A wonderful time – the War:
When money rolled in and blood rolled out.
But blood was far away from here –
Money was near. – Langston Hughes
There is no doubt that America really did confront genuine evil, for once. But the shadow aspects of the war, from Prescott Bush’s financing of Hitler and the government’s refusal to admit Jewish refugees or bomb Auschwitz; to the completely unnecessary murders of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Dresden, Tokyo, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and countless other cities; to the fact that a half million (you read that correctly) American soldiers were sent home suffering from PTSD; to the fact that even before the war was over,
the CIA planned to bring (ultimately) 1,600 German rocket scientists, some of whom were leading Nazis, to the U.S. for postwar military research; to the fact that the “liberal democracies” Britain and France went right back to suppressing anti-colonial movements in Africa, India and Indochina, were edited from the popular record.
With the exception of right wingers, we universally idolize FDR as one of our best presidents. He did immense good, and it’s hard to dispute the rightness of his intervention in the war, dishonest as it clearly was. But we should also consider the argument that, intended or not, the war (along with the reforms of the New Deal) saved capitalism. Cui Bono. Follow the money. To put things in perspective, this is a good time to remember this quote by Marine General Smedley Butler:
I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism…I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.
I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
America, essentially undamaged by the war, was now the world’s strongest nation. However, the fact remains that only military spending ended the depression. As in the 1890s, many argued that further economic expansion (investing surplus capital in foreign markets) would prevent unrest. Elites, however, knew that the real roadblock to economic domination of the world was the Soviet Union, and that Stalin would be most valuable as the post-war face of the Other. This would require force and, for the first time, a permanent war economy.
Bacevich, who acknowledges FDR’s lies, still believes that they were necessary. Yet, he writes, because of the mass atrocities we engaged in, by no stretch of the imagination does the result qualify as a “Good War.”
The U.S. achieved the additional benefit of solidifying for generations to come the mythic image of the nation that always comes to the aid of friends around the world to defend freedom. A result of this narrative – seventy years of it, including dozens of movies – is that most Americans now make the simplistic assumption that America defeated the Nazis in Europe. Stone and Kuznick, however, make it quite clear that it was the Soviets who were both the primary victims and the primary military victors of the war, despite the Churchill’s refusal to open a second front in France for over a year. Harry Truman unashamedly explained this reasoning in 1941:
If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia. And if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.
A corollary of that narrative is that the invasion of Normandy was the turning point of the war. Who could watch The Longest Day, The Big Red One, Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan and disagree? In actuality, it was Stalingrad. On D-Day, 80% of German troops, some seven million men in 200 divisions, were on the Eastern Front vainly trying to resist the westward advance of the Soviets, and another half million were stuck in northern Italy. They had about ten divisions in France. Although horrific casualty numbers would certainly pile up in those last months, the war had been essentially decided before any Americans stepped onto those beaches.
But it’s a really good story, and we seem to need it. Especially in contrast to the tragedy of Viet Nam, the “the good war” remains as an icon of our imagination. Seventy years later, we remember its participants as “the greatest generation” (although their story is far more complicated than the mythmakers would like us to believe, as I write here. And when, once again, Americans are questioning capitalism itself, the mythic image of America as the savior of the world must be regularly re-invigorated.
However, the need to maintain and extend its economic influence required a perpetual military-industrial complex. This in turn required the deliberate fabrication of the Cold War and another half-century of anti-communist paranoia. It required a colossal series of lies to justify American intervention in Viet Nam, as I write here. Ultimately, it meant millions of deaths, trillions of dollars wasted and the destruction of democracy in at least thirty countries.
And, having dominated the world economy partially through extending its military to every part of the world (even today the U.S. has military bases in some 160 countries), America had to find a new “other” when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The new Other had become Muslim terrorism long before 9/11/2001. But, as my book argues, large holes in the fabric of American myth had also been appearing since the sixties. This is not the place to re-open those debates, other than to acknowledge that the time the Trump crowd is referring to when he speaks of “making America great again” is the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The gatekeepers, however, understood the necessity of repairing those gaps, and one of the ways to do that was to emphasize the narrative of the greatest generation (the same demographic, by the way, which was the strongest supporter of the Bush administration’s imperial foreign policies, and of Trump).
The government had been doing that since 1962, when it opened the Memorial at Pearl Harbor itself, the wreck of the battleship Arizona. That spot, along with Arlington National Cemetery, rapidly became one of the places most sacred to the American civil religion. Two million people visit it annually.
Another way to do that was to build a World War Two Memorial on the National Mall, which opened in 2004. You can read my impression of it here.
Meanwhile, the old Other, Russia, despite the fact that it is now as capitalistic as we are, has re-emerged to re-inhabit our fever dreams of paranoia. Why? Because American military thinking has never advanced beyond preparing for another land war in Europe; because the weapon makers have never restrained their insatiable appetites for our dollars; because politicians of both major parties continue to distract us from much more critical issues; and because American myth still runs through our veins. Bacevich concludes:
Present-day Americans have become so imbued with this narrative as to be oblivious to its existence. Politicians endlessly recount it. Television shows, movies, magazines, and video games affirm it. Members of the public accept it as unquestionably true…Today the Good War narrative survives fully intact. For politicians and pundits eager to explain why it is incumbent upon the United States to lead or to come to the aid of those yearning to be free, it offers an ever-ready reference point…
In that sense, the persistence of the Good War narrative robs Americans of any capacity to think realistically about their nation’s role in the existing world. Instead, it’s always 1938, with appeasement the ultimate sin to be avoided at all costs. Or it’s 1941, when an innocent nation subjected to a dastardly attack from out of the blue is summoned to embark upon a new crusade to smite the evildoers. Or it’s 1945, with history calling upon the United States to remake the world in its own image.
Meanwhile, the crimes, misdemeanors, and miscalculations that U.S. policymakers have racked up then and since end (are) irrelevant…While World War II may have been necessary, it was not good. It was an epic tragedy from which Americans can learn much with relevance to the present day. But learning assumes a willingness to see beyond myths. Charles Beard shows us where to begin.
Another debate we don’t need to re-open here is the question of whether the Bush administration had foreknowledge of the 9-11 attacks. But we do know that in 1997 the right-wing think tank “Project for the New American Century” (which included John Bolton, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney) published an influential paper entitled “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” that lobbied for increased military spending with this famous statement:
… the process of transformation, even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.
Less than a year after he took office, George W. Bush’s popularity had fallen to a historic low by early September. And we know that, two days after the attacks, weirdly replicating FDR’s experience, he had both the highest popularity in history and a mandate to invade Afghanistan.
The Good War is both legend and cliché. On May Day, 2019, as I finish this essay, my newspaper’s sports page reads: “Kentucky Derby favorite is Omaha Beach at 4-1.”
Remember the Alamo. Remember Custer. Remember the Maine. Remember the Lusitania. Remember Pearl Harbor. Remember the Gulf of Tonkin. Remember the World Trade Center. What will the gatekeepers tell us to remember next? Wendell Berry writes,
When they want you to buy something, they will call you.
When they want you to die for profit, they will let you know.