity.
When Burton's statement
appeared in the "Arts and Leisure" section of The New York
Times, he was banned from future BBC productions. The supervisor of
drama productions for BBC said, "As far as I am concerned, he will
never work for us again.. Burton acted in an unprofessional way."
It seems that however
moral is the cause that initiates a war (in the minds of the public,
in the mouths of the politicians), it is in the nature of war to corrupt
that morality until the rule becomes "An eye for an eye, a tooth
for a tooth," and soon it is not a matter of equivalence, but indiscriminate
The policy of saturation
bombing became even more brutal when B29s, with carried twice the bombload
as the planes we flew in Europe, attacked Japanese cities with incendiaries,
turning them into infernos.
In one raid on
Tokyo, after midnight on March 10, 1945, 300 B29s left the city in flames,
fanned by a strong northwest wind. The fires could be seen by pilots
150 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. A million people were left homeless.
It is estimated that 100,000 people died that night. Many of them attempting
to escape leaped into the Sumida River and drowned. A Japanese novelist
who was twelve years old at the time, described the scene years later:
"The fire was like a living thing. It ran, just like a creature
By the time the
atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and another on
Nagasaki (three days later), the moral line had been crossed psychologically
by the massive bombings in Europe and by the fire bombings of Tokyo
and other cities.
The bomb on Hiroshima
left perhaps 140,000 dead; the one on Nagasaki, 70,000 dead. Another
130,000 died in the next five years. Hundreds of thousands of others
were left radiated and maimed. These numbers are based on the most detailed
report that exists on the effects of the bombings; it was compiled by
thirty-four Japanese specialists and was published in 1981.
The deception and
self-deception that accompanied these atrocities was remarkable. Truman
told the public, "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."
Even the possibility
that American prisoners of war would be killed in these bombings did
not have any effect on the plans. On July 31, nine days before Nagasaki
was bombed, the headquarters of the U.S. Army Strategic Air Forces on
Guam (the take-off airfield for the atomic bombings) sent a message
to the War Department:
of war sources not verified by photo 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
The reply came,
"Targets previously assigned for Centerboard remain unchanged."
The terrible momentum
of war continued even after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The end of the war was a few days away, yet B29s continued their missions.
On August 14, five days after the Nagasaki bombing and the day before
the actual acceptance of surrender terms, 449 B29s went out from the
Marianas for a daylight strike and 372 more went out that night. Altogether,
more than 1,000 planes were sent to bomb Japanese cities. There were
no American losses. The last plane had not yet returned when Truman
announced the Japanese had surrendered.
Oda Makoto describes that August 14 in Osaka, where he lived. He was
a boy. He went out into the streets and found in the midst of the corpses
American leaflets written in Japanese, which had been dropped with the
bombs: Your government has surrendered; the war is over."
The American public,
already conditioned to massive bombing, accepted the atomic bombings
with equanimity, indeed with joy. I remember my own reaction. When the
war ended in Europe, my crew flew our plane back to the United States.
We were given a thirty-day furlough and then had to report for duty
to be sent to Japan to continue bombing. My wife and I decided to spend
that time in the countryside. Waiting for the bus to take us, I picked
up the morning newspaper, August 7, 1945. The headline was "Atomic
Bomb Dropped on Hiroshima." My immediate reaction was elation:
"The war will end. I won't have to go to the Pacific."
I had no idea what
the explosion of the atomic bomb had done to the men, women, and children
of Hiroshima. It was abstract and distant, as were the deaths of the
people from the bombs I had dropped in Europe from a height of six miles;
I was unable to see anything below, there was no visible blood, and
there were no audible screams. And I knew nothing of the imminence of
a Japanese surrender. It was only later when I read John Hersey's Hiroshima,
when I read the testimony of Japanese survivors, and when I studied
the history of the decision to drop the bomb that I was outraged by
what had been done.
It seems that once
an initial judgment has been made that a war is just, there is a tendency
to stop thinking, to assume then that everything done on behalf of victory
is morally acceptable. I had myself participated in the bombing of cities,
without even considering whether there was any relationship between
what I was doing and the elimination of fascism in the world. Thus a
war that apparently begins with a "good" cause--stopping aggression,
helping victims, or punishing brutality--ends with its own aggression,
creates more victims than before, and brings out more brutality than
before, on both sides. The Holocaust, a plan made and executed in the
ferocious atmosphere of war, and the saturation bombings, also created
in the frenzy of war, are evidence of this.
