In 2015, Alice Sabatini was an 18-year-old contestant in the Miss Italia contest in Italy. She was asked what epoch of the past she would have liked to live in. She replied: WWII. Her explanation was that her text books go on and on about it, so she'd like to actually see it, and she wouldn't have to fight in it, because only men did that. This led to a great deal of mockery. Did she want to be bombed or starved or sent to a concentration camp? What was she, stupid? Somebody photoshopped her into a picture with Mussolini and Hitler. Somebody made an image of a sunbather viewing troops rushing onto a beach. [i]
But could an 18-year-old in 2015 be expected to know that most of the victims of WWII were civilians men and women and children alike? Who would have told her that? Certainly not her text books. Most definitely not the endless saturation of her culture with WWII-themed entertainment. What answer did anyone think such a contestant would be more likely to give to the question she'd been asked, than WWII? In U.S. culture as well, which heavily influences Italian, a top focus for drama and tragedy and comedy and heroism and historical fiction is WWII. Pick 100 average viewers of Netflix or Amazon and I'm convinced a large percentage of them would give the same answer as Alice Sabatini, who, by the way, was declared the winner of the competition, fit to represent all of Italy or whatever it is Miss Italia does.
WWII is often called "the good war," and sometimes this is thought of as principally or originally a contrast between WWII, the good war, and WWI, the bad war. However, it was not popular to call WWII "the good war" during or immediately after it happened, when the comparison with WWI would have been easiest. Various factors may have contributed to the growth in popularity of that phrase over the decades, including increased understanding of the Holocaust (and misunderstanding of the war's relationship to it),[ii] plus, of course, the fact that the United States, unlike all the other major participants, wasn't itself bombed or invaded (but that's also true for dozens of other U.S. wars). I think a major factor was actually the War on Vietnam. As that war became less and less popular, and as opinions were deeply divided by a generation gap, by a division between those who had lived through WWII and those who had not, many sought to distinguish WWII from the war on Vietnam. Using the word "good," rather than "justified," or "necessary," was probably made easier by distance in time from WWII, and by WWII propaganda, most of which had been created (and is still being created) after the conclusion of WWII. Because opposing all wars is considered radical and vaguely treasonous, critics of the war on Vietnam could refer to WWII as "the good war" and establish their balanced seriousness and objectivity. It was in 1970 that just war theorist Michael Walzer wrote his paper, "World War II: Why Was This War Different?" seeking to defend the idea of a just war against the unpopularity of the war on Vietnam. I offer a rebuttal to that paper in Chapter 17 of Leaving World War II Behind. We saw a similar phenomenon in the years 2002 to 2010 or so, with countless critics of the war on Iraq emphasizing their support for the war on Afghanistan and distorting the facts to improve the image of that newer "good war." I'm not sure many, if anyone, would have called Afghanistan a good war without the war on Iraq or called WWII a good war without the war on Vietnam.
In July 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump in arguing that U.S. military bases named for Confederates should not have their names changed proclaimed that these bases had been part of "beautiful world wars." "We won two world wars," he said, "two world wars, beautiful world wars that were vicious and horrible."[iii] Where did Trump get the idea that the world wars were beautiful, and that their beauty consisted of viciousness and horribleness? Probably the same place Alice Sabatini did: Hollywood. It was the film Saving Private Ryan that led Mickey Z in 1999 to write his book, There Is No Good War: The Myths of World War II, originally with the title Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of the "Good War."
Before rushing back in a time machine to experience the glory of WWII, I'd recommend picking up a copy of Studs Terkel's 1984 book, The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. [iv] This is first-person accounts from veterans of WWII telling their memories 40 years later. They were young. They were put into a non-competitive brotherhood and asked to do great things and see great places. It was tremendous. There was smoking, and swearing, and alcohol so you could bring yourself to shoot at people, and vicious violence with the simple goal of survival, and stacks of dead bodies in trenches, and ever-watchful vigilance, and deep wrenching moral guilt, and fear, and trauma, and virtually no sense of having made a moral calculation that participation was justified just pure dumb obedience to be questioned and regretted later. And there was the stupid patriotism of the people who didn't see the real war. And there were all the people who didn't want to see the horrifically disfigured survivors. "What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought anyway?" asked one veteran.
