A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
World War Two is unique in American history because it was widely regarded as the “people’s war”—a fight that capitalist, Communist, working-class and upper-class Americans supported. World War Two was a fight against evil: the totalitarian, racist, militaristic German state, headed by Adolf Hitler. However, Zinn asks, did the governments fighting against Hitler “represent something significantly different?” During World War Two, did the U.S. conduct itself in a manner consistent with its commitment to human rights? And after World War Two, did the U.S. exemplify the values “for which the war was supposed to have been fought?”
In this chapter, Zinn asks a lot of rhetorical questions. His goal here isn’t to provide explicit answers to his own questions—rather, he wants his readers to question some of their own assumptions about the ethics of World War Two. In so doing, Zinn aims to create a free conversation about imperialism, militarism, and foreign intervention in American history.
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The U.S. has always positioned itself as a defender of helpless countries. But even a quick look at the historical record disproves any such claim: on the contrary, the U.S. has always acted to protect its own interests, particular the interests of the rich. Indeed, it has done this so consistently that it’s difficult to believe that during World War Two the United States acted out of magnanimity. Many history textbooks claim that the U.S. entered World War Two in part because of its commitment to ending the racism of Hitler’s regime. However, such a claim doesn’t hold much water. Racism was rampant in America during the 1930s and 40s, and most Americans were unaware of the extent of Hitler’s racist policies until the end of the war. For much of the 1930s, the U.S. traded with fascist countries; for example, American businesses sent oil into Italy, which strengthened the fascist government there.
Right away, Zinn questions some of the clichés about World War Two: that it was a “just war,” waged for moral reasons; that it was waged to end Fascism in Europe, etc. In reality, Zinn shows, America did business with Fascist countries during the 1930s, showing that the government didn’t let morality interfere with its business interests. (Also, America later supported many right-wing dictatorships around the world, further suggesting its lack of any strong moral commitment in its foreign policy.)
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The U.S. only entered World War Two after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Franklin Roosevelt presented Pearl Harbor as a “sudden, shocking, immoral act,” despite the fact that the bombing “climaxed a long series of mutually antagonistic acts.” Throughout the 1930s, both Japan and the U.S. had been locked in competition for control of the Southwest Pacific, and Pearl Harbor represented Japan’s attempt to assert its dominance there. While it’s almost certainly untrue that, as some have argued, Roosevelt knew that the Japanese were going to bomb Pearl Harbor, he probably used Pearl Harbor as an opportunity to strengthen America’s position on the global stage. In other words, he “lied to the public for what he thought was a right cause.” Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S., meaning that the U.S. was now locked in a war with European countries as well as Japan.
While Zinn doesn’t spend much time discussing the conflict between Japan and the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s, he suggests that Pearl Harbor represented the culmination of a long series of skirmishes and tense standoffs between Japanese and American forces in the Pacific. Notice that Zinn is not saying that Roosevelt deliberately provoked a war with Japan (although he has essentially implied as much about James Polk in the case of the Mexican American War). Whether or not the American federal government consciously tried to go to war with foreign powers in the 1940s, Zinn suggests, the overall effects of war were beneficial to Establishment interests.
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In August 1941, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England, signed the Atlantic Charter, in which they claimed that their countries respected the “right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” However, this was a mostly symbolic gesture—after the war, Churchill and Roosevelt supported France in maintaining its imperial colonies around the world.
Zinn portrays Roosevelt and Churchill as savvy realists who pretended to be much more committed to freedom and independence than they really were. Indeed, after the war, Roosevelt and Churchill carved out an informal “empire” for their own countries’ business interests.
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Although the U.S. did not fight in Europe, Asia, or Africa with the goal of annexing territory, American business elites spent the war years ensuring “that when the war ended, American economic power would be second to none in the world.” One of the major goals of American business during World War Two was to ensure an “open door policy” after the war, especially in the case of Middle Eastern oil. Also during World War Two, America and England formed the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an organization designed to regulate international exchanges of money, giving a major advantage to its own currencies. American politicians and business elites recognized that, after the war, they would need to send economic aid around the world to influence political events.
