I’ve intended to read Howard Zinn’s revisionist history of the United States - A People’s History of the United States - for years, and I finally buckled down and started it this week. It is an excellent and eye-opening book, to say the least, and I found myself becoming absorbed in and largely agreeing with the narrative of the first few chapters - his interpretation of the “discovery” and colonization of America. Although I’m usually not willing to follow Zinn to his ultimate conclusions, I find his eagerness to tear down the myths and falsehoods surrounding the idea of “American exceptionalism” refreshing - especially after the nationalist fervor of a Presidential election season.
Zinn reminds us that Americans are fallible human beings like any others, capable of acts of greatness as well as acts of shame.
I skipped ahead to find out what Zinn had to say about World War II - the war most often held up in America as an example of America’s unique greatness, of America-as-savior-and-beacon-of-hope. Here’s an excerpt from what I found: 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. …. As Bruce Russett says: “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 qualities of other raw materials.” … 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 Oceanic regions. … 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. … 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. … 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. … 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. … 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, Convetry 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. …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 bormbing 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. [See Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five]
Check out Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States here.