The myths that make up most of what most people think they know about WWII don't resemble the reality, but do endanger our real world. I examine those myths in Leaving World War II Behind, which exposes the fact that the United States and other world governments refused to save those threatened with genocide by the Nazis, that activists struggled in vain to get the U.S. and UK and other governments to take any interest in saving millions of quite savable lives; the fact that the United States engaged in an arms race and provocations with Japan for years and sought to generate a war and was not surprised by it; that the Nordic Race and other eugenics theories used by the Nazis were concocted principally in California; that the Nazis studied segregation laws in the United States and used them as models; that U.S. corporate funding and supplies were absolutely necessary to the Nazi war effort; that genocide was a Western practice in no way new; that the war never needed to happen; that the U.S. government viewed the Soviet Union as the primary enemy even when allied with it; that the Soviet Union did the vast bulk of defeating Germany; that nonviolence was highly effective against Nazis; that there was significant resistance to the war in the United States; that war spending is not the best way to boost an economy; etc.; etc.; and of course that nothing we're told about Hiroshima is true.
There is a myth that by participating in WWII, the United States did the world such a favor that the United States now owns the world. In 2013, Hillary Clinton gave a speech to bankers at Goldman Sachs in which she claimed that she had told China that it had no right to call the South China Sea the South China Sea, that the United States could in fact claim to own the entire Pacific by virtue of having "liberated" it in WWII, and having "discovered" Japan, and having "bought" Hawaii. [v] I'm not sure how best to debunk that. Perhaps I can advise asking some people in Japan or Hawaii what they think. But it's worth noting that there was no flood of mockery for Hillary Clinton of the sort experienced by Alice Sabatini. There was no noticeable public outrage over this reference to WWII when it became public in 2016.
Perhaps the strangest myths, though, are those about nuclear weapons, especially the idea that by murdering huge numbers of people with them a far greater number of lives, or at least the right kind of lives, were spared. The nukes did not save lives. They took lives, possibly 200,000 of them. They were not intended to save lives or to end the war. And they didn't end the war. The Russian invasion did that. But the war was going to end anyway, without either of those things. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that, "" certainly prior to 31 December, 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November, 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."[vi]
One dissenter who had expressed this same view to the Secretary of War and, by his own account, to President Truman, prior to the bombings was General Dwight Eisenhower. [vii] Under Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard, prior to the bombings, urged that Japan be given a warning. [viii] Lewis Strauss, Advisor to the Secretary of the Navy, also prior to the bombings, recommended blowing up a forest rather than a city. [ix] General George Marshall apparently agreed with that idea. [x] Atomic scientist Leo Szilard organized scientists to petition the president against using the bomb. [xi] Atomic scientist James Franck organized scientists who advocated treating atomic weapons as a civilian policy issue, not just a military decision. [xii] Another scientist, Joseph Rotblat, demanded an end to the Manhattan Project, and resigned when it was not ended. [xiii] A poll of the U.S. scientists who had developed the bombs, taken prior to their use, found that 83% wanted a nuclear bomb publicly demonstrated prior to dropping one on Japan. The U.S. military kept that poll secret. [xiv] General Douglas MacArthur held a press conference on August 6, 1945, prior to the bombing of Hiroshima, to announce that Japan was already beaten. [xv]
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William D. Leahy said angrily in 1949 that Truman had assured him only military targets would be nuked, not civilians. "The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender," Leahy said. [xvi] Top military officials who said just after the war that the Japanese would have quickly surrendered without the nuclear bombings included General Douglas MacArthur, General Henry "Hap" Arnold, General Curtis LeMay, General Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, Admiral Ernest King, Admiral Chester Nimitz, Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, and Brigadier General Carter Clarke. As Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick summarize, seven of the United States' eight five-star officers who received their final star in World War II or just after Generals MacArthur, Eisenhower, and Arnold, and Admirals Leahy, King, Nimitz, and Halsey in 1945 rejected the idea that the atomic bombs were needed to end the war. "Sadly, though, there is little evidence that they pressed their case with Truman before the fact."[xvii]