The good cause
in World War II was the defeat of fascism. And, in fact, it ended with
that defeat: the corpse of Mussolini hanging in the public square in
Milan; Hitler burned to death in his underground bunker; Tojo, captured
and sentenced to death by an international tribunal. But forty million
people were dead, and the elements of fascism--militarism, racism, imperialism,
dictatorship, ferocious nationalism, and war--were still at large in
the postwar world.
Two of those forty
million were my closest Air Force friends, Joe Perry and Ed Plotkin.
We had suffered through basic training and rode horses and flew Piper
Cubs in Burlington, Vermont, and played basketball at Santa Ana before
going our own ways to different combat zones. Both were killed in the
final weeks of the war. For years afterward, they appeared in my dreams.
In my waking hours, the question grew: What did they really die for?
We were victorious
over fascism, but this left two superpowers dominating the world, vying
for control of other nations, carving out new spheres of influence,
on a scale even larger than that attempted by the Fascist powers. Both
superpowers supported dictatorships all over the world: the Soviet Union
in Eastern Europe and the United States in Latin America, Korea, and
The war machines
of the Axis powers were destroyed, but the Soviet Union and the United
States were building military machines greater than the world had ever
seen, piling up frightful numbers of nuclear weapons, soon equivalent
to a million Hiroshima-type bombs. They were preparing for a war to
keep the peace, they said (this had also been said before World War
I) but those preparations were such that if war took place (by accident?
by miscalculation?) it would make the Holocaust look puny.
was over but wars continued, which the superpowers either initiated
or fed with military aid or observed without attempting to halt them.
Two million people died in Korea; two to five million in Vietnam, Cambodia,
and Laos; one million in Indonesia; perhaps two million in the Nigerian
civil war; one million in the Iran-Iraq War; and many more in Latin
America, Africa, and the Middle East. It is estimated that, in the forty
years after 1945, there were 150 wars, with twenty million casualties.
and morally righteous superpowers stood by in the postwar world while
millions--more than had died in Hitler's Holocaust--starved to death.
They made gestures, but allowed national ambitions and interpower rivalries
to stand in the way of saving the hungry. A United Nations official
reported, with great bitterness that
in pursuit of
political objectives in the Nigerian Civil War, a number of great
and small nations, including Britain and the United States, worked
to prevent supplies of food and medicine from reaching the starving
children of rebel Biafra.
Swept up in the
obvious rightness of a crusade to rid the world of fascism, most people
supported or participated in that crusade, to the point of risking their
lives. But there were skeptics, especially among the nonwhite peoples
of the world--blacks in the United States and the colonized millions
of the British Empire (Gandhi withheld his support).
black writer Zora Neale Hurston wrote her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road,
at the start of World War II. Just before it was to come out, the Japanese
attacked Pearl Harbor, and her publisher, Lippincott, removed a section
of the book in which she wrote bitterly about the "democracies"
of the West and their hypocrisy. She said:
All around me,
bitter tears are being shed over the fate of Holland, Belgium, France
and England. I must confess to being a little dry around the eyes.
I hear people shaking with shudders at the thought of Germany collecting
taxes in Holland. I have not heard a word against Holland collecting
one twelfth of poor people's wages in Asia. Hitler's crime is that
he is actually doing a thing like that to his own kind....
As I see it, the
doctrines of democracy deal with the aspirations of men's souls, but
the application deals with things. One hand in somebody else's pocket
and one on your gun, and you are highly civilized.... Desire enough
for your own use only, and you are a heathen. Civilized people have
things to show to their neighbors.
The editor at Lippincott
wrote on her manuscript, "Suggest eliminating international opinions
as irrelevant to autobiography." Only when the book was reissued
in 1984 did the censored passages appear.
Hurston, in a letter
she wrote to a journalist friend in 1946, showed her indignation at
the hypocrisy that accompanied the war:
I am amazed at
the complacency of Negro press and public. Truman is a monster. I
can think of him as nothing else but the Butcher of Asia. Of his grin
of triumph on giving the order to drop the Atom bombs on Japan. Of
his maintaining troops in China who are shooting the starving Chinese
for stealing a handful of food.