As Zinn sees it, American businesses spent the entirety of World War Two preparing for the aftermath of war—during which they hoped to secure their power on a global stage. It was during the 1940s and 50s that America asserted its “dollar hegemony”—its ability to conduct international exchanges of money through the dollar, making the dollar the strongest, most reliable of all currencies. While many textbooks suggest that American businesses sent foreign aid to Europe after the war out of the goodness of their hearts, Zinn suggests that, in reality, they did so largely to influence politics.
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The U.S. did not in fight in World War Two to oppose bigotry. Indeed, throughout World War Two, the American military separated blood donations from its black and white soldiers. Fascist countries were notorious for their sexism, and yet the American war effort didn’t take steps to “change the subordination of women”: throughout the duration of the war, the most powerful decision makers were men. Perhaps the U.S.’s most notorious World War Two policy was Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order to arrest every Japanese-American on the West Coast and send them to internment camps. Japanese internment is often regarded as a horrible “mistake” on the American government’s part. “Was it a ‘mistake’” Zinn asks, “or was it an action to be expected from a nation with a long history of racism?”
In this somewhat controversial passage, Zinn draws some disturbing comparisons between Fascist Europe and the United States. Zinn isn’t saying that the U.S. is comparable with Nazi Germany, but he points to the sexism and pseudoscientific racism of American society during the 1940s, and argues that America’s unethical behavior during World War Two was indicative of much larger problems in American society, stretching back hundreds of years. In short, Zinn discusses the ills of American society, especially sexism and racism, to emphasize the point that America did not go to war with Germany for moral reasons.
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The chief beneficiaries of the American war effort were the elite. During the war, the government awarded almost all military production contracts to large corporations. Although unions cooperated with the government and pledged not to strike, many non-unionized workers went on strike during the war years—indeed, there were more strikes during the World War Two years than in “any comparable period in American history.”
War benefitted the American elite by providing businesses with lucrative contracts for cars, guns, and planes. In response to the growing power of the Establishment, American unions—according to Zinn, many of them, though he doesn’t provide exact numbers—protested against American capitalism.
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In spite of the overwhelming patriotism during the World War Two years, there were many who opposed the war. Tens of thousands of people refused to fight in the war, and in the black community, there was widespread opposition to the war, since many black leaders reasoned that the war wouldn’t change the status of black people in the U.S. any more than World War One had. One small socialist group, the Socialist Workers Party, criticized the war, arguing that “the real war was inside each nation.” However, there wasn’t an organized black opposition to the war—or, for that matter, an organized Communist or Socialist opposition.
Zinn admits that, during World War Two, there wasn’t a widespread protest movement. For the most part, different factions of American society, including powerful left-wing and right-wing institutions, stood together in support of America’s fight in Europe and Japan. However, he briefly notes that there was some opposition to the war.
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World War Two represented “the heaviest bombardment of civilians ever undertaken in any war.” American troops bombed civilians, most notoriously in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where atomic bombs killed more than 150,000 Japanese people, many of them women or children. The American government has always offered the same justification for its use of atomic weapons during World War Two: bombs ended the war quickly. However, recent historical evidence suggests that 1) President Harry Truman, who made the final decision to bomb Japan, had been advised to issue a warning to Japanese civilians before doing so; and 2) the U.S. government knew from radio intercepts that the Japanese government was on the verge of pursuing peace negotiations with the Allies.
When history textbooks discuss World War Two, they often take it for granted that civilian deaths were justified by America’s need to win the fight. However, Zinn refuses to accept such a glib, simplistic conclusion. Truman’s decision to bomb Japan—not once but twice!—flew in the face of military advice, radio intercepts from Japan, and, not least, the strong moral imperative to respect the enemy country’s civilian population.