On August 6, 1945, President Truman lied on the radio that a nuclear bomb had been dropped on an army base, rather than on a city. And he justified it, not as speeding the end of the war, but as revenge against Japanese offenses. "Mr. Truman was jubilant," wrote Dorothy Day. Weeks before the first bomb was dropped, on July 13, 1945, Japan had sent a telegram to the Soviet Union expressing its desire to surrender and end the war. The United States had broken Japan's codes and read the telegram. Truman referred in his diary to "the telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace." President Truman had been informed through Swiss and Portuguese channels of Japanese peace overtures as early as three months before Hiroshima. Japan objected only to surrendering unconditionally and giving up its emperor, but the United States insisted on those terms until after the bombs fell, at which point it allowed Japan to keep its emperor. So, the desire to drop the bombs may have lengthened the war. The bombs did not shorten the war. [xviii]
Presidential advisor James Byrnes had told Truman that dropping the bombs would allow the United States to "dictate the terms of ending the war." Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wrote in his diary that Byrnes was "most anxious to get the Japanese affair over with before the Russians got in." Truman wrote in his diary that the Soviets were preparing to march against Japan and "Fini Japs when that comes about." The Soviet invasion was planned prior to the bombs, not decided by them. The United States had no plans to invade for months, and no plans on the scale to risk the numbers of lives that U.S. school teachers will tell you were saved. [xix] The idea that a massive U.S. invasion was imminent and the only alternative to nuking cities, so that nuking cities saved huge numbers of U.S. lives, is a myth. Historians know this, just as they know that George Washington didn't have wooden teeth or always tell the truth, and Paul Revere didn't ride alone, and slave-owning Patrick Henry's speech about liberty was written decades after he died, and Molly Pitcher didn't exist. [xx] But the myths have their own power. Lives, by the way, are not the unique property of U.S. soldiers. Japanese people also had lives.
Truman ordered the bombs dropped, one on Hiroshima on August 6th and another type of bomb, a plutonium bomb, which the military also wanted to test and demonstrate, on Nagasaki on August 9th. The Nagasaki bombing was moved up from the 11th to the 9th to decrease the likelihood of Japan surrendering first. [xxi] Also on August 9th, the Soviets attacked the Japanese. During the next two weeks, the Soviets killed 84,000 Japanese while losing 12,000 of their own soldiers, and the United States continued bombing Japan with non-nuclear weapons burning Japanese cities, as it had done to so much of Japan prior to August 6th that, when it came time to pick two cities to nuke, there hadn't been many left to choose from. Then the Japanese surrendered.
That there was cause to use nuclear weapons is a myth. That there could again be cause to use nuclear weapons is a myth. That we can survive significant further use of nuclear weapons is a myth. That there is cause to produce nuclear weapons even though you'll never use them is too stupid even to be a myth. And that we can forever survive possessing and proliferating nuclear weapons without someone intentionally or accidentally using them is pure insanity. [xxii]
Why do U.S. history teachers in U.S. elementary schools today in 2021! tell children that nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan to save lives or rather "the bomb" (singular) to avoid mentioning Nagasaki? Researchers and professors have poured over the evidence for 75 years. They know that Truman knew that the war was over, that Japan wanted to surrender, that the Soviet Union was about to invade. They've documented all the resistance to the bombing within the U.S. military and government and scientific community, as well as the motivation to test bombs that so much work and expense had gone into, as well as the motivation to intimidate the world and in particular the Soviets, as well as the open and shameless placing of zero value on Japanese lives. How were such powerful myths generated that the facts are treated like skunks at a picnic?
In Greg Mitchell's 2020 book, The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood and America Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, we have an account of the making of the 1947 MGM film, The Beginning or the End, which was carefully shaped by the U.S. government to promote falsehoods. [xxiii] The film bombed. It lost money. The ideal for a member of the U.S. public was clearly not to watch a really bad and boring pseudo-documentary with actors playing the scientists and warmongers who had produced a new form of mass-murder. The ideal action was to avoid any thought of the matter. But those who couldn't avoid it were handed a glossy big-screen myth. You can watch it online for free, and as Mark Twain would have said, it's worth every penny. [xxiv]
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