Some white writers
were resistant to the fanaticism of war. After it was over, Joseph Heller
wrote his biting, brilliant satire Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut wrote
Slaughterhouse Five. In the 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai, the
Japanese military is obsessed with building a bridge, and the British
are obsessed with destroying it. At the end it is blown up and a British
lieutenant, barely surviving, looks around at the river strewn with
corpses and mutters: "Madness. Madness."
There were pacifists
in the United States who went to prison rather than participate in World
War II. There were 350,000 draft evaders in the United States. Six thousand
men went to prison as conscientious objectors; one out of every six
inmates in U.S. federal prisons was a conscientious objector to the
But the general
mood in the United States was support. Liberals, conservatives, and
Communists agreed that it was a just war. Only a few voices were raised
publicly in Europe and the United States to question the motives of
the participants, the means by which the war was being conducted, and
the ends that would be achieved. Very few tried to stand back from the
battle and take a long view. One was the French worker-philosopher Simone
Weil. Early in 1945 she wrote in a new magazine called Politics:
Whether the mask
is labeled Fascism, Democracy, or Dictatorship or the Proletariat,
our great adversary remains the Apparatus--the bureaucracy, the police,
the military.... 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
The editor of Politics
was an extraordinary American intellectual named Dwight MacDonald, who
with his wife, Nancy, produced the magazine as an outlet for unorthodox
points of view. After the bombing of Hiroshima, MacDonald refused to
join in the general jubilation. He wrote with a fury:
The CONCEPTS "WAR"
AND "PROGRESS" ARE NOW OBSOLETE...THE FUTILITY OF MODERN
WARFARE SHOULD NOW BE CLEAR. Must we not now conclude, with Simone
Weil, that the technical aspect of war today is the evil, regardless
of political factors? Can one imagine that the atomic bomb could ever
be used "in a good cause"?
But what was the
alternative to war, with Germany on the march in Europe, Japan on its
rampage through Asia, and Italy looking for empire? This is the toughest
possible question. Once the history of an epoch has run its course,
it is very difficult to imagine an alternate set of events, to imagine
that some act or acts might set in motion a whole new train of circumstances,
leading in a different direction.
Would it have been
possible to trade time and territory for human life? Was there an alternative
preferable to using the most modern weapons of destruction for mass
annihilation? Can we try to imagine instead of a six-year war a ten-year
or twenty-year period of resistance; of guerrilla warfare, strikes,
and non-cooperation; of underground movements, sabotage, and paralysis
of vital communication and transportation; and of clandestine propaganda
for the organization of a larger and larger opposition?
Even in the midst
of war, some nations occupied by the Nazis were able to resist: the
Danes, the Norweigians, and the Bulgarians refused to give up their
Jews. Gene Sharp, on the basis of his study of resistance movements
in World War II, writes:
During the second
World War--in such occupied countries as the Netherlands, Norway and
Denmark--patriots resisted their Nazi overlords and internal puppets
by such weapons as underground newspapers, labor slowdowns, general
strikes, refusal of collaboration, special boycotts of German troops
and quislings, and non-cooperation with fascist controls and efforts
to restructure their societies' institutions.
is more selective, its violence more limited and more discriminate,
than conventional war. It is less centralized and more democratic by
nature, requiring the commitment, the initiative, and the cooperation
of ordinary people who do not need to be conscripted, but who are motivated
by their desire for freedom and justice.
History is full
of instances of successful resistance (although we are not informed
very much about this) without violence and against tyranny, by people
using strikes, boycotts, propaganda, and a dozen different ingenious
forms of struggle. Gene Sharp, in his book The Politics of Non-violent
Action, records hundreds of instances and dozens of methods of action.
Since the end of
World War II, we have seen dictatorships overthrown by mass movements
that mobilized so much popular opposition that the tyrant finally had
to flee in Iran, in Nicaragua, in the Philippines, and in Haiti. Granted,
the Nazi machine was formidable, efficient, and ruthless. But there
are limits to conquest. A point is reached where the conqueror has swallowed
too much territory, has to control too many people. Great empires have
fallen when it was thought they would last forever.
We have seen, in
the Eighties, mass movements of protest arise in the tightly controlled
Communist countries of Eastern Europe, forcing dramatic changes in Hungary,
Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Rumania, and East Germany. The Spanish
people, having lost a million lives in their civil war, waited out Franco.
He died, as all men do, and the dictatorship was over. For Portugal,
the resistance in its outlying African Empire weakened control; corruption
grew and the long dictatorship of Salazar was overthrown--without a
There is a fable
written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht that goes roughly like this:
A man living alone answers a knock at the door. When he opens it, he
sees in the doorway the powerful body, the cruel face, of The Tyrant.