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It’s likely that the U.S. chose to drop atomic bombs on Japan because it wanted to end the war before Russia was scheduled to enter it. Dropping bombs sent a clear message to Russia—an assertion of America’s military power. After the bombing, Truman issued a “preposterous” statement alleging that Hiroshima was a “military base” and that the military had been trying to avoid the killing of civilians. It’s unclear why Truman ordered for a second bomb to be dropped on Nagasaki after the bombing of Hiroshima.
Zinn guesses that Truman ordered bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because he wanted to make a show of force, both to Russia and to the rest of the world. The fact that Truman lied and claimed to the American people that Hiroshima was a civilian-free population seems to suggest a guilty conscience: Truman knew that he’d made a highly unethical decision, and that the average American wouldn’t stand for it.
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After World War Two, the two most powerful countries in the world were the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Both countries proceeded to “carve out empires of influence,” but without “swastikas, goose-stepping, or officially declared racism.” War put the U.S. in a position to control the world and its own people. Only a few years after the Great Depression, war had rejuvenated capitalism and strengthened the elite. Workers and farmers benefitted from war in more modest ways. However, by and large, they believed that “the system was doing well for them.”
As with previous economic advances in American history (the acquisition of land in the Southwest, for example), World War Two benefitted many different Americans, but it benefitted wealthy, powerful people far more than it benefitted ordinary people. Furthermore, America now had free reign over the world—its economy and military were the strongest in the world. In its own way, Zinn implies, America in the second half of the 20th century has carved out a far larger empire of influence than Germany ever did (although America didn’t conquer and annex other countries, as Fascist Germany did—prompting some historians to criticize Zinn for drawing a false equivalence between Nazi Germany and the modern U.S.).
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The greatest legacy of World War Two is that it created an alliance between business and the military. Zinn argues that this “alliance” explains why, almost immediately after World War Two, the Truman administration manufactured an atmosphere of paranoia and unease, directing the people’s fear outwards toward the Soviet Union. While it’s certainly true that the Soviet Union was America’s rival, the U.S. government exaggerated the threat of the Soviet Union in order to justify 1) spending more on the military and 2) intervening in other countries.
In his discussion of the Cold War, Zinn takes the point of view that Truman and other government elites deliberately exaggerated the threat of the Soviet Union in order to manipulate the American people into remaining loyal to the government. The government justified violent foreign interventions and unethical invasions of privacy by claiming that it was acting to defeat the “bogeyman” of Communism.
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In 1947, Harry Truman claimed that the U.S. would be sending money to rebuild Europe in order to protect people from “outside pressures.” Truman’s remarks were hypocritical, because the most significant “outside pressure” in Europe was the U.S. itself. With the full approval of Harry Truman and Winston Churchill, the U.S. and the Soviet Union divided up Europe along the famous “iron curtain,” so that the Soviet Union intervened militarily and economically in Eastern Europe while the U.S. intervened in Western Europe.
During the rebuilding of Europe that took place in the 1940s and 50s, American leadership took a sanctimonious position, claiming that it was donating money to Europe for moral reasons and trying to protect Europe from Soviet influence. However, the U.S. was pretty clearly trying to further its own capitalist interests in Western Europe. (Zinn doesn’t seem to consider the possibility, however, that the Establishment intervened in Western Europe for both moral and economic reasons—or, put another way, that self-interest and interest in helping other people aren’t mutually exclusive.)
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It’s telling to study U.S. intervention in Greece in the late 1940s and early 1950s. At this time, there was a civil war in Greece between populist insurrectionists and the right-wing government. The U.S. shipped thousands of tons of military equipment to the government while characterizing the populists as “Soviet agents.” Because of American intervention, the right-wing government of Greece defeated its populist opponents. Afterwards, American businesses invested heavily in Greece. Poverty and starvation remained widespread in the country.
America’s intervention in Greece is still relatively unknown to the average American. To the extent that high school history textbooks discuss it, the intervention is usually portrayed as a disinterested, idealistic attempt to protect freedom and democracy in Greece. However, as Zinn shows, American intervention in Greece preserved the status quo and did very little to protect the economic freedom of the poor and starving in Greece. (For more on the controversy over intervention in Greece, see William F. Buckley’s 1969 debate with Noam Chomsky, available on YouTube.)
