Monday, March 2, 2009

USH16: World War Once More

The Second World War could be looked at from a variety of angles. My intention here is to explore its causes, costs, opposition to it, and the aftermath. Above all, I don't intend to go over battles, strategies, etc. If that's what interests you, there are plenty of books about that.

In the aftermath of World War I (as I pointed out at the end of my post of 2/10/09), Wilson tried for a progressive treaty but the British and the French had other ideas. France, in particular, wanted to make sure Germany never bothered them again and made sure that the treaty was incredibly punitive. Large sections of Germany were carved off and they were obliged to pay harsh reparations. The Germans were humiliated; they felt 'stabbed in the back'. In addition, their economic situation was dire--there was a period of hyperinflation from 1921 to 1923 caused partially by the reparations, and though there was a recovery from 1923 to 1929, the world wide depression of the thirties (see my post of 2/22/09 for the depression in the US) hit Germany very hard. There are stories of people needing wheelbarrows full of cash to pay for anything during the hyper inflation of early twenties. There was little political stability during in Germany during the twenties and early thirties, and many Germans wished for a strong leader. They got Adolf Hitler. Hitler's rise to power was consolidated by the burning of the Reichstag building in 1933 which was blamed on the Communists. The decrees that followed promised more security to the German people but actually took away their civil liberties. (There are some nasty parallels to the Sept 11th attack and the Patriot Act...) Hitler 'empowered' the German people by creating an empire--and basically steamrollering (or rather stormtroopering) all over Europe.

Did the US go to war because Hitler was taking over Europe? Did the US get involved because the Nazis were rounding up and killing Jews, Catholics, Gypsies, gay men, lesbians, prostitutes, etc, etc? When Roosevelt and Churchill met in 1941, they claimed that they supported "the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live." But, in fact, the US had no intention of challenging any of the colonial powers of the UK or France--rather the US actually supported the French having 'sovereignty' over territories like Indochina. And the US, itself, made major inroads into the Middle East. When the war was over, the US had cemented a major connection with Saudi Arabia (and its oil). As far as humanitarian concerns, Roosevelt apparently knew about the destruction of the Jews and other groups, but that wasn't a concern for him. If it was, we would have gotten involved much sooner than 1941. We did start building up our weapontry at the end of 1940--the major thing that accomplished was ending the depression. Roosevelt was concerned about the gobbling up of Europe by the Nazis and initiated a 'Lend Lease' program at the start of 1941--lending some of those newly made tanks, planes, ships, and arms to British, making the analogy of loaning a garden hose to a neighbor whose house was on fire. It took the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor to actually get us involved in the war. In fact one historian (Gabriel Kolko, quoted in Zinn) claimed that "the American economic war aim was to save capitalism at home and abroad."

The war seemed popular and patriotism ran high, but not everyone was on board. Only one member of Congress voted against the war in 1941, Jeanette Rankin, who was the first woman elected to Congress (she was originally elected in 1916) and one of only 50 Representatives to vote against World War I. But, as wages were frozen and business profits soared, workers began striking (in spite of pledges by the AFL and the CIO not to do so). According to Zinn, there were fourteen thousand strikes during WWII, involving 6,770,000 workers. WWII had its conscientious objectors, although unlike WWI objectors, COs weren't automatically imprisoned. Instead they were offered Public Service alternatives. Some objectors refused to support the war effort in any way, including refusing to register, and they were sent to prison. One of them was a theology student named David Dellinger, who became a lifelong opponent of war and the capitalist system and was one of the Chicago Seven/Eight in 1968. There were 43,000 COs during the war and about six thousand went to prison. In prison these men began using and refining the tools of civil disobedience. (There were also hundreds of thousands of draft evaders--this was not something that began with Vietnam.) Although the Communist Party and most socialist groups supported the war, a few groups (mostly pacifist and anarchist) opposed it, including the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the Catholic Worker movement. The Socialist Workers Party was just about the only socialist group to oppose the war.

The cost of the war was high: 7.5 million Russian soldiers; 3.5 million Germans; 2.2 million Chinese; 1.2 million Japanese; hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers and almost 300,000 US troops. This doesn't even count civilian casualties--for instance, as many as twenty-two million Russians were killed during the war. Then there is the millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies, gays and lesbians, etc, that perished in the holocaust. On the other hand, the US and the British ended the European war by bombing German cities mercilessly--including Dresden which was firebombed until over 100,000 people died. And then there is Hiroshima and Nagasaki--bombings that occurred when Japan was almost ready to surrender and Russia was about to enter the war. Some theorize that the bombs were more about sending a message to the Soviets about the US military might, than about ending the war. For all our fears about nuclear warfare, the US is still the only nation on earth to use atomic weapons in a war--and we did it twice.

And that massacre of millions to show nuclear superiority, was the prelude to the war after World War Two--the Cold War.

The Cold War began with a speech by Winston Churchill on March 5, 1946 at Westminister College where he claimed 'an Iron Curtain' had descended on Europe. (However, the term 'Iron Curtain' was had been in use for a while, most notably by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, in 1945.) The Cold War became US policy with Truman's speech in 1949 where he outlined a policy of containment, to stop the spread of communism and support the governments of Greece and Turkey--ie, stop them from going communist. The US was at war with the USSR--but at this point it was more a war of words and defensive actions than a military war.

One thing that I had seen as a positive aftermath of the war, the Marshall Plan (technically known as the European Recovery Program) can be seen in the light of this as a frantic effort to make sure that the rest of Europe didn't go communist. I had imagined that we helped rebuild Germany because we had learned from what happened after World War I, but it seems the reason that we helped rebuild Germany was to stop Soviet expansion. General George Marshall, who the plan was named after, proposed it, citing 'national security grounds'.

The other aftermath of WWII was the Bretton Woods Conference which established the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and helped establish the World Bank.

Quote of the Day: "Concerning World War II, there can be no doubt that international fascism was a catastrophic evil that had to be resisted. But it is my contention... that for those who understand that social evils are created less by bad men than by bad systems... it was also catastrophic for people who believed in human dignity to think that they could resist fascism under the leadership and by the methods of big business, big government, and the military." - Dave Dellinger

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Dave Dellinger, Revolutionary Nonviolence
Staughton Lynd, Nonviolence in America
Wikipedia, various articles (particularly one on Jeannette Rankin and the article on Germany and links from it)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

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