The Tyrant asks, "Will you submit?" The man does not reply.
He steps aside. The Tyrant enters and establishes himself in the man's
house. The man serves him for years. Then The Tyrant becomes sick from
food poisoning. He dies. The man wraps the body, opens the door, gets
rids of the body, comes back to his house, closes the door behind him,
and says, firmly, "No."
Violence is not
the only form of power. Sometimes it is the least effective. Always
it is the most vicious, for the perpetrator as well as for the victim.
And it is corrupting.
the war, Albert Camus, the great French writer who fought in the underground
against the Nazis, wrote in Combat, the daily newspaper of the French
Resistance. In his essay called "Neither Victims Nor Executioners,"
he considered the tens of millions of dead caused by the war and asked
that the world reconsider fanaticism and violence:
All I ask is that,
in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and
to make a choice.... Over the expanse of five continents throughout
the coming years an endless struggle is going to be pursued between
violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in which, granted, the
former has a thousand times the chances of success than has the latter.
But I have always held that, if he who bases his hopes on human nature
is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward.
And henceforth, the only honorable course will be to stake everything
on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful than munitions.
scenarios we can imagine to replace World War II and its mountain of
corpses, it really doesn't matter any more. That was is over. The practical
effect of declaring World War II just is not for that war, but for the
wars that follow. And that effect has been a dangerous one, because
the glow of rightness that accompanied that war has been transferred,
by false analogy and emotional carryover, to other wars. To put it another
way, perhaps the worst consequence of World War II is that it kept alive
the idea that war could be just.
Looking at World
War II in perspective, looking at the world it created and the terror
that grips our century, should we not bury for all time the idea of
Some of the participants
in that "good war" had second thoughts. Former GI Tommy Bridges,
who after the war became a policeman in Michigan, expressed his feelings
to Studs Terkel:
It was a useless
war, as every war is.... How gaddamn foolish it is, the war. They's
no war in the world that's worth fighting for, I don't care where
it is. They can't tell me any different. Money, money is the thing
that causes it all. I wouldn't be a bit surprised that the people
that start wars and promote'em are the men that make the money, make
the ammunition, make the clothing and so forth. Just think of the
poor kids that are starvin' to death in Asia and so forth that could
be fed with how much you make one big shell out of.
Higher up in the
military ranks was Admiral Gene LaRocque, who also spoke to Studs Terkel
about the war:
I had been in
thirteen battle engagements, had sunk a submarine, and was the first
man ashore in the landing at Roi. In that four years, I thought, What
a hell of a waste of a man's life. I lost a lot of friends. I had
the task of telling my roommate's parents about our last days together.
You lose limbs, sight, part of your life--for what? Old men send young
men to war. Flag, banners, and patriotic sayings...
militarism. This came out of World War Two.... It gave us the National
Security Council. It gave us the CIA, that is able to spy on you and
me this very moment. For the first time in the history of man, a country
has divided up the world into military districts.... You could argue
World War Two had to be fought. Hitler had to be stopped. Unfortunately,
we translate it unchanged to the situation today....
I hate it when
they say, "He gave his life for his country." Nobody gives
their life for anything. We steal the lives of these kids. We take
it away from them. They don't die for the honor and glory of their
country. We kill them.
Granted that we
have started in this century with the notion of just war, we don't have
to keep it. Perhaps the change in our thinking can be as dramatic, as
clear, as that in the life of a French general, whose obituary in 1986
was headed: "Gen. Jacques Paris de Bollardiere, War Hero Who Became
a Pacifist, Dead at the age of 78."
He had served in
the Free French Forces in Africa during World War II, later parachuted
into France and Holland to organize the Resistance, and commanded an
airborne unit in Indochina from 1946 to 1953. But in 1957, according
to the obituary, he "caused an uproar in the French army when he
asked to be relieved of his command in Algeria to protest the torture
of Algerian rebels. In 1961 he began to speak out against militarism
and nuclear weapons. He created an organization called The Alternative
Movement for Non-Violence and in 1973 participated in a protest expedition
to France's South Pacific nuclear testing site.
It remains to be
seen how many people in our time will make that journey from war to
nonviolent action against war. It is the great challenge or our time:
How to achieve justice, with struggle, but without war.