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In the early days of the Cold War, the U.S. tried to build a national consensus. The core principals of this “liberal consensus” were opposition to Communism, support for business interests, and support for an interventionist foreign policy. The first test of the “liberal consensus” arrived in 1950, when Harry Truman initiated war on Korea. Afraid that South Korea would fall into the hands of socialist leaders in North Korea, Truman deployed American troops, supposedly on behalf of the United Nations Army. The Korean War was a devastating conflict: for three years, the U.S forces used huge amounts of napalm and explosives. The war ended when the American army reached a stalemate with the North Korean forces in 1953. It was a sign of the strength of the liberal consensus that there was little opposition to Truman’s deployment of troops to Korea.
Again, Zinn discusses the meaning of the word, “liberal.” For Zinn, liberalism is, fundamentally, a moderate, middle-of-the-road ideology, which accepts state power, capitalism, and economic inequality, even as it honors democracy, freedom, and human rights. During the 1950s, America intervened in Korea, among other countries, but faced little opposition among its own people, due to the strength of the liberal consensus. Few were willing to question America’s right to violate another country’s sovereignty.
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One reason that there was little opposition to the Korean War in American society is that, throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, American elites were searching for Communists and communist sympathizers. In the late 1940s, communists took control over the China, and the Soviet Union blockaded the city of Berlin. The American government presented such events to the American people as signs of a “world Communist conspiracy.” Using the anti-Communist fervor at home, Truman and his allies tried to create “a new national unity,” featuring “Justice Department prosecutions and anti-Communist legislation.” Truman’s anti-Communist acts weakened the left in America, silencing the most vocal critics of American government.
Zinn argues that the government used the threat of Communism to justify its own suppressions of free speech and invasions of personal privacy. Many historians have debated Zinn’s arguments, claiming that, even if Truman did exaggerate the threat of Communism, he had reason to believe that the Soviet Union would, in fact, attempt further military expansion and endanger American lives. However, it’s clear that the ideology of anti-Communism united Americans against an external threat, weakening the American labor movement.
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In early 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to have information about members of the Communist Party who’d infiltrated the government. McCarthy rose to become an important prosecutor of suspected Communists. Later, he became bolder and began investigating the military for Communist ties. At this time, McCarthy began to alienate his Republican and Democratic allies, and in 1954, he was censured for his conduct. However, Congress continued to pass anti-Communist legislation. McCarthy had gone too far—not by prosecuting Communists, but by antagonizing members of the Establishment. In the 1950s and 60s, politicians denounced Communism, but they avoided McCarthy’s mistake by directing their attacks away from institutions like the military.
It’s indicative of the bias in most accounts of American history that Senator Joseph McCarthy is depicted as an isolated, “evil” person, rather than one of the many Democratic and Republican senators in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s who made their careers by accusing innocent people of being Communists. Much like Richard Nixon (as Zinn will show), McCarthy was a scapegoat for the systematic crimes of the U.S government; his mistake was to antagonize other sectors of the Establishment, such as the military, rather than directing his aggression at powerless people who couldn’t fight back.
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Many of the worst abuses of power committed in the name of anti-Communism took place during Truman’s “liberal” administration. In 1947, Truman signed an executive order asking the Department of Justice to draw up a list of organizations suspected of harboring Communists. Within five years, there were hundreds of names on this list. It was also during Truman’s presidency that the Justice Department sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death for espionage. Julius Rosenberg was accused of stealing information about the atomic bomb, but the only witnesses the Justice Department could produce were already facing serious prison time themselves, and they may have lied to shorten their sentences. Irving Kaufman, the judge who sentenced the Rosenbergs to death, was later shown to have conferred illegally with the prosecutors. For the rest of the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) prosecuted thousands of people for being Communists. Though Democratic senators sometimes criticized HUAC, most of them repeatedly voted to fund it. Liberal intellectuals regularly voiced their support for the government’s anti-Communist agenda.
It’s critical to note that anti-Communism occurred on the watch of both Republican and Democratic presidents. Even if Democrats are sometimes regarded as being more committed to human rights than their Republican counterparts, Zinn suggests that, during the Cold War, Democrats were perfectly willing to violate their people’s rights, monitoring organizations for suspected Communist ties and even sentencing Ethel Rosenberg, a mother of two children, to death for allegedly helping steal information about the atomic bomb. Democratic senators violated their duties to their constituents by supporting HUAC and legitimizing the government’s persecution of innocent people.
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Anti-Communism was useful in giving the government a means of convincing people to support military buildup. Democratic and Republican presidents alike voted to increase the military budget, a decision that greatly benefitted the large industrial corporations that made military weaponry. At the same time, the U.S. created “a network of American corporate control over the globe,” in the guise of fighting Communism. In Europe, for example, the Marshall Plan was presented as a way of rebuilding Europe, when, in fact, it also built up markets for American exports. Foreign aid in European countries also built up military power—supposedly to defend against the Soviet Union.
Whether or not politicians in the 1950s sincerely believed that a higher military budget was necessary (and it seems like that many of them, in fact, did), Zinn shows that anti-Communism was a convenient weapon for scaring people into supporting military buildup. In short, the 1950s were a time of business expansion around the world: munitions companies won lucrative government contracts, and banks extended their influence to Europe and beyond.
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During the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 to 1961, the U.S. continued to spend huge amounts on the military and intervene in other countries. In 1954, the U.S. sent forces to topple a Socialist, democratically elected government in Guatemala; four years later, U.S. forces deployed to Lebanon to ensure that the pro-American government wasn’t “toppled by a revolution.”
During the 1950s—and, really, throughout the Cold War— American foreign policy tended to follow the same strategy: protect pro-U.S. governments (some of which were highly oppressive) and, if necessary, depose democratically elected regimes. The U.S. government used such a strategy in Guatemala and Lebanon, and went on to use a similar strategy in Chile and Indonesia, among other countries.
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In 1959, Cuba came under the control of Fidel Castro, a Communist revolutionary. Castro succeeded in defeating Fulgencio Batista, the U.S.-backed dictator of Cuba, and afterwards he established a nationwide system of housing and education, and he redistributed land to peasants. Castro tried to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund, but the IMF, largely run by Americans, refused to lend him any. Castro next turned to the Soviet Union for aid. The U.S., during the presidency of John F. Kennedy, responded by sending anti-Castro Cuban exiles to Cuba in an attempt to invade Cuba and assassinate Castro. This was later known as the “Bay of Pigs” affair. The invasion proved to be a humiliating failure, all the more so because it violated America’s stated commitments not to “intervene, directly or indirectly, … in the internal or external affairs of any other state.”
Zinn stresses Castro’s commitment to empowering the peasant population by providing land and education for them. He does not, however, talk about Castro’s often violent suppression of dissent and free speech in his country. Indeed, in some ways Zinn’s portrait of Castro seems overly idealized: in his haste to balance out the traditional view of Castro as a horrible dictator, Zinn perhaps goes too far in painting Castro as a great leader, without holding him accountable for his human rights abuses. Nevertheless, Zinn provides an important, novel perspective on Kennedy’s handling of the Bay of Pigs—an abject failure.
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In short, the late 1940s and early 1950s saw America become “a permanent war economy,” in which a few powerful people became extraordinary wealthy while the majority of the population made just enough money not to rebel against the status quo. Then, in the 1960s, quite unexpectedly, the people of the United States showed once again that “all the system’s estimates of security and success were wrong.”
In the 1950s, American became a war economy. And yet, few people protested against the growing corporatization of America, since they were distracted by the spirit of anti-Communism (as well as the government’s persecution of suspected Communists, which had the effect of chilling free speech).
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